Toward a Unified Description of the Greek Participle

This is part of a syntax piece that I’m writing up presently with the hope of presenting it in the next couple weeks…we’ll see.

What is a Greek participle. Any Greek student or scholar would be able to point one out or tell you what it looks like, but when it comes to actually saying what it is, life gets complicated. Wallace gives the definition: “The participle is a declinable verbal adjective” (613). This is reasonable enough, but is the participle truly an adjective? The syntax of the participle in many cases would suggest otherwise.

Traditionally, the Greek participle is divided into two basic separate uses: Adjectival and Adverbial. Most simplistically, the former modifies a noun and the latter a verb. These uses are both then broken down into at least two more basic uses each. Adjectival participles are thus described as either adjectival or substantival, depending on whether they modify a noun or stand in place of a noun. Likewise, the Adverbial usage is typically subdivided into Circumstantial & Complementary.

The first division: Adjectival/Adverbial is dependent upon the location in the phrase structure: Adjectival participles appear in Noun Phrases. Adverbial participles appear at the clause level. The most obvious feature of the adjectival participle is the common appearance of the article with it. But this appearance of the article is also where this description begins to fail. This is because while many, many instances of adjectival participles are simple with the article directly preceding the participle, there are also numerous examples where this is not the case. In fact, there are 332 instances of adjectival participles in the New Testament where this is not the case. Consider these two representative instances:

(1) Matthew 13:19 οὗτός ἐστιν παρὰ τὴν ὁδὸν σπαρείς “This is what was sown on the path.” (NRSV).

(2) Ephesians 4:24 καὶ ἐνδύσασθαι τὸν καινὸν ἄνθρωπον τὸν κατὰ θεὸν κτισθέντα ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ καὶ ὁσιότητι τῆς ἀληθείας “and to clothe yourselves with the new person, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (NRSV).

What is unique about these participles is that instead of just the participle functioning either as a substantival adjective (1) or modifying a noun (2), we find an entire clause functioning in this manner. It must be asked, then: Is the participle functioning adjectivally or is the participial clause functioning adjectivally? If this happens over 300 times in the New Testament, I would suggest its the latter rather than the former.

But if this is the case, then there is actually less difference between Adverbial participles and Adjectival participles than we initially thought. When we look at the subcategories of Adverbial participles, grammars have already recognized that Circumstantial participles form their own clauses. Wallace notes these instances (his translation:

Matthew 27:4 ἥμαρτον παραδοὺς αἷμα ἀθῷον I have sinned by betraying innocent blood (629).

Acts 16:34 ἠγαλλιάσατο πανοικεὶ πεπιστευκὼς τῷ θεῷ he rejoiced with his whole house because he had believed in God (632).

Likewise, the Complementary participle does the same (his translation):

Matthew 11:1 ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς διατάσσων “when Jesus finished teaching” (647).

In all of these cases, the participle functions as the verb of a clause subordinate to some other word in the matrix clause.* With this fact in mind, we can develop a more unified description of the Greek participle.

“A Greek Participle is a non-finite verb operating as the lexical head of an embedded clause, which in turn functions either as an adjunct or argument** in its matrix clause.”

This definition covers all the functions of the the participle in a way that retains the important material from traditional grammars while building on them in order to develop a more accurate understanding. Adjectival and Circumstantial participles and their clauses both function as a adjuncts, one modifies the verb, and the other the noun. Complementary participles and substantival participles and their clauses both function as arguments, whether core arguments (subject, object) or oblique arguments (phrases marking location, Beneficiary, Recipient, etc.).

*A matrix clause is a clause that contains an embedded clause of somekind.
** Wikipedia might not be completely clear on its definition. An argument is a term for constituents (phrases) that are necessary for a grammatical sentence: John hit the ball has two arguments – “John” and “the ball.” Without one or both, the sentence is not grammatical.

11 thoughts on “Toward a Unified Description of the Greek Participle

  1. However desirable it might seem to formulate a better accounting of what a participle is, I rather doubt that a new accounting will enable one learning Greek to read Plato or Philo or Hebrews — or even Ephesians 1 — with greater facility. It may be that it replaces one kind of gobbledygook with another. I do not believe that abstract descriptions, however adequate, are likely to enable reading or understanding a Greek prose that depends on participles to an extraordinary degree, and I suspect that one really needs to be able to read and understand them well before one can describe them adequately. The Greek word for participle is μετοχή, which means “sharing” or “participation” as a process, “partnership” as an entity. Whether you English that as “verbal adjective” or “adjectival verb” doesn’t really matter; it shares the functions of ὀνόματα (including ἐπιθετα) and ῥήματα. Phrases such as ὁ παρὰ τὴν ὁδὸν σπαρείς and τὸν κατὰ θεὸν κτισθέντα are standard types of nominal phrases comparable to what older grammarians explained in terms of the attributive position of the article and in terms of “apposition.” I guess that my concerns are fundamentally pedagogical rather than scientific; neither the older grammars nor the newer linguistic descriptions seem to me to be particularly helpful to the beginning or intermediate student trying to understand HOW participles function in the complex Greek periodic sentence. Wallace endeavors to divide and subdivide categories of participles (and adnominal genitives); you, Mike, want to incorporate and unify. I keep coming back to the hunch participial constructions in lengthy passages of Greek text need to be analyzed and understood individually — or, when one has acquired the competence, read in their place as they function within the flow of the Greek thought.

  2. Mike, it is interesting to see how these things work in different languages. In one language I looked at for a bit there are no adjectives, just stative verbs whose participles can be used as adjectives. In another, which I know well, all embedded verbal clauses use some kind of participle construction, there are no subordinate clauses with finite verbs.

    I can’t help wondering if what you need for Koine Greek is not so much a classification of participles as not adjectives, but more a broadening of your concept of an adjectival phrase. In Greek you can have syntactic parallels to ὁ παρὰ τὴν ὁδὸν σπαρείς with adjectives which are not participles, i.e. structures like article – PP – adjective. This is because adjectives like πιστός can have dependent PPs. In Luke 16:10 we have nearly this structure with πιστός followed by exactly this structure with ἄδικος. I don’t see that it is helpful for analysis of this verse and others like it to make a clear distinction between participles and adjectives of this kind.

  3. Carl: You’re correct that my interest in this post is completely scientific and not very pedagogical. But for a little pedagogical anecdote, the first time I read Ephesians 4:24 in Greek, I stared at it for the longest time trying to make sense of the construction. Because I had been taught what an adjectival participle would like and this looked very different, it took me quite a while to figure it out. So in terms of basic teaching, something, needs to be done so that students when they are reading, aren’t expecting all adjectival participles to appear with the article directly beside them.

    Peter: Functionally speaking, I wouldn’t draw a significant distinction between adjectives and adjectival participles. Perhaps my post wasn’t clear enough for that to come across. My purpose was only to show that the uses of participles are much more similar than is generally claimed.

    That doesn’t negate the fact that adjectives and participial clauses such as Ephesians 4:24 are in the attributive position. Or that the participle in Matthew 13:19 & the adjective phrase in Luke 16:10 are substantized. But as I see it, that fact has less to do with the nature of the participle in of itself and more to do with its syntactic relationship to its head noun or lack there of.

  4. Mike, I accept that the examples I gave in Luke 16:10 are substantised adjectives. But are you saying that the same construction would not occur attributively with an adjective, but only with a participle? That would surprise me, but I don’t have the tools available to check.

  5. But are you saying that the same construction would not occur attributively with an adjective, but only with a participle?

    Oh definitely not! My only point was that it is better to talk about a participial clause functioning either adjectivally or adverbially – rather than the participle itself.

    Likewise, I could easily write a very similar post showing that its better to talk about Adjective Phrases in the attributive position or predicative position. Wallace’s description and indeed the majority of grammars describe individual words with no reference to phrases or clauses, which causes inaccuracy when we look at examples like Matt 13:19 for participles or Luke 16:10 for adjectives.

    Does that clear things up?

  6. Yes, that helps. But it seems to me that the distinction between a phrase and a clause is meaningless here, as your participial clauses are effectively much the same thing as my adjective phrases except that morphologically (but not necessarily semantically) the participles are derived from verbs but the adjectives are not.

  7. I would say that difference is syntactic. The participle head of “τὸν κατὰ θεὸν κτισθέντα ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ καὶ ὁσιότητι τῆς ἀληθείας” takes at least one overt argument “κατὰ θεὸν,” an oblique Agent, while the Adjective Phrase does not.

    There are 61 adjectival / substantival participles in the NT that take a Core Argument such as an NP Object. There’s even one that takes both a direct and an indirect object at Col 1:8: ὁ καὶ δηλώσας ἡμῖν τὴν ὑμῶν ἀγάπην ἐν πνεύματι.

  8. Very interesting discussion. How does your definition relate to instances where participles serve in the place of a finite verb (Acts 24:5, Rom 5:11, and many others)?

    1. Simple, the participle isn’t serving in the place of a finite verb. To say that it is, is a confusion of syntax and semantics. The participle is the predicate of the clause, but being a predicate does not mean that it is serving in place of a verb any more than a nominal clause with an adjective functioning as the predicate does.

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