Backgrounding Action-the Sequel
In the last post we talked about how not all actions are created equal, so writers need some means of clearly prioritizing them so that readers can make correct judgments about them. We looked at the use of what grammarians generally call “participles of attendant circumstance,” or what I label as nominative circumstantial frames in the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament. This use of the participle has several common traits:
- The participles are all functioning as verbs rather than nouns or adjectives (if you haven’t read these first two posts, you should).
- If a main or finite verb been used for this action (indicative, imperative or subjunctive mood), at least grammatically it would have been on the same par as the main action. Use of the participle demotes the action, backgrounding it with respect to the main verb on which it grammatically depends.
- The participles are in the same grammatical case as the subject of the main clause, i.e. the nominative case. This means that the subject of the main clause is also the subject of the backgrounded participial clause.
If that made any sense at all, then good! It means you’ve learned something and made your mother proud.
Today I want to look at one other group of these circumstantial participles, the “absolutes.” There was an extensive discussion among professors about the problems of terminology over on the Facebook’s Nerdy Language Majors, so I will refer readers who care for such things to the 105 comment thread. Regardless of what we might call them, there are some important and simple takeaways to be gleaned.
The circumstantial participles that are generally called “absolutes” are all in a different grammatical case than the nominative, most often the genitive case. In other words, the absolutes differ from the others in point 3 above, but only in point three. So why use a different case, what is the point? I’ll refer you to Big Bird and Susan to help you better understand:
You see, by using a case other than the nominative, the writer is able to clearly communicate that the subject(s) of the participle are not the same subjects as the main clause. In truly “absolute” cases the subject of the participial clause is not involved in any way within the main clause as in the following examples:
- Γενομένης … ἡμέρας (Acts 12:18) “becoming … day”
- ἡλίου … ἀνατείλαντος (Matt 13:6) “sun … rising/rose”
- Ὀψίας … γενομένης (Matt 8:16; Matt 14:15, 23; Matt 16:2; Matt 20:8; Matt 26:20; Matt 27:57) “evening … coming about”
- Πρωΐας δὲ γενομένης (Matt 27:1) “early morning … coming about”
These are subjects that you would really expect to continue, but rather scene-setting information that sets the stage for the main action. Backgrounding this action as less important makes perfect sense.
But there is another use of the absolutes that is a lot more interesting, and it can bring about the same kind of suspense-building repetition we commonly use in storytelling in English and many other languages. For instance:
I was home all alone when I heard a noise upstairs. I decided to go and take a look. And as I was walking up the stairs…
Okay, this is where you internally scream “Don’t go up the stairs, something BAD is going to happen!!!” When we hear this kind of repetition, this circling back through what we were just told, it creates the expectation that something surprising or important is about to happen. Slasher movies accomplish the same thing by playing that creepy music that let’s you know someone is about to (almost) die.
But note that in my English example, the repeated clause “as I was walking up the stairs” is a dependent clause, not a main clause based on the use of “as.” This is the same kind of backgrounding in English as what we will see in the following Greek examples, along with repetition of the immediately preceding action. It brings about the same slowing and suspense-building as we see in English. Take a look at the repetition in Mark 14:43 below. The grayscale in the HDNT indicates a backgrounded participial clause, and the circular arrows mark what is called tail-head linkage. Jesus had been the key character in the scene up to this point, until it shifts to Judas. The backgrounded repetition slows things down and ties things together:
We see a similar kind of near-repetition in verse 45 where we already expect Judas to go and kiss Jesus based on the preceding verse. Backgrounding the “going” prioritizes the action in the clause so that his kiss is the only main action. And as a freebee, the changed reference to “the betrayer” in verse 44 is a participle, the kind described in the first post of this series.
Just a little bit later in this chapter the same technique is used to shift from the scene of Jesus being mocked and beaten back to Peter’s coming betrayal. These are simultaneously occurring threads of the story, but text does not allow for a picture-in-picture window like our TVs do. Instead, backgrounded participles and tail-head linkage combine to achieve that “meanwhile, back at the ranch” kind of switch from one concurrent scene to another.
Peter is not part of the main clause of verse 66, so the participle reminds us about where we last saw Peter. The same holds true in verse 67, though he is the addressee of the girl’s speech.
In both of these examples the tail-head linkage creates a close connection with what precedes (where part of the preceding clause becomes the circumstantial head of the next one). The use of a non-nominative case in the participial clause also signals that the subject will be different from the subject of the main clause.
Here are a few more examples I will leave for you to look up. Expressions like Ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος “(while) he was still speaking” (Luke 8:49; Luke 22:47, 60) and ταῦτα δὲ αὐτοῦ λέγοντος “saying these things” (Luke 9:34; John 8:30; John 18:22; Acts 10:44; Acts 13:17; Acts 24:36 also generally create the same kind of effect and are genitive absolutes.
If you want to learn more, here are some suggested resources:
- Backgrounding using participles, Chapter 12 of DGGNT or the introductions of the LDGNT or the Greek-free HDNT.
- Tail-head linkage, Chapter 8 of DGGNT or the introductions of the LDGNT or the Greek-free HDNT.
- If you’d like the analyzed version of the text, the HDNT comes included with the LDGNT, and each include a glossary and introduction.
Here’s a video introducing the OT versions of the same resources.