Participles as Adjectives
In last week’s post, we looked at the role of participles substituted for nouns, creating a dynamic portrait, an alias for some other expression. Participles can also serve as adjectival modifiers, accomplishing the same kind of action-based portrayal as we observed with nouns, the difference between a simple label and a dynamic description.
There seem to be a couple of motivations for using participles in this way.
The first motivation we could call efficiency. Let’s say a writer wants to quickly introduce a participant and attribute certain activity to them. One strategy would be making each different action its own clause, e.g.,
- There was a virgin.
- She was promised to be married to a man.
- The man’s name was Joseph.
Describing the characters in this way is not only longer, it also focuses more attention on the activity than on the person. The version we find in Luke 1:27 uses a participle (and a relative clause) to convey the same information, but casts the action more as qualities that the characters possess than as things they have done. Luke also uses a relative clause to introduce Joseph’s name.
Luke 1:26–27 (SBLGNT) Ἐν δὲ τῷ μηνὶ τῷ ἕκτῳ ἀπεστάλη ὁ ἄγγελος Γαβριὴλ ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ εἰς πόλιν τῆς Γαλιλαίας ᾗ ὄνομα Ναζαρὲθ 27 πρὸς παρθένον ἐμνηστευμένην ἀνδρὶ ᾧ ὄνομα Ἰωσὴφ ἐξ οἴκου Δαυίδ, καὶ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς παρθένου Μαριάμ.
Luke 1:26–27 (LEB) Now in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin legally promised in marriage to a man named Joseph of the house of David. And the name of the virgin was Mary.
Another motivation might be the characterizing function that participles can accomplish. The information they contribute can restrict the possible referents of the expression, helping us identify “who is doing what to whom.” This might explain the concentration of participles found in Luke 6:49, where participles function as substitutes for both nouns (underlined) and adjectives (bold):
Luke 6:49 (SBLGNT) ὁ δὲ ἀκούσας καὶ μὴ ποιήσας ὅμοιός ἐστιν ἀνθρώπῳ οἰκοδομήσαντι οἰκίαν ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν χωρὶς θεμελίου, ᾗ προσέρηξεν ὁ ποταμός, καὶ εὐθὺς συνέπεσεν, καὶ ἐγένετο τὸ ῥῆγμα τῆς οἰκίας ἐκείνης μέγα.
Luke 6:49 (LEB) But the one who hears my words and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation, which the river burst against, and immediately it collapsed—and the collapse of that house was great!”
One could also argue that efficiency was a motivation, based on how the ordering of the propositions would need to change:
- There was a man.
- He built a house without a foundation.
- The are other people.
- They hear the words of Jesus but do not do them.
- These people are like the man first mentioned.
Okay, I’ll admit I made this more complex than I had to, but it’s to illustrate a point. Participles allow us to cover huge amounts of informational territory all within the convenience of a single clause.
One final motivation to mention is the recharacterization of someone or something akin to Phil 1:6 mentioned in the last post. Here the information in the participles is not restricting the potential person, but activating a new and specific picture of them to shape how we think about them in the context. Consider the impact of the participles in James 1:5 (a twofer!):
James 1:5 (SBLGNT) Εἰ δέ τις ὑμῶν λείπεται σοφίας, αἰτείτω παρὰ τοῦ διδόντος θεοῦ πᾶσιν ἁπλῶς καὶ μὴ ὀνειδίζοντος, καὶ δοθήσεται αὐτῷ·
James 1:5 (LEB) Now if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask for it from God, who gives to all without reservation and not reproaching, and it will be given to him.
The participles are not helping us determine which god James is referring to. Instead they shape how we think about him. Of all of the potential images that might come to mind in the context of asking him for something, James portrays him as the giving God, giving to all without reservation. He is also the “not reproaching” God. This is great news for those of us who might be too intimidated to ask him for things like wisdom. After all, what if our request makes him angry? The portrait that James paints of God serves to disabuse us of wrong ideas like this, and participles offer a great alternative to adjectives and nouns for creating evocative pictures.
If you’d like to look at more examples of participles that serve as attributive modifiers, here is a syntax query to help you find them in Logos 6.
Master Participles and More . . .
To learn more about how participles and other devices affect how we conceive of things, check out the chapters on Overspecification and Changed Reference in Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament. You can also search the Greek New Testament for more examples of these concepts using the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament.