Today’s post is the inaugural edition of HiDef Mondays, in which Faithlife’s Scholar-in-Residence Steve Runge and his team explore peculiarities and practicalities in Greek and Hebrew grammar. Check back every Monday to find a new insight for studying and teaching biblical languages.
Participles: Part 1
Participles have been called the workhorse of the Greek language. They occur far more frequently in Greek discourse compared to English, and in ways that don’t work naturally in English. Here’s how Wallace describes the situation:
Wallace’s final comment about versatility will be the point of departure for the series of posts that follow. We’ll take a look at participles from a functional linguistic perspective in order to see how a core quality of participles can unify our understanding of their diverse uses.
Greek participles are a morphological hybrid, featuring components of both verbs (tense and voice and mood) and nouns (case, number and gender). Wallace treats them as “verbal adjectives” (ibid.) construed in a broad sense, and for good reason as we will see.
One of the most helpful ways I’ve found to better understand something is by considering what it is not. In other words, let’s take a look at what other forms might be used instead of a participle. Then we will be in a much better position to understand the unique contribution this hybrid nature of participles offers that other forms do not.
Participles are often found in noun phrases, either substituting for a simple adjective or for the noun itself. In other words, participles may be used in place of an adjective or a noun. So what does a participle offer that adjectives and nouns do not? Dynamism! The “nouniness” of participles (case, number and gender) allow them to convey the very same morphological information as any noun or adjective. But participles have the added bonus of including an action. Where nouns and adjectives are largely static, participles can paint a dynamic portrait. To put it crassly, the choice of a participle over an noun or adjective represents to choice of an action-oriented image versus a simple label, illustrated below.
Use of a verbal adjective allows writers to paint an image that might be nearly impossible using simple nouns or adjectives. Just consider the dynamic image created by Paul in Philippians 1:6 by changing the reference from the simple noun “God” to a dynamic participle. Compare the image that each evokes.
Philippians 1:6 (SBLGNT) πεποιθὼς αὐτὸ τοῦτο ὅτι ὁ ἐναρξάμενος ἐν ὑμῖν ἔργον ἀγαθὸν ἐπιτελέσει ἄχρι ἡμέρας Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ·
“God” calls to mind any number of images, whereas the participle “He who began a good work in you” significantly constrains the possibilities.
It makes you think about God in a particular way based on the activity pictured in the participle. No simple noun could do that.
Another powerful portrait from participles is found in Acts 15 justifying Paul’s decision to split with Barnabas:
Acts 15:36–39 (SBLGNT) Μετὰ δέ τινας ἡμέρας εἶπεν πρὸς Βαρναβᾶν Παῦλος· Ἐπιστρέψαντες δὴ ἐπισκεψώμεθα τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς κατὰ πόλιν πᾶσαν ἐν αἷς κατηγγείλαμεν τὸν λόγον τοῦ κυρίου, πῶς ἔχουσιν. 37 Βαρναβᾶς δὲ ἐβούλετο συμπαραλαβεῖν καὶ τὸν Ἰωάννην τὸν καλούμενον Μᾶρκον· 38 Παῦλος δὲ ἠξίου, τὸν ἀποστάντα ἀπʼ αὐτῶν ἀπὸ Παμφυλίας καὶ μὴ συνελθόντα αὐτοῖς εἰς τὸ ἔργον, μὴ συμπαραλαμβάνειν τοῦτον. 39 ἐγένετο δὲ παροξυσμὸς ὥστε ἀποχωρισθῆναι αὐτοὺς ἀπʼ ἀλλήλων, τόν τε Βαρναβᾶν παραλαβόντα τὸν Μᾶρκον ἐκπλεῦσαι εἰς Κύπρον,
Acts 15:36–39 (LEB) And after some days, Paul said to Barnabas, “Come then,let us return and visit the brothers in every town in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, to see how they are doing.” 37 Now Barnabas wanted to take John who was called Mark along also, 38 but Paul held the opinion they should not take this one along, who departed from them in Pamphylia and did not accompany them in the work. 39 And a sharp disagreement took place, so that they separated from one another. And Barnabas took along Mark and sailed away to Cyprus,
Notice the shift from calling him John (Mark) in verse 37 to the portrait painted by the participles in v. 38. What a difference! Contrast this to what would have happened if Luke had continued calling him by his proper name.
Master Participles and More . . .
These examples illustrate the power of participles used as nouns or adjectives to paint a dynamic portrait. If you are interested in learning more about how participles and other devices are used to affect how we conceive of things, the chapters on Overspecification and Changed Reference in Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament provide a great overview. If you are interested in searching the Greek New Testament for more examples, be sure to check out the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament. The image just above is taken from the High Definition Commentary: Philippians, a unique project designed to help you better understand and communicate ideas like this.
Next week we will tackle more about the use of participles.