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.