Perfect Active Imperatives: The Data

I’m on a blogging roll! Hopefully I’ll have a journal article written by the end of it! Come on Journal of Greek Linguistics (or Historical Linguistics for that matter I’d take either).

For those who don’t already know, I have a set corpus of Koine texts: the Apostolic Fathers, the New Testament, the LXX, the Pseudepigrapha, Rick Brannan’s collection of Greek Apocryphal Gosepls, Fragments and Agrapha, Philo, and finally Josephus. That’s a respectable word count for the kind of work I do.

Across that corpus, there aren’t a lot of perfect active imperatives–especially once you’ve sorted out all the instances of οἶδα, which is a perfect in name only. It was fossilized before even Homer was born, (at least it would have been if he was a real person) with Sanskrit and Latin cognates with the same semantics (see Beekes 2010).

And what do we have beyond that? Basically two perfect active imperatives. One is from πείθω (another old, but not as old as οἶδα, perfect) with two occurrences in the LXX:

καὶ εἶπεν ἡ ῥάμνος πρὸς τὰ ξύλα Εἰ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ ὑμεῖς χρίετέ με εἰς βασιλέα ἐφʼ ὑμῶν, δεῦτε πεποίθατε ἐν τῇ σκέπῃ μου, καὶ εἰ μή, ἐξέλθοι πῦρ ἐκ τῆς ῥάμνου καὶ καταφάγοι τὰς κέδρους τοῦ Λιβάνου
And the bramble said to the trees, “If you are truly anointing me as king over you, come, trust in my protection. But if not, may fire come out from the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon” (Judges 9:15).

οὐ μὴν δὲ ἀλλὰ μηδεὶς πεποιθέτω πονηρὸς ὢν ἀθῷος ἔσεσθαι
However, no one who is evil should trust that they should be seen as innocent (Job 12:6).

This verb isn’t surprising, belonging to a very old set of verbs that alternate between a causative imperfective/perfective with a non-causative perfect (kind of like how middle voice does in Classical and Koine):

Causative imperfv/perfv       <–>   Non-causative perfect
[do’ (x, ∅)] cause [pred’ (y)]              pred’ (x)

The only real question might why a person would choose to use the perfect of πείθω to express the predicate trust rather than, say, πιστεύω. I would expect that is perhaps tied to a desire to communicate in a more formal/traditional register. Πιστεύω appears in the imperative regularly as both a perfective and an imperfective. A perfect imperative of πείθω is almost certainly a much more formal way of communicating a command to trust.

The other verb is θνήσκω and it’s perfect active imperative appears in Josephus:

Φάρμακον μήτε θανάσιμον μήτε τῶν εἰς ἄλλας βλάβας πεποιημένων Ἰσραηλιτῶν ἐχέτω μηδὲ εἷς· ἐὰν δὲ κεκτημένος φωραθῇ τεθνάτω, τοῦτο πάσχων ὃ διέθηκεν ἂν ἐκείνους καθ ̓ ὧν τὸ φάρμακον ἦν παρεσκευασμένον.
Do not allow even one of the Israelites to have possession of poison, whether deadly or one made for other injuries. If having acquired one, he should be discovered, he must die, suffering the fate he would have inflected upon those the poison was prepared (Josephus, Antiquities 4.279).

And that’s it. None of these are perhaps really surprising, an old perfect lexeme and a highly intransitive lexeme. I would imagine that an intensive perfect reading would be quite appealing for these–especially the final one with τεθνάτω. The thing is, imperative θνήσκω is weird to start with. There’s only one other in this corpus (also in Josephus), this time imperfective:

θνησκέτωσαν γὰρ γυναῖκες ἀνύβριστοι καὶ παῖδες δουλείας ἀπείρατοι, μετὰ δ ̓ αὐτοὺς ἡμεῖς εὐγενῆ χάριν ἀλλήλοις παράσχωμεν καλὸν ἐντάφιον τὴν ἐλευθερίαν φυλάξαντες
Let our wives thus die without being dishonored, our children never acquainted with slavery, and after them, let us grant the noble goodwill to each other in order to preserve our great freedom in a burial shroud (Josephus, Wars of the Jews 7.334)

Now, the fact that θνήσκω is so rare in the imperative shouldn’t be surprising. It’s an intransitive verb that only ever takes a subject that is a patient. It doesn’t get an agent/actor.* In order to get an agent squeezed in here, the obligatorily takes a 3rd person imperative. Now, imperatives in the 3rd person can have a reportative function, where a speaker (1st person) reports to an audience (2nd person) that a third party (i.e. 3rd person) is obligated to participate in an event (either as an agent or as a patient). Alternatively, they can function to have the speaker (1st person) place an obligation on the audience (2nd person) to carry out some action such that a third party (3rd person) is affected. Both of these instances of τεθνάτω and θνησκέτωσαν fall in the domain of the second option.

I think the second example challenges the idea of an intensive interpretation of the first. If anything the second one is the more absurdly extreme. No, I think the distinction between them is more likely predicated on the semantics of each aspect. Josephus chose the imperfective θνησκέτωσαν in order to present the event’s internal temporal structure as iterative–lot of deaths of many wives and children over time. There is a distributional nature to what is being described in Wars of the Jews 7.334 that fits well with the imperfective aspect. Likwise, as a very final/completive sounding statement in Antiquities 4.279, I think the perfect τεθνάτω makes a lot of sense.

I should note that this a theme that continues through: the reason for the rarity of perfect imperatives seems most easily explained by means of general conflict between the semantics of the perfect and the semantics of the imperative mood. As I move on other perfect middle imperatives, I think that will become more clear.

*Well, with the exception of some goofy clauses where it can take an agentative-by phrase like a syntactic passive, but that’s a whole other (fascinating) story. Maybe I’ll get to that some other time.