Lesson 12.1 — Participles

In N.T. Wright's book, The Challenge of Jesus, he says:

Jesus was not primarily a "teacher" in the sense that we usually give that word.  Jesus did things and then commented on them, explained them, challenged people to figure out what they meant.

In terms of doing, you yourselves have done translation work that involved participles.  I am going to take some time to comment on what you have already begun to learn on your own. 

One of the challenges of understanding participles is that they have a wide variety of functions in the NT.  They can be used as a , an , a , or an . The good news is that if you can start to get a handle on participles, you will have taken a giant step in terms of being able to understand the Greek text.  Adverbs were a key tool that NT writers used to express themselves.

A participle can be built from any verb.  The participle λύοντες is built on the verb λύω .

The participle πιστεύοντες is built on πιστεύω

Let's take a look at some you have already run into.


Acts 1:2

Jesus was taken up into heaven after having given commands (ἐντειλάμενος) to the apostles....

In this case, the context suggests that this use of the participle has an adverbial flavor related to time.   It tells you when the main verb (was taken up) took place.  It was AFTER Jesus gave commands.

Participles have verb-qualities (in this case, aorist middle) as well as noun qualities (here, nominative singular).

The suffix of the word ἐντειλάμενος looks like the suffix of λόγος, and that ending tells you that both words are nominative singular forms.

A participle always agrees in case and number with the noun it is connected with.  In this verse, the only possible nominative singular it could be connected to is ὁ Ἰησοῦς from verse 1.  So it tells us that it was Jesus giving these commands.

Time, in an adverbial participle, is related to the main verb, not to the speaker.  This being an aorist, it means that Jesus gave commands before being taken up into heaven.  Now, as it turns out, that is in past time as far as Luke himself is concerned as well...but that is coincidental.

If you check out the dictionary form of the verb, it is ἐντέλλομαι.  —ομαι is normally a passive ending.  When our lexicon tells us that this is a "middle" voice, it means that it is a verb for which an —ω ending doesn't exist. The verb has passive word endings, but it typically has an active meaning anyway, rather than a passive meaning.


Acts 1:3

Jesus presented himself alive (ζῶντα).

One of the challenges around prepositions is finding the main verb they are connected with.  The main verb will NOT be a preposition.  The best candidate in verse 3 is παρέστησεν, a 3rd person aorist active indicative singular (i.e. a verb that is NOT a preposition); he presented. 

The direct object of this verb is ἑαυτὸν, himself, in the accusative case (as is typical for direct objects).  So then, what we have so far is "Jesus presented himself".

Prepositions have both verb-like qualities, and noun-like qualities.  Since ζῶντα is an accusative singular preposition, it is certainly that way because it is agreeing with ἑαυτὸν.

In this case, it would seem that ζῶντα is splitting the difference between an adjective, modifying "himself", and an adverb, modifying "presented".  In any case, a good rendering is "he presented himself alive."

ζῶντα is a present active participle accusative singular.  Time-wise, it is happening at the same time as the main verb:  presenting.  So Jesus was alive at the moment he was presenting himself.  This is several years back in Luke's past, of course.  But participles take their time relative to the main verb, not the writer.

There is nothing particular to memorize here...but store in the back of your mind that ζῶντα is considered to be an accusative singular.  We will see this kind of word-formation again.

Also in 1:3, ὀπτανόμενος (appearing) and λέγων (speaking) are both present participles, nominative singular masculine.  Though ὁ Ἰησοῦς is not explicitly stated in verse 3 (unless Luke is thinking of verses 1-3 as one big, long sentence...which is a possiblity), it is at least implied that Jesus is the subject of the sentence.  So both ὀπτανόμενος and λέγων agree with the nominative singular Ἰησοῦς. It was Jesus who was appearing and speaking, and since they are both present participles, he was doing it at the same time that he was showing himself alive to the apostles.

Once again, the present tense participles do not refer to LUKE's present time...but time that was "present" at the moment of the main verb of the sentence.


Acts 1:4

The main verb of verse 4 is παρήγγειλεν (commanded): a 3rd person aorist active indicative singular, with Jesus clearly being the subject of the verb.  He commanded his disciples not to leave town.  So then, we are not surprised to find that the participle συναλιζόμενος is nominative singular...to agree with the implied ὁ Ἰησοῦς, which is nominative singular.  The participle functions in an adverb, telling us when Jesus gave this command.  He gave it as they were meeting together (συναλιζόμενος).  As is clearly the case in verse 2, the preposition is modifying the verb by indicating when the action took place.


Acts 1:6

The verb, which is masculine plural fits with the context in making it clear that it was Jesus' disciples that were asking him a big question, expressed through the main verb of the sentence:  ἠρώτων (they were asking), a 3rd person imperfect active indicative plural. 

So when we find participles that describe what the disciples (the implied do'ers of the verb to ask, though not explicitly stated in the verse) did as they were asking (συνελθόντες and λέγοντες: gathering and talking), it is no surprise that they are both nominative plural, to connect them with the disciples.

The tenses of the participles are a bit tricky.  συνελθόντες is straightforward.  It is an aorist participle.  This makes sense.  They gathered with Jesus before they started asking him the question (remember:  asking is the main verb of the sentence — main verbs are never participles).

λέγοντες however, is a present tense.  It seems like "asking" and "speaking" are pretty much the same thing.  New Testament writers generally seem to be OK with redundancy of verbs, particularly where the participle seems to be a way of introducing "quotation marks" into the text.

Here it is "they asked and said".  We frequently find in the Gospels that Jesus "answered and said".  In any case, λέγοντες is present tense  because it is happening at the same time as the action of the main verb.  Of course, the main verb is imperfect, because it is in the past as far as Luke himself is concerned.


Acts 1:8

This verse uses the genitive a bit differently...to capture what we in English use a (parentheses) for:  the genitive absolute.

"Absolute" seems like a funny word to use.  But it is a technical term, from Latin, for a construction that has no grammatical relationship to the rest of the sentence.  It is a disconnected phrase.  There will be no other word elsewhere in the sentence that the participial phrase modifies.

An English sentence that would — if it were in Greek — use a genitive absolute is "Weather permitting, we will eat soon."

Let's understand the main verb, and the flow of the sentence in English.  "But you will receive power and you will be my witnesses...."  Both of the main verbs are 2nd person plural, future tense verbs.  What we have in the middle of this is a seemingly disconnected genitive "of the Holy Spirit" followed by "upon you".  What we would EXPECT would be for "the Holy Spirit" to be a nominative as the subject of this clause.  But it seems to be a stand-alone clause wih nothing in the nominative.

This construction is called the "genitive absolute" — and it is a common way that Greek writers handled what we handle today with (parentheses).  In a genitive absolute, there is no nominative noun as the subject...but rather a genitive noun as subject.  And there is no main verb that is active or passive...but rather a genitive participle.

Once we recognize this construction, we could render it this way in our wooden, word-for-word translation:  "But you will receive power (after the Holy Spirit comes upon you) and you will be my witnesses...."

Translation of genitive absolute phrases is always idiomatic.  You can never translate word for word and use it in your proper translation.  See what it says in Greek, and then try to figure out the best way to phrase that in English.

Most genitive absolutes in the NT are time-related, so you will use "while" if the participle is present tense, and "after" if the participle is aorist.


Acts 1:9

This verse gives us both uses of the preposition in a single sentence:  straight-ahead adverbial, plus genitive absolute (which carries with it, in this case, a bit of an adverbial aroma as well).

The main verb is ἐπήρθη, he was lifted up (3rd person aorist passive indicative singular).  Then we have a preposition acting as an adverb that tells us WHEN he was lifted up:  ταῦτα εἰπὼν "while he was saying these things".  εἰπὼν is nominative singular preposition, so it is referring to Jesus.

Then we have a parenthetical phrase — a genitive absolute — βλεπόντων αὐτῶν while they were watching.  They is not nominative, but rather genitive.  And instead of a main verb in the active or passive indicative, there is a genitive preposition.  So it is like "they" is the subject of the phrase, but appears in genitive.

So we could render this verse literally as "While he was saying these things (as they were watching) he was lifted up and a cloud hid him."


Luke 1:10

Just when we think we are starting to understand participles (as either time-related adverbs or as parts of a genitive absolute parenthetical expression), Luke throws us a curve ball.

ὡς ἀτενίζοντες ἦσαν = as looking they were (with the participle nominative plural, agreeing with the plural main verb ἦσαν and referring to the disciples) is a very straightforward equivalent of an English participle:  a verb with an —ing on the end of it plus a form of the verb "to be".  While a participle COULD have had an adverbial function describing the time when the main verb happened, this phrase has ὡς at the beginning: "As".  So the sentence doesn't need a time-adverb.  This is simply an —ing for "looking".  "As they were looking...."

As the verse continues, we are back to a genitive absolute singular participle followed by a genitive pronoun, πορευομένου αὐτοῦ, "as he was going" — referring back to Jesus ascending.  "He" is almost-but-not-quite the same as a nominative would be in that phrase.  But since it is a genitive singular, it is clearly referring back to Jesus.


Luke 1:11

This verse also has a straightforward —ing -style of participle.  "Men of Galilee, why are you standing (the main verb, in the 2nd person plural) there looking (and here is the participle, also 2nd person plural) into the sky.

Then we have YET ANOTHER NEW USE of the participle...this time as a noun with a bit of an adjective flavor to it.  It clearly functions as a noun/adjective because it has a definite article before it.  οὗτος ὁ Ἰησοῦς ὁ ἀναλημφθεὶς ἀφ’ ὑμῶν εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν.

ὁ Ἰησοῦς is pretty clear.  The nominative singular Ἰησοῦς "Jesus" is the subject of the sentence. 

Then we have another nominative, together with a definite article:  ἀναλημφθεὶς .  This is a nominative singular participle, and restates (and possibly clarifies a bit, as an adjective) who Jesus is.  In a literal translation, where we translate the definite article, we could say, "This Jesus, the one who was taken from you into heaven...."

In this case, the participle is partly a restatement of the subject of the sentence (i.e. Jesus), and partly an adjective describing Jesus a (i.e. the person you just saw rise up into a cloud).

A participle with a definite article does not have to restate the subject of the sentence.  In some cases, it is the subject of the sentence.


Luke 1:15

Peter stood up (aorist participle) and said (aorist indicative — the main verb of the sentence).

While technically this is an adverbial use of the participle in that it gives detail on how Peter spoke (i.e. he spoke standing up), in English we almost always handle it with a simple "and".  "Peter stood and said...."



DON'T GIVE UP YET!  This is a ton of new content, I know.  Dr. Daniel Wallace has said that if you can master the functions of Greek participles, you will have mastered the way Greek sentences work.  They are THAT important...and difficult.

There are several more participles in the next few verses...but I think this is a good time to stop and recap what we have learned.

...and all this just in the first few verses of Acts!

Click  to go to the next page, and we will play around with some participles in sentences.  I hope they will help you begin to wrap you mind around how participles can work in Greek.

Don't be discouraged if you find this hard.  As you can see from the first 11 verses of Acts, we are going to go over the uses of participles again, and again, and again...in almost every verse we translate.  By this time next year, I guarantee that you will be taking participles in stride.