Saturday, August 25, 2007

Genitive Absolute & Redundant ἔτι?

Today in my Greek course, I introduced the genitive absolute construction. An interesting question came up regarding the relative time relationship of the present genitive participle to the verb and the use of ἔτι 'still'.

I introduced genitive absolutes by looking at Mark 14:43. Jesus tells his disciples that the hour has come for the Son of Man to be betrayed. His betrayer has drawn near. Then in vs. 43, it reads,

Καὶ εὐθὺς ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος παραγίνεται Ἰούδας…
And immediately, while he is still speaking, Judas arrives…

The genitive absolute construction includes an anarthrous (no article) genitive participle (λαλοῦντος “while speaking” in Mk. 14.43), and it usually appears at the front of a sentence and usually with a noun or pronoun (αὐτοῦ “of him” in Mk. 14.43) also in the genitive case. The significance of the genitive absolute construction is that the agent of the participial action is different than the agent of the main verb in the sentence. If it was the same agent performing both actions, then the participle would be in the nominative case, not the genitive.

Present tense participles signify continuous or repeated action that happens at the same time as the main verb. Thus, if the main verb is understood to have happened in the past, the present participle is also understood to have happened in the past concurrent to the action of the main verb. Likewise, if the main verb is present or future, the present participle happens simultaneously in the present or the future, respectively. Therefore, in Mk. 14.43 the word ‘while’ is frequently used in English translations to show this simultaneous action.

So a question was asked in class about ἔτι ‘still’. What is the difference between the simultaneous time indicated by the present participle and the meaning ‘still’ from ἔτι? What is the significance of ἔτι? If ἔτι was not there, would it have the same meaning?

This is the kind of question I’m thrilled to hear my students asking. It means they are thinking critically about the text and how to best translate it accurately into their own languages. It’s also an opportunity for me to think on my feet, and to quickly give my students the best educated guess that I can quickly come up with. But it’s a chance to model humility, and to let them know that I’m not always sure of the answer. This leads naturally into teaching them how to seek out the answer to such questions on their own.

My first response was that the meaning of ἔτι ‘still’ and the simultaneous action significance of the present participle seem virtually identical. I suggested that the text would pretty much have the same meaning if ἔτι was not there. But perhaps the ἔτι gives more prominence to the idea that Jesus was speaking at the same time that Judas arrived. I compared the use of ἔτι to the (redundant) use of nominative subject pronouns, since the verbal morphology already includes the person and number of the subject. When a subject pronoun is also used, it is usually there for emphasis, or to contrast to some other subject in the context. Likewise, ἔτι might be used with the present participle to emphasize the simultaneous action.

After thinking about this further, however, I consider that ἔτι has somewhat of a different function than to indicate simultaneous action. The use of ἔτι 'still' suggests that the action of the participle starts before the action of the main verb, and then the start of the main verb action occurs before the participial action has finished. This is in contrast to the aorist participle that signifies action that has been completed prior to the main verb.

Thus, ἔτι in Mk. 14.43 makes it clear that Jesus had already been speaking about his betrayer coming before Judas arrived. Without the ἔτι, it may be possible to interpret this text as Jesus talking and Judas arriving at the same time such that Jesus didn’t start talking before he caught some clue that Judas was approaching with the crowd that was with him. With the ἔτι, however, it becomes clear that Jesus had started speaking first and Judas arrived before he finished.

There are 13 other New Testament references where ἔτι occurs in the same clause with a genitive absolute:

  • Mt. 12.46 Jesus still speaking, his mother and brothers standing outside
  • Mt. 17.5 Peter still speaking, cloud overshadowed (transfiguration)
  • Mt. 26.47 Jesus still speaking, Judas arrives (betrayal)
  • Mk. 5.35 Jesus still speaking, they come from synagogue leader’s house
  • Mk. 14.43 (2) Jesus still speaking, Judas arrives (betrayal)
  • Lk. 8.49 (2) Jesus still speaking, they come from synagogue leader’s house
  • Lk. 9.42 Spirit-possessed son still approaching, the demon slams him down
  • Lk. 14.32 he (other king) still being far away, he (the king) asks for peace
  • Lk. 15.20 [lost son] still being a distance away, the father saw him
  • Lk. 22.47 (3) Jesus still speaking, Judas arrives (betrayal)
  • Lk. 22.60 Peter still speaking, rooster crows
  • Lk. 24.41 disciples still not believing, Jesus said to them… eat
  • Jn. 20.1 Mary Magdalene comes, darkness still being
  • Ac. 10.44 Peter still speaking, Holy Spirit fell

A quick glance at these other references confirms the conclusion that the combination of ἔτι with a present genitive participle signifies a participial action that has started before the action of the main verb and is still continuing at the time the main verb begins. It does not seem to indicate, however, how long the two actions continue simultaneously.

Often, it seems that the start of the main verb action represents the completion of the participial action. Thus, the ἔτι with present genitive participle combination seems very similar to the use of the aorist genitive participle, which signifies subsequent action. However, an ἔτι with the present genitive participle indicates an overlap of action, even if that overlap means that the completion of the participial action is concurrent with only the very start of the main verb action.

It is probably significant that ἔτι does not occur in the same clause with an aorist participle in the New Testament. Although ἔτι may represent an overlapping of subsequent and simultaneous time, it is more clearly associated with the simultaneous time significance of the present participle. Nevertheless, it seems an inherent property of its lexical meaning that it should indicate an action that has previously started. In Mk. 14.43 the use of ἔτι is a sign that Jesus is knowledgeable about the future and he is in control of the event in which he is betrayed.

1 comment:

Elaine said...

Thank you. This helped me understand what a genitive absolute was (at least one in the present tense).