For some time, I have been musing sporadically about genitive absolutes (eventually these sporadic musings will grow into an intentional project).  For this post I will just use a sort of “common sense” notion of genitive absolutes: the subject of the genitive absolute differs from the subject of the main clause and the “absolute” construction is cast in the genitive case. Probably every part of this definition, save the part about the genitive case, is problematic in some way, but it suffices for now. Both in terms of the structure of the sentence and semantically, genitive absolutes are less connected to the main clause, or any element in it, than predicate participles in the nominative case are.

This common sense notion makes clear an oddity in a certain passage in Life of Adam and Eve (c. AD 100-300). The passage reads as follows:

καὶ τότε ταχέως πείσασα αὐτὸν ἔφαγεν (21.5)

Text from Tromp, The Life of Adam and Eve in Greek, PSEUDEPIGRAPHA VETERIS ESTAMENTI GRAECE 6

The passage is straightforward, seemingly, and could be translated something like, “And when she had quickly persuaded him, she ate” (noting that the participle is feminine, thus “she”). Given the right context, it could even mean “she ate him (or it).” But, take a quick glance at the context, and things get a little strange:

1. ἐγὼ (Ευα) δὲ εἶπον· μὴ φοβοῦ, ἅμα γὰρ φάγῃς, ἔσει γινώσκων καλὸν καὶ πονηρόν. 2. καὶ τότε ταχέως πείσασα αὐτὸν ἔφαγεν, 3. καὶ ἠνεώχθησαν αὐτοῦ οἱ ὀφθαλμοί.

As noted, Eve is the one speaking in 1. The use of the masculine possessive pronoun in 3 indicates that Adam is the subject (technically “his eyes” is the subject). This requires that there be two distinct subjects in 2: the subject of the participle is Eve, while the subject of the verb is Adam. When the participle is nominative, this should not occur.

The participle here is not functioning as a normal nominative predicate participle, which agrees with its head noun (subject of sentence) in gender and number, but like a normal genitive absolute, which differs from the subject of the sentence which it is modifying.

The variants

The text of Life of Adam and Eve (LAE) is certainly not pristine as it has come down to us. Here are the following variant readings for the phrase in question:

  • επεισα αυτόν φαγειν “I persuaded him to eat”
  • επεισα τουτο φαγειν “I persuaded him to eat”
  • πεισθεις τοις λογοις μου εφαγεν “being persuaded by my words, he ate”
  • επεισα αυτον και εφαγεν και αυτος από του ξυλου “I persuaded him and he himself ate from the tree”
  • πεισασα αυτόν επεισα και εφαγεν “persuading I persuaded him and he ate”
  • επεισα αυτόν και εφαγεν “I persuaded him and he ate”
  • ηπατηθη και εφαγεν και αυτος “He was deceived and he himself ate”
  • οποταν δε εφαγεν και αυτος ο πατηρ σας “then your father also ate”

Being no expert in text criticism of works like LAE (or any other type, for that matter), my discussion here is not about the editor’s (Johannes Tromp) choice of this reading against any of the other possible ones. My interest was piqued by the abnormal syntax, being obviously anomalous to the “rules” of Koine Greek.

When to not use a genitive absolute

I’m wondering about the bigger picture of how genitive absolutes relate to nominative predicate participles in Koine Greek. This passage is perhaps testifying to a further wrinkle in this relationship in Koine Greek. The normal canons of grammar would clearly rule this text as wrong: when the subject of the participial clause differs from the subject of the main clause, the nominative case should not be used. If a feminine participle is going to be used here, then it “ought” to be in a genitive absolute construction. An angle of further investigation to take in accounting for genitive absolutes in Koine (especially how they relate to nominative predicate participle constructions) would be to look for more instances like this text where a genitive absolute is not used when it “ought to be.”

If this is not an isolated phenomenon (haven’t yet checked any of the papyri grammars on this, but it would surprise me if there weren’t more instances like it), it raises the further possibility that the genitive absolute as a construction was in process of transitioning between a living part of the language and being a trapping of learned Greek during the Koine period. Other evidence that could be read as pointing in this direction is the not infrequent use of genitive absolutes where the subject of the genitive absolute construction is the same as the subject of the main clause.

Someday I’ll hopefully look more into this. For now, it is simply interesting to see another wrinkle in the usage of Greek popping up outside the world of very educated writers who were more careful and consistent with hiding the way they really used the language when the wrote.