A participle is part verb. The Greek grammarians called it μετοχή “sharing” highlighting the way it shares both noun and verb features. As a part-verb, it is able to make predications. These predications are not of the same rank as the main verb, but predications they are. This aspect of participles makes it difficult to describe in precise terms how they relate to the main clause. Syntactically, they fill the slot of an adjective, and are thus modifiers of a noun in the same basic ways as adjectives. The noun they modify dictates their gender. This is true even when there is no overt noun in the sentence. However, participles obviously have more syntactic might than a mere adjective. One interesting way that participles contribute to the syntax of Greek is in periphrasis.


 Sometimes a participle obviously combines with a verb in such a way that there is only one verbal predication made; the predication of the verb and the predication of the participle meld into one. This occurs most often with a form of εἶναι, though a handful of other verbs are also used.[i] For the remainder of this post, I will simply refer to a copula. Grammarians call this combination of copula and participle, “periphrasis.” A clear example of periphrasis can be seen at Matthew 7.29:

ἦν γὰρ διδάσκων αὐτοὺς ὡς ἐξουσίαν ἔχων καὶ οὐχ ὡς οἱ γραμματεῖς αὐτῶν.

For he was teaching them like one having authority…

Clearly, the copula ἦν is not serving to make an independent predication “he is.” It also is not introducing an unknown participant into the discourse, which is called the “thetic” or “presentational” use.[ii] Thetic uses of εἶναι are common in narrative, but the subject here is already know and obvious from context, otherwise it could not be elided. The copula and the participle together make only one predication: a 3rd singular version of “to be teaching + past time + progressive aspect”, aka “he was teaching”. The periphrastic construction comes very natural to English speakers, given English’s extensive use of periphrastic tenses to convey (primarily) progressive aspectual nuances as opposed to those nuances conveyed by non-periphrastic forms:

“I am coming home” (progressive) vs. “I come home” (habitual)

“I was coming home” (progressive) vs “I came home” (simple past/perfective)

 For this post, it suffices to say that often the Greek periphrastic form has clearly different semantics than the indicative form which it stands in opposition to.[iii] This is in keeping with a general tenet of linguistics: form implies meaning. What we expect is that when a language bothers to have and keep two (or more) distinct forms in use which do basically the same job, they will have some meaningful difference in their meaning and/or the contexts in which they are used. In other words, we expect that ἦν διδάσκων differs in its fundamental meaning as opposed to the simple imperfect form ἐδίδασκεν, and that Matthew uses it in 7.29 to indicate that specific meaning. The normal distinction between the morphological imperfect and the “periphrastic” imperfect is that the later tends to be more stative and the former more active. Periphrastic imperfects tend to be used to describe ongoing states, profile iterative events, and to present background events that set the scene for other foregrounded action. Other types of periphrasis have other relationships to their non-periphrastic “equivalents.”

But what counts as a periphrastic, anyway?

A lot of instances where the copula and a participle are in the same clause fall in this “obviously periphrastic” category. The semantics of εἶναι make this usage make sense. The meaning “to be + doing x” easily slips into “to be doing x” (and indeed, this is an abundantly normal pattern across languages and across time).[iv] But things are not so simple.

A complicating factor is that there are also instances in which the copula and the participle obviously do not coalesce into a single predication. Rather, they maintain the abundantly normal syntax pattern of a verb + a satellite participle, aka conjunct participle, aka predicate participle, aka “adverbial” participle (I don’t like this label and someday I will write out and post why, but it has some merit and wide usage). An example of this can be found in Joseph and Aseneth 15.12x:

τὸ ἐμὸν ὄνομα ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς ἐστιν ἐν τῇ βίβλῳ τοῦ ὑψίστου γεγραμμένον τῷ δακτύλῳ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ἀρχῇ τῆς βίβλου πρὸ πάντων

My name is in the heavenlies,  having been written in the book of the Highest by the finger of God in the beginning of the book before all others[v]

This example demonstrates that the copula and participle can be in syntactic proximity while still contributing two unique predications to the sentence. They do not coalesce in meaning in this instance. If we wanted to highlight that this is a non-periphrastic instance, we could of course insert a comma into the Greek text to separate the copula clause and the participial clause, as is commonly done in edited texts when the main verb is not a form of εἶναι (remembering that most of the punctuation in a lot of the texts we read is editorial insertions).

The astute reader will well be wondering where the line between these two patterns, these two “constructions” is? That is a good question which is altogether unclear. To date no one has a definitive answer to that question (nor do I, for that matter). However, I do have some ideas which help to better describe what is going on syntactically in this construction.

A pair of periphrastics: Epistle of Barnabas to the Rescue

I will wrap up Part I of this post series by introducing a pair of periphrastics that nicely profile the issues involved in dealing with periphrastics. The Epistle of Barnabas 14.2 reads:

Καὶ ἦν Μωϋσῆς νηστεύων ἐν ὄρει Σινᾶ

And Moses was fasting on Mount Sinai

English translators (and all the German ones I could get my hands on) unanimously handle this verse as containing an instance of periphrasis. This is an abundantly sensible interpretation. To emphasize the different parts of the construction, I have highlighted the subject in bold, underlined is the verbal predication composed of the copula and participle, and underlined with italics the remainder of the sentence’s predication. So far so good.

The next quotation, from The Epistle of Barnabas 4.7, reads:

Καὶ [ἦν Μωϋσῆς ἐν τῷ ὄρει] [νηστεύων ἡμέρας τεσσαράκοντα καὶ νύκτας τεσσαράκοντα]

And Moses was on the mountain, fasting 40 days and 40 nights

Translators unanimously handle this verse as non-periphrastic (again, in English and German). The sentence is essentially identical in content to the first, except that it also has a temporal adjunct clause attached. The word order varies slightly. Is there anything behind why translators handle these two sentences as though they are different? Is it simply a matter of following the Greek word order because it is convenient to do so?

In the next part of this post series I will pick up this discussion and carry it further into some deeper analysis of what is going on in these two examples as a way to hopefully add some further clarity to how these constructions function.

[i] A fully robust discussion of periphrasis in Greek would also definitely include the various instances where a finite verb combines with an infinitive to make one predication. According to grammatical tradition, periphrasis only is used to describe such combinations of elements of the verbal system.

[ii] The best study of thetics in Greek is Nicholas Andrew Bailey, “Thetic Constructions in Koine Greek with Special Attention to Clauses with εἰμί  ‘be’, γίνομαι ‘occur’, ἔρχομαι  ‘come’, ἰδού/ἴδε  ‘behold’, and Complement Clauses of ὁράω ‘see’” (Academisch Proefschrift, Amsterdam, Vrije Universiteit, 2009).

[iii] The notion of “stands in opposition to” is rather complicated. Traditional descriptions note the normal and systematic ways in which periphrastic forms relate to plain old indicative forms. These descriptions are helpful starting points, but they are far from adequate at the level of details.

[iv] This grammaticalization pathway is described in Joan Bybee, Revere Perkins, and William Pagliuca, The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect, and Modality in the Languages of the World (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 127–49.

[v] It is possible to construe this exemplar as periphrastic, but this is highly unlikely, for reasons which I will discuss in Part II of this two-part post series. If it were periphrastic, it would be rendered something like: “My name is written in the heavenlies in the book of the Highest by the finger of God . . .”