Genitive Absolutes

December 30, 2008

Here’s an introduction and/or review to a grammatical construction that can be frustrating to beginning Greek students: genitive absolutes.

Genitive absolutes are an interesting solution to a problem posed by the grammar of the participle. If you remember that an adverbial participle modifies the verb and assumes the same subject, how could you use an adverbial participle that refers to someone other than that subject?

Of course you might reply, why do you have to use a participle at all? Can’t you just make two separate statements, one referring to each person? Yes, you could, but the purpose of using a participle for this purpose is to indicate the writer’s focus. Which of the two actions is primary and which secondary? By using a participle, the writer can tell the reader that this action is less prominent and the main subject and verb is his primary focus. Let’s illustrate.

θεραπευων τους ἀσθενεις ὁ μαθητης κηρυσσει το εὐαγγελιον.

Healing the sick, the disciple is preaching the gospel.

In this sentence the main point is that the disciple is preaching. Along with that, presumably as a simultaneous temporal adverbial participle, he is also healing the sick. The same person, the disciple, is doing both the preaching and the healing, but the healing is secondary to the main statement.

What if we wanted to indicate that someone else, perhaps Jesus, was doing the healing, but still keep the focus on the disciple’s preaching? We can’t just add Ἰησους to the first clause (Ἰησους θεραπευων τους ἀσθενεις ὁ μαθητης κηρυσσει το εὐαγγελιον), because participles can’t take a subject in the nominative case.

We could make this into two sentences, but then the two actions would be equal. We could also use a subordinate clause for the healing (e.g., ὁ μαθητης κηρυσσει το εὐαγγελιον ὁταν Ἰησους ἐθεραπευεν τους ἀσθενεις), but this is only one option. Greek has a way to do this with a participle. It’s done like this:

θεραπευοντος του Ἰησου τους ἀσθενεις ὁ μαθητης κηρυσσει το εὐαγγελιον.

Notice what has stayed the same and what has changed. There is still only one finite verb with the same subject (ὁ μαθητης κηρυσσει), but the participle has become a genitive (θεραπευοντος instead of θεραπευων) and a genitive case substantive has been added (του Ἰησους). This construction is called a genitive absolute. It would be translated,

While Jesus is healing the sick, the disciple is preaching the gospel.

Most genitive absolutes are temporal and most occur at the beginning of the sentence. The second most common position is at the end; genitive absolutes in the middle of a clause are unusual, but possible.

There are four elements in a genitive absolute.

  1. A substantive (usually a noun or pronoun) in genitive case
  2. An anarthrous participle in genitive case
  3. No grammatical connection with the rest of the sentence
    (This is another way of saying that the subject of the main verb is not the same as for the participle, i.e., someone different is doing the two actions.)
  4. A thought connection with the sentence
    (The actions of the participle and the main verb are related; they are not irrelevant to each other.)

There are some examples which may not have all four, but the norm is the presence of all four elements. The most common “omission” is the third, but this is often because there is an overlap of subjects.

For example, Mark 11:12, τῇ ἐπαύριον ἐξελθόντων αὐτῶν ἀπὸ Βηθανίας ἐπείνασεν (on the next day as they were leaving Bethany, he was hungry). Here αὐτῶν refers to Jesus and the Twelve. The third singular subject of ἐπείνασεν is Jesus—even though he was also included in the plural pronoun reference of αὐτῶν in the genitive absolute.

NT Examples

  • Mark 5:2, ἐξελθόντος αὐτοῦ ἐκ τοῦ πλοίου εὐθὺς ὑπήντησεν αὐτῷ ἐκ τῶν μνημείων ἄνθρωπος ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳ (as he was getting out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met him).
  • Mark 5:18, ἐμβαίνοντος αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸ πλοῖον παρεκάλει αὐτὸν ὁ δαιμονισθεὶς ἵνα μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ ᾖ (as he was embarking in the boat the demon-possessed man begged him that he might be with him).
  • John 2:3, ὑστερήσαντος οἴνου λέγει ἡ μήτηρ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ πρὸς αὐτόν· οἶνον οὐκ ἔχουσιν.
  • Acts 1:8, λήμψεσθε δύναμιν ἐπελθόντος τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος ἐφ᾿ ὑμᾶς.
  • Rom 5:6, Ἔτι γὰρ Χριστὸς ὄντων ἡμῶν ἀσθενῶν ἔτι κατὰ καιρὸν ὑπὲρ ἀσεβῶν ἀπέθανεν.
    (The word order in this sentence is tricky; the subject stands at the beginning and the main verb at the end. This shows the less common situation of a genitive absolute occurring in the middle of a sentence. The word order probably accounts for the repitition of ἔτι, which is only needed once in English.)
  • Gal 3:25, ἐλθούσης δὲ τῆς πίστεως οὐκέτι ὑπὸ παιδαγωγόν ἐσμεν.
  • Heb 2:3–4, τηλικαύτης … σωτηρίας … εἰς ἡμᾶς ἐβεβαιώθη, συνεπιμαρτυροῦντος τοῦ θεοῦ σημείοις τε καὶ τέρασιν καὶ ποικίλαις δυνάμεσιν.
  • 1 Pet 5:4, φανερωθέντος τοῦ ἀρχιποίμενος κομιεῖσθε τὸν ἀμαράντινον τῆς δόξης στέφανον.

2 responses to Genitive Absolutes

  1. This is really a very nice accounting with lots of good GNT illustrations. One minor note: I think that the genitive form of the proper noun in the proposed example, θεραπευοντος του Ἰησους τους ἀσθενεις should be Ἰησου (without the ς). I think this is one of those Hellenized proper nouns that is distinctly marked only for the nominative case.

  2. Right you are Carl (as usual!). 🙂 Since it would be more confusing to students to just do the usual revision via strike-through, I’ve just corrected it, but so that later readers will know to what you refer, here’s what I’d originally written:

    θεραπευοντος του Ἰησους τους ἀσθενεις ὁ μαθητης κηρυσσει το εὐαγγελιον.

    As Carl notes, this should have been (and now is in the main post):

    θεραπευοντος του Ἰησου τους ἀσθενεις ὁ μαθητης κηρυσσει το εὐαγγελιον.