Absolutely my last word on absolutes ... for now

Carl W. Conrad (cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu)
Mon, 20 Jan 1997 19:12:53 -0600

I think this has been a healthy discussion, even if it has left several
participants in it holding positions at variance on the matter at hand. I
think that differences I've expressed with you people who specialize, as I
do not, in NT Greek grammar, ought best to be understood as a difference of
perspective between those of you who insist upon the synchronic
understanding of grammar--a perspective that is certainly appropriate to
understanding Greek grammar of the NT and a perspective which I do in part
share--and myself who am inclined to view Greek grammar diachronically as
its morphology and syntax have developed in steady but hardly homogeneous
course continuously from Homeric texts into late antiquity, at which point
my focus arbitrarily stops. I must confess that one of my primary reasons
for objecting to use of the term "accusative absolute" with regard to those
constructions that some of you want to categorize as such is that there is
a very-clearly-defined Accusative Absolute in classical Attic grammar (the
n. acc. ptc. of an impersonal verb used to indicate circumstances much as
does an unattached genitive absolute) that isn't remotely comparable to the
NT instances which several have cited. Maybe what I'm objecting to is a
bias regarding terminology. Beyond that, however, it seems to me that this
term "absolute" is being used rather loosely to refer to
substantive-participle phrases the syntactic linkage of which to the verb
of a main clause seems weak to non-existent. I'll grant that Koine writers
of the NT, for the most part (Luke is the great exception among narrative
writers), build their sentences in a manner that is considerably looser,
considerably less carefully structured, than did Plato and Demosthenes. Add
to that the impact of Semitisms and deliberate imitations of the LXX and
the result is a language that is different for all that it really is still
the same. My inclination is to look for a link between (a) the accusative
substantive said to be in an absolute construction together with a
participle and (b) a verb that can reasonably be shown to govern that
accusative. In those instances we've discussed, I'm satisfied that I've
found the verb; others disagree. Now, on to this dative business:

At 3:50 PM -0600 1/20/97, FRED HALTOM wrote:
>Randy Leedy wrote:
>As long as we're on the "other-than-genitive absolute" topic, I'll put
>up another idea to be shot down, which is that there is such a thing
>as a dative absolute. I see a good many constructions that look for
>all the world like absolutes to me, except that they're not in the
>genitive. Since the nominative and the accusative are being shot down,
>perhaps this dative can be shot down as well. Matt 8:23--KAI EMBANTI
>that the response will be that this is not a dative absolute since
>Jesus is already in the governing clause in the dative. But my answer
>would be that the repetition of AUTWi invalidates this claim; the
>first one is unnecessary if the construction is not an absolute (cf.
>Mt. 21:23, where DIDASKONTI is a simple circumstantial ptcp modifying
>AUTWi in the governing clause).

I don't know whether the construction in Mt 8:23 quite falls under the
heading of a Semitism. I agree that either the first or the second AUTWi is
superfluous. On the other hand, I really can't believe that the fact that
the participle and pronoun in the first part are dative is purely arbitrary
and has nothing whatsoever to do with the verb HKOLOUQHSAN being one that
regularly construes with a dative. The construction is loose, the AUTWi
redundant, but wouldn't it be silly to argue that the dative case of
EMBANTI AUTWi is unrelated to the fact that the verb of the main clause is

>If this construction can be rejected on that basis as an example of
>the dative absolute, then what do we do with Matt. 5:1? Do we say that
>KAQISANTOS AUTOU is not a genitive absolute because AUTOU (separate
>word) is in the main clause? If we're going to maintain that Matt. 5:1
>is a genitive absolute, then I can't see how we'll avoid calling 8:23,
>a precise parallel other than the case, a dative absolute.

PROSHLQAN AUTWi hOI MAQHTAI AUTOU. Well, I would say that this is not very
elegant composition; much neater would be KAQISANTI DE AUTWi PROSHLQAN hOI
MAQHTAI--but I would not call that a dative absolute. I WOULD call the
existing construction in 5:1 a genitive absolute because this sort of usage
of a genitive substantive and a participle to indicate circumstances
bearing upon the event set forth in the main clause is a recurrent
syntactical pattern going back for centuries in Greek usage. That instance
of the dative is isolated and is surely not unrelated to the fact that the
main verb normally takes a dative complement.

I think that's enough on absolutes for me for a while. I hope I've made my
perspective clear but I readily understand the preference others have or
explaining these constructions in a different way.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018
cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu OR cwc@oui.com
WWW: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~cwconrad/