Re: Middle/Passive in Ro 9:22

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Sat May 02 1998 - 07:46:41 EDT

At 10:24 PM -0500 5/1/98, Stephen C. Carlson wrote:
>I think that asking whether this participle is middle or passive may
>be forcing the text to be more precise than Paul intended. Since this
>verse comes up regularly, I enclose my message from eleven months ago:
>Likewise in Rm9:22, the present state is that the vessels are now fit
>for destruction, and the point is that God is enduring with much patience
>the vessels that are in that present state. How the vessels got into
>that state is immaterial to the grammar of the passage. We can try to
>determine what Paul probably thought about that issue from a thorough
>understanding of the context in specific and Paul's theology in general
>(my views are, in fact, contrary to the apparent consensus on this list),
>but I think we need to recognize that avoiding the active voice obscures
>or de-emphasizes, for whatever reason, the actual agent of the verb.

Thanks for re-sending this, Stephen. Despite the fact that I think this
particular participle is passive, you make a very good point about the
de-emphasis of the actual agent. I find this particularly significant at
this time because I'm re-thinking (again?!) my understanding of the
morphology of Greek voice (if I can attain the consistency I hope for, I'll
revise and reissue my Observations on Voice of a year ago). One of the
things I'm trying to make sense of transitivity (ergativity?) and
intransitivity; another is the hint in Chantraine that the "third aorist"
in -H- was (originally) essentially intransitive in meaning while the
cognate -QH- aorist was (originally) essentially reflexive. Where this
points, it seems to me, is toward clarification of a surmise that
morphological (and syntactic?) expression of the passive sense develops out
of the reflexive verbal morphology which did not originally have a passive
sense but was always potentially capable of expressing it. It would
certainly appear that in terms of its verb morphology ancient Greek (and
indeed proto-Indo-European) had a fundamental polarity of active vs.
reflexive (as opposed to what English-speakers seem to think: that the
fundamental polarity is active vs. passive.

Your note now rings a bell loudly in my (inner, non-physical) ear: the real
polarity is perhaps not even between active and reflexive but rather
between forms that mark the subject of action and forms that de-emphasize
the subject as agent. What's neat about this, I'm thinking, is that it
seems to imply that the same ambivalence present in the -MAI/-SAI/-TAI KTL
morphology of the present, future and perfect systems (and, in earlier
Greek, in the aorist system as well) is present in the
historically-emergent -QH/QE- morphology of the aorist and future. That is
to say: the grammatical dichotomy of "middle deponents" and "passive
deponents" is strictly semantic--it is a way of coping with the identical
morphology of forms such as BOULETAI/HBOULHQH and BALLETAI/EBLHQH. Or, to
rephrase that, it means that JUST AS we indicate the -MAI/-SAI/-TAI forms
by the ambivalent term "middle-passive," SO ALSO we should indicate the
-QH/QE- forms with that ambivalent term as "middle-passive." I think that
IF we did (were to do?) this when we teach ancient Greek voice morphology,
and IF (at the same time) we were to make more of an effort to explain the
relationship between reflexive and passive MEANINGS, we might be able to
help students who are learning ancient Greek to avoid the confusion--the
befuddlement--that comes into their heads when we try to tell them (a) that
middle and passive have the same morphology in the present, imperfect,
perfect, and pluperfect, but are distinguished in the aorist and future,
and then tell them also (b) that "middle deponents" and "passive deponents"
have the same morphology in the aorist and future. But then, then big
hurdle is always explaining "middle" voice to students who think that the
primary opposition is between "active" and "passive."

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