On a community blog post, there was a question about how to find all instances of imperatival participles in the book of Hebrews. Learning to search for exhortations and commands is great, but I was concerned at another level, because students of Greek need to understand that the imperatival participle is a disputed category. Apart from the cases where the participle is simply circumstantial (as in Heb 13:7 below) but wrongly identified as “imperatival,” I think the other purported instances of imperatival participles are better explained as dependent on a preceding command form (hortatory subjunctive or imperative etc.) or as involving an implied imperatival form of εἰμί.

To begin my brief discussion, please forgive me for quoting myself where I provide a brief discussion in my recently published Koine Greek Grammar (KGG, p. 351).

“b. Imperatival. A questionable category of the participle is the imperatival use (see Wallace 650-51). Here it is thought that the participle may be used by itself in the place of a command form in the context where a command form would be expected. Robertson (1133-34) rightly says, “In general it may be said that no participle should be explained in this way that can properly be connected with a finite verb.” However, good examples are lacking that would justify the creation of such a category of usage. Better ways to understand possible instances of such kind of participle are that it frames (pre-nuclear) or explicates (post-nuclear) a nearby main verb or is involved with implied forms of εἰμί for rhetorical effect (brevity or softening the force) in context.”

To locate purported instances of imperatival participles in Hebrews, I went to the Cascade Database inside of Logos Bible Software and searched for “Participle with imperatival force.” Here I identified two purported instances, which illustrate my concern with the category and our need to double-check or think carefully about any database’s “tagging” or parsing of words for us. We need to be careful about accepting also their “categories.”

The first example is in Heb 13:5a. Below is the Greek text ––the first participle underlined is the one in question. I have also supplied the NASB95 translation.

Heb 13:5 Ἀφιλάργυρος ὁ τρόπος, ἀρκούμενοι τοῖς παροῦσιν.

Heb 13:5 Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have;

We can see that the NASB95 shows another way to understand the so-identified “imperatival participle”–– syntactically the participle is translated simply as a circumstantial dependent participle working with an implied verb of being, a command, which is implied from the predicate adjective construction: Ἀφιλάργυρος ὁ τρόπος “[Let] the character [be] free of the love of money.” With this understanding, then, the participle that follows “being content” would be post-nuclear in position (i.e., it follows the main verb), which has the discourse function of “explication” (see KGG, ch. 17) and here explicates this admonition by providing the means “[by] being content with your pay.” What the author is saying is that one way, perhaps the foremost or a very important way that the love of money manifests itself is in “discontentment” with what one has.

I think what throws people off in this instance and others is that the circumstantial participle is masculine plural nominative, which is appended to a verbless clause that assumes a third singular imperative verb. Something identical occurs in Rom 12:9ff. In such cases as these, another option is to consider that audiences are expected to continue supplying the implied verb “Let … be,” which is an imperative form of the verb of being εἰμί, which is readily implied in the predicate adjective construction. Such a syntactical situation represents communicative efficiency and it is very easy for listeners to follow along. In fact, such brevity corresponds with the use of asyndeton (lack of connecting conjunctions) in Hebrews 13 for focus on the presentation of exhortations, not the inherent logical connections between them, which conjunctions would mark. So, here in Heb 13:5a (and other similar places), we might readily understand that we have an implied command form of the verb εἰμί (“let be…”) that forms a periphrastic participle construction.

The second participle occurs in Heb 13:7. The Greek and English NASB95 are provided, and the so-identified imperatival participle and its translation are underlined.

Heb 13:7 Μνημονεύετε τῶν ἡγουμένων ὑμῶν, οἵτινες ἐλάλησαν ὑμῖν τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ, ὧν ἀναθεωροῦντες τὴν ἔκβασιν τῆς ἀναστροφῆς μιμεῖσθε τὴν πίστιν.

Heb 13:7 Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.

One can readily see here that we simply have a pre-nuclear (i.e. “placed” before the main verb) circumstantial participle; such pre-nuclear circumstantial participles can function in three ways: to introduce a segue or transition, to provide an important framework, or to describe a logically necessary procedure for the main verb (KGG, ch.17). Here the main verb is the command “imitate their faith!”  Given these three functions, it would appear that the participle “considering…” is functioning both as an important framework and as a logical precursor to the action of the main verb to imitate: one must know what one imitates!

So, the bottom line is this: be careful about accepting uncritically “categories” of Greek grammar, especially where the history of the discussion shows debate. In such cases, we need to roll up our sleeves and keep thinking about what linguistic constructions and processes would have allowed the original audiences to make sense of the observed structures as easily as possible and in line with typical and more standard features of the language. In this case, the two standard features are 1) implied verbs, which are quite common; and 2) the understanding that participles are not main verbs, but rather serve to provide “extra” information in relation to main verbs.