Discourse Matters: Backgrounding background information (3 Macc 1:7)

by Kris (with a "K") Sometimes when we talk, we realize that in order to make our point stick, or in order to really come across clearly, it would be best if we prefaced the main thought with some preliminary remarks. Which is exactly what I’m doing now.

What I really want to talk about is one of the ways that Greek speakers could indicate that some material is background information when compared to mainline comments (i.e. stuff that’s more central to the story or argument). But I can’t just go in and talk about these things until I’ve primed your brain to start thinking about ideas like conversation, cogency, prioritizing. Well… I could ignore these helpful preparatory remarks, but then that would make your work of reading and understanding what I’m trying to communicate much more difficult. It’s possible that this could leave you saying—“Man, he’s really smart; and, boy, am I dumb”—when really, it’s just me being a poor communicator.

With that said, let’s take a look at 3 Macc 1.9. This verse will give us a good idea of how Greek writers could help their readers tune in on what information is more supplementary in nature, and which information is more central to the main storyline.

9 διακομισθεὶς δὲ εἰς Ιεροσόλυμα καὶ θύσας τῷ μεγίστῳ θεῷ καὶ χάριτας ἀποδοὺς καὶ τῶν ἑξῆς τι τῷ τόπῳ ποιήσας καὶ δὴ παραγενόμενος εἰς τὸν τόπον καὶ τῇ σπουδαιότητι καὶ εὐπρεπείᾳ καταπλαγείς, 10 θαυμάσας δὲ καὶ τὴν τοῦ ἱεροῦ εὐταξίαν ἐνεθυμήθη βουλεύσασθαι εἰς τὸν ναὸν εἰσελθεῖν. (Septuaginta: With morphology. (1979). (electronic ed., 3 Mac 1:9–10). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft)

9 And upon CROSSING over to Jerusalem and SACRIFICING to the trustworthy God and RENDERING thank offerings and DOING what was befitting for the holy place and then APPEARING at the holy place, and BEING AMAZED by its excellence and piety. 10 And also MARVELING at the good arrangement of the temple, IT WAS in his head TO DECIDE TO ENTER into the temple.

There are 10 different activities the author attributes to Antiochus III as performing (the main character at this point). He’s just decided to come visit the temple in Jerusalem, and—as the verse recounts—is enamored with its beauty and, so, wants to enter into it. Here are the 10 activities:

  1. crossing
  2. sacrificing
  3. rendering
  4. doing
  5. appearing
  6. being amazed
  7. marveling
  8. considering
  9. deciding
  10. entering

As you can see, that’s a lot of activity to unpack and relate to a reader. But what does the author do if there’s really only one activity that s/he really wants to drive home from this recounting? How can that one piece of the story be made to stand out from the rest?

In Greek (much like in English), there was one go-to mechanism for downplaying some elements of a sentence so that other parts might be elevated (or prioritized). We’ll call this method of downplaying a particular verbal activity “backgrounding.”

There's several different methods a Greek writer could opt for to background an activity, but one of the most common is when 1) an author represents the verbal activity using a participle instead of a finite verb, and 2) places this participial information in front of the finite verb (matrix clause). Take a look at 3 Macc 1:9 again, but this time, I’ll change all of the participles in the English translation to a finite verb (we'll leave the two infinitives as they are). The effect will be clear.

9 And he CROSSED over to Jerusalem and he SACRIFICED to the trustworthy God and RENDERED thank offerings and he DID what was befitting for the holy place and then he APPEARED at the holy place, and he was AMAZED by its excellence and piety. 10 And he MARVELED at the good arrangement of the temple, IT WAS in his thought TO DECIDE TO ENTER into the temple.

Said this way, every verbal activity seems just like another piece of information on the table. There is no sense of priority. It is simply a string of information that moves the story along. One fact after another. Every verbal activity is on par with the others.

But when 7 out of the 10 activities are turned into participles instead of finite verbs, one gets the sense that participially encoded activities are presented as background information—the type that supports or prefaces some key piece of the story that remains untold.

Looks who's in focus (main characters), and who's grayed (supporting roles).

The effect is that when you finally come upon the finite verb—"it was in his thought to..."—the suspense is relieved as you arrive at a piece of the story no longer frames the main character's activity. There's no more information piling on the prior. No more holding your breath. There is a sense of relief and pause, as the main comment is made in light of all that has preceded.

In 3 Maccabees, it is the fact that Antiochus III had the audacity to trespass upon sacred space that drove the author to describe his journey to Jerusalem in the first place. What’s more, the rest of the story supports the importance of Antiochus' thought to enter the temple over and against the other verbal activities mentioned in 1:9 and 10. In other words, the rest of the story isn't concerned with his journey, or the thank offering or amazement of Antiochus. It's the fact that he wanted to enter the temple. This is the relevant (thematic) material in 1:9–10. And the readers of 3 Maccabees are more inclined to pick up on this distinction between background and foreground material because the author has chosen a standard means of backgrounding background information.

Further reading: Levinsohn, S (2011). "Discourse Features of New Testament Greek", pp. 171–216.

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