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“May,” “Might,” and Adverbial Participles (Monday with Mounce 125)

Categories Mondays with Mounce
Monday with MounceI came across Matt 2:8, and it highlights two of the things I have talked about in the past. (Warning: this is a slightly techie Greek blog.)

The first is the force of an aorist adverbial participle followed by an imperative. Herod says, “Go (πορευθέντες) and search diligently (ἐξετάσατε) for the child; and when you have found him, report back (ἀπαγγείλατε) to me, so that (ὅπως) I also may go and worship (προσκυνήσω) him.”

The structure of the adverbial participle πορευθέντες followed by the imperative ἐξετάσατε is similar to the construction of the Great Commission: “go and make disciples” (πορευθέντες … μαθητεύσατε). It has sometimes been argues that “go” doesn’t carry an imperatival force. The grammatical answer (see Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, page 645) is that the participle does pick up some of the force of the imperative and so can be translated imperatively. However, as I have stated elsewhere, the imperative contains the primary thrust and the participle is secondary; in other words, the main thrust of the Great Commission is to make disciples.

However, it is interesting in this verse that the participle contains just about the same thrust as the imperative. Herod is certainly emphasizing that the wise men must both “go” and “search diligently” as well as “report back.” Ah, the power of context. I am always being amazed that while grammar does give us basic rules, we have to be careful at not thinking of grammar as some monolithic entity without nuance. Language is nuance, and the context always shapes and guides the specific rules of grammar.

The other thing I noticed in this verse is the use of “may.” Earlier I was arguing that using “might” in the translation of a subjunctive in a purpose clause is no longer the best default choice since “might” depicts possibility. If we translated 1 John 1:9 with “might,” we have dangerously incorrect theology: “If we confess  our sins, he is faithful and just and might forgive (ἀφῇ) us our sins and might cleanse (καθαρίσῃ) us from all unrighteousness.” My argument was to use “will” or some such word that removes any sense of contingency from the apodosis; the only question is whether we will confess.

In reflecting on the subjunctive in Mat 2:8, you can see, however, that “may” does not contain any sense of contingency, just purpose. So I guess that is where English is now on this issue. Herod was lying, but his intent was to convey the sense that they must go, they must find, and they must report back, and the purpose of his statement was a (deceitful) desire to worship. So maybe “may” in certain contexts may be a good default translation for translating the subjunctive.

But as always, context is king. Language is nuanced. We must be careful to hear what we are saying.

MouncewWilliam D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at  Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIVLearn more and visit Bill's other blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at

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