Re: Greek conditionals

From: Kimmo Huovila (
Date: Sat Apr 01 2000 - 13:59:40 EST

Thank you, Harold and Charles, for your replies. I like this list for
offering an opportunity to get feedback.

"Harold R. Holmyard III" wrote:
> Dear Kimmo,
> I am not an expert in Greek grammar. When I come across a conditional that
> is troublesome for me, I go to grammar books, see which classification it
> falls into, think about the context, and come to an understanding of what
> the writer implied by the words.
> What I understand the first class conditional to imply is that the grammar
> of the sentence assumes a condition to be true, regardless of whether or
> not it is in fact true. In both the conditions in Matt 12:27-28, Jesus uses
> "if" to suppose that a condition is true. Whether it is actually true or
> not is a matter of history and reality, not a matter of grammar.

I see that we approach the question from a different point of view. I
agree with you that in exegesis the whole context has to be taken into
account when trying to determine the truth of a proposition. But here my
concern is not really related to the exegesis of any particular passage,
but rather Greek grammar in itself. In other words, what does this form
grammaticalize, as opposed to how it is used in some context(s).

It is true that language does not always correspond to reality. Language
can even be used to lie and deceive. Yet, if a linguistic form
grammaticalizes something (in a specific context), then that something
is part of the meaning in that context. Though grammar may assume the
condition to be true, reality does not have to match to that linguistic
expression. Yet, one would hardly expect, in a coherent discourse,
opposite views to be expressed as truth.


> The Greek consists of a specific form of "if" (ean), and an aorist
> subjunctive verb ("you confess"). This combination is called a third class
> conditional. In A New Short Grammar of the Greek New Testament, by A. T.
> Robertson and W. Hersey Davis, the authors describe the third class
> conditional construction as follows:
> 3rd class: undetermined with prospect of determination: eav with the
> subjunctive in the condition, usually future or present indicative in the
> conclusion. This condition states the condition as a matter of doubt, but
> with some expectation of realization. . . . Hence the subjunctive is the
> mode of doubt used. . . It is undetermined and so does not use the
> indicative mode.
> Thus this would be the wrong conditional to use if one was stating a
> condition that was assumed to be true. So "since" would not be a correct
> translation of the word translated "if."

I doubt that the 3rd class condition would grammaticalize doubt as to
fulfillment, because there are so many 3rd class conditions in cases
where one would presume that the author did not doubt what the
truthfulness of the protasis was (Rom. 2:25-6, 9:27, 14:8). But perhaps
Robertson and Davis were rather trying to say that the condition leaves
it open whether the condition is fulfilled or not (instead of saying
that the speaker presents it as unsure). To me it seems that often the
3rd class conditional are used in generic cases (I am not saying that
always). It makes excellent sense in passages like 1 John 1:9 - whenever
we confess....

> Kimmo, what I trying to show is that Paul in Romans 10:9 uses a third class
> conditional because he does not assume that the person confesses. The
> syntax of the third class conditional implies that the condition is a
> matter of doubt. So Paul implies that there is a degree of uncertainty as
> to whether the person will confess. If Paul had used a first class
> conditional, the sentence would have assumed that the person would confess.
> Jesus in Matt 12:27 uses a first class conditional to assert the condition
> as if it were true. He does not believe that it is true, but he asserts the
> condition as if there were no doubt about it.

This is precisely the understanding of the 1st class conditions I am not
sure about. wrote:

> I think the major semantical difference between the 1st and 3rd class
> condition is that the 1st class condition tends to occur more in
> argumentative discourse. Here the "assumption for the sake of argument" is
> important because you are trying to draw the audience/opponent into the
> discussion. Therefore you can assume your opponents view for the sake of
> argument in order to show its fallacy. Grice's conversational maxims might be
> involved here because your trying to be both relevant and polite. Note that
> Matt 12:27ff and 1 Cor 15:12-18 are argumentative discourse and involve the
> 1st class condition.
> Third class conditions tend to occur in didactic discourse. The "assumption
> for the sake of argument" nuance is unnecessary because you are not arguing a
> position, but simply trying to demonstrate valid logic. Note that John 13-16
> and 1 John are didactic discourses and have preponderance of 3rd class
> conditionals.
> There is overlap between the conditionals. In the Synoptics Matthew may have
> a 1st class conditional while the parallel in Mark may be 3rd class.
> Charles Powell
> 972-231-4166

Here your observations concern the distribution of conditionals in
different text types, and not the semantics of the conditionals per se.
Your observation is interesting, and could be explained along the lines
you suggested. However, that does, in my opinion, very little to argue
for the correctness of this view on the conditionals. Other explanations
could explain that observation quite as well.

I understand the relevance of pragmatic principles of politeness and
relevance. Perhaps we could dilute the prevalent view on 1st class
conditionals to 'presenting the protasis as capable of fulfillment' and
argue that because of pragmatic principles Jesus (or Matthew; I do not
wish to enter into discussion of what language Jesus spoke etc.) wanted
to present both alternatives as possible. Certainly the point of view
would be quite different if either of these 1st class conditionals were
changed into a second class conditional.

It may be possible to understand this one example as not refuting the
prevalent view on 1st class conditionals (I can imagine this especially
if one considers a nice rhetorical pause between the alternatives to
highlight a mental change of point of view). However, if it is common to
express the opposite protases using 1st class, that certainly would
undermine this view of 1st class conditionals. (I have not made any
statistical counts on conditionals, and I do not claim to have
researched the matter thoroughly.)

What proof do we have for this common point of view? I wonder if this
could be a grammatical bubble that survives just because it is not
questioned. I basically presented this question to get some feedback if
I have really missed something essential, or to get some confirmation
for my doubts about this view on conditionals.

Does anyone know of scholarly articles (rather from a linguistic point
of view, not exegetical)?

I heartily welcome any further arguments, for or against the traditional


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