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The Myth about the Meaning of First Class Conditions in Greek

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"Since your right eye offends you, pluck it out"?

Not "Since"

Several years ago a student at a Christian college in a major mid-western city was reading the Sermon on the Mount. This pious young man came across Matt 5:29 (“if your right eye offends you, pluck it out”). His understanding of Greek was that because this was a first class condition, it meant since. And, obedient to Scripture, he proceeded to gouge his eye with a screwdriver! The young man survived the attack, but lost his eye.1

This crude story illustrates in a dramatic way the seriousness of knowing well the biblical languages. One of the most popular errors preached in our pulpits today starts out something like this: "In Greek, this is a first class condition. It really needs to be translated 'since.'" It is probably no exaggeration to say that countless thousands of preachers have opened with a line like that when expounding on some passage. Every year in first year Greek, when I ask whether the students had heard such a line from the pulpit, I get an almost universally positive response. The few who had not were almost always newer believers.

The motivation, in part, for such a view is simply that in several passages it is self-evident that the author believes the argument that he is making when he states it with the first class condition. Thus, for example, in 1 Cor 15:44 Paul declares "If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual [body]" [εἰ ἔστιν σῶμα ψυχικόν, ἔστιν καὶ πνευματικόν]. It is obvious that Paul believes in the existence of a physical body. Hence, many are prompted to translate this conditional particle as "since."

Or take 1 Thess 4:14 as an example: "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with him those who are asleep through Jesus." Again, it is self-evident that Paul believes the protasis of the condition to be true. So why not translate it "since" as the NRSV does? The NIV here is even stronger: "We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him." First John 4:11 also seems to fit this: "Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another." Who would dispute John's belief that God has loved us? Again the NRSV reads "since" as does the NIV. Cf. also the NIV in the following texts: 2 Cor 5:3; Gal 4:7; 5:25; Eph 4:21 ("surely"); Col 2:20; 3:1; 1 Pet 1:17; 2:3; 1 John 4:11. We will soon suggest that every one of these passages has been overtranslated.

On the one hand, it is an overly-facile and naive assumption that first class conditions mean "since."2 Further, such a translation will wreak havoc with numerous passages. Note some of the following absurdities (which Prof. C. F. D. Moule would call "howlers"), if the first class condition were translated "since":

Matt 12:27 Since I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out?

Matt 17:4 Lord, it is good for us to be here. Since you wish, I will make three tents here . . .

Matt 26:39 My Father, since it is possible, let this cup pass from me . . .

Luke 11:18 Since Satan is also divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?

Luke 22:42 Father, since you are willing, remove this cup from me . . .

John 10:37 Since I am not doing the works of my Father, do not believe me . . .

Acts 25:11 Now since I am wrong and have committed a deed worthy of death, I am not refusing to die . . .

Rom 4:2 For since Abraham was justified by works, he has a basis for boasting . . .

Rom 4:14 For since those who follow the law are heirs, faith is canceled out and the promise is voided

1 Cor 7:9 But since they are not exercising self-control, they should get married.

1 Cor 8:13 Since food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat . . .

1 Cor 9:17 For since I do this willingly, I have a reward; but since I do it unwillingly, I have been entrusted with a stewardship

1 Cor 11:6 For since a woman will not veil herself, she should cut off her hair . . .

1 Cor 15:13 Now since there is no resurrection from the dead, neither has Christ been raised

1 Cor 15:19 Since in this life we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most miserable

1 Cor 15:32 Since the dead are not raised, "let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die."

Gal 2:21 For since justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Gal 3:18 For since the inheritance is from the law, it is no longer from the promise.

Gal 5:11 Now brothers, since I am still preaching circumcision, why am still being persecuted?

Heb 9:13 For since the blood of goats and bulls . . . sanctifies those who have been defiled

Heb 12:8 Since you are without the discipline which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not sons

Jas 2:11 Now since you do not commit adultery, but since you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

I have supplied several verses to show that this is not an isolated phenomenon. To see the first class condition as meaning "since" is saying too much. For one thing, this view assumes a direct correspondence between language and reality, to the effect that the indicative mood is the mood of fact. For another, this view is demonstrably false for conditional statements: in apparently only 37% of the instances, according to J. L. Boyer, is there a correspondence to reality (to the effect that the condition could be translated since).

Not Simple

So much for the "since" view. But the pendulum has swung too far in another direction. Because of the compelling evidence that the first class condition does not always correspond to reality, some scholars have assumed that it is just a simple condition. This view goes back to a classical scholar, W. W. Goodwin: “When the protasis simply states a particular supposition, implying nothing as to the fulfillment of the condition, it has the indicative with εἰ.”3 The first class condition, in this view, is sometimes called the “simple condition,” “condition of logical connection,” or “neutral condition.” One might call this the “undefined condition” in that nothing can be said about the reality of the supposition.

But this view says too little. At bottom, it assumes a point of meaning for a syntactical structure, ignores the mood used (the indicative means something),4 and makes no distinction between the various conditions.5 All conditions can be said to make a logical connection between the two halves (e.g., the third class condition in Mark 8:3--ἐὰν ἀπολύσω αὐτοὺς νήστεις εἰς οἶκον αὐτῶν, ἐκλυθήσονται ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ [“If I send them to their homes starving, they will faint on the way”]). This is the nature of conditions in general, not just the first class condition. The question is not how little the first class condition says, but how much. What are its distinctives?6

Assumed True for the Sake of Argument

The force of the indicative mood, when properly understood, lends itself to the notion of presentation of reality. In the first class condition the conditional particle turns such a presentation into a supposition. This does not mean that the condition is true or means since! But it does mean that as far as the portrayal is concerned, the point of the argument is based on the assumption of reality.

Several examples will be provided to demonstrate this point. But three points need to be added.

First, even in places where the argument is apparently believed by the speaker, the particle εἰ should not be translated since. Greek had several words for since, and the NT writers were not opposed to using them (e.g., ἐπεί, ἐπειδή). There is great rhetorical power in if. To translate εἰ as since is to turn an invitation to dialogue into a lecture.7 Often the idea seems to be an encouragement to respond, in which the author attempts to get his audience to come to the conclusion of the apodosis (since they already agree with him on the protasis). It thus functions as a tool of persuasion. Note some of the illustrations below that demonstrate this point.8

Second, how can we tell whether a speaker would actually affirm the truth of the protasis? Context, of course, is the key, but a good rule of thumb is to note the apodosis: Does the logic cohere if both protasis and apodosis are true? Often when a question is asked in the apodosis, the author does not embrace the truth of the protasis. These are only simple guidelines. Where in doubt, check the broader context.

Third, not infrequently conditional sentences are used rhetorically in a way that goes beyond the surface structure. Hence, on one level the structure might indicate one thing, but on another level, an entirely different meaning is in view. For example, suppose a mother says to her child, “If you put your hand in the fire, you’ll get burned.” We could analyze the condition on a structural or logical level. These ought not to be ignored. But the pragmatic meaning of the statement is, “Don’t put your hand in the fire!” It is, in effect, a polite command, couched in indirect language.

Mt 12:27-28 εἰ ἐγὼ ἐν Βεελζεβοὺλ ἐκβάλλω τὰ δαιμόνια, οἱ υἱοὶ ὑμῶν ἐν τίνι ἐκβάλλουσιν; . . . 28 εἰ δὲ ἐν πνεύματι θεοῦ ἐγὼ ἐκβάλλω τὰ δαιμόνια, ἄρα ἔφθασεν ἐφ ᾿ ὑμᾶς ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ.

If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? . . . (28) But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

We have already seen that the particle in v 27 cannot be translated since. But leaving it as a mere simple condition is not saying enough. The force is “If--and let’s assume that it’s true for the sake of argument--I cast out demons by Beelzebul, then by whom do your sons cast them out? . . . But if--assuming on the other hand that this is true--I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” This yields satisfactory results for both halves.

Matt 5:30 εἰ ἡ δεξιά σου χεὶρ σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔκκοψον αὐτὴν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ·

If your right hand offends you, cut it off and throw it from you!

Jesus often put forth a number of challenges to current Jewish orthodoxy, such as that appendages and external things are what defile a person. Reading the text in light of that motif yields the following force: “If--and let us assume that this is true for argument’s sake--your right hand offends you, then cut it off and throw it from you!” The following line only enforces this interpretation (“For it is better for you that one of your members should perish than that your whole body should be cast into hell”). Jesus thus brings the Pharisees’ view to its logical conclusion. It is as if he said, “If you really believe that your anatomy is the root of sin, then start hacking off some body parts! After all, wouldn’t it be better to be called ‘Lefty’ in heaven than to fry in hell as a whole person?”

The condition thus has a provocative power seen in this light. Just the opposite of Jesus’ affirming that appendages cause sin (as many have assumed, since a first class condition is used here), he is getting the audience to sift through the inconsistency of their own position. It is not the hands and eyes that cause one to sin, but the heart.

Luke 4:3 εἶπεν δέ αὐτῷ ὁ διάβολος· εἰ υἱὸς εἶ τοῦ θεοῦ, εἰπὲ τῷ λίθῳ τούτῳ ἵνα γένηται ἄρτος.

The devil said to him, “If you are God’s Son, tell this stone to become bread.”

The force of this is “If--and let us assume that it’s true for the sake of argument--you are God’s Son, tell this stone to become bread.” Apparently, the devil was from Missouri (the “Show Me” state)!

1 Thess 4:14 εἰ γὰρ πιστεύομεν ὅτι ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀπέθανεν καὶ ἀνέστη, οὕτως καὶ ὁ θεὸς τοὺς κοιμηθέντας διὰ τοῦ ᾿Ιησοῦ ἄξει σὺν αὐτῷ.

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with him those who are asleep through Jesus.

Many modern translations render the particle since. Although it is certainly true that Paul embraced this as true, to translate it as since keeps the audience at an arm’s length. The sentence becomes a lecture rather than a dialogue. By translating it if, the audience is drawn into the argument of the apodosis. Their response would be something like, “If we believe that Jesus died and rose again? Of course we believe that! You mean that this indicates that the dead in Christ will not miss out on the rapture?” In such instances it is not the protasis that is in doubt, but the apodosis. (Further, to say that the connection is merely logical hardly does such texts justice.) Not infrequently in the NT, the speaker draws his audience to just such a connection, basing his argument on what both speaker and audience already embrace as true. These instances are not without exegetical significance. Cf., e.g., Rom 3:29, 30; 5:17; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 3:29; 4:7; 2 Tim 2:11; Phlm 17; Heb 2:2-3; 1 Pet 1:17; 2:2-3; 2 Pet 2:4-9; 1 John 4:11; Rev 13:9; 20:15.

Rom 8:9 ὑμεῖς δὲ οὐκ ἐστὲ ἐν σαρκὶ ἀλλὰ ἐν πνεύματι, εἴπερ πνεῦμα θεοῦ οἰκεῖ ἐν ὑμῖν.

But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.

Here the conditional particle is a spin-off of εἰ, strengthening the ascensive force. This looks very much like 1 Thess 4:14--i.e., it too seems to be a “responsive” condition. The audience would most likely respond along these lines: “If the Spirit of God dwells in us? Of course he does! And this means that we are not in the flesh but in the Spirit? Remarkable!”

In conclusion, understanding first class conditions is crucial if one is to handle the Word of God properly in an expository ministry. Sometimes our evangelical zeal is not according to knowledge. The danger of this naiveté is immense on both a behavioral and theological level.

1 This essay is, in part, an excerpt from the salient points in my book, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 679-712 passim.

2Grammarians such as Gildersleeve, Roberts, Robertson, BDF, etc., have looked at conditions in light of the mood used and have argued that the indicative mood in first class conditions is significant. But their language has often been misunderstood: “assumption of truth” has been interpreted to mean “truth.”

3Goodwin-Gulick, Greek Grammar, 294 (§1400).

4This approach agrees that the indicative assumes the untruth of a proposition in the second class condition (J. L. Boyer, “Second Class Conditions in New Testament Greek,” GTJ 3 (1982) 82: “they enjoy more agreement on the part of the grammarians than the other types and are less problem [sic] for the exegete”). To argue that the indicative mood is a key indicator of meaning in one condition but not in the other argues against the validity of the overall scheme.

5Boyer argues that the logical connection view fits “every one of the 300 NT examples and are equally true of every one of them” (“First Class Conditions: What Do They Mean?” GTJ 2 [1981] 82). But this is a minimalist statement that could be said of all conditions--first, second, third, or fourth class.

6In Boyer’s treatment of conditions, he appeals to classical scholarship: “The classical grammarians along with the older NT scholars had the right idea” (“First Class Conditions,” 83). But this is a misleading statement, for Boyer is appealing to a particular view within classical scholarship, viz., Goodwin’s, that was itself a reaction to the standard view that went back to Gottfried Hermann. Gildersleeve took Goodwin to task for his avant garde position and rightly criticized him for ignoring the mood. Many if not most classical scholars sided with Gildersleeve against Goodwin.

7Although many translations do this in various places as we have seen, such translations miss the literary force of the conditional statement.

8This usage could be considered one of the pragmatic functions of conditions. Because of the high frequency in the NT of this responsive or persuasive protasis with first class conditions, however, we are equally justified in placing this usage here.

Related Topics: Grammar

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