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Placement Is Everything: Greek Conditional Clauses

Dependent adverbial clauses are a common feature of Koine Greek, generally categorized based on the kind of content conveyed (e.g., conditional, comparative, spatial, temporal, reason/result, etc.). While many spatial and temporal adverbial clauses are evenly distributed before and after the main clause on which they depend, the same cannot be said of conditional clauses introduced by ἐὰν and εἰ. Only rarely are they found following the main clause.

So why are they not more evenly distributed?

Conditional Clause Placement and Meaning

Conditional clauses are a common feature of the Greek New Testament, but are in a class of their own based how they impact the truth-conditional status of the overall proposition. Placing the conditional clause before the main clause brings about a very different effect compared to placing after.

Conditional clauses introduce something that must be true in order for the main clause to hold true. This is a notable difference from other kinds adverbial clauses such as temporal or comparative clauses. For example, the temporal clause “when he arrived” does not affect the truth-conditional status main clause, whereas, conditional clauses like “if you obey me” always affect the truth-conditionality of the main clause. Unless the condition is met, the main clause will not hold true.

At the Beginning

This impact on truth-conditionality explains why conditional adverbial clauses nearly always occur at the beginning of the clause they modify, and only rarely at the end.

We see this in 1 John 1:9:

ἐὰν ὁμολογῶμεν τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν, πιστός ἐστιν καὶ δίκαιος ἵνα ἀφῇ ἡμῖν τὰς ἁμαρτίας καὶ καθαρίσῃ ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ πάσης ἀδικίας. (SBLGNT)

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, so that he will forgive us our* sins and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (LEB)

The condition makes clear from the outset that our confidence in forgiveness and cleansing from sin is conditioned upon confessing the sin, no big surprise here.

At the End

Only a minority of conditional clauses come at the end of the main clause. Delaying the condition that affects the truth-conditionality of the main clause brings about predictable pragmatic effects. The delayed introduction of the condition creates the sense that something has been withheld, as though what was thought to be true has a “gotcha” introduced at the last minute. Let’s take a look at some examples.

In 1 Corinthians 16:7 we see a stated desire rolled back a bit based on the inclusion of the conditional clause at the end, acknowledging that it may not come about.

οὐ θέλω γὰρ ὑμᾶς ἄρτι ἐν παρόδῳ ἰδεῖν, ἐλπίζω γὰρ χρόνον τινὰ ἐπιμεῖναι πρὸς ὑμᾶς, ἐὰν ὁ κύριος ἐπιτρέψῃ.  

For I do not want to see you now in passing, for I hope to remain some time with you, if the Lord allows it.

In 1 John 2:3 the writer takes something that most readers would assume to be true, then adds a conditional caveat at the end as a reminder not to take things for granted. Lip-service is not enough to say we have come to know God. Placing this truth-conditional element at the end has the predictable, pragmatic effect of restricting a statement that we thought was true.

Καὶ ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐγνώκαμεν αὐτόν, ἐὰν τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ τηρῶμεν.

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.

The same kind of rhetorical “gotcha” effect is found in Romans 8:17. Although the conditional particle εἴπερ is a compound and not frequently found in the NT, it still achieves a similar pragmatic effect.

αὐτὸ τὸ πνεῦμα συμμαρτυρεῖ τῷ πνεύματι ἡμῶν ὅτι ἐσμὲν τέκνα θεοῦ. 17 εἰ δὲ τέκνα, καὶ κληρονόμοι· κληρονόμοι μὲν θεοῦ, συγκληρονόμοι δὲ Χριστοῦ, εἴπερ συμπάσχομεν ἵνα καὶ συνδοξασθῶμεν.

The Spirit himself confirms to our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, also heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer together with him so that we may also be glorified together with him.

Slow Down

Not all adverbial clauses are created equally; some have quirks that limit their distribution when compared to spatial or temporal clauses. Keep in mind that there are no rules about where conditional clauses must occur. Instead, there are principles that help us understand why some uses bring about certain effects while others do not.

So next time you see a conditional clause, slow down and consider the implications of its placement within the clause.

The full set of Discourse Commentaries, co-authored by Steve Runge and Josh Westbury, is available on Logos.

Written by
Steve Runge

Steve Runge has served as a Scholar-in-Residence at Faithlife since completing his Doctor of Literature degree in biblical languages at Stellenbosch University in South Africa in 2006. He specializes in developing original language resources for pastors and students to help them more confidently study and teach the Bible.

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Written by Steve Runge