Grace Theological Journal 3.1 (1982) 81-88.
[Copyright © 1982 Grace Theological Seminary; cited with permission;
digitally prepared for use at
SECOND CLASS CONDITIONS IN
NEW TESTAMENT GREEK
JAMES L. BOYER
Less frequent than other types of conditional sentences, second
class conditions are also more specialized in their meaning and more
restricted in their grammatical format. In these alone the verb tenses
used provide the formal key to their identification. The major exegeti-
cal question, and the only serious divergence on the part of gram-
marians, centers around these tenses.. This study concludes that the
tenses used were determined by normal aspectual considerations, not
by arbitrary rule of grammar.
* * *
SECOND class conditional sentences occur less frequently than
other types in the NT; there are only 47 examples.1 Called by some
"Contrary to Fact" or "Unreal",2 by others "Determined as Unful-
filled,") they enjoy more agreement on the part of the grammarians
than the other types and are less problem for the exegete.
1 As compared with more than 300 first class and about 250 third class. There are
no complete fourth class conditions in the NT. A listing of these 47 examples may be
had by combining the lists given in notes 16-19, plus the two exceptions listed in the
2 So commonly in the grammars of classical Greek: W. W. Goodwin, Greek
Grammar, rev. by. C. B. Gulick (Boston: Ginn, 1930) 296, Hadley and Allen, Greek
Grammar (New York: D. Appleton, 1890) 283, Adolph Kaegi, A Short Grammar
Classical Greek (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1914) 143, and H. W. Smyth, A Greek Grammar
(New York: American Book Co., 1916) 342. Among NT Greek grammars also: F. Blass
and A. DeBrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian
Literature, trans. and rev. by Robert Funk (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961) 182,
Dana and J. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (
Eerdmans, 1973) B223, H. P. V. Nunn, A Short Syntax of New Testament Greek (
of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963) 91.
3 J. H. Moulton, An Introduction to the Study of New Testament Greek (New
New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934) 1012,
W. D. Chamberlain, An Exegetical Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1941) 195.
82 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
IDENTIFICATION OF THE TYPE
Second class conditions are more formally structured than either
of the other types. Both first and third class show a characteristic
structure only in the protasis, but the second class shows a distinctive
pattern in both the protasis and apodosis; indeed, it is the apodosis
which clearly identifies it.
The protasis uses the conditional conjunction ei] with the verb in
the indicative mood. In this it is like the first class. But the second class
uses only past tenses,4 whereas the first class may use any tense. Thus,
theoretically, there can be ambiguity in the form of the protasis, but in
few cases does this cause confusion of identification.5
The apodosis of second class conditions also uses a past tense of
the indicative, usually6 with a@n in almost7 every instance, the apodosis
is a simple statement of a non-fact; what would be or would have been
but was not. This contrasts strongly with the great variety of apodosis
forms occurring in the first and third classes.
The negative in the protasis is almost always mh<, with only two
instances of ou]k.8 This gives many examples of ei] mh< coming together
where mh< is simply the negation of the clause. There are a few instances
where it seems to be ei] mh< = "except" or "unless.”9 The negative of the
apodosis is always ou]k.10 Both mh< in the protasis and ou]k in the
apodosis are what we would expect. In the protasis, which states a
potential circumstance, that which might have been, mh< is used. Ou]k is
4 These are the secondary or augmented tenses of the indicative: the imperfect,
aorist, and pluperfect.
5 In about one-sixth of the first class conditions a past tense indicative verb is used
in the protasis, but the identification is unambiguous because the apodosis is not
compatible with the second class form. In a few instances (Acts , Rom , Eph
, ) the form of both the protasis and the apodosis could be second class,
but the sense is clearly not contrary to fact. Of course, this is not unnatural; a simple
condition (first class) can be used of the past as naturally as of the present and future
6 @An occurs in 36 examples; it is omitted in 11 instances. This tendency to omit a@n
is characteristic of koine Greek.
7 In one instance (Luke ) the apodosis is not stated. In two instances (I Cor
, 19) the apodosis is a rhetorical question implying the simple statement, "There
would be none."
8 Mh< occurs 11 times. The two occurrences of ou]k (Matt 26:24, Mark ) are
actually parallel passages duplicating a single occurrence.
9 This phenomenon of ei] mh< = "except" or "unless" will be dealt with separately at
10 There is a negative apodosis in 23 of the 47 examples. Ou]k is used in 22 of them,
ou]d ] (ou] de< = "not even") in one (Heb 8:4).
BOYER: SECOND CLASS CONDITIONS 83
natural in the apodosis, which expresses nothing doubtful or sub-
jective, but states matter-of-factly what actually would have been if the
condition had been true.
RELATION TO REALITY: CONTRARY TO FACT
There seems to be no debate on the essential meaning of the
second class conditional sentence. It states a condition which as a
matter of fact has not been met and follows with a statement of what
would have been true if it had. An extended paraphrase in English
would be, "If this were the case, which it is not, then this would have
been true, which as a matter of fact, is not." The term "contrary to
fact" therefore is an accurate descriptive name for this type.11
It must be kept in mind in the use of this descriptive term that
"contrary to fact" has to do with the statement of the fact, not the
actual fact itself. The speaker states it as being contrary to fact; he may
or may not be correct in that statement. Of the 47 NT examples, 39 are
by Christ or by inspired writers of scripture; in every case, the
statement is also contrary to fact in actuality. In each of the other 8
examples, where the speakers were men liable to error, they spoke
what they believed to be contrary to fact; in two instances they were
A very significant comparison must be made here. In dealing with
the significance of the first class condition, this distinction between fact
and statement of fact sometimes has been used to explain those many
examples where the first class is used in obviously false or uncertain
statements.13 However, there is a drastic difference in this respect
between first and second class. In the first class examples where there is
a discrepancy between the actual fact and the statement of it, it is not a
matter of error or ignorance; it is almost always a deliberate statement
of what is known or considered by the speaker to be false. But in the
second class, there is not a single instance of stating something as
contrary to fact which is not so in the judgment of the speaker. He is
making what he considers a contrary-to-fact statement. There is no
11 A. T. Robertson's designation "Determined as Un-Fulfilled" seems also to be a
valid characterization. The problem with his system of classifying conditional sentences
lies in his designating the first class "Determined as Fulfilled," which understandably
has been misinterpreted as the opposite of the second class, therefore "True to Fact."
See my preceding article: "First Class Conditions: What Do They Mean?", GTJ 2
12 Luke 7:39, John 18:30.
13 See the discussion in my preceding article, "First Class Conditions," 77-78.
84 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
such thing as "assuming for the sake of argument" that a statement is
contrary to fact. To put it in another way, the first class condition is
not the opposite of the second class. It is not "true to fact" in the sense
that the second is contrary to fact.
SIGNIFICANCE OF TENSES
In dealing with the significance of the tenses used, two factors
require consideration: first, the fact that only past tenses of the
indicative are used, and second, the question of the time relation
Only Past Tenses
Contrary-to-fact conditional sentences are the only type which
has tense limitation. Why? And why these tenses? The answer will help
to explain and support the meaning assigned to this type of con-
All conditional sentences by their very nature involve statements
which may or may not be true. That is what "if" means. The
uncertainty involved may be due to ignorance, supposition, choice,
course of events (I call it providence), or simple futurity. If the time
involved is either present or future, there is always this element of
uncertainty from the viewpoint of the human speaker (both Greek
and English are human languages). Only in past time has the uncer-
tainty become certainty by actual occurrence, and even then it is not
certain to the speaker until and unless he knows about it. The second
class condition is one which expresses the "would be" results of a past
condition known (or thought) to be unfulfilled or contrary to fact.
Very naturally, then, it uses only past tenses.
It is instructive to note that this usage is but one example of
what grammarians have called the "potential" or "unreal" indicative.
This idiom includes, beside the unreal conditional sentence, such
other uses of the augmented tenses of the indicative, with or without
a@n, as in courteous or polite language (Acts 25:22, Gal ), in
expressions of necessity, obligation, possibility, and propriety (Luke
24:26, Acts 24: 19, 1 Cor ), and in cautious statements and
impossible wishes (Rom 9:3). Even in English we use "ought,"
"would," "could"--past tense forms which are used in many of these
14 For a discussion of the idiom, consult the grammars: (classical) Goodwin and
Gulick, Greek Grammar, 283, 297, Kaegi, Short Grammar, 136, 137, Smyth, Greek
Grammar, 296; (NT) Dana and Mantey, Manual Grammar, 169, A. T. Robertson,
Grammar, 918-23, Turner, Syntax, 90-93.
BOYER: SECOND CLASS CONDITIONS 85
Some grammarians have distinguished two time references in
second class conditions, indicated by the tense used in the protasis.15
It is claimed that the imperfect tense is used for a statement which is
presently contrary to fact, the aorist and pluperfect for a past
contrary-to-fact condition. Is this a valid distinction in NT Greek?
It should be noted that this, like all considerations dealing with
Greek tense, is more a matter of aspect or aktionsart than of time. By
the very nature of the case all contrary-to-fact conditions are to some
extent past in time. The decision that it is not fulfilled has already
been made before the sentence is uttered or written. "If you believed
Moses you would believe me" (John ) is speaking of a present
situation which is not true; they are not at that moment believing.
The imperfect tense used is a durative tense. They are in a state of
unbelieving which is presently continuing but of course it has already
been in existence long enough to be known as untrue. If the aorist
had been used in this protasis the sense might have been, "If you had
(sometime in the past) exercised faith, you would have (now) believed
Most NT examples fit well into this distinction. All of those
using the aorist16 and the pluperfect17 are past in time reference,
properly expressed in English with a past perfect: "If it had been. ..
it would have been. . . ." The case is not quite so clear-cut with the
imperfect, but even here two-thirds of the examples fit the pattern,18
indicating a present time reference, "if it were. . . , it would be. . . ."
Of the nine apparent exceptions, seven19 are instances of the imperfect
of the verb ei]mi<. Since this verb has only one past tense (apparently
15 Dana and Mantey  make the strange assertion that "a contrary to fact
condition dealing with present time has the imperfect tense in both protasis and
apodosis . . . a contrary to fact condition dealing with past time has the aorist or
pluperfect tense in both protasis and apodosis," even though two of the examples they
cite show a mixed use, with different tenses in the two clauses. In view of the fact that
16 of the NT examples actually show such mixed tenses (9 examples have the imperfect
in the protasis with aorist or pluperfect in the apodosis; 7 have the reverse situation; all
but one seem to be past in time reference) this statement obviously is an overstatement.
If there is any relation between tense and time reference, it is the tense of the protasis
which must be the determining one.
16 There are 16 examples: Matt 11:21, 11:23, 12:7, 24:22, 26:24, Mark 13:20, 14:21,
Luke , , John , , , Rom , I Cor 2:8, Gal , Heb 4:8.
17 There are 4 examples: Matt 24:43, Luke 12:39, John 8: 19, Acts 26:32. John 19:11
is questionable. Cf. my treatment of this verse below.
18 15 out of 24 examples: Luke 7:39, John 5:46, 8:42, 9:33, 9:41, 15:19, 18:36, 19:11
(?), Acts , I Cor , , , Gal. , Heb 8:4, 8:7.
19 Matt 23:30, John , , , Gal. 4:15, I John 2:19. Also, in John 1.4:2
the verb is unexpressed but most naturally it would be h#n, the imperfect of ei]mi<.
86 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
the intrinsically durative aspect of this verb rendered unnecessary the
development of an aorist and pluperfect conjugation) it is conceivable
that grammatical constructions which normally called for those tenses
may have been met by substituting the imperfect. However, aside
from this rationalization, the basic aspect of the imperfect tense fits
perfectly in each of the seven cases. While the sense demands that the
time reference is past, the kind of action is durative in that past time.
The remaining two apparent exceptions to the general rule under
consideration may be explained in a similar way. In John , "if
you loved me, you would have rejoiced," it seems clear that the time
reference is past. Earlier in the verse Christ reminded them of his
impending departure and return and follows that statement with this
condition. He was clearly thinking of love as a durative state of being,
"if you were (at that time) loving me," rather than a specific act of
love. His use of the imperfect emphasizes this.
In Rom 7:7 the case is not quite so clear. First, it may be seen as
a present contrary-to-fact condition: "I would not (now) know lust if
the law were not continually saying. . . ." This would probably be
easiest grammatically. Even the verb in the apodosis is in sense an
imperfect, since the verb oi#da is a perfect form with a present
meaning and its pluperfect form is the corresponding imperfect. But
the sense resulting is impossible. Or, second, it may be seen as a past
contrary-to-fact condition: "I would not have known lust if the law
had not said. . ." If this is the sense, then the imperfect verb would
be calling attention to the durative aspect: "If the law were not
continually telling me. . . ," emphasizing the persistent influence of
Paul's exposure to law-teaching.
In summary, it seems generally to be true that an imperfect verb
in the protasis of a second class condition indicates a present-time
condition and an aorist or pluperfect verb indicates a past-time
condition. The few apparent exceptions are examples where the
durative nature of the past-time condition is emphasized by the use of
the imperfect. But the existence of a considerable number of excep-
tions points rather to the conclusion that this "rule" works because of
the durative sense of the imperfect rather than because it was a
required structural pattern. It is better to approach the meaning by
giving' attention to the aspect of the tenses used rather than to an
Other Noteworthy Examples
Individual consideration needs to be given to a few examples
which show some unusual characteristics.
Luke 17:6. "If you have faith. . . you would be saying. . ." The
protasis has ei] with a present indicative verb and is therefore a first
BOYER: SECOND CLASS CONDITIONS 87
class condition. But the apodosis has a@n with an imperfect verb,
which fits the second class pattern. Thus it is cited as an example of
what grammarians sometimes call a "mixed condition.”20 There is
nothing inherently unlikely about such a situation, and Nigel Turner
well explains its peculiar appropriateness in this instance21 as express-
ing a subtle politeness which avoided the harshness of saying, "If you
had faith (which you do not) . . . ," the blunt meaning which would
have resulted if he had used the full second class form.22 However, it
is possible to see an entirely different solution to this unusual
construction. It is clear that the protasis is first class, a simple
condition implying nothing as to whether Jesus' hearers actually had
faith, and thus neither congratulating them nor criticizing them.
Furthermore, it is clear from multitudes of examples that the apodosis
of a first class condition may be of any form (declarative, hortatory,
command, promise, rhetorical question, wish, etc.). A normal usage
of a@n with the imperfect which is not a second class apodosis does
exist; it may well be the "potential" use of past tense indicatives for
courteous or polite language or to express present necessity, obliga-
tion, possibility, or propriety.23 Applying this grammatical usage to
this passage, the sense becomes, in expanded paraphrase, "If you
have faith, you could say to this mountain. . . ," or, "it would be right
and proper for you to say. . . ,"or, "if you have faith there is nothing
you cannot ask for."
John 8:39. "If you are Abraham's children, you would be doing
the works of your father" may also be an example of a mixed
condition, with a first class protasis to soften the harshness of the
statement. The textual tradition would suggest this understanding,
whether the United Bible Society preferred reading e]poiei?te or the
Byzantine text a}n e]poiei?te is followed. In this instance, the explana-
tion of the apodosis as a potential indicative, suggested for the
preceding example, is not agreeable to the sense. Another reading, the
imperative poiei?te, followed by the NASB, would be a regular first
Heb 11:15. "If they were remembering the place from which they
went out, they would have an opportunity to return" also involves a
textual variation. The apodosis is clearly of the second class. In the
20 A. T. Robertson, Grammar, 1022.
21 N. Turner, Grammatical Insights into the New Testament (
22 See my note on Turner's questionable understanding of the significance of the
first class condition as reflected in his treatment of this passage in my preceding article,
"First Class Conditions," 81, n. 17.
23 See my discussion of this idiom earlier in this article. Also, R. Law, "Imperfect
of 'Obligation' etc., in the N.T.," ExpT 30 (1919), 330ff.
88 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
UBS text the protasis has its verb in the present indicative and is thus
of the first class. But the Byzantine text, accepted here by Westcott
and Hort, has the imperfect tense, making the whole a normal second
class condition. Here the time reference is actually past, even though
imperfects, according to the rule discussed earlier, would be con-
sidered by some to signal a present contrary to fact. Perhaps the
writer uses this "present" form from the same vantage point as in the
preceding verse, which uses the "historical present" to express vividly
a past situation. Or perhaps the present time reference in both verses
is the "gnomic present"; it is always or characteristically true that if
someone keeps looking back there are opportunities to go back. The
use of the durative imperfect stresses the continuing situation: "if they
were remembering. . . they would be having continuing opportunity
John 19:11. "You would have no authority over me if it had not
been given you from above." The problem here also is the time
reference. If the verb of the protasis is taken as h#n dedome<non, a
periphrastic pluperfect, then the time reference would be past, "If it
had not been given. . ." If the verb is understood to be h#n alone, with
the perfect participle functioning as a predicate adjective, then the
imperfect verb might be signaling a present contrary to fact: "if it
were not (now) an authority which has been given you. . ." It is
probably a distinction without a difference. In either case, the imper-
fect in the apodosis indicates the present situation.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: firstname.lastname@example.org