T.B. Williams, «Reading Social Conflict through Greek Grammar: Reconciling the Difficulties of the Fourth-Class Condition in 1 Pet 3,14.», Vol. 26 (2013) 109-126
For the most part, it is assumed that in the Koine period the fourth-class condition indicated a future contingency with a possible or, in many cases, only a remote chance of fulfillment (e.g., “if this could happen”). If this meaning is applied to the condition in 1 Pet 3,14, it seems to imply not the reality of suffering, but merely the remote possibility, which is at odds with the popular understanding of the epistle’s social situation. This study is an attempt to examine the meaning of the fourth-class condition in 1 Pet 3,14 and its function(s) within the larger Petrine argument, a task which not only sheds light on the interpretation of 1 Pet 3,13-17, but also provides the unity of the epistle with some much-needed substantiation.
118 Travis B. Williams
apart from other moods in the classical period, namely, its denotation
of a remote sense of possibility. Consequently, when it is employed in
Hellenistic Greek it is very likely that it carries a meaning closely akin to
its classical usage.
On a prescriptive level, then, we might suggest that the use of the
optative in 1 Pet 3,14a means that the degree of potentiality has been
moved into the range of improbability. Although its usage was on the
decline, it is very likely that the semantics of the fourth-class condition in
the Koine period was similar to that of classical Greek. When we turn to
an actual examination of the evidence, we discover that this hypothesis
does, in fact, turn out to be valid. Within comparable material from
the Hellenistic period the fourth-class protasis (εἰ + optative) conveys a
future contingency whose fulfillment ranges between uncertainty and
The important point of this conclusion is that in the literature that we
examined the condition was not used to describe something that was a
reality or even something that was likely. Therefore, we cannot force such
a meaning on the usage in 1 Pet 3,14a, even if it appears to contradict
our understanding of the epistle’s broader context. Of course, we must
remember that no real contradiction threatens our analysis, because the
question is not the reality of suffering in general, but the possibility of
suffering for righteousness in particular. It would thus seem that the
fourth-class condition in this passage describes the unlikelihood that the
In the NT, there are only three instances of this particular construction (aside from
those in 1 Peter) that function as genuine conditions. But even among these examples, two
are more or less stereotypical parentheses (1 Cor 14,10; 15,37). So the only genuine parallel
is found in Acts 24,19, where the condition falls in the range of improbability. The LXX
contains approximately twenty-five occurrences of εἰ + optative, with a large percentage
coming from the Atticistic 4 Maccabees. Of these, only seven function as genuine conditions.
The scale of potentiality found within these examples spans from uncertainty (1 Sam 24,20
[24,19 Eng.]; Job 20,23; 4 Macc 12,4) to high improbability (Isa 49,15; 4 Macc 14,17) and
even to the hypothetical (Job 6,2; 34,14). Turning to extra-biblical literature, we find the
same type of pattern. Twenty-six examples appear in the OT Pseudepigrapha, with the large
majority (22 occurrences) being found in the Letter of Aristeas. But again, not all are used
conditionally. Approximately eighteen are employed in this manner (Sib. Or. 4,171; Let.
Aris. 189. 190. 191. 197. 205. 207bis. 211. 212. 224. 232. 244. 246. 248. 258. 263. 297). All of
these except one denote a sense of uncertainty. However, this number can be misleading. For
sixteen of the eighteen occurrences appear in the same type of formula. If these examples
are viewed as one collective voice, the numbers would be much more uniform—two examples
of uncertainty (Sib. Or. 4,171; evidence from Let. Aris.) and one example of improbability
(Let. Aris. 297). The Apostolic Fathers yield substantially fewer examples. In this corpus
there are seven instances of εἰ + optative; however, only two function as genuine conditions.
Of these, one seems to be consigned the realm of uncertainty (Herm. Sim. 9,12,4), while the
other is closer towards improbability (Diogn. 2,10).