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This page revised and Copyrighted: Theon Doxazo

14 December, 2023

 

Sorites

02.4.9

As you read the quotes from the various commentators on the sequencing of Second Peter, I am sure you noticed a group of commentators that do not believe the virtues form a sequence.  These commentators appear to believe that these virtues are simply a 'heap' of qualities that can be arranged in almost any order.  They do seem to agree that faith as a foundation and love as the highest goal seem appropriate.  The other virtues, they seem to believe, can be applied in any order.

 

Why would they come to such a conclusion?  Several of these commentators acknowledge that the grammar of the passage implies sequencing.  Yet, they still conclude that the virtues can be added in almost any order desired.  Why would they do this?  If you seek a rationale among their comments, it appears to be their contention that 2 Peter 1:5-7 forms a sorites, a rhetorical device common in the Greco-Roman world.  Having designated it a sorites, they conclude that these virtues can be rearranged in any sequence desired.

 

Sorites definition/description

 

We should begin by getting a clearer picture of what a sorites is.  Key to our understanding is the work of Henry Fischel (1973).  In this influential article he described in a footnote (p. 1) that:  "Both sorite and sorites are a singular of the English loanword, derived from the Greek soreites or sorites . . ."  He goes on to say in that same footnote that  ". . . the use of the term climax or gradatio would be less ambiguous."  All three of these terms (both Greek and Latin) refer to the same rhetorical style.

 

A problem arises when one learns that the term sorites has acquired another, more well-known, usage.  It seems that one example of a sorites appeared that was famously used to demonstrate a fallacy or logical syllogism.  Fischel (1973) describes it as follows:  "You admit that twenty grains are a heap;  if you admit twenty, you must admit twenty minus one;  if you admit twenty minus one, you must admit twenty minus two, etc., until one is lead to assert that twenty minus nineteen form a heap" (p. 122, Footnote).  This logical fallacy became a widely-cited example that persists to the present day.  On the other hand, the prior use of the sorites by Greek rhetoricians has become almost unknown.  So, let us be clear that, in this context, we will be discussing sorites as a Greco-Roman rhetorical style, and not as a logical fallacy.  As you read other sources, be sure they are discussing the correct type of sorites.

 

Fischel (1973, p. 119) defines: "The sorite is a set of statements which proceed, step by step, through the force of logic or reliance upon a succession of indisputable facts, to a climactic conclusion, each statement picking up the last key word (or key phrase) of the preceding one."  A little later in this same article, Fischel (1973, p. 121, footnote) declares:  "The 'approved' sorite is never used to relate facts which were unknown previously, since the listener (or reader) is to be induced, step by step, to accede to the logical force of the proposition on the grounds of known facts which are used for new insights" (italics in original).

 

If one considers the definition above, the central problem creating confusion among the commentators turns upon the word 'indisputable'.  When these commentators consider the Second Peter virtues they see all kinds of ways to 'dispute' it.  Based on their own comments, they either do not see any obvious way to arrange these items, or they see no compelling reason for arranging them in the sequence that Second Peter does.  Thus, they see the  listing of the Second Peter virtues as a failed attempt to create a sorites, and discount both the sorites and it's grammar, thus being left with no preferred method for arranging the virtues.

 

While I strongly disagree with their conclusions, I must acknowledge their honesty and bravery.  You can be sure that no Biblical commentator 'attacks' a text, or a long-standing interpretation of it, without a strong reason for doing so.  For many it could be seen as 'biting the hand that feeds you.'  This would be something you just don't want to do, if you want to remain a Biblical commentator.

 

So, why did they do this?  Yes, it turns on the 'indisputability' of the arrangement in Second Peter.  One could also make a case for the second section of Fisher's definition being operative.  Recall that he said:  "The 'approved' sorite is never used to relate facts which were unknown previously . . ."  Apparently, the Second Peter sequencing of these virtues appears unknown outside of this text.  I hope to, later, point out collateral scriptural passages that support the Second Peter sequencing.

 

So why would Peter use the sorites to present this sequence of virtues?  He was clearly interested in communicating with Gentile believers.  Being, apparently, aware of the Greco-Roman rhetorical handbooks of the time, he seems to have adopted a style that was widely used and approved.  The question remains whether he was aware of the fine points of the concern for 'indisputability.'  It may be that he was aware of the concern regarding 'indisputability' and simply chose to ignore the issue in exchange for producing an excruciatingly clear statement of sequential 'adding'.  If this approach is correct, then Peter was not trying to create a sorites, he was just trying to be grammatically concrete in casting these verses as a sequence.

 

On the other hand, it may be that Peter was simply using a rhetorical style that he didn't really understand and, thus, did badly.  I suspect that all Biblical commentators will agree that is it quite likely that Peter was writing (dictating?) in a language he was not that comfortable with.  I think most would agree that Peter was, likely, raised speaking Aramaic, the language of that area in the first century.  He was, likely, exposed to and learned Greek as a second language.  Greek would have been the language of commerce in that day and age.  Further, being raised as a Jew, he would have been at least exposed to Hebrew.  He would have had to speak at least some Hebrew in order to participate in the Jewish rituals.  The Passover Seder springs to mind.  Thus we find Peter, a first century fisherman, likely lacking in formal schooling, confronted by at least three languages to learn.  Not to mention Latin that the Romans would have used.  Again, I suspect that he acquired a smattering of Latin, just to cope with the Romans he was confronted by in his day-to-day life.

 

From this distance in time and space it is impossible to tell which of these options is correct.  I think it quite likely that Peter would be 'struggling' to function in at least some of these languages.  As a north American at the turn of the millennium, I know that if I were transported to another country I would be 'struggling' greatly trying to function in another language.  Japanese springs to mind.  I have no doubt that I wouldn't be able to function as well as Peter seems to have done.  Missing the niceties of rhetoric or getting them messed up.  Yup, that's something I could really see myself doing.  One consequence of this is the apparent confirmation that Peter, or his amanuensis, was not an educated native Greek speaker.  He did not know the 'rules' of using a Sorites there and then, and he got it wrong.  So, does this mean that Peter didn't write/dictate the text?  NO!  This view that Peter likely had language problems is quite consistent with what we understand about Peter.  If anything, this understanding of the text is very consistent with and supportve of a Petrine authorship for 2 Peter!

 

As an aside, recall that the classic understanding of the 'inspiration' of the text does not have God/the Holy Spirit holding the stylus and directly compelling the writing of the individual characters of the text.  Instead the Spirit works on the spirit of the text's author to move him to communicate the concepts desired.  The author's style, culture, personality are all understood to bleed over into the text.  We get the Spirit's concepts, but we get them cast in such a way that they reflect the background of the 'author'.  This classic view seems totally consistent with what we're seeing in this text.

 

Options

 

It may be, however, that the argument between these two options doesn't really matter.  Consider:  if Peter knew of the nature of a sorites, but chose to ignore it in order to produce a sequence that was grammatically clear and even obvious, then the intent of the spirit-inspired author was to describe the terms as to be added as a sequence.  On the other hand, if he was unclear or ignorant of the nature of a sorites, he may have adopted the form of a sorites, even though he may have done it badly,  because he wanted to communicate to the Gentiles that these terms were to form a sequence.  Note:  whichever option one chooses, it would appear that the underlying intent of the author was to describe a sequence of Christian spiritual development.  Thus, the controversy doesn't matter as the author's intent is the same under either interpretation.  The text should be accepted as cast grammatically.

 

Of course, there may be still another option to consider.  What I am about to suggest is based solely on my own ignorance, so don't accept this as authoritative.  As I look at Peter's situation, it seems to me that he was standing at a major turning point in the Church's history.  He had spent the latter portion of his life preaching and teaching about Jesus and testifying to what he has witnessed.  His was part of the generation of eye-witnesses.  These reports were in the process of being written down and distributed broadly.  Multiple authors wrote multiple gospel accounts and multiple doctrinal statements.  Again and again, as one reads the New Testament, we are confronted by personal messages, recorded texts of spoken teachings, and the telling of oral traditions to skilled 'stenographers'.  This era saw the transition from an orally-delivered tradition to a set of written and codified accounts.  It was in the midst of this oral to written transition that Peter dictated (?) the Second Peter text.  Could it be that, for Peter, and for those around him, the arrangement of the Second Peter virtues in the text's sequencing reflected an oral tradition that Peter and his contemporaries would be familiar with, but that never made a full transition into the written word?  Thus, such an oral tradition may have made the use of a sorites appropriate for Peter and his contemporaries.

 

Consider, we know that the early Church was largely made up of ordinary people going about their normal, daily lives.  We also know that the early Church was influenced by a monastic tradition that seems virtually absent from our contemporary world.  Could it be that this monastic tradition, emphasizing a lived spirituality and spiritual development, had developed an orally-transmitted understanding of how to facilitate spiritual growth?

 

I have no way of knowing.  This is all just speculation.  What we are left with, however, is a skimpy handful of nouns that do not tell us much, if anything, about the spirituality underlying the sequence.  As a result, contemporary commentators realistically see no 'indisputable' way of arranging the virtues meaningfully, and they deny sequentiality for what they see as a failed sorites.  I understand their concerns.  I have spent 49 years struggling to understand the spirituality underlying these eight nouns.  The text's simple presentation of these nouns does not provide one with an intuitively obvious understanding of their spiritual 'dynamics.'  Again, I have no evidence for suggesting a problem with the oral to written transition.  This is a pure conjecture.

 

Conclusions

 

While one can describe how an oral to written transmission problem might have created the situation we find ourselves in today, a question for the non-sequential interpretation does arise.  If Peter did not intend the virtues to be 'added' sequentially, why was the grammar so studiously crafted to specify just such a defined sequence?  Clearly the grammar created the sorites, but Peter could have presented the virtues in any number of other ways without using a sorites.  The authors of the Beatitudes and the other cited Biblical passages did.  Yet, Peter chose to arrange these virtues in a grammatically-precise developmental sequence.  Remember that the grammar is so stilted that it has been repeatedly described as 'wooden'.  And why did he then surround that sequence with such strong attestations?   Recall that verses 8-21 were seen by this author as repeatedly pointing to this sequence and telling us how important it is.  Why would Peter have done all this if he had believed that the virtues could be arranged in any order?

 

So, what are we left with?  The earliest commentator I could find taking this non-sequential position was Calvin (circa 1555).  Since at least his time multiple commentators have considered the Second Peter listing as a general grab-bag of virtues with little or no inherent sequencing, given that the grammar is disregarded.

 

Thus, the concerned reader is left with the Scriptural presentation of a little understood sequence of obviously important virtues.  Virtues that Peter described as helping one avoid being blind and stumbling, as well as helping one to be fruitful and to obtain entrance into the eternal Kingdom.

 

It is the goal of the Second Peter theory to provide a means of understanding what this important sequence of spiritual virtues is describing.  It is hoped that, by the time you have read and digested this site's message, you will agree that the Second Peter listing does describe a developmental succession of virtues, thereby affirming the sequentiality I believe Peter intended and, indirectly, supporting his use of the sorites.