Where’s That Confounded Proverb?

Where’s Than Confounded Proverb
2 Peter 2:22

It has happened to them according to the true proverb, “The dog turns back to its own vomit,” and, “The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud.” (NRSV)

In Second Peter chapter 2, Peter warns in angry language of false prophets and their wicked disruption of the young church. These self-serving frauds were once new adherents to the Way, but now they have turned, and become adversaries. They have returned to their previously wicked ways:

17 These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm; for them the deepest darkness has been reserved. 18 For they speak bombastic nonsense, and with licentious desires of the flesh they entice people who have just[l] escaped from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for people are slaves to whatever masters them. 20 For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21 For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment that was passed on to them. 22 It has happened to them according to the true proverb, “The dog turns back to its own vomit,” and, “The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud.” (NRSV, 2 Pet 2:17-22)

First of all, does Peter quote from one proverb or two?

Peter uses the singular Greek παροιμίας (paroimias) here, so this likely is, in his mind at least, a single proverb. Or he is writing loosely.

In any event, we can find the “first” of the two sayings in our book of Proverbs, but the “second” does not occur in scripture. As far as we know, it also is not found as a direct quote and proverb in first century Greek sources of philosophy and history.

From the Book of Proverbs, chapter 26:

7 Like the useless legs of one who is lame
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.
8 Like tying a stone in a sling
is the giving of honor to a fool.
9 Like a thornbush in a drunkard’s hand
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.
10 Like an archer who wounds at random
is one who hires a fool or any passer-by.
11 As a dog returns to its vomit,
so fools repeat their folly.

12 Do you see a person wise in their own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for them. (NIV)

On the other hand, “the sow is washed only to wallow in the mud” is not present in Proverbs, or anywhere else in our Bible.

We searched the Bible for sows, pigs, swine, mud, filth and wallowing but turned up no pigs rolling in mud after having a bath. We looked at 115 hits on these words, but none of these nailed Peter’s quote, but we did find many mishits on the word sow (sowing grain, seeds, etc.).

There are verses pertaining to pigs and vomit and filth and wallowing, but not the one referenced by Peter in his second letter.

Late first century philosopher Epictetus, in his Discourses (book 4, purity), addresses the subject and metaphor of pigs and persons wallowing in filthy mud, but does so not (in surviving manuscripts) in the form of proverb. The Turkish, Greek-speaking thinker was born around 55 AD and died around 135, and his religious teachings appealed to early Christianity. As was the case for early Christians, his views likewise did not appeal to Roman emporer Domitian. It is not unreasonable that Peter quotes from some non-extant work of Epictetus, whose thoughts were captured in writing by a pupil.

Read the extended quote from Epictetus below. To be sure, Peter writes on the philosophy of Christian godliness while Epictetus writes on a more general moral philosophy, but one can see here the possibility that Peter might have pulled something from Epictetus’:

Therefore Nature has prepared water and hands. It was impossible but that some uncleanness must cleave to the teeth from eating. Therefore, she says, rinse your teeth. Why? That you may be a man, and not a wild beast, or a swine. It was impossible but that, from perspiration and the pressure of the clothes, something dirty and necessary to be cleaned should remain upon the body. For this there is water, oil, hands, towels, brushes, soap, and other necessary apparatus for its purification….

I declare, for my own part, I would rather that a young man, on his first inclination to philosophy, should come to me finically dressed, than with his hair spoiled and dirty. For there appears in him some idea of beauty and desire of decency; and where he imagines it to be, there he applies his endeavors. One has nothing more to do but to point it out to him, and say, ” You seek beauty, young man, and you do well. Be assured, then, that it springs from the rational part of you. Seek it there, where the pursuits and avoidances, the desires and aversions, are concerned. Herein consists your excellence; but the paltry body is by nature clay. Why do you trouble yourself, to no purpose, about it? You will be convinced by time, if not otherwise, that it is nothing.” But if he should come to me soiled and dirty, with mustaches drooping to his knees, what can I say to him; by what similitude allure [p. 2204] him? For what has he studied which has any resemblance to beauty, that I may transfer his attention, and say that beauty is not there, but here? Would you have me tell him that beauty consists not in filth, but in reason? For has he any desire of beauty? Has he any appearance of it? Go, and argue with a hog not to roll in the mire.

It was in the quality of a young man who loved beauty, that Polemo was touched by the discourses of Xenocrates. For he entered with some incentives to the study of beauty, though he sought in the wrong place. And, indeed, Nature has not made the very brutes dirty which live with man. Does a horse wallow in the mire; or a good dog? But swine, and dirty geese, and worms, and spiders, which are banished to the greatest distance from human society. Will you, then, who are a man, choose not to be even one of the animals that are conversant with man; but rather a worm or a spider? Will you not bathe sometimes, be it in whatever manner you please? Will you never use water to wash yourself? Will you not come clean, that they who converse with you may have some pleasure in you? But will you accompany us, in your uncleanness, even to the temples, where all unclean ways are forbidden?

Does your good quality Bible commentary weigh-in on this Petrine quote? Is this found somewhere outside of Biblical scripture but in Greek writings commonly known in the first century?

God’s blessings to you! Read the actual Bible for yourself! 🙂