St. Paul and the Liar’s Paradox

Should people disrespect St. Paul about the Liar's Paradox or are they fundamentally misinterpreting what he said?
Should people disrespect St. Paul about the Liar's Paradox or are they fundamentally misinterpreting what he said? (photo: Register Files)

Back when I was a philosophy student, I had a fondness for logical paradoxes.

One of the most famous is the Liar’s Paradox, which takes different forms, like:

  • I am lying.
  • This sentence is false.

This paradox is particularly useful for talking androids to death in the Star Trek universe, though it has less immediate practical value in our own.

It’s a fun paradox, but I get tired of people dissing St. Paul over it.

Let’s talk about that . . .


People diss St. Paul over it?

Yeah. You see, sometimes people say that one version of the paradox is called the Epimenides Paradox, after a guy who lived around 600 B.C.

St. Paul quotes him, and some commentators claim that St. Paul didn’t understand what he was quoting—that he missed the paradox entirely.


Who was Epimenides and what was his paradox?

Epimenides (ep-ih-MEN-ih-DEES) was a native of Knossos on the island of Crete. He was apparently a poet and was regarded by some as a prophet. There are a lot of legends about his life, and we don’t actually know that much about him, but he is famous for having said:

Cretans, [are] always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.

Being a Cretan himself, if Cretans were always liars then Epimenides would have had to have been lying when he said this.

People think that results in a paradox that’s a variation of “I am lying.”

That statement generates a paradox because if the person who utters it is lying then he is telling the truth, but if he is telling the truth then he is lying, and so on until the android’s head starts to smoke and our heroes are released from captivity from Oppressive Android Paradise.


Where does St. Paul quote this?

In his letter to Titus, who he has left behind on the island of Crete (Titus 1:5). He tells Titus to warn priests and bishops:

For there are many insubordinate men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially the circumcision party;  they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for base gain what they have no right to teach. 

One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 

This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith [Titus 1:10-13].


What’s an example of someone dissing St. Paul about this?

In his book The Physics of the Impossible, Michio Kaku discusses the statement “I am a liar” and writes:

The second statement [i.e., “I am a liar”] is the famous liar’s paradox. The Cretan philosopher Epimenides used to illustrate this paradox by saying, “All Cretans are liars.”

However, Saint Paul missed the point entirely and wrote, in his epistle to Titus, “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ He has surely told the truth” [p. 301].

Dr. Kaku may know physics, but he’s a bit shakier when it comes to philosophy and St. Paul.

Philosophically speaking, “I am a liar” is not a paradox.

A person can acknowledge that he is a liar (someone who tells lies on occasion, even frequently) without claiming to be lying at the moment. Saying “I am a liar” is not the same thing as saying “I am lying.”

He’s also wrong to accuse St. Paul of missing the point.


Why is he wrong to do that?

For one reason, St. Paul was a very smart guy and one who was more than capable of recognizing and using irony (cf. Gal. 5:11-12).

If Epimenides was trying to make an ironic, paradoxical statement about Cretans then a man of St. Paul’s intellect and educational attainments (Acts 22:3) should not be presumed to be a bumpkin just of the turnip truck who was incapable of recognizing it.

If we’re going to presume anything, we should presume that St. Paul was smart enough to pick up on what Epimenides was doing and use the quotation in the same way that it was in the original—i.e., that St. Paul understood the paradoxical nature of the statement and used it in the same, ironic way that Epimenides did.

But, before we presume anything, we should check the original context to find out what Epimenides was doing.


What happens when we check the original context?

Epimenides made his famous statement in a poem called Cretica. For a long time, we didn’t have the original context of Epimenides’ statement, but it was rediscovered by the English biblical scholar J. Rendel Harris and published in the early 20th century.

He reconstructed a Greek version of the original passage, which translates into English as follows:

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.

This text is spoken to Zeus, the “holy and high one” for whom the Cretans made a tomb.


What does Epimenides mean when he says Cretans are “always liars”?

Being from Crete himself, he surely does not mean this in the hyper-literal way that Norman the Android would take it.

Even Mr. Spock was capable of recognizing hyperbole when he heard it (sometimes), and Epimenides’ statement should be recognized as just that: It’s hyperbole, or exaggeration to make a point.

It is not that different than what Isaiah says when he sees his vision of God:

“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 

And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven” [Is. 6:5-7].

The reference to “unclean lips” may be a reference to sin in a more general sense, but it can also be taken as a reference to lying and other sins of speech.

If taken this way, Isaiah would be admitting his own sins of speech and those of his people—without claiming that he was lying at this very moment—and Epimenides may be seen as doing the same thing.

Assuming he didn’t have something much more particular in mind.


Could Epimenides have had something more particular in mind?

Yes. According to one interpretation of the passage from Epimenides quoted above, he wasn’t just charging his countrymen with being liars in a general sense: He was charging them with a specific lie.

Look at the context: The Cretans have built a tomb for Zeus, which implies that Zeus is dead.

But according to Epimenides, Zeus is not dead, for “you are not dead: you live and abide forever.”

Some have thus understood Epimenides as accusing the Cretans of the specific lie of having said that Zeus was dead when he was not.

If so then, since he was affirming that Zeus was alive, Epimenides himself was not a party to this lie and thus could not have been affirming that “Cretans are always liars” in a hyper-literal sense.

In that case, the alleged paradox vanishes, for there is clearly a Cretan who rejects this lie—Epimenides himself!


Are there other ways of looking at this text?

Yes. While Epimenides is denying the common Cretan implication that Zeus is dead, he may have more in mind than this accusation.

The statement that Cretans are “always liars” is naturally read as a more general statement than just a charge about Zeus being dead.

This impression is reinforced by his references to them being “evil beasts, idle bellies.”

While the issue of Zeus being dead is clearly present, Epimenides seems to be making a more general charge of sinfulness on the part of Cretans.

This is a standard charge, not unlike those found in the Jewish prophets, and it does not give rise to a paradox.


Why doesn’t it give rise to a paradox?

Strictly speaking on logical grounds, if Epimenides the Cretan said “Cretans are always liars,” what prevents Epimenides from lying in that very statement?

If Epimenides is lying then he is uttering a knowing falsehood: He knows that Cretans are not always liars.

And there is nothing paradoxical about that.

Some Cretans tell the truth—at least some of the time—and Epimenides would be lying about that fact. His lie may be ironic, but it doesn’t give rise to a paradox. Some Cretans simply tell the truth.

In reality, though, this is logic chopping. Whatever degree of irony is present in his statement, Epimenides is actually making a general lament about the sinfulness of his countrymen, including their propensity to lie.

He is not trying to generate a logical paradox, as illustrated by the fact that nobody interpreted the statement that way for centuries.


Really? Nobody interpreted it that way for centuries?

Apparently not. It does not seem to have been taken that way until 1740, after the original context of what he said had been lost.

Epimenides himself wasn’t generating a paradox, and so the ancients—who had access to the original context—didn’t take him as doing so.


Did St. Paul have access to the original context?

It would seem so. Notice that the last line of the passage we quoted was “For in you we live and move and have our being.”

That same line is paraphrased by St. Paul in Acts 17, when he addresses the Aeropagus in Athens:

 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man. . . . Yet he is not far from each one of us,  for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ [Acts 17:24, 27-28].


St. Paul isn’t applying that to Zeus, is he?

No. The Greeks often adopted philosophical interpretations of their own mythology as symbolic of a higher divine reality with Zeus—or other gods—representing “God” in a generic sense.

Christian apologists thus sometimes used Greek quotations about divinity to make points about the true God, who had not revealed himself to the Greeks, which is what Paul is doing here (Acts 17:22-23).

The point remains that Paul shows knowledge of the broader context of Epimenides’ statement, since in Acts he quotes another portion of it.

He was thus in a good position to understand what Epimenides meant.


What about Paul’s statement to Titus that what Epimenides said is true?

Paul is not asserting that all Cretans are always liars. After all, he has left Titus in Crete to appoint priests and bishops for the Christian churches there (Titus 1:5-9).

These men are expected not to be liars, and that’s why Paul tells Titus to warn them against immorality.

The statement that what Epimenides says about Cretans is true does, however, resonate with the view of Cretan culture at the time.


What did people think about Cretan culture in the first century?

They thought it was pretty immoral. Biblical scholar William Mounce notes:

Hanson points out . . . that the Cretans had a reputation for stealing, and that during the first century B.C. Crete became famous for housing robbers and pirates.

Cicero states that “the Cretans . . . consider piracy and brigandage honorable” (Republic 3.9.15; LCL tr.; cf. also Josephus Ant. 17.5.5 §§117, 120; Polybius Hist. 6.46.3).

If this is an accurate characterization, it is no wonder that Paul’s requirements for church leaders (vv 5–9) are so basic.

His statement of approval, “This testimony is true,” is his way of giving apostolic authority to something said by a non-Christian.

Quinn says that Crete was famous for not having any wild animals (108; citing Plutarch De capienda 86C; Pliny Hist. 8.83).

This creates a powerful twist in the saying. While most countries had to deal with wild beasts, in Crete the same problem was posed by people who, in the absence of wild animals, assumed the role themselves [Word Biblical Commentary: vol. 46: Pastoral Epistles, at Titus 1:12].

First-century Crete thus had a reputation of being a place of pirates and thieves, not unlike Somalia had a few years ago during the wave of Somalian pirates.

The fact that some Cretans were becoming Christians was thus a sign of hope, but the fact that they lived in such a corrupt culture meant that extra warnings against immorality were needed.


So people shouldn’t diss St. Paul about the Epimenides “paradox”?

No. In the first place, St. Paul was a smart guy who would have been able to recognize an ironic, paradoxical statement about Cretans if that was what Epimenides had been making.

In reality, though, this was not what the earlier author was doing. He was making a general lament about his people’s sinfulness—with particular reference to their “God is dead” claims—without saying that they literally lied on every single occasion.

That’s why nobody claimed Epimenides was even making a paradoxical claim until very recently—long after the work was lost and before the original context was rediscovered.

St. Paul knew the original context, and he made an appropriate application to the Cretan culture of his own day.

Now, in case you didn’t click on the video link above, here’s a bit of fun with the cast of Star Trek and their own application of the Liar’s paradox.

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