(Titus 1:12) Is this a self-defeating statement?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons’” (Titus 1:12). Some Muslim apologists argue that this is a self-defeating statement. After all, if all Cretans are always liars, then Epimenides (a Cretan) would also be a liar.[1] But, if this is the case, then this statement is false. One Muslim apologist argues:

“One of the interesting things is that Paul quote [sic] the Epimenides’ Paradox, specifying that the speaker himself was a Cretan. ‘Cretans are always liars…’ he then says that the man himself spoke the truth. But when the statement is spoken by a Cretan it is definitely not true. If it was true then at least once, a Cretan was not a liar, in which case the statement is false. The conclusion is the denial of the assumption, so the statement is not true. The writer Paul at least on this occasion, was without Divine Guidance for he did not discern the subtlety.”[2]

Did Paul commit a logical fallacy here?

RESPONSE: This quote originated with Epimenides (6th c. BC), who was known as a teacher, philosopher, priest, prophet, and even a “worker of miracles.”[3] Many ancient authors refer to Epimenides, including Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, and Plutarch (Plato, Laws 1.642; Aristotle, Rhetoric 3.17.10; Cicero, De Divinatione 1.18; Plutarch, Life of Solon 12.4.). While we don’t possess Epimenides’ writings, Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 1.59.2) attributes this quote to Epimenides, as do Chrysostom and Jerome.[4]

The term “always” (aei) isn’t an absolute term. The word can be defined as “continuous,” or it can refer to a “frequently recurring action” (BDAG, p.22). For instance, Paul writes that he is “always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). This doesn’t mean that Paul did nothing else besides rejoice. (Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to write this sentence!) Elsewhere, the term is used for being “accustomed” (Mk. 15:8) to a certain behavior. This must what Paul is affirming: Cretans are accustomed to lying.

Paul was not affirming this proposition with strict philosophical rigor. As we have already seen, the term “always” (aei) doesn’t require this. Furthermore, if Paul intended to affirm this statement in an absolute sense, then “all Cretan Christians would fall under its condemnation.” Instead, this is simply a “sweeping generalization” that is intended “to make a point.”[5] Indeed, Paul seems to be writing with a “note of irony.”[6] Most likely, he was skewering the Cretan false teachers by quoting one of their (false) prophets against them. As Stott writes, “If they endorsed their prophet’s statement, they condemned themselves; if they repudiated it, they made him the liar he said they were!”[7]

All of this being the case, Paul seems to be aware of this logical dilemma because, after quoting Epimenides, he quickly adds, “This testimony is true” (Titus 2:13). This breaks the dilemma, because Paul (who is not a liar) affirms the truth of the proposition. The problem with liars is not that they always state false propositions. The problem with liars is that they are untrustworthy—not necessarily untrue. For instance, Satan is a liar and the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). However, he is able to state the truth on occasion when it serves his purposes.

Conclusion. The Cretans venerated Epimenides and venerated him with “mythical honours.”[8] So, this was a good person for Paul to cite because he was using one of their own trusted writers against them. This would be like citing Richard Dawkins to demonstrate the intellectual poverty of atheism. Paul is simultaneously revealing the poor character of these “rebellious men” (Titus 1:10) as well as refuting their grandiose spiritual claims.

For comments on Paul quoting a Pagan prophet, see comments on Jude 9.

[1] Stott writes, “Church fathers like Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, Chrysostom and Augustine all identified the author of this saying as the sixth-century BC Cretan teacher, Epimenides of Knossos, who was held in high honour by his compatriots as both a prophet and a miracle-worker.” John R. W. Stott, The Message of Thessalonians: The Gospel & the End of Time, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 181.

[2] M. S. M. Saifullah “Islamic Awareness: Was Paul Inspired?” 1999.

[3] Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 700.

[4] George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1992), 298.

[5] William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, vol. 46, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2000), 398.

[6] Robert W. Yarbrough, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, ed. D. A. Carson, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; London: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos, 2018), 496.

[7] John R. W. Stott, Guard the Truth: The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 181.

[8] Donald Guthrie, Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 14, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 209.