Are Epimenides and Paul in Error?

One of the “go to” passages for those who deny inerrancy is Paul’s quotation of Epimenides in Titus 1:12–“Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” According to Paul, “This testimony is true.” According to the critics, Paul is “caught up in a logical paradox” [1] or at least guilty of “overstatement.” He gets “carried away,” oversimplifies matters, and consequently lapses into error (Bruxy Cavey). So what about this charge? Does it, perhaps, oversimply things?

It does. For there is a scope ambiguity in the Epimenides quote, arising due to the placement of the quantifier ‘always’. We can let the scope of the quantifier range over the entire proposition as in

(C1)    It is always the case that (Cretans are liars)

or simply its predicate term as in

(C2)    Cretans are always lying.

Obviously, if we read Epimenides’ little saying as (C2), then Paul’s statement is mistaken. (And then, but only then, Paul might be said to be guilty of a “racial slur,” as Bruxy Cavey charges [ here ].) If Cretans are always lying, then when Epimenides (a Cretan) affirmed (C2), he was lying. In which case what he said wasn’t true, so that Paul’s claim “This testimony is true” is false. [2]

It is clearly uncharitable to pin this incoherence on Paul, even more so to suggest that it results from his passions getting the better of him. If we read Epimenides as asserting (C1)—call this the charitable reading—then Paul’s alleged error vanishes and with it the alleged “racial slur.” For (C1) asserts only that the (benign, contingent) statement “Cretans are liars” is always true. And if a liar is simply “a person who tells lies” (see here and here), then (C1) is only saying that all Cretans are persons who tell lies. That is no more racist than saying all Canadians are persons who sin.

If, nevertheless, you bristle at this claim, it’s probably because you’re thinking that (C1) somehow implies (C2). It doesn’t. You might as well argue that since

(H1)    It is always the case that (Human beings are sinners)

it follows that

(H2)   Human beings are always sinning.

Well, you can see the problem. While (H1) is undoubtedly true,  (H2) is certainly false. (Am I sinning while I’m asleep?) Thus, (H1) doesn’t imply (H2). And the same goes for the inference from (C1) to (C2). It’s logically invalid. Full stop.

So yes, Paul did say of Epimenides’ saying that it was true. But no, he wasn't guilty of either oversimplification or error. In an ironic twist, however, it does seem that our errantist critic, in lodging his complaint against the Great Apostle, may well be guilty of both.

— Richard Brian Davis


[1] See Bruxy Cavey, “Radical Christians & the Word of God: Part 2 of 3 (Inerrancy),” July 13, 2018.

[2] Compare Bruxy Cavey: “If Cretans are ALWAYS liars, then the Cretan statement that Cretans are always liars is itself a lie. But Paul not only quotes this Cretan, he says this statement is true” (ibid).