Are you grappling with a difficult verse in the Bible? And are you looking for a short, easy-to-read answer that really makes sense without explaining away the verse? Visit this page for a daily excerpt from IVP's Hard Saying series.
These sentences strike us at best as extreme, at worst as untrue. The people thus categorized are inhabitants of the island of Crete in the eastern Mediterranean, where Titus is a leader among the churches. Presumably most members of these churches, and especially the elders in those churches, whom Paul expects to be blameless, self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined (Tit 1:8), would not qualify as "liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons." Even among the general Cretan population there were surely many who led good and upright lives. Thus the definition of Cretans as "always liars" is hardly justified. Though Paul is clearly citing from "one of their own prophets," he supports the generalization by concluding that "this testimony is true." How are we to understand this harsh language? A closer look at the situation addressed in the Cretan churches, as well as the citation's origin and history, should ameliorate, if not eliminate, the difficulty.
The situation addressed is one in which heretical teachers are abroad in the churches, opposing "the knowledge of the truth" (Tit 1:1), the promises of God "who does not lie" (Tit 1:2), "the trustworthy message" and "sound doctrine" (Tit 1:9). They are "deceivers" (Tit 1:10), "teaching things they ought not to teach" (Tit 1:11), rejecting "the truth" (Tit 1:14).
It is this focus on the untruthfulness of the opponents of the gospel and the untruthfulness of their teaching that brings to Paul's mind a line from a revered Cretan, Epimenides, a religious teacher and wonderworker from around 600 B.C. Paul's designation of him as a "prophet" is probably based on the description of Epimenides as an inspired, prophetic man by Plato, Aristotle and other ancient writers. The ground for Epimenides' unsavory characterization of his fellow Cretans was apparently their popular claim that the tomb of Zeus, the head of the Greek pantheon of gods, was located on their island. This claim was considered false, since Zeus, as a god, could not be dead. By Paul's time, Epimenides' words had become a popular slogan, expressing the widespread reputation of Cretans as untruthful. The verb "to Cretize" became slang for lying or cheating, just as the city of Corinth's reputation for sexual immorality led to the slang verb "to Corinthianize."
As we have seen, the context in which Paul appeals to Epimenides' words is one of crisis. In such a situation of polemical confrontation, exaggerations are common. Paul is obviously angry at the enemies of the truth in the Cretan churches, and he responds to their deceptions by using the typical device of overstatement. What Paul intends to communicate forcefully is clear; namely, in the case of these teachers who peddle false teaching, Epimenides' dictum is in fact shown to be true.
That Paul's words are not to be under- stood in an absolute sense (that is, that every Cretan is a liar!) is confirmed by the fact that his appeal to Epimenides would otherwise involve a contradiction. For since Epimenides is a Cretan, his statement that "Cretans are always liars" would include him. And that would lead to the conclusion that he always lies and that his statement is therefore false. It is clear then that neither Paul nor Epimenides intended the statement to be understood in an all-inclusive general sense.