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 guilty of incoherence or at least overstatement. He gets carried away, oversimplifies matters, and consequently lapses into error. 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. 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.

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. For (C1) asserts only that the (benign, contingent) statement “Cretans are liars” is always true. If 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 her complaint against the Great Apostle, may well be guilty of both.

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4 comments on “Are Epimenides and Paul in Error?

  1. Bob Lee says:

    I’d like to propose a different error in this passage. It’s the generalization that all Cretans liars, evil brutes, and lazy gluttons. Surely this couldn’t be said of all Cretans. How would you resolve this apparent error?

    • Rich Davis says:

      Consider the proposition:

      A: All Cretans are liars.

      You mention that A is an “apparent error.” Now if it were in error, then it’s negation would be true—that is,

      O: Some Cretans are not liars.

      And your thinking, I take it, is that O is (or rather was) true at the time Epimenides gave his little saying, and then also later when Paul said “This testimony is true.” Now I don’t suppose you think O was true at those times because you have some empirical data at your disposal. What would that even be? My guess is that you just think A is too strong, since O seems plausible.

      But I don’t know about that. It all depends on how we’re defining ‘liar’. Here’s a rather standard definition: “A person who tells lies” (see here: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/liar). Now on this definition, A is more perspicuously expressed as:

      A*: All Cretans are persons who tell lies.

      I don’t see that A* is even apparently in error. Would you claim that I was in apparent error if I told you ‘All Canadians are persons who sin’?

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