Titus 1:12 Even one of their own prophets has said, "Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons." 13 This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith

How should I understand this verse?

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    The notion of "racism" in the modern sense is completely anachronistic here, modern racism dates to the colonial days, past 1492. Roman hierarchies were based on class, and did not have a racial component, the empire included plenty of diversity: Semitic, Southern European, and North African folks, all equal. The barbarians were the Northern Europeans, who resisted occupation, and perhaps some Asians, but I don't see any ancient racism (I might be wrong). This stuff should be called cultural ethnic stereotyping within the accepted races. Not justifying the sentiment, but the title is wrong.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Sep 5, 2012 at 6:10

5 Answers 5


Good question. As fresh as the pop of a new bag of chips.

If we looked at only Titus 1:2, certainly Paul would be seen as a racist according to our modern definition. Admittedly though, our modern view pretty well calls anyone living before the 1900s as a racist, but for now let’s just accept our modern notion as the best to use. Under this notion, if Paul was not a racists or anti-Semitic for comments like these and others, and Jesus was not a racist for keeping most of his healings and teaching among only the Jews to which he was called to, then at least, at a minimum, Paul was still. ‘racial profiling’, using our modern term.

The problem with this observation is that just as we might become tempted with accusing Paul of some kind of even mild form of racism, the rest of scripture and the facts of history, pull as quickly back into the reverse direction like a large elastic band. The argument against Paul (and indeed against the writings of all theologians before the 1900s) quickly weakens into fragility, since Paul, in our modern superficial terms, was a kind of leader of the anti-racists religious movement of his times. The fact that Paul, as specifically called to preach to Gentiles, with the message that foreigners were no longer to be excluded from Israel’s true religion, and that Christ had broken down the wall of hostility by his death, was the opposite of the racism which was deeply imbedded into that society (Eph 2:14). The Jews at that time were especially disgusted with ‘all things Gentile’ and needed to wash themselves to clean away the impurity of even the most harmless possible contact with the heathen. For example, Alfred Ederseim the Jewish historian, in recounting the eighteen agreed ‘tradition of the Elders’ recently made between the competing schools of Hillel and Shammai just before the time of Christ, essentially was followed by ‘a period of developing traditionalism, and hatred of all that was Gentile.’ In summary about ‘washing’ away the filth of the Gentile, Edersheim says:

those eighteen decrees, intended to separate the Jew from all contact with Gentiles. Any contact with a heathen, even the touch of his dress, might involve such defilement, that on coming from the market the orthodox Jew would have to immerse. ('The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah', by Alfred Edersheim, Page 630)

From a man raised in that atmosphere, to give his life up for filthy and unclean Gentiles, is a remarkable testament to how the gospel dispels all forms of ‘–isms.’ Of course this should not by any means imply that the racism and hatred of the Gentiles against the Jews, was not ten times worse!

The truth is, Paul’s sacrifice of his life for spreading the gospel to foreigners, while speaking equally ‘bad’ about his own race, clears him of any charge of true racism. In the end Paul groups all races, classes, and sexes together on equal grounds:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (NIV Galatians 3:28)

As far as understanding the verse Paul is just quoting a famous Cretan to point out an obvious national quality of the those living on the island of Crete. He did so to bring light onto the nature of some of those Cretans who were 'disrupting whole households'. Everyone probably knew that these people were 'generally this way'. This reference to the Cretans seems to indicate not just Greeks but Jews living on the island also, as he says 'especially those of the circumcision group' in verse 10. He probably quotes a Cretan as a more polite way of drawing attention to their well known regional sins, then just saying it himself. I suppose this further clears him from racism.

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    Mike, I appreciate your response I am having trouble connecting the dots within it. If I understand correctly, you start well with addressing contemporary culture, but then you talk about where Paul came from. I don't see the logical connection in your bold section - how his sacrifice clears him of accusations of racism. Then, finally, you briefly mention the Cretan poet. I was wondering if you could flesh out these logical connections, perhaps cutting some things that may be extraneous, and then focus a bit more on the poet, and the immediate context of the verse.
    – swasheck
    Commented Aug 28, 2012 at 14:49

Actually, it shows that Paul was very good at logic.

Anthony Thiselton tackles this question in his article "The Logical Role of the Liar Paradox in Titus 1:12,13: A Dissent From the Commentaries in the Light of Philosophical and Logical Analysis", Biblical Interpretation 2.2 (1994): 207–223. Thiselton's case has been elaborated, nuanced, and extended by Patrick Gray, "The Liar Paradox and the Letter to Titus", Catholic Biblical Quarterly 69 (2007): 302-314.

Thiselton acknowledges that the commentaries uniformly take this statement at face value, much as the form of OP's question implies: "to describe a state of affairs about the character of Cretans" (p. 208). Thiselton argues positively that:

The proposition "Cretans are always liars" is not a socio-contingent proposition about Cretans in Titus 1:12,13. It has nothing to do with stereotyping Cretans, but, placed as it is on the lips of a Cretan speaker, constitutes a purely logical or formal proposition which expresses a paradox.

Thiselton argues that the writer deliberately introduces the paradox -- placing the claim about lying Cretans on the lips of a Cretan -- to serve the ends of the context, viz. that a renewed lifestyle brings truthful speech in "Christian communication", and that "idle talkers" are to be avoided.

The paradox of Titus 1:12 brings into focus the self-defeating and often fruitless escalation of claims in purely verbal exchanges which may be transposed to a constructive level if truth-claims made by the elders or bishops can be perceived as drawing currency from blameless conduct. They are not to be "empty talkers" who "profess to know God but deny him by their deeds" (1:8,10,16).

(Both block quotes from published abstract.) Thiselton offers a comprehensive survey of the commentaries, a deep engagement with classical soures on the "logical paradox", and offers an account of how the "mistaken" reading arose (via clumsy patristic commentary). He even suggests that the brief, "This testimony is true" (v. 13) shows signs of a sense of humour -- or at least self-conscious irony. Gray develops that suggestion, demonstrating that the audience could well be expected to be familiar with this use of paradox, since "paradoxes generally, and the Liar in particular, were well known from their frequent use in philosophy, oratory, comedy, and recreational activities" (p. 307).

The writer (Thiselton does not refer to the author of Titus as "Paul" in this article) is thus to be absolved of crass tactlessness and/or dim-witted foolishness. There is here, rather, a deft and deliberate commendation to the church leaders addressed in their pastoral context: that Christians generally, and in Titus 1 the presbyteroi in particular, demonstrate habitual use of truthful (and fruitful) speech. Both Thiselton and Gray demonstrate compellingly this is a major concern of the letter to Titus as a whole (and also, in Gray, the closely related 1 Timothy).

  • OR, putting the quote on the lips of a Cretan has the same rhetorical effect as putting the claim that black people are lazy on the lips of my black friend I know from work. Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 23:43

Epimenides, the Cretan poet to whom Paul refers, is obviously using hyperbole to express a general truth about the decadence of Cretan society. Paul simply agreed. I see no racism or contradiction here.

  • Welcome to BH community, Its a good start with an answer right-on.
    – Sam
    Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 19:38

Since Paul does not paint a picture of Cretans falling short compared to another race or ethnicity, I see no racism here. Considering Paul's characterisation of all mankind in Romans 1:18-32, the Epimenides quote functions as an application within a specific context.

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    Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 12:59

Actually it shows that Paul was not very good at logic.

Paul is referring to a particular quasi-historical Cretan and a poem he once wrote to illustrate a logical fallacy.

The quasi-historical/quasi-mythical Cretan writer Epimenides once wrote in Cretica

Cretans, always liars

and this is the statement that Paul is referring to. In logic and computer science (see problem 5), this is known as Epimenides's Paradox, and it's logically similar to the following sentence:

This sentence is false.

If the sentence is false, it is not-false, and therefore true. If it is true, then it is therefore false and ... you get the picture.

Paul seems to have completely missed the point. If Epimenides says Cretans always lie, and Epimenides is to be taken at his word (as Paul suggests), then obviously that statement is itself a lie, and Cretans do not always lie.

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    Epimenides said that all Cretans are liars, not that every statement uttered by a Cretan is a lie. Liars sometimes tell the truth.
    – user10397
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 10:06
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    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Dec 21, 2015 at 20:36
  • Many popular slogans are oftentimes paradoxical; e.g., it is forbidden to forbid. Not sure how either awareness of their existence, referencing, or mentioning them makes one unskilled at logic. If anything, it makes one well-read or well-educated.
    – Lucian
    Commented May 10, 2020 at 18:30

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