The Apostle Paul and The Liar Paradox

This sentence which you are now reading is a lie.

Is that sentence true? If it is true then it is a lie because it said that it is a lie. But since it turned out to be true- then it is a lie and so it is not true. If it is not true, that is, if it is a lie, then it is true because it said it was a lie and turned out to be a lie after all. So it’s true. But it’s a lie. So it’s not true. But it was truthful about its falsity… Which makes it false… but… uh oh.

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This conundrum is known as the “Liar Paradox” or the “Epimenedes Paradox” named after the Cretan Philosopher Epimenedes, who is attributed with saying “all Cretans are always liars”.

Though attributed to Epimenedes, versions of this paradox can be found in thinkers further back like Cicero and Aristotle. Many have wrestled with the paradox and sought to find a suitable solution to it throughout the course of Western thought.

The major cause of this paradox is its self-referential nature. Since it refers to itself, it leaves us with an odd snake-biting-its-own-tail type feedback loop. If the sentence said “the sentence you read after this one is a lie” then there would be no problem because it wouldn’t refer to itself. Likewise, if Epimenedes had said “all Cretans besides me are liars” then there wouldn’t be a problem because he would not be referring to himself and we could test the sentence to see if it is true or false. But because in our cases the speaker includes themself in the class being referred to, since it is self-referential, we end up with this kind of Gordian knot.

One modern solution is to argue that the sentence is neither true nor false, it’s just a failure of “bivalence”, meaning it’s a failure of the principle that every proposition is either true or false. It’s simply neither true nor false- it falls into a third category. It has no truth value. Others have said that since it falls outside truth and falsity, then it’s sheer nonsense. Gibberish. So then, given either one of these conclusions, there is no problem. We solved it. Boom! Hurray us!

Welp, philosopher Bas Van Frassen says not so quick,

“Before we begin to feel too smug about this, however, we must face a second paradox, which I shall call the Strengthened Liar and which was designed especially for those enlightened philosophers who are not taken in by bivalence. The Strengthened Liar says “What I say is either false or neither true nor false.”

If we now ask whether the sentences is true or false or neither, we find that each of these answers is absurd. For example, suppose that what he says is neither true nor false. Then clearly it is either false or neither true nor false. But then what he said was the case. So what he said was true. And now we seem to be properly caught, our sophistication with respect to bivalence notwithstanding.” (Van Frassen, “Presupposition, Implication, and Self-Reference” in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 65, No. 5, 147)

Van Frassen then seeks to answer the Strengthened Liar paradox by appealing to his, and P.F. Stawson’s, notion of ‘presupposition’ in order to argue that the Liar and the Strengthened Liar result in failures of presuppositions and thus they are failures of bivalence and are neither true nor false- his argument is exceptionally technical. I tend to agree with Van Frassen here but I’m not super comfortable with calling a proposition “neither true nor false”.

However, while the study of this paradox can be dizzying, I thought it would be interesting to note that the Apostle Paul actually addresses it in his letter to his disciple, Titus.

Paul writes,

“5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you… 10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, 14 not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth.”

Paul takes a bit of a different tact than Van Frassen, lol. Paul just barrels through the problem, agrees to it, and uses it as an opportunity to instruct Titus in how to handle the Cretan opponents to the gospel. Paul’s point is a pastoral point of instruction. His instruction concerns a particular group of Cretans, rather than Epimenedes and the set of all Cretans generally. Paul says to quote their own prophet who says that all Cretans are liars, and then use that as an opportunity to rebuke the Cretans and point them back to the truth.

But the paradox that Paul addresses turns out to be different than the Liar paradox and the Strengthened Liar paradox. Since Paul is quoting one of the Cretan prophets, Epimenedes, and since it is reported speech and not Paul himself making the self-referential claim, the paradox transforms into what Van Frassen terms the Weakened Liar.

Van Frassen explains that the phrase “Epimenides the Cretan is reported to have said that all statements by Cretans are false” clearly cannot be true,

“For what he said was said by a Cretan, and hence he has implicitly asserted its falsity. But we can consistently hold that what is said is false. This just means that something said by some Cretan is not false. And this is not as implausible as Epimenides seems to have thought.” (Ibid., 150.)

So, we see that the Weakened Liar is weaker than the others in that is it false and can consistently be held to be false. Boom, no paradox after all. But wait, didn’t the Apostle Paul say that the Weakened Liar was true in verse 13? If Paul says that it’s true, and we can see that it’s obviously false, then is Paul stating a falsehood? Is Paul wrong and if so is biblical inerrancy out the window? Are we doomed to an irrevocable skepticism??

I don’t think so.

Here a couple study Bible notes can help us figure this out. The NIV Zondervan Study Bible note to Titus 1:12 argues that “The point is not that every Cretan is like this but that decadence and dishonesty are a threat to the churches Titus oversees because they are deeply embedded in the everyday life of the surrounding culture.” Likewise, the HCSB Apologetics Study Bible says that “Epimenides’s characterization was not universally true, but it was true in reference to Paul’s opponents.” And lastly, The ESV Study Bible emphatically says “Of course Paul means this as a generalization, not necessarily true of every single inhabitant of Crete.” The ESV also drives the point that the Cretans were not super great people by quoting Polybius’ statement that it was “almost impossible to find… personal conduct more treacherous or public policy more unjust than in Crete” (Histories 6.47). And quoting Cicero’s statement that “Moral principles are so divergent that the Cretans… consider highway robbery honorable” (Republic 3. 9. 15).

So, although Paul was not unfounded in agreeing that all cretans are liars, in context, it seems that he meant that Epimenides’s statement is true not universally of all Cretans, which would include Epimenides and thus commit him to a falsehood (and perhaps destroy the doctrine of inerrancy), but that the statement was particularly true of the Cretan opponents of the gospel in the Circumcision party, which does not include Epimenides himself, and thus does not entail a false proposition. Paul is making a joke; he’s playing on the liar paradox to tease his the Cretan opponents while also warning of their need for repentance. This view seems much more reasonable and charitable to Paul, however, if you want to argue the point I’m all ears. Though, I reserve the right to call you a liar.


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