"One of Crete's own prophets has said it: 'Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.' He has surely told the truth!" (Titus 1:12)
Four years ago, my then 14-year-old daughter Rachel was watching me put together some power-point slides for class and asked if she could make one. I told her to make me something for Titus, since I didn't have much of anything creative for that often neglected of Pauline epistles. The result was a slide with several bullet-point entries like, "I like Titus." "Titus is short," "You should read it, too." She insisted I include it in my class presentation which I did every year since. Students always laughed.
Last summer she asked to revise the slide. She took out the bullet points and substituted one large all-capitals, stylized, red-letter slogan: "Don't be a Cretan!" The more I thought about it, the more it struck me that such a summary could well hold its own in competition for the "big idea" of the letter. Titus is pastoring one or more churches on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean sea, beset by problems related to a Judaizing heresy, perhaps with other local syncretistic elements mixed in. The Christians are quite young, many probably from rough and rustic backgrounds, so godly and mature leaders are hard to come by. In this context it is not surprising that the first two main topics Paul addresses after a rich, theologically detailed greeting (Titus 1:1-4) are the criteria for choosing elders/overseers (vv. Titus 1:5-9) and rebuking the false teachers (vv. Titus 1:10-16). Into this last section, he inserts the verse quoted above on the evils of being a Cretan.
Already in pre-Christian Greek philosophy the "liar's paradox" was well-known. If I truthfully declare that Andreas always lies, and then Andreas pipes up by saying, "I am lying," is he telling the truth or lying? If he is telling the truth, then his statement that he is lying is true, which means he has to be lying rather than telling the truth. If Andreas' statement is false, which it should be if he always lies, then it is false that he is lying which means he is telling the truth, which is what he can't be doing. So there is no way to answer the question as to whether Andreas is lying or telling the truth! Everybody still with me? :) (This is why I don't teach philosophy for a living!)
So now substitute Paul for me and the Cretans for Andreas. (Since Andreas is a Greek name and one I picked at random for the purposes of illustration, it's easy to make him be a Cretan). The reason Cretans got the reputation that they did was because they boasted that they housed the tomb of Zeus. But as head of the Olympic pantheon of Greek gods, Zeus could not die. So the Cretans' claim must be a lie. The Cretan philosopher Epimenides then coined the slogan that Paul quotes and endorses here.
Most commentators have simply assumed that Paul, like Epimenides, was employing hyperbole. He knows it is logically impossible for all of them to lie all the time. But as a broad generalization, he was able to use this well-known quotation to reinforce for Titus the seriousness of sorting out the problems in the Cretan churches. And the Cretans can't get too mad at Paul because all he is doing is citing their own writer back to them. Besides Epimenides' slogan had become somewhat humorous in the Hellenistic world; it wasn't necessarily even meant to cause offense, so much as poke fun at the silly claim about Zeus. Perhaps it wasn't too much worse, culturally speaking, than someone who might remind lifelong Cubs fans like me at the start of a new baseball season, "Cubs are always losers, always letting their fans down, lovable and laughable though they might be." Especially if a Cubs fan was being quoted, and since there is a core truth behind the quotation, it's hard to get too upset.
But English scholar Anthony Thiselton suggests that Paul is actually trying to point out how self-defeating it is to live in ways that do not match one's ideology or, in this case, religious commitments. This would certainly make the passage much more widely relevant and applicable, not only to situations that resemble Crete's but to all of us.
We've just finished celebrating Good Friday and Easter Sunday, powerful annual reminders of the need for cruciform, selfless, servant lifestyles buttressed by the spiritual power already ours now to live above our circumstances and one day to triumph over death with resurrection bodies for life everlasting, wonderful beyond imagination. Are we demonstrating to the world around us that these spiritual truths are indeed realities in our lives, or are we creating our own liars' paradoxes, leading some to think, "Christians are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons"? Telling the truth, doing good, avoiding boorishness and violence, working hard and not overindulging our appetites for anything we are tempted to covet are crucial priorities for one who would bear Jesus' name before today's mockers and skeptics.