He stumbled about all day long, frustrated with the search. It had been several hours since he had embarked upon the taxing journey of finding the sheep that had strayed from the fold. Finally, after pushing through the broken, uphill terrain of a small hilly area, the young man, having spotted a small cave decided he would recline for a small nap. Entering the cave, he laid down and was soon fast asleep.
He woke with a start, quickly sitting up. What a nap, he thought to himself. Groggily, he began to rise, subconsciously noticing the dull aches and pains foreign to his body. He reached up to scratch his cheek, but stopped short, his hand hovering slightly above his waist. Hair? Quickly, he looked down and to his surprise noticed that he was the source of this bizarre occurrence. He had a beard! Not only did he have a beard, but the beard reached down to his belly!
Mind reeling with this bizarre turn events, the man scooped up his staff and stumbled out of the cave. It was a bright, cool morning that he stepped out into. Over the horizon, the dissipating steam of morning evaporation was saying its final goodbyes. Unsettled by the dubious appearance of a two-foot beard, the man deceived he would search for the sheep on the morrow. He needed to get home!
The first thing he noticed as he began to near the town were the strangers. Not just the strangers, but many of the buildings seemed out of place; some even appeared to be bigger! Shaking his head, the man began to walk the same path he had walked for many years. Surely he was still groggy from the sleep. Surely no other surprises remained to confound him. Oh, how wrong he was! Little did the man know, though he would soon find out, that his nap in the cave had lasted 57 years.
Does the story sound familiar? Why sure it does! Sounds a little like Rip Van Winkle! What if I were to tell you that this odd story, so familiar with Rip Van Winkle is actually a “legend” about a man whom the Apostle Paul alludes to? What? You don’t remember the scripture where Paul alludes to this character? Well, don’t feel bad…many don’t!
The man in the legend, considered by some to be the original Rip Van Winkle, was a Greek poet and prophet from the 6th century. Considered to be one of the Seven Wise Poets of ancient Greece, he was viewed with alarming respect by some of the greatest Philosophers of the day; Aristotle and Plato among them. Who is he? Epimenides and his name is used in circles of Philosophy to describe what is called the Epimenides Paradox, or for better terms, the Liar’s Paradox.
To gain a better understanding of Epimenides, whose story is filled with speculation and theory, one must first grasp what was considered a well-known belief in Athens during the 1st-century A.D. Story has it, at least to Athenians, that Athens had found itself under a terrible pestilence. Without recourse, not knowing what do to, they consulted with the Oracle of Delphi who, in turn, told them to seek out Epimenides the Poet and Seer.
Sending out emissaries to Crete, they found Epimenides and explained their problem. Agreeing to help them, Epimenides secured several sheep upon arriving in Athens and released them near the point of the Areopagus, better known as Mar’s Hill. According to legend, wherever the sheep were to lay down an altar was to be built and a sacrifice to an unknown god was to be made. Thus were many altars built to many unknown gods, marking where it seems the advice of Epimenides had worked, staying the great pestilence that had come upon Athens.
(For reference, see Greek Bibliographer Diogenes Laurtius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers) Link to Epimenides chapter here
If this story is true or, at the least, was regarded as truth to the Athenians during the time in which the Apostle Paul stood reasoning with the Stoics and Epicureans at Mars Hill, then we are left with a remarkable context from which to draw. Let’s take a closer look.
Acts 17:18-23 (KJV)
18 Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.
19 And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?
20 For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.
21 (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.
23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.
Paul, having visited the city of Athens is immediately overwhelmed by the tremendous amount of superstition and idolatry that is practiced by the Athenians. Reasoning in the synagogues he is eventually approached by local philosophers that seek to hear a “new thing.” Paul, having come across one of the altars to the Unknown God, knowing full well the belief of the Athenians regarding Epimenides (this shall be borne out), uses the altar as his launching point to oppose the superstitions and ignorance of the Athenian’s and preach the One True God.
Taking this further, the idea of “altars to unknown gods” finds mention in at least two other Greek works. One, from 2nd-century Greek writer Pausanius and two, from Philostratus, writing of 1st-century Apollonius. Both men remarked upon the “altars to the unknown gods.”
Recognizing this, Paul’s treatise to the Philosophers is as follows:
Acts 17:24-28 (KJV)
24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
25 Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
26 And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;
27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:
28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.
Notice the final lines spoken in verse 28. According to translations found of what is to be considered from an early 4th century work, the phrase “for in him we live, and move, and have our being” was believed to have been a direct quotation from Epimenides. Going further, Paul makes no issue to follow by also quoting from “certain also of your own prophets have said, (in this case Aratus) For we are also his offspring.”
If indeed Paul was quoting directly from Epimenides, and one can easily trace back to the legend even of the altars to the unknown gods, one can only shake their head at the divine wisdom and incredible foresight of this tremendous dissertation to the philosophers present at Mars Hill. Paul sought to use prevalent ideologies and beliefs, unravel them and reveal, not Zeus but Christ, the only True God!
But what about Epimenides Paradox? Where does that fit in? Well, lets take a look!
Titus 1:10-13 (KJV)
10 For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision:
11 Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake.
12 One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, The Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.
13 This witness is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith;
Here is the Epimenides Paradox, directly from Paul’s writings which allude to the prophet and poet Epimenides. According to Paul, while making a valid point to Titus in regards to the people of Crete, quotes Epimenides’ who had said “the Cretians are always liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.”
The paradox of this statement in the realm of logic falls into the understanding that if all Cretians are liars then Epimenides himself was lying, yet Paul declares “this witness is true!” While there are many who would like to use this scripture to show the inaccuracy of scripture, one must recognize that poets (like Epimenides) used quite a bit of hyperbole in their writings. Declaring all Cretians “always liars, evil beasts, and slow bellies” the exaggeration was meant to declare the gross immorality and character of the people. Paul merely used Epimenides’ words and declared them to be true, even if the hyperbole utilized seemed to broad a picture, at least Titus got the picture quite clearly.
So there you have it…I’d say Paul was quite persuasive when he wrote under divine inspiration, drawing upon prevalent superstitions and writings familiar to his audience.