He stumbled about all day long, frustrated with the search. It had been several hours since he had embarked on 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 and quickly sat up. What a nap, he thought to himself. Groggily, he began to rise, subconsciously noticing the rather obtrusive aches and pains in his body. Reaching up to attend to an itch on his cheek, his hand hovered mere inches from his face. Hair? Looking down with surprise, not only did he realize that he had facial hair but the facial hair reached down to his waist!
Mind spinning due to this alarming turn of events, he scooped up his staff and, with a groan, pushed himself up and onto his feet. Oh, but it hurt! As he began to inch toward the cave entrance, he lifted a hand up to shield his eyes from the light streaming through the entrance. Finally, stepping out into the open the cool morning air washed over him and his eyes met the welcome sight of the misty remnants of morning dew evaporating into the air. Where were the sheep, he puzzled. At that moment, a sharp pain shot up through his right leg and all thoughts of sheep disappeared as he began to set forward down the path toward his house.
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 6th Greek poet and prophet from the 6th century that was considered to be one of the Seven Wise Poets of ancient Greece. Viewed with alarming respect by some of the greatest philosophers of the day, Aristotle and Plato among his admirers, Epimenides would come to be known within certain circles of philosophy to describe what is called the Epimenides Paradox or, what is also known as, the Liar’s Paradox.
To better understand Epimenides, whose story is filled with speculation and theory, we must first understand a commonly held belief by the Athenians during the 1st century A.D. According to the story, Athens had found itself under the grip of a terrible pestilence. So great was the pestilence that they were left with only one option; consult with the Oracle of Delphi. Upon consulting with the Oracle, they were told to seek out Epimenides, the Poet and the 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 laid down to rest an altar was to be built and a sacrifice to an unknown god was to be offered. In turn, this remedy seemed to eliminate the plague. And so it is, due to the amount of altars built to unknown gods in the place where sheep laid down to rest, that ones approach to Mar’s Hill was littered with the altars built to the unknown gods. (For reference, see Greek Bibliographer Diogenes Laurtius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers) Link to Epimenides chapter here
Epimenides and Paul
If this story is true or, at the least, was regarded as truth to the Athenians during the time 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 its residents. 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.
Furthermore, this idea of “altars to unknown gods” finds mention in at least two other Grecian works of literature. First, from the 2nd-century Greek writer Pausanius and, second, the writings of Philostratus in his 1st-century work regarding Apollonius. Remarkably, both of these men made remark in regards to 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 line in verse 28. According to discoveries of 4th century work literature, the phrase “for in him we live, and move, and have our being,” was believed to have been a direct quotation from Epimenides. Furthermore, Paul indicates that “certain also of your own prophets have said ‘for we are also his offspring.’” (Attributed to Aratus).
If, as we suspect, that Paul was quoting directly from Epimenides we can find ourselves shaking out head with great wonder, especially considering the legend of the altars to the unknown gods. What incredible foresight and wisdom, standing before some of the greatest philosophers of the day on Mar’s Hill! If this actually occurred, Paul was using prevalent ideologies and beliefs to develop the idea of the One True God while undermining the austere worship of gods such as Zeus.
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 that alludes to the prophet and poet Epimenides! According to Paul, while making a valid point to Titus in regards to the people of Crete, he quotes Epimenides’ who had said “the Cretians are always liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.” The paradox of this statement, as it relates to the study of logic, essentially declares that “if all Cretians are liars then Epimendides himself was lying!” What does Paul then declare? “This witness is true!”
While many would attempt to use this Scripture to point out errancy, one must understand that poets, such as Epimenides, fancied the use of hyperbole within their writings. Declaring all creations “always liars, evil beasts, and slow bellies,” was an exaggeration that meant to underline the gross immorality and character of the people of Crete! Paul, using Epimenides’ words, declared them to be true, even if the hyperbole seemed to board a brush. However, at least Titus go the picture quite clearly!