CRETANS ARE ALWAYS LIARS (Titus 1:12)
The sixth century b.c. Greek writer Epimenedes is alleged to have originally penned the phrase, "Cretans are always liars". He may have been having a particularly bad memory of his experiences on the Island of Crete when he opined about the Cretans lack of veracity in their speech. As a consequence of his recording this judgment, he managed to get himself quoted and thereby enshrined in sacred scripture in the
pastoral letter to Titus as follows:
"Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons."
This testimony is true
The above social stereotype of Cretans as "always liars" provides an interesting problem for New Testament interpretation. This is a statement now set in stone as part of canonical scripture. It will be read til the end of the age. What are we to make of this severe judgment of the Cretans now enshrined in unchangeable scripture? First of all, let us assume that the Biblical assertion "this testimony is true" clearly stamps the judgment of Epimenedes -- or whoever is being quoted - as 'the factual case' about the culture on the island of Crete in the particular historical time of the writing of the letter to Titus.
This judgment about a historical situation as a "cultural given" of the first century Roman world, namely that "Cretans are always liars" takes on particular significance by being enshrined in the Biblical Canon. It must not be overlooked that this characterization carries scripture endorsement to the effect that "this testimony is true." On the one hand, the appearance of this social judgment in Scripture does not constitute Cretans as liars, namely causing them to be such when they had hitherto been truthful. Nor, on the other hand, I would not contend that we are to understand this text as being the first recognition of this state of affairs with respect to the Cretan people. Instead, Paul is using a commonly accepted social fact that Cretans were already judged to be 'always' prevaricators as part of his caution in his instructions to Titus. In short, Paul is citing what was accepted as something commonly understood by all who knew the Cretans.
Paul's use of the cultural situation, the "given" of an existing state in Cretan society for his present purposes in this pastoral letter poses an intriguing problem about how we are to regard historical change and the meaning of unchanging scripture. Our interpretation problem is this: "What if the future social situation changes with regard to these people? Since the gospel is to be presented to the Cretans, we should certainly expect there to be a change in the way Cretans behave and, consequently, in the way they should rightly be characterized as a
result of their becoming followers of Jesus. Assuming they will change in their speech from lying to always speaking the truth, will this mean that the infallible, unchangeable scripture which has characterized them as 'always liars' is now false? This is not just a hypothetical problem. It is, in fact, the problem of cultural change and scripture interpretation with regard to various social roles. When a cultural situation changes in history, how does this affect our understanding of
As noted, this judgment of "Cretans as always liars" will not be true or will not be the actual case anymore, if Christianity is effective on the Island of Crete during the next century or more following the writing of the letter to Titus admonishing him to be aware of this character flaw and, implying that he is to get busy and change this very problem. It is, in fact, the intent of the letter to make this scripture statement become "untrue". Hopefully, one-hundred years later, Christianity will have made firm converts among the Cretans to such an extent that this scripture which states "Cretans are always liars" is simply "false". What then?
Obviously, contemporary exegetes would scurry about and say, "Oh, there is really no problem here; we simply respect the fact that the social, cultural situation has changed with regard to the people of Crete. All that is required is that we must simply point out that scripture is still true and can still be read in church but it must be qualified by referring it back to the time of its writing. The Bible teacher leading the class through the letter of Titus must simply point out that the
comment "Cretans are always liars" was merely a "cultural given" at the time it was written. Paul is simply using a "cultural fact" already the actual case in Cretan society. This fact is widely known and accepted and is simply being used as part of the instruction to Titus." Putting this cultural fact into sacred scripture does not mean that it must forever be the case in order for the truth of the Bible to be
In brief, we are admitting that we can allow culture to change without affecting the truth of the everlasting gospel. Furthermore, it is a 'truism' that cultures change over time and this can effect our interpretation and use of scripture. We can allow this interactive step with regard to our interpreting scripture as under the constraints of history or culture with regard to the "cultural given of the time of writing" for the statement that "Cretans are always liars", but will be consistent and allow Paul's statement of a "cultural given" such as "the man is the head of the woman" or "the husband is the head of the wife", both facts of such long standing before Paul as to have been the 'true cultural situation' whether Paul had ever referenced the matter. Paul did not bring this relationship of 'male-female' in the Roman world into existence by making pronouncements in the Corinthian, Ephesian or Pastoral letters. It was there long before him and would have been true
outside of the Judeo-Christian world of his time as well.
Of course, our learned exegete of today would sagely add that Scripture spoke to its own time and we are obligated to respect the historical, cultural condition which it addresses. As a thought experiment, let us assume that we are listening in across time to a teacher referencing the Cretan situation in 160 a.d. after the gospel has had its effect on the Island of Crete. I would expect that the Bible teacher leading a class through the letter to Titus in 160 a.d. to point out to the students,
"class, you must realize that a century ago, scripture could truthfully assert 'Cretans are always liars'. Now, however, one-hundred years later, due to the effectiveness of the Christian ministry, we are happy to state that this is no longer the case and, in fact, Cretans are now always reliable and trustworthy, at least the large number that have obeyed the gospel. We are indeed pleased with this 'cultural change'and adapt our understanding of scripture accordingly."
The fact that infallible, unchangeable scripture can assert a social situation in its time which may no longer be true in a later historical time is usually regarded as trivial and not a matter to be dwelt upon, even by strict constructionist interpreters. Alas, scripture usage of changing "cultural givens" becomes a matter of great concern when we bring the situation close to home and hearth.
Consider the following cultural statements which were "givens" or "truisms" of the first century Roman world:
1. Cretans are always liars
2. Man is the head of the woman
3. The husband is the head of the wife
4. Slaves obey your masters
5. A woman is not to teach or have authority over man
Considering some of the above items in our list, Roman law and custom gave the patriarchal male in the household virtually absolute authority over both the slave and the woman. This included control over the woman's social behavior. For instance, Livy, among the Roman intellectuals of the period, reflects the Roman cultural bias that the proper role of the subordinated woman required that she communicate through her husband, if she wished to inquire or speak about things of a
public nature. Let us focus on the 'cultural givens' captured by numbers two, three and five above. In the Greek culture, Aristotle,three hundred years before the birth of Christ, reflects the situation in his society by commenting that the man is to rule and the woman is to submit since this is their nature and applies to all mankind. This affected the woman's public life directly. The Greek philosopher
Plutarch insisted that it was indecent for a woman to speak in a public place. Josephus, Philo and a host of other Jewish thinkers of the first century demonstrate the same view of man's relationship to woman among the Hebrew people with Philo picking up one strand of the cultural understanding of first century Jewish thought in its view that woman is more deceivable than man and that this accounts for the serpent approaching the woman in Eden at the time of the temptation.
The intertestamental Jewish writers may be picking up Hellenistic influence in their describing woman as sensual and weak whereas man was rational and strong. All of the above views would certainly justify the restriction of women from leadership and teaching roles with respect to man. Cultural Anthropology would point out that the above simply describes the understanding of male-female role relationships in the
whole of the ancient world including cultures outside of the Biblical lands. One can also consider the explorations of ancient cultures by cultural anthropologists who can document the general role restriction of women, as a group, to concerns with child bearing, child rearing and domestic affairs of life which kept her from public roles. This restriction of roles for women, as a group, resulted in their lacking the experience relevant to tasks in public life where leadership demands
wide social contact in the community and broad experience in cultural affairs. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy that women, as a group, would not be the potential talent pool when looking for leadership and teaching in areas where training and experience was restricted primarily to males. It should not be surprising that it could be a proper judgment in both paganism and Biblical societies that women, as a group, were more deceivable than men in regard to tasks of leading and teaching. Restriction of education, training and of cultural roles would make this the "cultural given" for women, as a group, in first century societies. This would have the case for prior historical epochs as well. Paul's instructions with regard to the roles of males and females, husbands and wives and the selection of public leaders for the church must be read in light of the 'constraints of history' or the
'cultural givens'. In this light, his instructions have, for me, 'the ring of truth' and 'fit the situation' appropriately. But if the cultural situation changes with regard to the Cretans and also with regard to the 'role enlargement' of women in other historical times and places, I would reason that we should adjust our understanding accordingly.
In summary, whether such statements as, "the man is the head of the woman, the husband is the head of the wife, the woman is not to teach or rule over man, and woman is more deceivable than man" had ever been recorded in sacred scripture or not, they would have been "the true case" in the Roman world of the first century. The "existence and reality" of such judgments as found in these statements were not brought into existence by pronouncements from divine revelation uttered by an
The apostles do use these current 'cultural givens' in their instruction but do not thereby cause them to come into existence or make them historically so. On the contrary, they were commonplace understandings in various segments of all ancient cultures. We speak of these factors as "cultural givens" with which anyone who would teach in these cultures would have to come to terms, if one wished to address the audience in a relevant manner about the issues of life in the society "then".
However, many Bible readers have relatively little knowledge of ancient cultures and know only the Bible text. Being almost wholly unaware of the ancient historical situation, the Bible reader can be tempted into serious misreading of the scripture by assuming that its words and observations are totally unique and that its statements reflect understandings that became known only when revealed to a prophet or apostle. More than a century and a half past, Alexander Campbell called
attention to the misunderstanding of the nature of scripture content by pointing out that Scripture content has two sources, namely historical realities known to a particular time by believers and unbelievers in God, as well as content which reveals the mind of God on a matter and could not be known apart from divine revelation. Campbell felt that a great amount of scripture falls into the first category with the second being much less in extent but of course far greater in its importance. A simple illustration drawn from the many Campbell cites is to consider
the scripture content which tells us that Jesus died on the cross in Jerusalem under the governorship of Pontius Pilate. Campbell asserts that this is not revelation. This was historical content known to many who never believed that Jesus was the Son of God. However, when scripture records that "Jesus died for our sins", this is a statement about how God viewed this event and God's mind on the matter could only
be known by our accepting this statement as 'divine revelation'. In treating this topic, Campbell notes that much mischief comes from our failure to handle aright the Word of God with regard to these two types of content.
Unless one is properly instructed along the lines suggested by Campbell, there is a danger that scripture may take on a kind of aura of a strange, divinely revealed knowledge about the affairs of life which are sacrosanct because they are thought to be found only in sacred writ and are not available to man as man. In fact, there is little that is unique about the teaching of scripture with regard to human relationships. As the popular Christian writer, C.S. Lewis, has pointed out, you can duplicate the ethical teachings of the Bible in other sources. The great and impressive uniqueness of Judeo-Christian scripture is not found in these areas, primarily. Scripture uniquenessis in its revelation of God in covenant with Israel and then in Jesus as Savior in fulfilling the hope of the covenant. I fear that the lack of awareness of such matters leads us to place too great a value on human
cultural information that is the background of the Scripture wherein we find the means of our relationship with God in Christ. In short, we may make sacred that which was simply the historical context in which scripture was delivered. Canonizing first century Biblical culture is a serious mistake, or so I judge.
The numerical list of five statements presented above are parallel, or so I reason, in that they are simply descriptive of what was the case in first century Rome. So, let us consider the matter of cultural change and the consequent shift required in the use of scripture.
Look back again to the scripture "Cretans are always liars". We have learned that this was a social given of the time. Scripture did not make this so, it was already the historical situation and is merely being observed to lead into certain teaching which Titus is to do. Furthermore, this 'cultural given' is allowed to change without damaging our view of scripture. Where so many Biblical students begin to falter is when we deal with the 'cultural truisms' that are close to home, namely, in the statements "man is the head of the woman or the husband is the head of the wife". So acculturated are many Bible readers to associating the role relationships characterized as hierarchical and patriarchical with sacred scripture only, and knowing essentially nothing but the Biblical text, they are unaware that these statements reflect such commonplace cultural knowledge so as not to have merited a headline status in a Greek and Roman newspaper of the period. In fact,
they were such accepted understandings in their time as to likely not merit even a mention - in short, they were not news.
However, the use in scripture of these cultural givens leads many Bible readers who do not know this historical background to jump to some strange conclusions. First, there is a tendency to think - mistakenly - that the appearance in the Bible of these statements "constitutes" their reality. In other words, only when divine revelation spoke, did these realities come into existence in the society. I repeat for emphasis that some may think this is the first time these ideas have been heard. They assume that a holy prophetic voice has enunciated a new cultural reality in the world. This is patently false in that the NT is frequently recording statements from what is 'the case' in the culture at large whether it be the social fact that "Cretans are always liars", "man is the head of the woman" or "slaves obey your masters".
These cultural givens or social roles do not originate with scripture; they are simply being used in communicating a message. How else could the scripture writer address the culture except by using its own words and social institutions. Nevertheless, it is a serious matter to uncritically incorporate these cultural "givens", namely in the present case, the first century particular male-female role characterizations directly into our Christian life as required 'salvation events' to be observed for all time, as unchangeable absolutes. This would be treating them as though they are "revelational" events from God rather than regarding them properly as the understanding of human society at a given historical moment which the writer is utilizing in communicating the gospel.
Why are the above statements incorporated into scripture? The reasons are various and perhaps not fully knowable but there is one new thing of critical import evident to us and that is the addition to statements two, three and four, namely, the 'spirit' or 'attitude' in which these "given social roles" of husband and wife or master and slave are to be filled. It is the teaching that these roles are to be conducted "as to the Lord." This last phrase "as to the Lord" is the 'revelational' aspect and asks us to view our functioning in 'whatever state we are
called as 'service to God and not man'.
For example, given that Roman culture has the social roles of "master" and "slave", these roles can be filled in such a way as to yield such service to the Lord. So Paul reasons in his instructions to slaves and also to masters. The social role itself has no salvation significance outside of our life in Christ. To demonstrate this, consider a seemingly obvious fact that the social subservience of a wife to a
husband or the obedience of a slave to a master in the common life of the first century Roman world would be expected by Roman custom and law and would not, as such, constitute 'salvation events' for those outside of Christ regardless of how faithfully and subserviently they may discharge their role expectations. The Roman government would probably consider this subservience beneficial to the society at large, but these social roles and their conduct are not 'salvation events', as such. They suddenly become "salvation events" when these role expectations are
met in the Spirit and "as to the Lord."
Now, just as the Scripture use of the social statement or "truism", namely "Cretans are always liars" can change and no longer be the case despite its being part of Holy writ, so can these other statements become falsified with regard to the changed social situation. In short, the cultural forms for male-female relationships can and have changed from the ancient hierarchical pattern to that of egalitarian one in certain Western democracies of our time. Scripture does not thereby become false, as we observed in reference to "Cretans are always liars", it retains its historical truth function at the time of its writing as descriptive of the true situation, for example, with regard to the Cretans in the time of Titus ministry. A similar fate can befall the other cultural role statements in our list.
We are viewing as parallel the statements "Cretans are always liars", "man is the head of the woman" and "the husband is the head of the wife". We have noted that these statements were 'cultural givens' of first century Rome, but they are not the "cultural givens" in some sectors of the United States of America in today.
I can speak best of my life-world, namely the secular university. In this setting, as an Academic Dean, I participated in hiring university professors. We employed numerous women who had a doctorate in the fields in which we were hiring but the university had no employment possibilities for the husband. In many of these cases, the woman's career would become the primary one in this household. It was a fact of career reality that the husband was uprooted in his trade in order to accommodate the wife's professorial career. In these instances, it was often the case that the wife had the stable and economically viable career in contrast to the husband. This reflects a relatively dramatic shift in customary male-female role relationships, at least as they have been typical in the past.
Before someone becomes sidetracked with the woman being employed in this manner, I would preface this issue by noting that some of our most restrictive writers with regard to women's roles in Churches of Christ have, in print, clearly stated that women can work outside the home, and that women can lead and teach men outside the home. Remarkable concessions with regard to changing male-female roles, or so I think. But, let us turn back to our female professor with the primary career in
the household. Consider, at this point, proclaiming to such a female professor -- the one with the primary, stable career responsibility -- "hear ye, hear ye", 'the man is the head of the woman' and 'the husband is the head of the wife'. Would we dare add, "the woman is not to teach or lead (or have authority over) men"? While weighing that kind of jangling noise, what conceivable purpose could be served by such a message? In fact, would it not be productive of conflict in responsibly fulfilling one's career and exercising one's ability with integrity before God. Is someone to venture that, granted, it does not seem to serve a logical purpose but it would represent a strict following of a supposed scripture rule which is presumed to be unchanging?
Now let us heighten, with another example, a further problem with 'role restriction' of women appropriately trained and having relevant experience in today's world. Consider the actual situation that for a time a woman was the head of one of the largest higher education systems in the world, namely the California State University System. This woman was chancellor over a twenty-campus system with over 350,000 students. Now it so happens that her husband was a professor at one of the
campuses. This female educator was a national and even internationally respected leader -- even rumored for a U.S. cabinet post. In public professional meetings, she was clearly the person sought out in conferencing on significant educational issues. Her experience and expertise was far beyond that of a regular faculty member, namely the experience life of her husband. What possible 'sense' could it make to place injunctions on this individual that the "man is the head of the
woman", "the husband is the head of the wife," "the woman is more deceivable than the man", and "the woman is not permitted to teach or lead (have authority over) men". This, it should be evident, if given serious attention, would simply create havoc with regard to the functioning or rational discharge of such a major social role in this leadership career. It cannot, so I would reason, be a response to one's obligations in life under God to attempt to follow such dysfunctional concepts in this position. I think this is a kind of paradigm case. The only way we could reject it as such is to say that no woman could be a Christian and be in such a major social role. But our strict constructionist C of C brethren have already conceded that the woman can have a career outside the home and can teach and lead men in such a career. I use this high profile case to highlight what will happen in a less prominent manner but no less real ways in the life career of many Christian women today. I do not think many church men have thought through what such past traditions and traditioning, as the injunctions noted above, will demand of the woman who serves in non-traditional ways.
I am aware that at this very juncture some strict constructionists with regard to women's roles will try to make a strange 'monastic retreat'. They will argue that these injunctions would only be applicable in the home and in the church. They do not, or so I firmly believe, make any logical sense when applied to the women in the two examples above, even when restricted to the home and the church. They would look like an arbitrary, illogical rule. Though the strict constructionist is recognizing the manifest leadership gifts outside home and church - within the home and church, these gifts must be suppressed -- and, likewise, she must suppress the consequent judgments about the illogical rulings that such a leadership mind would natively form - while actualizing subservience at home or in church. What conceivable rationale for such suppression of expertise could be given except -
that's the way the rule goes. This seems a desperate retreat.
If we follow this kind of role restriction, what are we trying to infer that Paul is teaching as an "absolute" or "unchangeable" rule? We have countered this restrictive approach by offering an interpretation that does not evade the clear teaching of the apostle in writing to Timothy in Ephesus. Our model sees Paul teaching very plainly that, in the 'cultural context' of first century Ephesus, women are not to teach and lead men. In addition, we are viewing this as a wise and appropriate way of dealing with a 'cultural given', namely, a culture in which women were not honored for leading men and were not trained or experienced in
this activity. Our cultural situation is dramatically different. We should get busy and deal appropriately with our 'cultural given' which includes highly trained, experienced women who can and do lead and teach men.
In this way, we believe that we actualize the "intent" of
the apostle which was to behave appropriately in culture by honoring the 'restrictive rules' of the ancient society, such as that of Ephesus in Paul's time, and by inference, or so I reason, honoring the 'egalitarian, life-expressive rules' of certain sectors of Western
culture where "the man is not deemed the head of woman". I am contending that we honor Paul's intent of respecting the permitted cultural behaviors for males and females in his and our time by filling cultural career roles today on the basis of competence not sexual classification. The roles of bond and free, male and female clearly were honored as qualifications for social privilege and performance in
first century Rome when Paul wrote his instructions. These classifications are clearly not relevant to social career roles in our land today.
What can we say about Paul's restrictive argument concerning woman, if we try to turn it into some "ahistorical" absolute? First, if women are not to teach and lead men because they were considered more deceivable than men (Adam was not deceived but the woman was deceived), and this is viewed as some 'permanent', disqualifying condition of the woman in any or all cultures, how can we justify with integrity and honesty promoting this individual for leadership over men and women in so-called secular aspects of life - that is outside the church and the home, as per our strict constructionist permission. How do we avoid an integrity problem of promoting a more deceivable person in the public world while refusing this risk within church and home? This seems to be the case facing the strict constructionist who rejects the type of interpretation which we are proposing which views the incapacity of the ancient woman as no longer relevant with regard to the highly trained talent pool of women today. This model views the 'deceivableness factor' in Paul's injunction as a social consequent of the restricted acculturation allowed women in first century Rome whereby they were simple unskilled for the task of leadership and lacking the requisite experience, and as a result, it would be a commonplace that they would be more deceivable than men.
This cultural condition with regard to disqualifying the woman due to her lack of social training and experience which led to her being more deceivable than man in teaching and leading can be overcome by a change in social practice and has been so changed today in certain Western Democracies. Also, the disqualifying factor of the cultural shame associated with women ruling men has likewise been removed by cultural changes in Western history. Now, in fact, it is shameful to exclude the
woman from teaching and leading in the public arena involving men.
If women are not to teach and lead men because Adam was first formed, then Eve, how can we conceivably think this historical situation has changed just because one is outside the home or the church - whatever church could mean in this kind of argument. If women are not to lead and teach men because 'man is the head of woman', once again, how can we conceivably argue that this situation has changed just because the woman is outside the home or the church? The monastic retreat seems to me to create enormous problems for interpretation and application of
scripture. There are other serious issues with using this argument as providing some sort of absolute which I have dealt with at length in my Pepperdine University Lectures (April, 1996), Roles of Men and Women in Contemporary Culture and Church: Models of Change Compatible with Scripture. I will not repeat them here.
Rather than engaging in attempts to utilize restrictive rules appropriate to the first century world and very inappropriate for our contemporary culture, why can we not recognize a cultural given in that just as "Cretans are always liars" can become untrue by social change, so likewise can the injunctions about women which reflected a realistic cultural role restriction due to the way women were regarded and treated in a prior historical epoch become untrue in a changed social world? We
have contended that the role restriction placed upon women in the ancient world did not allow women, as a group, to acquire the relevant experience in public life to be leaders and teachers outside of the domestic concerns which they mastered. Ancient societies, due to their role restrictive practices with regard to women, intelligently assigned the older women to teach the younger women and the older men to teach the younger men. To have done otherwise, given their bias in acculturation practices, would have been very unwise. These societies, in contrast to our own, did not prepare large numbers of women to be leaders and teachers of men. Today, we intend to have approximately one-half of our physicians as women who will be making life and death decisions. Wake up! It is not just that Crete could change, so can we and so have we. The gospel of Christ is not focused on establishing "cultural roles" and its regulation of such does not go beyond ensuring that we submit the 'whole of our life' (not just church and home) to living "as to the Lord". A woman who goes to work outside the home in leading and teaching men and women, is still "in the Lord." If her leading and teaching in the church is dangerously and liable to deceit, it is thus at home and in public. We simply cannot be schizophrenics
and live healthy lives.
Grace, in Christ
Kenneth Shrable, Ph.D.