Epimenides was a Greek philosopher – of sorts – more along the lines of a seer or prophet – from the 6th Century B.C. (Between the Biblical prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and while the Greeks were a scattered assortment of City-States – before Alexander knit them into an empire). Epimenides grew up on the Island of Crete and, to the extent the somewhat legendary records from those days can be trusted, had his life changed by a local religious doctrine. The Cretans believed the gods were dead. They were not alone among the Greeks in this but were thought to be especially dogmatic about it. Ideas ranged from the stories of the gods being elaborated versions of the doings of human warrior hero/kings from the dim past to the gods being a pre-human race/civilization that perished – as all must. Either way, they were all dead. Even Zeus, the (to the Greeks) god of the gods, was dead and gone. The Cretans would have loved Nietzsche! And, they might have had some sympathy for Tolstoy too as, in true Brothers Karamazov fashion, the Cretans were not noted for the high morality of their lifestyle. After all, the gods are dead! When you are all on your own, you might as well do as you please!
Anyway, the Cretans designated a cave as the tomb of Zeus – a sort of monument to their ‘gods are dead’ philosophy. As a Cretan youth, Epimenides is said to have fallen asleep in that cave (The more legendary sources say he slept for 57 years!) and awoke with the gift of prophecy and the absolute conviction that at least one God – the God of all gods – was not dead. To the extent Epimenides thought this great God was Zeus – he certainly thought Zeus was greater and higher than heretofore understood – something that seemed to unite the western idea of individual personal godhood and the eastern idea of a universal divine consciousness in which we all participate.
As the years passed. Epimenides relocated to Athens where he became a respected figure – consulted for wisdom in more than one emergency. One such consultation concerned a long run of ill circumstances that had befallen Athens. Epimenides advised that a flock of sheep be released on the Areopogus (the plaza of temples, shrines, and altars to various gods) and when any sheep laid down, it should be sacrificed to the god/goddess nearest whose establishment it lay. The majority of the sheep confounded the proposal by leaving the plaza entirely and finding a nice meadow outside town to lay down in. There, Epimenides advised the Athenians to build an altar to the great high and unknown god. They did – and sacrificed the sheep. Their streak of bad luck ended.
In addition to such stories, some poetry written by Epimenides also survives. The most famous bit comes from his Quatrains.
They fashioned a tomb for thee o holy and high One The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies
But You are not dead: You live and abide forever For in You, we live and move and have our being
For what it’s worth, Philosophers/logicians have named the ‘paradox of self-reference’ the ‘Epimenides Paradox’. To catch the idea, try it this way. Epimenides says all Cretans are liars. But Epimenides is a Cretan and therefore, by inclusion a liar. Thus – what Epimenides says about the Cretans must be untrue and the Cretans are truthful. But, if the Cretans are truthful and Epimenides is a Cretan then he must also be truthful and what he says about the Cretans must be true. Thus, the Cretans are liars. But – Epimenides is a Cretan and hence a liar himself so……
Take the paradox of self-reference for what it’s worth and let me tell you why Epimenides is remembered at all. He is remembered because his writing made an impression on another young man some 600 years later. Ironically, that young man also found himself religiously at odds with his own people. His name was Paul and he quoted Epimenides at least twice as is recorded in Titus 1:12 and Acts 17:28. Paul regarded Epimenides’ altar to the unknown god – and by extension – the whole matter of Epimenides’ devotion to one great eternal God – as part of God’s dealing with the Athenians, far in the past from Paul’s point of reference, to prepare them for the arrival of Christ – helping the Athenians to move toward the One True God – even as if groping in the dark.
Here’s what I will say. History is a canvas and what often appears to us as random regions of unconnected color, will, when seen with perspective, reveal the Great Artist’s grand design.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church