Questions From Readers
▪ Was the apostle Paul showing ethnic prejudice in agreeing with a blanket criticism of the Cretan people?
No, Paul did not give in to the practice of making all-inclusive slurs about people of another ethnic or national background.
This question springs from comments in Paul’s letter to the disciple Titus. Paul had left him on the large Mediterranean island of Crete to “correct the things that were defective and [to] make appointments of older men in city after city.” Paul outlined some qualifications for congregation elders but advised Titus: “There are many unruly men, profitless talkers, and deceivers of the mind, especially those men who adhere to the circumcision. It is necessary to shut the mouths of these, as these very men keep on subverting entire households.”—Titus 1:5, 10, 11.
Paul continued in Tit 1 verse 12: “A certain one of them, their own prophet, said: ‘Cretans are always liars, injurious wild beasts, unemployed gluttons.’” In Tit 1 verse 13, he added: “This witness is true. For this very cause keep on reproving them with severity, that they may be healthy in the faith.”
Many Bible translators let Paul’s comment “this witness is true” continue right after what he quoted from a Cretan prophet. Others begin a new paragraph with verse 13.* In either case, to what was Paul expressing some agreement?
He certainly was not agreeing with any all-encompassing racial or ethnic slur against the Cretans. We can be sure of that, for Paul knew that on Crete there were fine Christians whom God had approved and anointed with His holy spirit. (Acts 2:5, 11, 33) There were enough devoted Christians to make up congregations in “city after city.” While such Christians were not perfect humans, we can be sure that they were not liars and lazy gluttons; otherwise they would not have continued to have Jehovah’s approval. (Philippians 3:18, 19; Revelation 21:8) And as we today find in all nations, likely there were on Crete honesthearted people who were saddened by the low moral standards around them and were ready to respond to the Christian message.—Ezekiel 9:4; compare Acts 13:48.
On the other hand, there were also people on Crete who did not have high moral standards. Paul found it appropriate to quote the words that apparently originated with Epimenides, a Cretan poet (prophet or spokesman) in the sixth century B.C.E. But Paul was agreeing with that description as applied to a particular segment of the Cretan population.
These were the ‘profitless talkers and deceivers of the mind’ who were in contact with faithful Christians and were trying to ‘subvert entire households.’ Such subversive deceivers truly fit the description “liars, injurious wild beasts,” which was equally true of people like that elsewhere. (2 Timothy 3:6, 13) Moreover, anyone already in the congregations who was deceived into taking up those ways needed to be ‘reproved with severity.’ Those benefiting from reproof might thus be helped to become exemplary as to fine works and “wholesome speech which cannot be condemned.”—Titus 2:6-8.
We should find in this a caution for all of us. Ethnic or national prejudice may abound around us. (Compare John 7:47-52.) We likely hear neighbors, schoolmates, or fellow workers make categorical remarks about another people, such as, ‘Oh, those northerners are all cold and unfeeling’; ‘Well, you know how proud those southerners are’; or, ‘It’s risky to trust those people from across the border.’
We must strive to avoid giving in to broad characterizations that are probably unfounded or greatly exaggerated. Some may be more outgoing and expressive, others more reserved or slow to warm up to strangers. Yet, we should remember that some of our Christian brothers are no doubt to be found among the people of that ethnic group or nationality, as well as many others who have not yet become true Christians but who have admirable traits and who hunger for righteousness.
The apostle Peter stressed the fact that “God is not partial, but in every nation the man that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34, 35) We can be absolutely sure that Paul agreed with that, reflecting the same outlook in his writings and speech. So should we.
See The New Berkeley Version as well as the translations by R. F. Weymouth, F. A. Spencer, K. S. Wuest, and Abner Kneeland.