Consider this brain-twister: “The following sentence is true. The previous sentence is false.”
The first sentence asserts that the second is true. But if the second is true, the first must be false. But if the first is false, then the second sentence must also be false, which means that the first could be true after all….”
Around and around we go.
From some editing colleagues, I’ve learned that this kind of construction is called an Epimenides paradox.
Epimenides was a Cretan – that is, a citizen of Crete, not a cretin — who invented the famous paradox, “All Cretans are liars.”
You see the problem –- if all Cretans are liars, then he himself must be lying, which means that his assertion is false, and therefore all Cretans are not liars, in which case this Cretan might be telling the truth, but if he is, he must be lying…
Around and around, again.
My colleagues called it a “self-reflexive puzzle.”
Epimenides, by the way, originated a famous line usually attributed to St. Paul. In Acts 17:28, Paul says, “In him we live and move and have our being.” Paul plagiarized shamelessly; Epimenides wrote that line six centuries earlier.
The Bible, interestingly, contains its own self-reflexive puzzle, which by some coincidence also involves Paul.
When I talk with people of a somewhat conservative theology, they may make an assertion about, say, the origins of life.
If I challenge them, they reply that they know it’s true, because it’s in the Bible.
How they can be sure the Bible is true? “Because the Bible says so,” they reply.
It’s not really a contradiction – more a pattern of circular reasoning that cites itself for authority.
Pushed, these conservatives usually quote a line from Paul’s letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is inspired by God.”
And since Paul’s letter is included in our Scriptures, it too must be divinely authoritative.
Except that when Paul wrote that letter, the only Scripture was what Christians now call the Old Testament. The New Testament didn’t exist yet. Therefore we cannot claim divine inspiration for Paul’s assertion.
Yes we can, the conservative replies. Because a later letter from Peter, leader of the church after Jesus’ death, defines Paul’s letters as among “the other Scriptures.”
So Peter validates Paul. Paul validates Scripture. Scripture validates Peter.
Language guru James Harbeck likens this process to “plugging an extension cord into itself.”
Harbeck offers a practical illustration: “It’s like weighing an object. You have to rest the scale on something that is not part of what you are weighing.”
Epimenides’ paradox makes sense — if he sets himself outside the Cretan community he refers to.
Similarly, the biblical conundrum also sorts itself out nicely, if we’re willing to accept that both Peter and Paul set themselves outside the Scriptures they were referring to.
The problem is not Peter. Or Paul. Or Epimenides, for that matter. It’s our tendency to assign absolute authority to mere words, without taking into account the context in which they were uttered.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author of 17 books and several thousand magazine and newspaper articles. He welcomes comments; firstname.lastname@example.org.