From Asianic Elements in Greek Civilisation, The Gifford Lectures in the University of Edinburgh, 1915-1916, by Sir William M. Ramsay, D.C.L., LL.D., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1928; pp. 20-39.

Asianic Elements in Greek Civilisation.



Chapter III


A TYPICAL figure in the transition from the Aegean and Anatolian to the Hellenic type of civilisation is the great Cretan Epimenides. The island of Crete, stretching from East to West across the entrance to the Aegean Sea from the south, has always offered a refuge for the fragments of races which it receives from Asia and Europe. Thus it has been a microcosm of the Aegean world from the time of Homer onwards. The poet says that “There is a land called Crete in the midst of the wine-dark sea, a fair land and a rich, begirt with water, and therein are many men innumerable, and ninety cities. And all have not the same speech, but there is confusion of tongues; there dwell Achaeans and there too Cretans of Crete, high of heart, and Cydonians there and Dorians of waving plumes and goodly Pelasgians.”

In mediaeval times many Venetian settlers found a home there. They were mainly aristocratic adventurers and they have made a deep impression on mediaeval and modern Crete; but this page of history has never been written.

Epimenides stands like a Colossus with one foot in the past and one in the present, one foot in Anatolian civilisation and one in the development of Hellenism. Crete is the land which would naturally produce such a figure. The mixed population of the island made it important in the growth of Hellenic thought and custom; yet Epimenides is a man essentially and originally pre-Hellenic, though a great originator of Hellenism and Hellenic 21 unity of feeling as distinguished from the Aegean type of civilisation out of which it grew. That fine product which we call Hellenism, with its freedom of view in politics and society, in delicate perception of symmetry in art and literature, its bold confidence in the individual man as the governor of his own life, was evolved amid the strife of nations in the Levant and the Aegean from the amalgamation of many diverse tribes. Hellenism was a product so many-sided that it could not arise amid a homogeneous race, so delicate that the proper balance of the various racial characteristics which produced it could not last very long, so important in the development of modern society that it cannot lose its value for us, so unique in type that it can never cease to interest educated men.

The enigmatic figure of the Cretan prophet, poet, and religious lawgiver, Epimenides, is eminent in Athenian historical tradition in the sixth century B.C. He stands on the step from the old religion (let us call it Graeco-Anatolian) to the new Olympian religion of Hellenism, fully conscious of the character, and sympathetic with the ideals, of both. He was a vigorous personality, sound in body and mind, who lived a long life through a period of rapid development, and appreciated the great changes that occurred around him. It is a poor and niggardly criticism which denies his historical character, because he altered with his times instead of standing self-consistent and unmoved amid a changing world. Epimenides lived through an epoch of very quick growth in the sixth century B.C., growing with the time and helping to guide the progress of history; but some critics cannot see the process.

In a superficial view Epimenides does not inspire confidence. The few scraps preserved from his works do not correspond to his reputation, nor afford sufficient ground for the eminence ascribed to him in tradition; but they have never been reasonably interpreted according to the nature of early thought. His name is encrusted with legend (e.g. he slept for 57 or 60 years in a cave), and he became a centre round which gathered much folk-lore. The same 22 thing happened in all periods to certain outstanding figures, not merely in the remote dawn of history, but even at the present day. There have always been figures in Oxford university life who become encrusted with stories, some of which isolate and exaggerate one feature in a complex personality, while others show the man in an unreal character as the undergraduate conceives him. Yet there must have been some reason for all those mythical or semi-mythical caricatures. A serious argument against the historicity of the Cretan prophet is chronological. The immense reputation which he enjoyed in all later Greek tradition is based on his visit to Athens; he was invited to purify that city from the guilt incurred because the adherents of Cylon were massacred about 612 B.C. The idea gradually formed itself that this crime was followed quickly by the purification; and the general belief, shared even by Aristotle, was that Epimenides visited Athens about 600 B.C. Plato, however, says that the visit was made about 500 B.C., ten years before the Persian Wars. That alleged earlier visit is due to later misinterpretation of old religious ideas. Guilt lasted even to the third and fourth generation. In Athens the guilt remained, and was used as a party weapon, and played a great part in politics for a full century. Solon attempted to atone for the guilt, but failed: he employed legal means, whereas this guilt was a religious fact and could not be expiated except by religious means.

Attic tradition mentions no second visit made by Epimenides; he came once and was successful. On his complete success depends his place in the historical memory of Greece. He was not a figure of the developed Hellenic science with the purely Hellenic outlook on life; there was about him something of the “medicine-man” and the seer of visions. Such a personage cannot survive failure. The reputation of the Cretan seer was founded on an eminent and instantaneous success. No supposition of a second visit to repair the failure of the first can account for his position in the Greek world. He swept away, once and for ever, the guilt and terror of 23 a bad episode in Athenian history, and in achieving this result he did much more.

The eminent witness is Plato, who in The Laws twice refer to the Cretan with the highest respect. Plato describes an incident that occurred about forty years before his own birth and impressed his people both as epochal, because from it originated the alliance between Athens and Cnossos, and as regenerative, because this Cretan was one of the great inventors who carried out in practice what Hesiod had preached of old, applying precepts of reason and forethought about healthy life to reform the thought and conduct of Athens. Plato clearly refers to an historical fact. Only the most sceptical of critics could imagine that he was inventing a tale or apologue. No one explains how a legendary Epimenides could so quickly impose himself on Athenian memory as a real personage. The Cretan, the Spartan, and the Athenian who talked about him, all recognised in him not only a real person worthy to be ranked alongside of the great discoverers of ancient days, but “actually a man of yesterday.”

Plutarch is one of our principal authorities. He lays great stress on the important effects produced by Epimenides in his visit. He describes the Cretan as a great religious figure, who was thought by his contemporaries to be of divine or half-divine origin, and who purified Athens, reformed the spirit of Athenian life, and changed the half-Oriental features of Attic religion into the more orderly and restrained tone of Hellenism. He tells how Epimenides, by means of certain methods of propitiation and purification and by religious foundations, raised the standard of piety in the city, made the citizens obedient to the spirit of religious law, and put an end to the rage of partisan strife; and he relates a story which connects this visit with the period following the expulsion of the Pisistratidae about 510 B.C., though he draws no chronological inference from the story. Then after describing the immense effect produced by the visit of the Cretan seer, he resumes the narrative of intestine war, 24 and describes how the old partisan bitterness continued as before. The account is self-contradictory. Plutarch has mixed together two narratives, one of the real Cretan, the other the erroneous creation of popular fancy about 100 years earlier. If we read Plutarch in the light of Plato, with Plato’s date in our minds, and cut out the other tale, the narrative becomes luminous and self-consistent.

The Cretan belief in Epimenides, as a person whose “ingenuity does indeed far overleap the heads of all their great men” and as one of the outstanding personages in history, culminated in his apotheosis. He was regarded as “a divine man,” and “a favourite of the gods,” to whom they revealed the truth, and as “a new Koures” or god-priest teaching religious ritual. The Cretan worship of the deified Epimenides, taken in conjunction with the impression that he made on the Athenian people, is good evidence. To us the very phrase “the god Epimenides” savours of legend. To the early Greeks it was the proof of truth and national importance. Man became at death a god to his own circle of worshippers. The cult of Epimenides was common to a whole city. Brasidas was worshipped at Amphipolis by those whom he saved in 422 B.C.

An early tradition, mentioned by Aristotle and Plutarch, placed Epimenides among the Seven Wise Men. This alone would be proof of historical character. The Seven stand at the threshold of Hellenic history, figures of real importance when Hellenism was being worked into form. A place among the Seven in early tradition is a guarantee of historic reality, for the Seven are the expression of Hellenic fame and historical memory. The Seven all impressed themselves strongly on Greek national history, as distinguished from the politics of a single city; and they must be regarded as real personages of pan-Hellenic quality. Some Hellenes were revolted by the idea that the tyrant Periander should rank among the Seven, and preferred Epimenides in his place; this preference proves, and is founded upon, that general Hellenic respect and admiration which Plato attests.


Maximus of Tyre, a rhetorician of the second century after Christ, was certainly acquainted with Plato’s allusions, and he read them in the same way:

There came to Athens also another Cretan named Epimenides. . . .  He was marvellously skilled in the things of god, so that he saved the city of the Athenians when it was perishing through pestilence and sedition; and he was skilful in these matters, not because he had learned them, but, as he related, long sleep and a dream had been his inspiration . . .  he had come into relations with the gods and the oracles of the gods and Truth and Justice.

The story of the 57 years’ sleep arose out of the words in Epimenides’ Theogony; the expression of a poet was construed too literally; and the number of years was fixed by creative fancy. Maximus twice refers to this passage, which doubtless occurred in the beginning of the poem.

The tradition is transmitted also through Aristotle, Plutarch, Strabo, Pausanias, and numerous later writers, chronologists and scholiasts, e.g. Suidas. Diogenes Laertius, upon whose work mainly depends our knowledge of the lives of the Greek philosophers, gives a fairly long account of Epimenides, and quotes the high authority of Timaeus and Theopompus, the dubious Myronianus, and Xenophanes, the oldest authority of all. Works of Epimenides are quoted by Aristotle and many later writers and scholiasts; but all are condemned as spurious by some recent critics and their disciples, except only the Theogony and the Cretica, which they generally identify with one another and with the Oracles. If testimony of this order is to be set aside as insufficient, we may as well abandon the attempt to investigate Greek history.

The intermixture of myth with historical fact in the accounts of Epimenides has caused unjustifiable scepticism. The standard is set by Wilamowitz, the ablest and most forceful of German Greek scholars, who declares that Epimenides is a mere invention of political expediency, called into being in the passion of party strife 26 during the sixth century. In a few sentences he dismisses Epimenides from the world of history, and places him in the world of political squabbling and falsehood. This theory has been widely accepted by recent German authorities. Just as one political party introduced the goddess herself into the strife, when she, in the guise of a tall Athenian girl wearing the sacred dress, brought back the tyrant to Athens, so (we are told) the same party invented an epiphany of an obscure local hero called Epimenides, a figure known only from the incidental reference of two or three scholiasts. But how could the great figure whom Plato described originate in that way through the projection into later history of a mythological name? It is as unreasonable to think that an invented Epimenides of 600 B.C. could become to Plato an eminent figure of yesterday as to maintain that the Eleusinian Mysteries, which won the respect of Isocrates and Cicero, were only a device of vulgar superstition.

The leading English scholars have almost invariably accepted Epimenides as a real person. There is something in the story which appeals to the English historic sense; English scholars would as soon discredit the story of Harmodios and Aristogeiton as that of the Cretan’s visit to Athens. In this view history takes a different and evidently truer aspect. Under the Pisistratidae Athens grew from a small town into an important city; but in this too rapid increase it outgrew healthy conditions. The laws of sanitation, which the old religion had prescribed for small social groups, were quite inadequate for a large city. Athens was ripe for a pestilence; and, after the tyrants were expelled, the slackness and want of forethought which attended Athenian democracy aggravated the evils of city management, while party strife distracted attention. The result was as recorded by Maximus, Diogenes, and others; a plague struck the city.

In general, the ancient Hellenes were not deeply religious people. They looked upon religion as a matter of municipal pride and magnificence; they considered that an important function of 27 the gods was to enhance social enjoyment; and they could rarely resist the temptation to make fun even of the most sacred matters. The Greek character remains still the same, not merely from persistence of stock, but from the geographical influences amid which they live. The same mixture of irreverence, carried sometimes to derision of religious ideas, combined with strict adherence to traditional rites, and occasional recurrence to mere superstition, characterises the people at the present day. In a country village near Epidauros, during the celebration of a marriage in the church, I have seen the officiating priest push the cup in order to spill the sacramental wine over the bridegroom’s breast; and, when he was touching thrice in succession the heads of the bridal pair with the sacred book, he brought it down each time with a resounding thump on the head of the bridegroom, and the church rang with the laughter of the crowd. Yet, when the Hellenes are confronted with the scourge of plague, and death stares them in the face, religious awe revives.

Now it lay in the very nature of ancient religion to attribute all diseases, and especially fever (which was obscure in its origin and working), to the anger of the gods, provoked by some violation of the fundamental principles of religious law as revealed by divine kindness to men. Events in Athens followed the usual course, exemplified in many Anatolian records of confession and expiation. People began to examine their conscience and their history, to discover the reason of this visitation; and quickly recognised it. The old guilt remained unexpiated. The violation of the suppliant’s right of sanctuary had hung over the people from generation to generation; and the goddess now at last was punishing the outrage. The descendants of the murderers had returned to office and were among the leaders of the state. Again, and now voluntarily, the guilty family went into exile; but this was not enough. Panic terrors seized upon the city, ghosts were seen, and the soothsayers declared that the pollution required special purificatory rites. Fuller expiation was needed to clear the people from guilt; but, where 28 Solon had failed, who should succeed? They must take refuge with the god (as Plato mentions), who alone could cure the sick State.

It was still customary to lay before the Oracle at Delphi the greatest matters of statesmanship as well as of religion; and the matter was not one merely of religion. The strength of Athens was sapped by the long partisan strife. The peril on the East from the growing power of Persia was looming before the mind of statesmen. Unity was imperative, and faction must cease in the presence of so many dangers. The god advised the Athenians to call in Epimenides, whose long life and theological writings, with his scientific and political knowledge, had made him a force in Hellenic development. He succeeded because he combined the old with the new religious sympathies. By ritual of the old type he satisfied the popular conscience, and washed their guilt away. By teaching new and higher conceptions of the divine nature and its relation to man he was a force in the development of the national mind. He made the step from the old to the new, understanding both and true to both.

It was necessary to convert public opinion to improved methods of sanitation; but nothing is more unpopular than health-restrictions. The British administration of India has experienced this difficulty. Similarly in Turkey a distinguished physician, who was called in forty years ago to advise about the spread of disease, reported that no remedy of any value could be reconciled with the social customs of the country. Epimenides convinced the popular mind, and raised the standard of conduct. He did not force on the people sanitary regulations; he appealed to old Graeco-Anatolian custom, which enforced principles of social organisation and protective ideals which grew in the collective experience of society and were revealed to her people by the goddess through her prophets and priests. The religion of the family was older than the 29 organisation of the city and stronger than the State law (as Antigone pleaded). This family religion was not fitted to develop into the religion of the city; it remained apart from and inharmonious with the State; but it had to be subordinated to the convenience and safety of the organism. Hellenism regarded the individual as the member of a city; the sum of his rights and duties was the State religion; and Epimenides developed inchoate Athenian custom to suit the welfare and the sanitary law of the growing city.

He took a number of sheep, black and white, to the Hill of Ares, and there left them free to wander. Wherever any sheep lay down, an altar was built to the local god, known or unknown. The white sheep correspond to the bright deities of the Hellenic religion, and the black to the dark gods of the old order, connected with the world of death. He did not use this device in order to conciliate popular feeling by an appeal to superstition which he himself regarded as vulgar. He used it as being himself on that stage of religion. It was to him a right method of discovering the divine will, because it rested on the primary fact that the divine power is always striving to make men understand its wish and purpose, and men have only to look aright in order to discover the revelation. Further, he established various religious foundations, and erected images of the gods in the streets. His purpose was to impress on the Athenian mind the immediate presence of the divine nature in many manifestations, before which no impropriety is permitted and everything must be holy and pure. The purpose and consequence was a complete purification of the city and the institution of healthy rules of social life. The gods stood in the streets to protect and sanctify them. Citizens must live in the pervading presence of god.

The effect lasted until the Peloponnesian War, when the concentration of the population of Attica within the narrow walls broke through all order and discipline; and, as has often happened 30 in wars, the relaxation of the rules of good life resulted in a terrible outbreak of plague, which enforced anew the rules of Epimenides.

Epimenides performed a work imposed upon him, as Plato says, by the Delphic Oracle, that co-ordinating power in Hellenic progress. Popular imagination was impressed by the religious side of his work; but this was only one part of his activity, and the best authorities from Plato onwards lay more stress upon the political and social consequences of his action. The man who could produce such effect at Athens must have been of high intellectual order, although he touched the popular heart by using ritual forms. His action calmed the fears and steadied the minds of the Athenians before the great invasion. From his visit tradition dates a new Athens, engaged in new problems and forgetting the old. Previously the parties in Athens had fought for partisan ends; henceforth for a time they followed national aims, though they advocated different means of attaining them. The political questions of the sixth century disappeared; the lines of party division were altered. To a great extent the change was due to the tremendous impact of the Persians, but the spirit and the measure of Epimenides co-operated; and it is only at the period assigned by Plato that this work is historically intelligible. An event that left such effect on national belief and conduct and ritual is no mere invention. The tradition bears the stamp of truth.

While the sympathy which Epimenides felt for the old religion enabled him to introduce his reforms, he lived in history as an innovator (according to Plato), as a creative reformer, and a maker of Hellenic city organisation. It is this side of his character that the sceptical critics miss. They see the “medicine-man,” and they can see no other. That Epimenides belonged to the new as well as to the old is hid from them. Now if Epimenides was an apostle of Hellenism, there must be traces of the new ideas in his writings. Most of the quotations are scraps of genealogical or mythological stuff, such as was popular in Graeco-Roman society and formed a 31 favourite subject of conversation at dinner-tables, but two brief references in Aristotle show the appreciation of a higher intellect. To him Epimenides was a philosophic interpreter of past history and a theoriser about the nature of society in that early stage when science was still half-poetic in expression. A group of persons living their life in common is called by Aristotle “a house,” by Epimenides “those who have the same smoke,”1 and by the Sicilian law-giver Charondas “those who have a common flour-bin.” Popular legend expressed the vulgar conception of Epimenides’ scientific investigations on such subjects by saying that he lived on food supplied by the Nymphs, which he kept in the hoof of an ox and ate secretly; hence he was troubled by no natural evacuation (a believe which caused in India the deification of a modern hero, not because he was a heroic soldier, but because he was non-natural). Plato describes those scientific investigations when he says that Epimenides perfected what Hesiod divined.

The bounds between medicine and religion were ill-defined; the crowd attached importance to the religious side and forgot the curative treatment. So at Epidauros the records of cure show how the popular mind loved the unscientific. Those records, dedications to the god by patients cured at the temple, contain no trace of medical science. It has been wrongly inferred from this that at Epidauros there was no real medical treatment; but the uneducated dedicators recorded only the god’s beneficent care of themselves. The fact that a certain regimen was prescribed did not interest them; only dreams and religious facts appealed to their mind.

Epimenides, then, was a scientific investigator and a philosophical thinker. Roger Bacon, who stands in a similar relation to religion and philosophy and science, was also surrounded with popular legend; and Michael Scott was so in an even more marked degree. Bacon prided himself more on his theological disquisitions than on his scientific investigations. Perhaps Epimenides did not appreciate 32 fully his historic position. His mission to Athens, undertaken by order of the Oracle, represents a step in the path toward Hellenic unity, which could be accomplished only through a common religious feeling. He investigated critically the nature of Delphian legend, interpreting the old religion, yet regarding it with the spirit of the Hellene who desired to understand what he believed. There was a proverb that in respect of things hidden and mysterious the “glance” (δέργμα) of Epimenides was needed; but that archaic and poetic word, natural in an ancient proverb, lost one letter and became the prosaic δέρμα, the “skin” of Epimenides. The fact that the name of the Cretan passed into a proverb adds something to the picture of his personality.

The Greeks had to live by their religion, not merely to talk about it like modern scholars (often with very faint conception of what religion is), and they saw in him a great religious figure; but his fame rested on a basis of knowledge and practical sense. He thought deeply about medicine and food and social science and the constitution of the family, and about the relation of all those subjects to the divine and nature, which was the main object of his study; and people said that he was a man beloved by the gods, and one to whom they revealed their knowledge. Various works whose title suggests philosophic or theosophic character are attributed to him, and condemned as forgeries by the German critics. But an opinion based on the assumption that he was unreal and invented needs revision, for his reality depends upon his position in the Hellenic world. He was real because he convinced the Hellenes.

This brings us to Prof. Rendel Harris’s brilliant identification of an Epimenidean fragment in Syriac translation, which illuminates the personality of the Cretan; and it is due to Mrs. Gibson to acknowledge the scientific spirit in which she placed at Prof. Harris’s disposal for publication the results of her work long before this had any chance of seeing the light. The only German critic that has written about Epimenides since Harris’s discovery is Gressmann; 33 but none of those who regard the Cretan as an invention of political chicanery will accept as genuine a fragment of a philosophic poem which they have beforehand condemned as spurious.

In his letter to Titus in Crete, St. Paul quotes a line, “Cretans ever liars, noxious beasts, useless gluttons,” from a Cretan poet, without naming him. Further, in his speech at Athens (delivered before an audience of Athenians, who crowded to hear an address from one whom they understood to be a candidate for recognition in the leading university of the world) he quotes from “your own poets” half a line of Aratus, and also a line, “in Him we live and move and exist,” whose metrical character is disguised by transformation from the Ionic dialect to the Attic and from the second person to the third. The changes, needed to suit the address, show the apostle’s usual freedom. His words imply that he made at Athens quotations from different poets, although the plain meaning was disregarded by modern commentators, until Prof. Harris saw the truth:

He is not far from each one of us, for ‘in Him we live and move, and have our being,” as certain of your poets have said, “for we also are his offspring.”

The orator, addressing an educated audience, presses into his service quotations from philosophic poetry which was familiar to society at that time and harmonious with its spirit. The second quotation is taken from Aratus, Who was the author of the first? The Syriac commentary of Ishodad distinguishes the two quotations thus:

Paul takes both of these from certain heathen poets. Now about this, “In Him we live,” etc., because the Cretans said as truth about Zeus, that he was a lord; he was lacerated by a wild boar and buried; and behold! his grave is known amongst us; so therefore Minos, son of Zeus, made an address of praise on behalf of his father; and he said in it:

“The Cretans carved2 a tomb for thee, O Holy and High!
  Liars, noxious beasts, like gormandisers!
34   For thou dost not die; ever thou livest and standest firm;
  For in thee we live, and are moved and exist.”

So therefore the Blessed Paul took this sentence from “Minos”; for he took again “We are offspring of God,” from Aratus, a poet, who wrote about God.

We have here four lines from an “address of praise” to the supreme god. The second is the line that St. Paul quotes in the Epistle to Titus. Clement of Alexandria declares that Epimenides wrote that line; and Jerome mentions that, although several previous commentators had attributed the verse to Callimachus, yet the real author was Epimenides, who was freely imitated by the later poet. Diogenes Laertius says that Epimenides “composed a work about Minos and Rhadamanthus, 4000 verses in length.” Ishodad then quotes from Aratus, not merely Paul’s five words, but the text of about ten lines; and, as the original Greek is preserved, we can here judge of the character of the Syriac rendering; and its faithfulness is a guarantee of the trustworthiness of the translation from the “Minos.” It is easy to see why Ishodad, quoting from a poem called “Minos,” attributes the words to Minos.

This Syriac commentator (as Harris declares) is wholly dependent on Theodore of Tarsus; and his words present to us, therefore, the teaching accepted in the Christian Schools of Asia Minor in the fourth century to the following effect (I combine the various sources). The Blessed Paul, surveying the religious monuments and institutions of the great centre of learning for the Greek world, was struck with the altar “to an unknown god,” which rightly or wrongly he regarded as one of those raised in accordance with the instructions of Epimenides, and the connexion recalled to his mind a familiar passage of the Cretan poet, which he quoted in part to Titus. When he was required to address the Court of Areopagus, he took as his text the inscription on this altar and the lines in which Epimenides expressed his conviction about the Eternal God, and His relation to man. This “unknown god” of the altar was at once 35 a witness to the religious feeling hidden deep in the minds of the Athenians and a confession of ignorance of His true nature. Their own poets had taught truth regarding Him; but it remained for the modern teaching to reveal it fully.

Such is the plain and simple teaching of the fourth century, which is rejected by many critics because it runs directly in opposition to the opinions that they cherish. It implies that St. Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles; it assumes that he was in Athens, and that he delivered a speech there which is reported briefly but faithfully in the Acts of the Apostles; but these assumptions are dismissed as false. Gressmann regards the four lines quoted by Ishodad as a fabrication in Christian interest. According to him there was no poem entitled “Minos,” containing such a passage; there was only an allusion by Callimachus in his Hymn to Zeus, which was forged into a testimony to the truth of Pauline tradition, with the help of two quotations in pseudo-Pauline parts of the New Testament. This theory, however, is so artificial that it needs no detailed examination here, and I pass from it with only the criticism that in it there is neither reason nor even plausibility. If critics brush away the express statements of ancient learning, they can produce any result they desire; but a history of Greek literature must be founded on authority, and not on modern conjecture in defiance of ancient statements. While this passage of Callimachus resembles in part the lines quoted by Ishodad, it differs widely in spirit and in some details. No mere union of Callimachus with two quotations from the New Testament could produce those four lines; conscious forgery by Christian inventors has to be invoked.

There are only two hypotheses possible in a reasonable judgement. The first is that Ishodad’s quotation came from a poem written in Hellenistic time, which purported to be the work of Epimenides but was really an exercise composed after his style in a school of rhetoric. Such exercises were frequently prescribed to pupils in the schools; and this artificial literature sometimes attained 36 considerable excellence, though it rarely deceived the good ancient critics. It is an allowable hypothesis that a poem “Minos” had been composed in this way, and had acquired wide acceptance as the work of Epimenides, and that this poem was familiar both to Paul from early philosophic training at Tarsus and to his hearers at Athens; for he clearly counted on their familiarity with the work and the certainty that they would connect it with Epimenides, just as they connected the altar with his famous purification of the city.

The other hypothesis is that the “Minos” was written by Epimenides in later life, when his thought was developed in the Hellenic spirit. In either case the important fact is that this poem was accepted in Athens and in Tarsus as the work of the Cretan prophet. To decide between these alternatives is a matter of no importance for Pauline criticism, but of real importance in Greek history and literature. Do we feel in these lines the spirit of Hellenic philosophy about 500 B.C., or have we a fragment of a late rhetorical exercise in the name of the ancient philosopher? This question is decided by a glance at the passage of Callimachus, which shows the tone in which literature, about 270 B.C., spoke of the same religious facts. In the Hymn to Zeus (vv. 8-11), Callimachus says:

They say that thou, O Zeus, wast born in [Cretan] Ida’s mountains, and that thou wast born in Arcadia. Which, O Father, spoke falsely? The Cretans are always liars: and this we know, for thy tomb, O King, the Cretans fashioned; but thou didst not die, for thou existest always.

Compare the words of Callimachus with Epimenides. A hundred trains of thought open before the reader of the latter, and we here mention only one. Minos, the nominal speaker, reveals Epimenides describing his own experiences and life-work (just as Solon did in his poems). Part of his work was to do away [with] the Oriental tone in the religious ritual of Crete (as at Athens), to restrain the enthusiastic devotion of the worshippers, and to substitute the Hellenic tone of 37 moderation for the vehement passion of Oriental ritual. The poet saw the celebration year by year of a festival in which the god died his annual death, and was mourned with Oriental devotion and vehemence. Then the worshippers found that the god was not dead, but was rising again to life; and the tone of the festival changed from unrestrained mourning to unrestrained rejoicing, and concluded with a ritual banquet in which the emotional strain of the vehement mourning was followed by an exhibition of gluttony and drunkenness. The devotees were “noxious beasts” who lied about a dead god and mourned over his death, and feasted gluttonously in a rite which had no religious value.

Totally different is the spirit of Callimachus’ lines. In the introduction to his Hymn he is speaking about traditional things. He is an antiquarian poet, not a religious reformer; he is not describing what he has seen; he is not filled with indignation against worshippers who are misconceiving and outraging the god; hence he tones down the indignation which boils in Epimenides’ denunciation of Cretan falsehood, the supreme falsehood that the god died. The whole effect of the introduction to the Hymn depends on an appeal to older literature and to authority; and excellent authority asserts that what Callimachus knew was the passage of Epimenides which Paul quotes.

Paul could be confident that his Athenian auditors would understand the exordium of his speech and catch the reference to a famous incident in early Athenian history and the quotation from a Cretan poet who was closely connected with Athens. Epimenides places the reader in Crete. He sees before him the facts that he describes, and looks upon them in the spirit of a religious reformer, filled with indignation at what was done. A composition of a later age, bearing the name of the older poet, would not produce such an impression; these lines are a witness’s testimony.3


To the older Graeco-Anatolian conception of the gods as living and dying with the life of the year there succeeded the developed conception of the Olympian gods as ever young and strong and beautiful. According to that older view the divine life was the prototype and model of human life in all its relations; just as man dies, so also the god dies; and, if the god dies, he has a grave to which he is annually consigned. In Epimenides the horror expresses itself with which Hellenism regarded such a hateful idea as the grave of god. “Thou dost not die; ever thou livest and art strong; for thou art the source and the basis and the strength of human life.” This is the true spirit of Hellenism: We know that the high and holy one lives and is permanent, because we derive life and being from him; and we infer from our own consciousness that the god to whom we owe our life must be eternal and permanent, the living god. There is nothing here of the Semitic direct perception of the divine nature. The Hellene is conscious of himself, and infers from himself what is the nature of god. Further, the Cretans were religious liars, who deceived themselves annually in their vehement mourning for a dead god, and then found compensation in excessive enjoyment of food and drink.4 Unrestrained ritual like this Epimenides detested; gorging with food and drink brings no religious gain.

This passage of Epimenides made a deep impression on Paul. It recurs to his memory in various circumstances. Writing to Crete he quotes this Cretan poet; when he thinks of the altar raised by Epimenides he quotes the same passage. He trusts to the Athenians recognising it as a striking sentence, which sums up in brief the purpose of the poem. There is one other place, where 39 perhaps Paul remembered these words. In writing to the Corinthians (I, xi. 21 seq.) he rebukes them for making the assembly of God a place to eat and drink, and even to drink to intoxication. The thought is similar but there is no resemblance in the expression. Paul was in the last degree unlikely to intrude on the lofty place of Christian thought expressed in that chapter any reference to pagan philosophical or religious literature; there was before his mind a picture of the scenes which were thought suitable at the pagan festivals, for every pagan brotherhood or society was united in the worship of some god, and each festival ended with a common meal where duty required and enjoyed free indulgence; but Epimenides, who was in place at Athens, was out of place when Paul was writing to Corinthians about the nature of the Eucharist.



 1  The word is altered by some modern critics; it ended a hexameter.

 2  Mrs. Gibson has the present tense, but she wrote to me that the imperfect is used in the Syriac. I vary the expression used by her in some details, mainly to attain brevity in the sequel.

 3  The retranslation from Syriac into Greek, especially Mr. A. B. Cook’s, prefers the tenses of Callimachus, and loses the directness of the witness.

 4  Prof. Harris holds that the food which was eaten was the raw flesh of a living victim, torn by the worshippers. But the theory that Greek worshippers about 500 B.C. ate such a meal is a mere fancy. Raw flesh at an annual rite would never tempt into gluttony people accustomed to live on cooked food, for it is distasteful. The word which St. Paul quotes describes admirably the Cretan festival, but is wholly unsuitable to raw flesh and a living victim.