Gerhard-Ludwig-Müller“The image of the ‘seamless garment’ has been used by some theologians and Catholic politicians, in an intellectually dishonest manner.”

That’s a sentiment that many Catholics, particularly in the pro-life movement, have expressed.

What’s significant about this expression of the sentiment is the person who uttered it: the pope’s own doctrinal watchdog.

Here are 11 things to know and share . . .


1) What is the “seamless garment” argument?

It’s the claim that Catholic teaching on life is like a seamless garment, so that if you accept one part of it, you need to accept it all.

This is sometimes referred to as having a “consistent ethic of life.”


2) Where does the image of the seamless garment come from?

The image of the seamless garment is taken from the Gospel of John, where we read:

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus they took his garments and made four parts, one for each soldier; also his tunic.

But the tunic was without seam, woven from top to bottom; so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the scripture, “They parted my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots” [John 19:23-24].


3) How has the Church historically used this image?

It has been commonly used as a symbol of the Church’s unity. You’ll see that in various Magisterial documents. For example, in 2007, Benedict XVI stated:

An indispensable characteristic of the Church is unity, symbolized by Christ’s seamless garment [General Audience, June 6, 2007].


4) How did this image get applied to the Church’s teaching on life?

Apparently, the image was first applied this way in 1971 by Catholic pacifism activist Eileen Egan.

In 1983, this use was popularized by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.


5) What kinds of “life issues” have been proposed as belonging to the seamless garment?

Numerous things. Among them are abortion, euthanasia, nuclear war, capital punishment, and even poverty.


6) Who is the pope’s “doctrinal watchdog”?

This is a common way of referring to the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the department in Rome that is charged with protecting the Church’s teaching.

This is the position that Benedict XVI held before his election to the papacy. Today it is held by Cardinal Gerhard Muller (pictured).


7) Where did Cardinal Muller address the seamless garment argument?

He did so in an address he gave at a workshop sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2013.

You can read the full text of his remarks here (pdf).


8) What did he say about it?

He began by giving an overview of the subject, saying:

We are all familiar with the image of the “seamless garment” which is used to illustrate how Catholic moral teaching is a consistent whole – uniting ethical, religious, and political threads in a unified moral vision.

Attributed to Cardinal Bernardin, the “seamless garment” image was used to great effect to root the Church’s response to various moral issues – from nuclear proliferation to poverty – within the overarching teaching on the sanctity of human life, from natural conception to natural death.


9) What did he say when he accused some of using it in an intellectually dishonest manner?

He said:

Unfortunately, however, it is also true that the image of the “seamless garment” has been used by some theologians and Catholic politicians, in an intellectually dishonest manner, to allow or at least to justify turning a blind eye to instances of abortion, contraception, or public funding for embryonic stem cell research, as long as these were simultaneously accompanied by opposition to the death penalty or promotion of economic development for the poor – issues which are also part of the fabric of Catholic moral teaching.


10) Did he say anything about why people use the argument this way?

Yes. He stated:

Often this abuse of the “seamless garment” theory stems from a natural tendency on the part of some in the Church to look for “common ground” with the surrounding culture; that is to say, to emphasize in their teaching and preaching those elements of Catholic doctrine that are acceptable to the non-Catholic ambient culture; for example, social justice, human rights, and other similar issues.

This is understandable and sometimes it is an appropriate pastoral strategy.

But what also must be taken into account is the difference which exists between those elements of Catholic teaching that may be attractive to the surrounding culture and those elements which are profoundly counter-cultural and which Catholics themselves need to hear proclaimed by their pastors.


11) What solutions did he propose?

He stressed that Church teaching must be presented as a whole, without turning a blind eye to particular aspects of it.

He particularly emphasized the need to proclaim the Church’s teaching on human sexuality as found in Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae, saying:

The experience of the Church . . . demonstrates that where the Church has tried to accommodate her teaching to this secular understanding by deemphasizing the specific witness of her moral teaching, this has lead neither to a greater societal acceptance of the Church nor to a renewal in her own life.

Rather where the teaching of Humanae vitae has been down-played, or worse still ignored, we have witnessed a collapse of family life, an increase in extra-marital infidelity and a diminishment of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life.

He had much more to say on this and related subjects, so be sure to check out the full text of his remarks, linked above.

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NOTE: I’ve gotten a bit behind in posting podcast episodes, so I’m going to try to catch up by posting a number of my appearances on other shows over a fairly short period. I’m also looking to resume completely new podcasts in the near future.

In this podcast episode of Secrets of Doctor Who, we review and analyse episode 9 of season 8, entitled ‘Flatline’ and highlight all the themes, inside jokes and easter eggs.

Join Jimmy Akin, Dom Bettinelli and Fr. Roderick for discussion, analysis and speculation!

Click this link to listen or use the player on the web site.

Links for this episode:

Check out Jimmy Akin’s blog Let’s Watch Doctor Who and Dom Bettinelli & Fr. Roderick’s podcast Secrets of Star Wars! Subscribe to the Feed | Subscribe with iTunes

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CatholicAnswersLogoIn this episode of Catholic Answers Live (1/8/15), Jimmy answers the following questions:

  • Can you reconcile Natural Family Planning with Leviticus 18 about intimacy and the times and restrictions on intimacy?
  • Is it okay to listen to protestant preachers and go to their church to listen to them preach?
  • Why does the Catholic Church not refer to marriage as Holy Matrimony?
  • About purgatory, my friend is planning to leave the Catholic Church and purgatory is an issue for her. How can I help her understand that purgatory is biblical and a reasonable belief?
  • How can you explain how Mary can hear and answer so many prayers all at the same time? Does it have to do with God being infinite and Mary being outside of time with God?
  • About confession and the frequency: I have had priests discourage me from coming to the sacrament, and they say “That is not a sin” and I feel discouraged. What do you suggest?
  • About Mary being at the foot of the cross. I have heard some priests say that she was not at the foot of cross and I thought the Bible says that she is. Why would a priest say that she was not?
  • About the star of Bethlehem and the documentary “Bethlehem Star”, can Jimmy comment on how accurate is the film?
  • The book of Sirach: is that in the KJV? Is it in another book in the KJV that I can refer to my friend?

Use the player at the bottom of the post or CLICK HERE TO LISTEN. (LINK FIXED!)

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epimenides_paradoxBack when I was a philosophy student, I had a fondness for logical paradoxes.

One of the most famous is the Liar’s Paradox, which takes different forms, like:

  • I am lying.
  • This sentence is false.

This paradox is particularly useful for talking androids to death in the Star Trek universe, though it has less immediate practical value in our own.

It’s a fun paradox, but I get tired of people dissing St. Paul over it.

Let’s talk about that . . .


People diss St. Paul over it?

Yeah. You see, sometimes people say that one version of the paradox is called the Epimenides Paradox, after a guy who lived around 600 B.C.

St. Paul quotes him, and some commentators claim that St. Paul didn’t understand what he was quoting—that he missed the paradox entirely.


Who was Epimenides and what was his paradox?

Epimenides (ep-ih-MEN-ih-DEES) was a native of Knossos on the island of Crete. He was apparently a poet and was regarded by some as a prophet. There are a lot of legends about his life, and we don’t actually know that much about him, but he is famous for having said:

Cretans, [are] always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.

Being a Cretan himself, if Cretans were always liars then Epimenides would have had to have been lying when he said this.

People think that results in a paradox that’s a variation of “I am lying.”

That statement generates a paradox because if the person who utters it is lying then he is telling the truth, but if he is telling the truth then he is lying, and so on until the android’s head starts to smoke and our heroes are released from captivity from Oppressive Android Paradise.


Where does St. Paul quote this?

In his letter to Titus, who he has left behind on the island of Crete (Titus 1:5). He tells Titus to warn priests and bishops:

For there are many insubordinate men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially the circumcision party;  they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for base gain what they have no right to teach.

One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 

This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith [Titus 1:10-13].


What’s an example of someone dissing St. Paul about this?

In his book The Physics of the Impossible, Michio Kaku discusses the statement “I am a liar” and writes:

The second statement [i.e., “I am a liar”] is the famous liar’s paradox. The Cretan philosopher Epimenides used to illustrate this paradox by saying, “All Cretans are liars.”

However, Saint Paul missed the point entirely and wrote, in his epistle to Titus, “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ He has surely told the truth” [p. 301].

Dr. Kaku may know physics, but he’s a bit shakier when it comes to philosophy and St. Paul.

Philosophically speaking, “I am a liar” is not a paradox.

A person can acknowledge that he is a liar (someone who tells lies on occasion, even frequently) without claiming to be lying at the moment. Saying “I am a liar” is not the same thing as saying “I am lying.”

He’s also wrong to accuse St. Paul of missing the point.


Why is he wrong to do that?

For one reason, St. Paul was a very smart guy and one who was more than capable of recognizing and using irony (cf. Gal. 5:11-12).

If Epimenides was trying to make an ironic, paradoxical statement about Cretans then a man of St. Paul’s intellect and educational attainments (Acts 22:3) should not be presumed to be a bumpkin just of the turnip truck who was incapable of recognizing it.

If we’re going to presume anything, we should presume that St. Paul was smart enough to pick up on what Epimenides was doing and use the quotation in the same way that it was in the original—i.e., that St. Paul understood the paradoxical nature of the statement and used it in the same, ironic way that Epimenides did.

But, before we presume anything, we should check the original context to find out what Epimenides was doing.


What happens when we check the original context?

Epimenides made his famous statement in a poem called Cretica. For a long time, we didn’t have the original context of Epimenides’ statement, but it was rediscovered by the English biblical scholar J. Rendel Harris and published in the early 20th century.

He reconstructed a Greek version of the original passage, which translates into English as follows:

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
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.

This text is spoken to Zeus, the “holy and high one” for whom the Cretans made a tomb.


What does Epimenides mean when he says Cretans are “always liars”?

Being from Crete himself, he surely does not mean this in the hyper-literal way that Norman the Android would take it.

Even Mr. Spock was capable of recognizing hyperbole when he heard it (sometimes), and Epimenides’ statement should be recognized as just that: It’s hyperbole, or exaggeration to make a point.

It is not that different than what Isaiah says when he sees his vision of God:

“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 

And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven” [Is. 6:5-7].

The reference to “unclean lips” may be a reference to sin in a more general sense, but it can also be taken as a reference to lying and other sins of speech.

If taken this way, Isaiah would be admitting his own sins of speech and those of his people—without claiming that he was lying at this very moment—and Epimenides may be seen as doing the same thing.

Assuming he didn’t have something much more particular in mind.


Could Epimenides have had something more particular in mind?

Yes. According to one interpretation of the passage from Epimenides quoted above, he wasn’t just charging his countrymen with being liars in a general sense: He was charging them with a specific lie.

Look at the context: The Cretans have built a tomb for Zeus, which implies that Zeus is dead.

But according to Epimenides, Zeus is not dead, for “you are not dead: you live and abide forever.”

Some have thus understood Epimenides as accusing the Cretans of the specific lie of having said that Zeus was dead when he was not.

If so then, since he was affirming that Zeus was alive, Epimenides himself was not a party to this lie and thus could not have been affirming that “Cretans are always liars” in a hyper-literal sense.

In that case, the alleged paradox vanishes, for there is clearly a Cretan who rejects this lie—Epimenides himself!


Are there other ways of looking at this text?

Yes. While Epimenides is denying the common Cretan implication that Zeus is dead, he may have more in mind than this accusation.

The statement that Cretans are “always liars” is naturally read as a more general statement than just a charge about Zeus being dead.

This impression is reinforced by his references to them being “evil beasts, idle bellies.”

While the issue of Zeus being dead is clearly present, Epimenides seems to be making a more general charge of sinfulness on the part of Cretans.

This is a standard charge, not unlike those found in the Jewish prophets, and it does not give rise to a paradox.


Why doesn’t it give rise to a paradox?

Strictly speaking on logical grounds, if Epimenides the Cretan said “Cretans are always liars,” what prevents Epimenides from lying in that very statement?

If Epimenides is lying then he is uttering a knowing falsehood: He knows that Cretans are not always liars.

And there is nothing paradoxical about that.

Some Cretans tell the truth—at least some of the time—and Epimenides would be lying about that fact. His lie may be ironic, but it doesn’t give rise to a paradox. Some Cretans simply tell the truth.

In reality, though, this is logic chopping. Whatever degree of irony is present in his statement, Epimenides is actually making a general lament about the sinfulness of his countrymen, including their propensity to lie.

He is not trying to generate a logical paradox, as illustrated by the fact that nobody interpreted the statement that way for centuries.


Really? Nobody interpreted it that way for centuries?

Apparently not. It does not seem to have been taken that way until 1740, after the original context of what he said had been lost.

Epimenides himself wasn’t generating a paradox, and so the ancients—who had access to the original context—didn’t take him as doing so.


Did St. Paul have access to the original context?

It would seem so. Notice that the last line of the passage we quoted was “For in you we live and move and have our being.”

That same line is paraphrased by St. Paul in Acts 17, when he addresses the Aeropagus in Athens:

 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man. . . . Yet he is not far from each one of us,  for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ [Acts 17:24, 27-28].


St. Paul isn’t applying that to Zeus, is he?

No. The Greeks often adopted philosophical interpretations of their own mythology as symbolic of a higher divine reality with Zeus—or other gods—representing “God” in a generic sense.

Christian apologists thus sometimes used Greek quotations about divinity to make points about the true God, who had not revealed himself to the Greeks, which is what Paul is doing here (Acts 17:22-23).

The point remains that Paul shows knowledge of the broader context of Epimenides’ statement, since in Acts he quotes another portion of it.

He was thus in a good position to understand what Epimenides meant.


What about Paul’s statement to Titus that what Epimenides said is true?

Paul is not asserting that all Cretans are always liars. After all, he has left Titus in Crete to appoint priests and bishops for the Christian churches there (Titus 1:5-9).

These men are expected not to be liars, and that’s why Paul tells Titus to warn them against immorality.

The statement that what Epimenides says about Cretans is ture does, however, resonate with the view of Cretan culture at the time.


What did people think about Cretan culture in the first century?

They thought it was pretty immoral. Biblical scholar William Mounce notes:

Hanson points out . . . that the Cretans had a reputation for stealing, and that during the first century B.C. Crete became famous for housing robbers and pirates.

Cicero states that “the Cretans . . . consider piracy and brigandage honorable” (Republic 3.9.15; LCL tr.; cf. also Josephus Ant. 17.5.5 §§117, 120; Polybius Hist. 6.46.3).

If this is an accurate characterization, it is no wonder that Paul’s requirements for church leaders (vv 5–9) are so basic.

His statement of approval, “This testimony is true,” is his way of giving apostolic authority to something said by a non-Christian.

Quinn says that Crete was famous for not having any wild animals (108; citing Plutarch De capienda 86C; Pliny Hist. 8.83).

This creates a powerful twist in the saying. While most countries had to deal with wild beasts, in Crete the same problem was posed by people who, in the absence of wild animals, assumed the role themselves [Word Biblical Commentary: vol. 46: Pastoral Epistles, at Titus 1:12].

First-century Crete thus had a reputation of being a place of pirates and thieves, not unlike Somalia had a few years ago during the wave of Somalian pirates.

The fact that some Cretans were becoming Christians was thus a sign of hope, but the fact that they lived in such a corrupt culture meant that extra warnings against immorality were needed.


So people shouldn’t diss St. Paul about the Epimenides “paradox”?

No. In the first place, St. Paul was a smart guy who would have been able to recognize an ironic, paradoxical statement about Cretans if that was what Epimenides had been making.

In reality, though, this was not what the earlier author was doing. He was making a general lament about his people’s sinfulness—with particular reference to their “God is dead” claims—without saying that the literally lied on every single occasion.

That’s why nobody claimed Epimenides was even making a paradoxical claim until very recently—long after the work was lost and before the original context was rediscovered.

St. Paul knew the original context, and he made an appropriate application to the Cretan culture of his own day.

Now, in case you didn’t click on the video link above, here’s a bit of fun with the cast of Star Trek and their own application of the Liar’s paradox.

What Now?

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KPBSsuicide2Recently, I appeared on the local PBS radio and television affiliate (KPBS) to discuss a new assisted suicide bill that has been introduced in the California legislature.

Although the station representatives weren’t initially aware of it, both I and the gentleman taking the opposing view were widowers who lost our wives to cancer.

They were surprised and supportive when this turned out to be the case, and it helped balance the discussion since we both had very moving personal stories.

We first did a 15-minute radio debate, which can be listened to through a specialized audio player at this link:


Look for the “KBPS Midday Edition” player, about half way down the page (just under the YouTube video).

They also had us discuss the subject on their “KPBS Evening Edition” television program, the video for which is here:

This was the first time that I met John La Grange, and we had very cordial discussions off the air. I gave him my condolences for his loss, and I told him that I would be praying for him and his late wife, which he appreciated. I’d ask others to do so as well. Thank you in advance!

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popefrancisThis version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 9 – 19 January 2015.





Papal Tweets

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CatholicAnswersLogoIn this episode of Catholic Answers Live (1/6/15), Jimmy answers the following questions:

  • I don’t feel that receiving communion in the hand is appropriate. If indeed, this is the Real Presence and every particle is fully Jesus, why was it approved to receive communion in the hand in the first place given the ability to unintentionally desecrate the consecrated host?
  • If the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin, did she experience a natural death?
  • How can I effectively talk to people about the Faith without being abrasive?
  • Wasn’t the original intent for receiving Holy Communion on the tongue to avoid spillage of the particles of the consecrated host rather than for reverence?
  • Does the Church teach that Mary directly helps us or is her assistance via her intercession for us to God
  • How can someone be tempted to do something that’s impossible for them to do?
  • In the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, I have a problem with the statement, “Eternal Father, I offer You the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ…”   Can you explain the meaning of this line in the Chaplet?
  • Since John the Baptist’s mother recognized the Savior in Mary’s womb, why didn’t John himself recognize Him?
  • If Catholics receive grace through the sacraments, how do non-Catholics receive the sanctifying grace to be saved?
  • What is the Church’s stand on pornography from a pro-life perspective?
  • How can you speak with adult children who are leaning toward New Age thinking, expressing that love is the most important thing, finding that the riches of the Vatican are a problem, etc.?

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Pope Francis waves to crowds as he arrives to his inauguration mass on 19 March 2013.This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 1 November 2014 – 10 January 2015.


General Audiences




Daily Homilies (fervorinos)

Papal Tweets

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temple_burningScholars are frequently forced to play detective to determine when an ancient book was written.

Ancient books did not have copyright dates neatly printed on a page at the front of the book. Frequently, they did not contain any explicit reference to the year in which they were written.

As a result, scholars have to look for clues within the books to figure out approximately when the work was written.


The Significance of 70

A potentially important clue for books written in the first few centuries B.C. and A.D. is what the book says about the temple in Jerusalem, for we know that the temple was destroyed by the Romans in late A.D. 70.

If a book refers to the temple as still standing and in operation, that’s a clue that the book was written before the temple’s destruction, while if it refers to the temple being destroyed then that’s a sign it was written afterward.

One book of the New Testament that appears to refer to the temple still being in operation is the book of Hebrews, where we read:

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? . . .

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins [Heb. 10:1-2, 11].

Note the present tenses: The sacrifices “are continually offered” year after year. The priest “stands daily” at his service, “offering repeatedly” the sacrifices. That strongly suggests that the Jerusalem temple was still in operation.

The thing that makes it absolutely certain is the question, “Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered?”

In A.D. 70, they did cease to be offered, and the author of Hebrews is intensely concerned that his audience of Christian Jews remain firm in their faith in Jesus and not return to non-Christian Jewish practice.

If he were writing after the temple had been destroyed, in keeping with Jesus’ prophecy (Matt. 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2, Luke 21:5-6), the author could not have failed to point this out—both as a fulfillment of the Lord’s prophecy, as a sign of God’s rejection of non-Christian Jewish sacrifices, and as a sign of the inferiority of the Jewish temple sacrifices compared to the value of Christ’s own sacrifice (the very point he is arguing at the moment).


A Counter Claim

Some scholars raise an objection at this point. For example, William L. Lane objected to the above argument, in part because of what he referred to as “timeless” present tense verbs used to describe the temple and its sacrifices after it had been destroyed.

Lane thought that Hebrews was written before A.D. 70 (he assigned it tentatively to the period between A.D. 64 and 68), but he did not think that the argument from present tense references to the temple as still functioning was sufficient, because he thought there were other, similar references made in documents written after the temple was destroyed—that is, references that made it sound as if the temple were still functioning, when it wasn’t.

This is a meme in some scholarly circles, but it needs to be backed up. If there are such references, we need to look at them and see how much doubt they actually cast on the argument.

Fortunately, Lane provided a list of four such references, writing:

For similar use of such “timeless” presents in describing the Temple itself and its sacrifices after the Temple had been destroyed, see Jos., Ant. 4.224–57; 1 Clem 41:2; Barn. 7–8; Diogn. 3 [Word Biblical Commentary: Volume 47a: Hebrews 1–8, lxiii].

The abbreviations Lane uses may not be familiar, so here are the four sources he refers to, spelled out:

  • Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, 4:8:17-23[224-257]
  • 1 Clement 41:2
  • Epistle of Barnabas 7-8
  • Epistle to Diognetus 3

How much doubt do these references cast on the argument described above?

Not much.


The Present Tense

Lane is correct that the present tense sometimes gets used in a way that does not refer to the present time. Consider the following statements:

  • Kittens are cute.
  • Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Stars with more than a certain amount of mass become black holes.
  • Mark Twain is Samuel Clemens.
  • In Huckleberry Finn, Twain explores aspects of the human condition through the eyes of a boy who is the son of the town drunk.
  • As Shakespeare says, “To be or not to be—that is the question.”
  • Hamlet is a most remarkable character.
  • The priest pours the blood of the sacrifice at the foot of the altar.
  • A blind man comes up to Jesus and says, “Lord, I would receive my sight.”

In each of these sentences, the main verbs are in the present tense (are, freezes, become, is, explores, says, is, pours, comes, says), yet none of them refers to a specific action occurring in the present time.

Some of them refer to general truths that apply without respect to time. The last refers to events actually occurring in past time (this is known as the “historical” present).

Linguists and biblical scholars could classify these uses of the present tense in different ways, but Lane is correct that the present tense does not always refer to an event occurring in present time.

As a result, it’s possible for there to be statements using the present tense to describe the temple and its operations even after its destruction.


Marked vs. Unmarked

I’m sure that there are present-tense descriptions of the temple written after its destruction. In fact, I’m sure that there are books out there written in the last century—more than 1,800 years after its destruction—that use the present tense in this way.

For example, I can imagine scholarly discussions of how the temple rituals operated sliding into the present tense (“The priest pours the blood of the sacrifice at the foot of the altar”).

I’m also sure that there are historical novels set before A.D. 70 describing the temple as still in operation, and they may sometimes use the present tense when doing so.

But in both of these cases, the use of the present tense is “marked” in such a way that the reader knows it is not describing a present reality. There will be some kind of marker in the text that cues the reader to this fact.

To see how this works, consider the historical present we referred to above. This frequently occurs in the Greek text of the Gospels, and its purpose is (frequently) to make the story more vivid for the reader, as if he himself were witnessing the events in realtime.

But the reader knows, as soon as he starts reading the Gospels, that they describe the events of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth—not events occurring in the world right now, as the reader is reading.

These uses of the present tense are thus “marked” for the reader as referring to events that are not occurring in the present.

In the same way, a modern discussion of how the temple rituals used to be performed will be similarly marked. Indeed, any such discussion is likely to have a statement somewhere near its beginning that explicitly points out that the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70.

Similarly, any historical novel—by the fact that the reader knows it is a historical novel—is marked as describing events occurring in the past (if they occurred at all).

But what if we are reading an ancient, non-fiction document that seems to speak of the temple as still in operation and does not mark the text as referring to no-longer current events?

What if we read an ancient document that simply refers to sacrifices as being performed in Jerusalem?

Unless there is something else affecting the text (a marker of the type we’ve been discussing) then the natural interpretation is to assign the text a date before the destruction of the temple.

If you want to overturn that presumption then you’d need to show that there was a strong tradition—in use at the time—of unmarked, present-tense references to the temple and its operations that continued to be used after its destruction.

Here is where Lane’s case encounters significant problems.


How Many References?

Lane provided us with four references that he saw as “timeless” presents written after the temple was destroyed.

That’s not a lot.

Four cases could simple be the result of random authorial usage. That’s not nearly enough to show that there was an established usage at the time.

Lane, who regrettably is no longer with us, might say that there are many more examples he could have given, but he did not give them, and I haven’t (yet) found other authors providing longer, more substantial lists.

What I have to go by is the list that Lane provides, and it’s not a list that’s long enough to document an established usage.

Another problem is that the four passages Lane cite turn out to be very weak examples.

Let’s look at each of them.



Lane’s first example comes from the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. Here he is on solid ground in identifying a source that dates from after the destruction of the temple.

Josephus was a combatant in the Jewish War that climaxed with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. After the war, he began a literary career, and all of his surviving writings date from this period.

In the A.D. 90s, he wrote his Jewish Antiquities, which is the work that Lane cites.

Although Lane refers to a fairly lengthy passage from the Antiquities (around 1,600 words in Whiston’s translation), there is only one portion of it that refers to the temple:

But as to the ripe fruits, let them carry that which is ripe first of all into the temple; and when they have blessed God for that land which bare them, and which he had given them for a possession, when they have also offered those sacrifices which the Law has commanded them to bring, let them give the firstfruits to the priests.

But when anyone hath done this, and hath brought the tithe of all that he has, together with those firstfruits that are for the Levites, and for the festivals, and when he is about to go home, let him stand before the holy house, and return thanks to God, that he hath delivered them from the injurious treatment they had in Egypt [Jewish Antiquities 4:8:22(241-242)].

This passage does use the present tense, even in English (“let them carry that . . . into the temple,” “let them give the firstfruits,” “let him stand before the holy house”).

But there is something to be noticed about these verbs: In both Greek and English, they aren’t just in the present tense; they are in the imperative mood. In other words, they are commands.

That marks them not as descriptions of things that are happening but as things that should happen (at least in some circumstances, such as having an operating temple).

Right there, that tells us that this passage is not going to help us document an existing usage of unmarked present tenses for the temple after its destruction, because these presents are marked.

And it isn’t just the imperative mood that does that. It’s the whole context.

If you read the text surrounding the portion of the Antiquities that Lane cites, you discover that it’s all in a huge speech given by Moses. Here is how Josephus introduces it:

When forty years were completed, within thirty days, Moses gathered the congregation together near Jordan, where the city Abila now stands, a place full of palm trees; and all the people being come together, he spake thus to them [op. cit. 4:8:1(176)].

This is adapted from the opening of Deuteronomy (see Deut. 1:1-5), and the whole speech is, in fact, Josephus’s rewriting of Deuteronomy, with the passage quoted above being his paraphrase and condensation of the laws of tithe and firstfruits found in Deuteronomy 12-15 and 26.

Even the title given to this chapter by Whiston (“The Polity Settled by Moses; and How He Disappeared from Among Mankind”) tells you that this is not an unmarked reference to the temple and its operations. This is Josephus’s retelling of things said by Moses more than a thousand years earlier!

The present tenses used in this chapter are thus marked by the context as occurring in a speech set in the distant past.

Lane’s citation from Josephus thus does not provide the kind of reference we need.


St. Clement of Rome

Lane’s second reference is from 1 Clement—a first century letter written to the church at Corinth by St. Clement of Rome. In the course of the letter, he writes:

Not in every place, brethren, are the continual daily sacrifices offered, or the freewill offerings, or the sin offerings and the trespass offerings, but in Jerusalem alone.

And even there the offering is not made in every place, but before the sanctuary in the court of the altar; and this too through the high priest and the afore said ministers, after that the victim to be offered hath been inspected for blemishes [1 Clement 41:2].

Here we have precisely what we don’t have in Josephus: a reference to the temple as if it’s still functioning in Jerusalem, using the present tense and in the indicative (rather than imperative) mood: the continual daily sacrifices “are . . .offered” in Jerusalem. The offering “is . . . made” before the sanctuary in the court of the altar, through the high priest and the afore said ministers.

These presents aren’t marked by anything in the text as occurring in the past or being descriptions of what should happen in the ideal.

Good stuff. Just what we need as evidence.

If it was written after the destruction of Jerusalem.

The trouble is . . . it wasn’t.

Although 1 Clement is commonly dated to the A.D. 90s, this date is erroneous.

The reference to the temple still operating is, in fact, a major clue that 1 Clement was written before the temple’s destruction, but it is not the only such clue.

A variety of scholars, including John A. T. Robinson (Redating the New Testament) and William Jurgens (Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 1) have discussed clues in the letter that point to a date considerably earlier than the A.D. 90s.

For example, the names of the letter carriers mentioned in the text (Claudius Ephebus, Valerius Bito, and Fortunatus) indicate that two of them were freedmen of the Emperor Claudius and his wife Valeria Messalina. Given the way manumission worked in Rome, slaves were not freed before a certain age, and these men would have been far too old to serve as letter carriers in the A.D. 90s.

The most thorough study of the date of 1 Clement at present is Thomas J. Herron’s Clement and the Early Church of Rome: On the Dating of Clement’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. It is highly worth reading.

In any event, 1 Clement was not written in the A.D. 90s. Instead, clues in the letter show that it can be dated to a fairly narrow window of time between the fall of the Emperor Vitellius in December of 69 and the destruction of the temple in August of 70.


The Epistle of Barnabas

Lane’s third example is from the Epistle of Barnabas (an anonymous work not actually written by the apostle Barnabas).

This work was written after the destruction of the temple. In fact, it may be the earliest such Christian work that presently survives.

The destruction of the temple is clearly referred to as an accomplished fact in the text:

Finally, I will also speak to you about the temple, and how those wretched men went astray and set their hope on the building, as though it were God’s house, and not on their God who created them. . . . For because they went to war, it was torn down by their enemies [Epistle of Barnabas, 16:1, 4].

We are on solid ground, therefore, in seeing this as a post-70 work. But what does it say in the passage that Lane refers to?

Again, Lane cites a fairly lengthy passage (around 1,000 words), but we can deal with it in shorter space. At this point in the epistle, the author is conducting an exercise in typology, and in chapter 7 he explores the Christian typology of the provisions relating to the scapegoat (Leviticus 16), while in chapter 8 he does the same for the provisions related to the red heifer (Numbers 19).

All of the present tenses used in these chapters of Barnabas are marked. They all occur in the process of describing actions performed during a ceremony required by the Mosaic Law and then noting how they correspond, in one way or another, to Christ.

We do not, in these passages, have the present tense being used to describe the temple or its operations without reference to this typological exploration of Old Testament rituals.

Even if there are details of the ceremonies borrowed from recent memory of seeing the rituals performed (as there may be, for Barnabas 8 refers to children taking part in this ritual, and their presence is not mentioned in Numbers), the fundamental frame of reference involves comparing a ritual prescribed in the Old Testament to its fulfillment in Christ.

This is thus markedly different from the kind of reference we have to the temple functioning in 1 Clement.


The Epistle to Diognetus

Lane’s final reference is to the Epistle to Diognetus. This is an early, anonymous work of Christian apologetics.

In chapter 2, the anonymous author describes the Greeks as worshipping idols in the following way:

And as for the honors that you think you are offering them: If they [the idols] are aware of them, then you are in fact insulting them; but if they are not aware, then you are showing them up by worshiping them with the blood and fat of victims [To Diognetus 2:8].

In chapter 3, the author compares this idolatrous worship to the worship offered to the true God by Jews, saying:

The Jews indeed, insofar as they abstain from the kind of worship described above, rightly claim to worship the one God of the universe and to think of him as Master; but insofar as they offer this worship to him in the same way as those already described, they are altogether mistaken.

For whereas the Greeks provide an example of their stupidity by offering things to senseless and deaf images, the Jews, thinking that they are offering these things to God as if he were in need of them, could rightly consider it folly rather than worship [op. cit., 3:2-3].

Here he contrasts the way in which Greeks worship many, false gods with the way Jews worship the true God, but he notes that they offer the same kind of worship: “the blood and fat of victims,” of which the true God is not in need.

This understanding is confirmed just a bit later, when he writes:

In any case, those who imagine that they are offering sacrifices to him by means of blood and fat and whole burnt offerings and are honoring him with these tokens of respect do not seem to me to be the least bit different from those who show the same respect to deaf images: the latter make offerings to things unable to receive the honor, while the former think they offer it to the One who is in need of nothing [op. cit., 3:5].

This does speak of sacrifices as if they were still being performed by Jews. Unlike the reference in Josephus, it isn’t marked as being part of a speech given in the distant past, and unlike the reference in Barnabas, it isn’t marked as a typological reading of an Old Testament ritual. Instead, it looks similar to the straightforward reference found in 1 Clement.

Could it, like 1 Clement, have been written before the destruction of the temple?

I’m not aware of anyone who dates it to this period, but we should be careful, because the popular opinion is that 1 Clement was also written after the temple’s destruction, and that is mistaken.

Michael Holmes summarizes the issue of To Diognetus‘s date this way:

The date of the document is a matter of conjecture as well. Reasonable suggestions range from 117 to after 313. Between 150 and 225 seems the most likely; Lightfoot, Meecham, and Frend favor the earlier of these dates, while R. M. Grant places it somewhat later [The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations of Their Writings (1999 ed.), 530].

That is a wide range of dates, and it illustrates the fact that there is little certainty regarding when this document was written.

The earlier portion of the range (c. 117) comes close to when the temple was in operation. Could the work be dated before its destruction?

To Diognetus is similar to the writings of the other Greek-speaking apologists of the 2nd century, and so it is often date alongside them, but there is no reason, in principle, why it cannot be a forerunner that helped establish the genre of this sort of apologetic writing.

If we are to entertain this possibility then the fact that the author refers to Jews still offering sacrifices could itself be a clue that it was written before the temple’s destruction.

There is even the fact that, later in the work, the author describes himself, saying:

I am not talking about strange things, nor am I engaged in irrational speculation, but having been a disciple of apostles, I am now becoming a teacher of the Gentiles [op. cit., 11:1].

While a person in a later age could describe himself figuratively as a disciple of the apostles, an early author could well have meant that he was literally a disciple of the apostles, which would suggest a first century date.

However, there is a problem here, because there is a break in the text just before this passage, and most scholars think that this statement wasn’t part of the original To Diognetus but was rather part of a second work.

So let’s suppose that the work was written after A.D. 70. What are we to make of its apparent references to ongoing Jewish sacrifice?

Hypothetically, it might refer to sacrifices not taking place at Jerusalem. It does not, after all, specify Jerusalem as the place where these were occurring.

Although the view among the Jewish establishment strongly favored the offering of sacrifices at Jerusalem, this was not universal. There was, in fact, a Jewish temple at Leontopolis in Egypt, and sacrifice was also offered there (as it had been at a previous temple in Elephantine, Egypt).

The temple at Leontopolis was destroyed in A.D. 73, however, because the Romans feared it might become an alternative cultic site for Jews and lead to another rebellion, so the window in which To Diognetus could have been written on that theory would be quite narrow.

Could the sacrifices have been offered elsewhere? While the school of thought that eventually prevailed in Judaism held that sacrifices (with few exceptions) were not to be offered elsewhere, it is possible that, in the wake of the temple’s destruction, some priests tried offering sacrifices elsewhere, but this is unlikely to have been a well-known practice and thus is not likely to be what the author of To Diognetus has in mind.

Instead, if the epistle were written after A.D. 70, he is likely thinking of the customary mode of Jewish worship that prevailed up until the destruction of the temple, and he chooses to speak of it as if it were ongoing because it suited his purpose as a way of showing the superiority of Christian worship of the true God.

On the other hand, if that was his purpose, it is strange that he didn’t mention the temple’s destruction and the end of these sacrifices as a sign of the true God’s rejection of the Jewish mode of worship. That would have suited his purpose even better, and this omission may serve as another indicator of a pre-70 date.

In conclusion, the evidence regarding the Epistle to Diognetus is ambiguous. On the one hand, we have what looks like a reference to Jewish sacrifice as if it is ongoing. On the other hand, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the date of the epistle and what the author has in mind.

This means that, although the epistle might qualify as the kind of evidence Lane needs, the situation is too uncertain to provide a clear, indisputable case.

Furthermore, it is the only such case we have found, and so it may be explained by the idiosyncrasies of a single author. We do not have a basis for proposing an established usage of unmarked present tenses being used to refer to the temple and its operations after A.D. 70.



The theory proposed by Lane does not ultimately succeeding in casting a great deal of doubt on the idea that present tense references to the temple and its operations can be a significant clue that a document was written before A.D. 70.

However, our examination of the passages cited by Lane does reveal some important cautions that need to be taken into account.

The first of these is that it is not merely any use of the present tense that serves as a clue to a pre-70 date. The use needs to be what we have referred to as an “unmarked” use of the present—that is, one in which the reader is not signaled that the use of the present tense should not be taken as a reference to present time.

Such marking may occur, as in the case of Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, when the present tense is used in the course of a speech given long before the destruction of the temple. It also may occur, as in the Epistle of Barnabas, when an Old Testament text or ritual is being analyzed.

A second caution—as we saw in our discussion of the Epistle to Diognetus—is that we need to at least be aware of the fact that sacrifice was not offered exclusively at the Jerusalem temple.

This means that a passage containing a reference to Jerusalem specifically (like the passage in 1 Clement) will be at least a slightly stronger clue of a pre-70 date than a passage referring to Jewish sacrifice without mentioning it being offered at Jerusalem.

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jesus-icon Just a quick note on the reliability of the Gospels.

I’ve written before about the fact that the Evangelists did not feel free to simply make stuff up about Jesus.

One of the signs of that is the fact that, despite the fact that St. Paul’s letters were extremely influential in the early Church and though they generally predate the Gospels, we don’t find the four Evangelists lifting statements from St. Paul and attributing them to Jesus.

Neither, in fact, do we find the Jesus of the Gospels interacting with many of the controversies that characterize the period in which the epistles were written.


Some Examples

Evangelical scholar Michael F. Bird makes the point well when he writes:

[M]any of the debates within the early Christian movement, particularly those stemming from the Pauline circle, are entirely absent from the Gospels: justification by faith, circumcision, speaking in tongues, baptism, the status of Gentiles, criteria of apostleship, and food sacrificed to idols . All these topics are candidates for being written onto the lips of Jesus but are significantly missing from the Gospels.

N. T. Wright notes: “The synoptic tradition shows a steadfast refusal to import ‘dominical’ answers to or comments on those issues into the retelling of the stories about Jesus. This should put us firmly on our guard against ideas that the stories we do find in the synoptic tradition were invented to address current needs in the 40s, 50s, 60s or even later in the first century” [New Testament and the People of God, 422].

Wright’s judgment is confirmed by Acts, Galatians, and 1 Peter, where one observes a distinct reluctance to produce texts attributable to Jesus to resolve recurring problems. It is in a much later esoteric document such as Gospel of Thomas 53 where one finds a statement about circumcision placed on the lips of Jesus [The Gospel of the Lord, 121-122].


Circumcision in the Gospel of Thomas

I particularly like the point about Thomas’s saying concerning circumcision. Bird doesn’t quote it, but here it is:

His disciples said to him [Jesus], “Is circumcision useful or not?”

He said to them, “If it were useful, their father would produce children already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become profitable in every respect” [Gospel of Thomas 53].

You see how well this statement fits the controversies that broke out after Jesus’ ministry about whether Gentiles needed to become Jews in order to be Christians and—if they didn’t—what value there was in being Jewish at all.


About Borrowing from St. Paul . . .

In fact, the quotation from Thomas fits that controversy so well that it’s hard not to hear echoes of what St. Paul wrote in Romans:

Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. . . . For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical.  He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God.

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God [Rom. 2:25, 2:28-3:2].

Notice how both the passage from Thomas and the passage from Romans both expressly involve the question of what value/usefulness circumcision has (if any)? Notice how they both relativize the value of physical circumcision and point instead to “spiritual” circumcision or circumcision “in spirit”?


Which Gospels Are Trustworthy

Of course, Jesus would have agreed with St. Paul’s statement, but the point is that the controversy had not yet arisen during Our Lord’s earthly ministry, which reveals the statement attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas as an anachronism—something lifted from a later controversy—likely even lifted in substance from St. Paul!—and then placed on the lips of Jesus.

The fact that we don’t find this kind of thing in the four canonical Gospels shows that their authors did not feel free to make stuff up about Jesus—not even to help with the controversies of their own day. It’s thus a testimony to the historical value of the canonical Gospels.

The fact that we do find this kind of thing in non-canonical writings like the Gospel of Thomas also reveals that their authors were not so scrupulous about historical accuracy and thus that their works can’t enjoy the same confidence.

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