CRETE (Crēt) Long, narrow, mountainous island south of mainland Greece, running 170 miles east-west but never more than about 35 miles wide. Crete was the center of the Minoan maritime empire named after the legendary King Minos and associated especially with the famous palaces of Knossos and Phaestos, which flourished from 2000 to 1500 b.c. This artistically brilliant civilization fell suddenly, perhaps by earthquake followed by conquest, about 1400 b.c., leaving written tablets in the oldest known scripts of Europe, including the undeciphered “Linear A” and the apparently later proto-Greek “Linear B,” found also on the mainland. The Minoans of Crete were known to the Egyptians as “Keftiu,” which may be the same as biblical “Caphtor,” though the biblical term may include a wider reference to coastlands and islands of the Aegean area. The Philistines came to Palestine from Caphtor (Jer. 47:4; Amos 9:7) and may have been part of the widespread migrant “Sea Peoples” rather than Cretans proper.
In classical Greek times Crete had many city-states, but they played relatively little part in mainstream Greek history. It had become a center of piracy before the Roman occupation in 67 b.c. Under the Romans it became part of a double province, Crete with Cyrene, under a governor with the title “proconsul,” who ruled the island and the opposite coast of North Africa from the Roman capital Gortyna. This had already been among the cities to whom the Romans had appealed a century before for fair treatment of their Jewish minorities (1 Macc. 15:23). Cretans were among those listed as present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:11), and the gospel may first have reached the island through them.
Paul made his voyage to Rome as a prisoner on a Roman grain ship. The voyage followed the route south of Crete, which gave partial shelter from the northwest winds and avoided the peril of the lee shore on the north coast, while still involving the need to beat against largely adverse winds. The journey had already been very slow, and it was getting dangerously late in the summer sailing season. The ship doubled Salmone, the eastern cape of Crete, and with difficulty reached Fair Havens, a small anchorage near the city of Lasea (Acts 27:8). There the emergency council called by the centurion and shipmaster overruled Paul’s advice, and a risky attempt was made to reach Phoenix, a regular port for servicing the grain ships, some 40 miles further west along the coast. The gentle south wind gave way to a violent northeaster (Euroclydon, Acts 27:14) when they came out of the shelter of Cape Matala (Loukinos) into an open bay, and the ship was driven helplessly, managing only some emergency action in the lee of the offshore island of Cauda, and thence to shipwreck on Malta.
The only other references to Crete in the NT are in the epistle to Titus. Paul had left Titus in Crete to exercise pastoral supervision over the churches there (Titus 1:5). The character of the people is described in a quotation from a prophet of their own: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12 HCSB), words attributed to the Cretan seer Epimenides, who was also credited with having advised the Athenians to set up altars to unknown gods (cp. Acts 17:23).
It is a problem to know when Paul (or Titus) visited Crete, apart from Paul’s voyage as a prisoner. It is difficult to fit the occasions of the Pastoral Epistles (to Timothy and Titus) into Paul’s life as recorded in Acts. The most satisfactory answer to this difficulty still seems to be that which argues that Paul was released from his two years’ imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28:30) and undertook further travels in the East which can only be traced in these epistles. At this last period of his life he may have focused his work on establishing and strengthening the churches throughout the Greek East.
Because of its location and its relative fertility, Crete has been a prize of war and of commerce. The island was conquered by Rome in 67 bc and became a separate province. The inhabitants prospered under the Romans and later under the Greek Christians (Byzantines). The Saracens (Muslims) occupied the island for over a century (ad 823–960). After centuries of Christian leadership, it was conquered by the Turkish sultan, and civilization languished (1669–1898). In the 20th century Crete has been a part of Greece, except for a period of German occupancy during World War II.