Did the Apostle Paul Use Profanity?

By Gary Manning Jr Oct. 1, 2015 3:21 p.m. New Testament

In Philippians 3:8, the apostle Paul compares his religious credentials to knowing Jesus. The difference could hardly be more emphatic: “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” is of “surpassing value,” but Paul’s past success is like σκύβαλα (skubala). σκύβαλα is commonly translated as rubbish, refuse, or garbage, but sometimes more strongly as dung, in both ancient and modern translations (Vulgate, Tyndale, KJV, NET). Some have suggested another four-letter translation, stronger than dung.

While teaching Greek, I used to say that σκύβαλα is the closest thing to a swear word you can find in the New Testament - and I was repeating something that I had heard or read quite a few times. C. Spicq's Greek lexicon even suggests that σκύβαλα should be rendered crap. But is it true? Is σκύβαλα a swear word, or maybe a rude word? Or is it unobjectionable?
 
We have to define swear words to know if Paul used any. Swear words are often used as interjections (drat!), insults (that dratted child!) or invective curses (curse you, Perry the Platypus!). In general, swear words have synonyms that are acceptable for normal use – like dung in place of the s-word. But unlike drat or dung, a real swear word is one that you won’t use around your mother (to use a techical linguistic definition of profanity). They are not used in “polite society.”
 
With that in mind, I did a search of two exhaustive databases of ancient Greek literature (Perseus and Thesaurus Linguae Graecae) to see if σκύβαλα functions as a swear word in Greek. I discovered that nowhere in all of ancient Greek literature is there a clear example of σκύβαλα functioning as a swear word or even as a rude word. I could not find a single place where it was used as an insult, invective curse or interjection. In fact, the normal use of σκύβαλα in ancient Greek scholarly literature makes it almost impossible that it was a swear word. Here is the evidence for my claim, a list of the known uses of σκύβαλα in ancient Greek texts.
  • Medical texts: Aretaeus the Cappadocian (1st century AD), Soranus (1st/2nd century AD), Galen (2nd century AD) and others: When describing disease symptoms, ancient doctors sometimes mention the condition of a patient’s feces (σκύβαλα). For example, Aretaeus says that jaundice is often accompanied by σκύβαλα that is “white and clayey.” (De caus. 1.15.2, 2.9; De cur. 2.5.4; De comp. 13.4; De rem.14.1; De aff. 19.2; similarly Artemidorus the Diviner, Onir. 1.67.11, 2.14.37)
  • Strabo, a geographer (1st century AD): Smyrna’s streets lack proper drainage, so that when it rains, “the filth (σκύβαλα) lies on the surface of the streets.” (Geog.14.1.38)
  • Josephus, a historian (1st century AD): At the siege of Jerusalem, starvation was so severe that some people went to “search the common sewers and old dunghills of cattle, and to eat the dung (σκύβαλα).” (Wars 5.571)
  • Plutarch, a philosopher (1st century AD): Priests avoid touching “excrement (σκύβαλα) and things left over from food” because such things “are neither pure nor clean.” (De Iside. 4). The lees (dead yeast and other particles) should be filtered out of wine, since it is essentially the refuse (σκύβαλα) of wine (Quaes. Conv. 6.7).
  • Philo, a Jewish philosopher (1st century AD): just as wheat is sifted to remove the chaff, so people must abandon the moral qualities that “are not divine, which we must leave like refuse (σκύβαλα)” (De Sacr. 1. 109). In typical Philo fashion, he suggests that the ark is an allegory for the human body, and that the door in the ark was for the purpose of expelling excrement (σκύβαλα). (Q. Gen. 2:6)
  • Ben Sirach, a Jewish sage (2nd century BC): “In the shaking of a sieve, the husks surface; thus also does the refuse (σκύβαλα) of a man in his speech” (Sir. 27:4)
  • Sybilline Oracles (uncertain date): Refugees of war are described as the “refuse (σκύβαλα) of war” (Syb. Or. 7:58, 11:185).
  • Greek Anthology (some 1st and 2nd century AD, some uncertain): Four rather light-hearted poems use σκύβαλα to describe inedible material left over from food, such as lobster shell (I.6.89), unripe grapes that have been chewed up and spit out (III.9.375), or fallen table scraps (I.6.302, 303). One poem uses σκύβαλα to describe the “dry sweepings” of trash. Two epitaphs (tombstone inscriptions) use σκύβαλα to describe human remains (II.7.276, II.7.382).
  • Church fathers (2nd-4th centuries AD): The church fathers used σκύβαλα dozens of times, but every occurrence seems to be a quotation of or allusion to Paul’s use in Phil 3:8.
This list covers every significant use of σκύβαλα from ancient Greek literature up through the 3rd century AD. I also surveyed the uses for the next several centuries after that, and found no variation in the meaning or use of σκύβαλα. Some important observations about σκύβαλα arise:
  • Since σκύβαλα was used in dignified scholarly works by doctors, historians, philosophers and sages, there was nothing objectionable about the word at all. Plutarch’s use of the word in a “high society piece” about proper wine etiquette is strong evidence that this word was not regarded as impolite.
  • σκύβαλα can be translated as either dung or trash, depending on the context. The uses of σκύβαλα in the list above demonstrate that σκύβαλα could refer to either dung or to other worthless waste.
  • Paul was not alone in using σκύβαλα as a metaphor for something worthless in the moral or religious realm. Philo and Sirach both used σκύβαλα to describe undesirable qualities that should be abandoned. Paul’s interesting, and somewhat different, use of the word is to say that his desirable religious credentials (circumcision, pedigree, Pharisaism, zeal, obedience to the Law) were σκύβαλα – worthless waste – in comparison to knowing Jesus (Phil 3:4-8).

The picture: First-century toilets in Philippi.

Comments

  • Ken Berding Oct. 2, 2015 at 9:59 AM

    Thanks, Gary. It's interesting how easy it is simply to repeat what you've heard someone say, especially if it is provocative like the suggestion that σκύβαλα is something you wouldn't say in polite speech. Thanks for debunking that assumption.

  • Greg Stump Oct. 2, 2015 at 1:21 PM

    What a thoughtful and helpful post!

    One thing that's interesting is that we tend to use certain words like "profanity" or "cussing" or "swearing" to refer to explicit (or objectionable) language as a whole, when they are actually CATEGORIES of explicit language.

    For example, profanity is taking something that is sacred and treating it in an unworthy manner (i.e. when someone uses Jesus' name to express frustration). Cussing is a variant of "cursing" which is obviously to invoke harm on others ("Go to hell") and swearing is simply making an oath ("I swear to God...") in an inappropriate way (Jesus seemed to frown upon this practice).

    So your article should probably be titled, "Did the Apostle Paul Use Vulgarity?" which is when language of the "common" or "lower class" is used, considered impolite by the higher classes. (I have wondered before if Christianity should be reinforcing class distinctions and denigrating those who do not use "proper language" i.e Romans 12. 16; James 2.1-13, but I'm sure there are various views on this...

    Blessings in Christ,
    Greg

  • Roy Kerns Oct. 4, 2015 at 9:33 PM

    A couple years ago I wrote the following (which supports Gary's position)

    Almost 3 decades ago I first heard a friend argue for a four letter
    word translation of skubalon. In the past year another friend made
    similar claims. Finally I have decided to take a position.

    The Bible undeniably provides graphic pictures. Ponder for a moment
    how God treated the god Israel made for itself in the wilderness, the
    one Moses ground to powder which was added to water for the
    Israelites to drink. (Two other examples: our righteousness as used
    sanitary napkins Isaiah 56, hell as the Valley of Hinnom where not
    only did people dump refuse and was thus a place of worms,
    smoldering, vapors, and smoke, but was the place of child sacrifice.)

    In the citation of Phil 3 a four letter word fits among the things to
    which skubalon refers. There is at least some credibility to the
    claim that four letter word perhaps most bluntly refutes any claim to
    getting right with God by what one does.

    But I am persuaded that using that four letter word mistranslates
    skubalon.

    First: The Bible clearly portrays vivid imagery that we can hear
    others describe with four letter words. But it does so via imagery,
    via allegory, via allusion, not by statement. If that is so every
    where other than Phil 3, I see no reason that I should think Phil 3 an
    exception.

    Second: A four letter word provides only part of the imagery which
    skubalon calls up. Skubalon refers to a lot more than feces. It
    includes all refuse, offal, waste, mess. It refers to everything
    which we would throw away, remove from our presence, despise and want elsewhere, that we find not merely useless but offensive. Thus that four letter word limits the meaning. It obscures rather than
    clarifies. Using imagery, that four letter word *sanitizes* skubalon.

  • Daniel Newell Oct. 8, 2015 at 8:33 PM

    Thanks for the discussion. We live in a weak and whimpy age, where people are so easily offended by the strangest things. It is time for more down to earth translations and discussions ... I'm still waiting for a study of the pooper-scoopers Moses had each person wear and use in the wilderness. They had no Charmin ... everyday life was quite different. :)

  • Greg Harris Oct. 12, 2015 at 2:14 PM

    Thank you! This is something I have assumed for years, and see that it is my cultural reading into the text!

    Given your definition of cursing, how would we understand the use of dog then in the New Testament? Specifically (Matthew 7:6 and Philippians 3:2) where it appears to be insults? Is this term used often as a curse word?

  • Gary Manning Oct. 12, 2015 at 3:49 PM

    Thanks for all of your comments. Greg, I was considering something besides "profanity" for the reason that you gave, but decided that for clarity in a title, I would use the word "profanity" as people normally use it, rather than with its technical meaning.

    Roy, I agree that the Bible often uses offensive language. Paul uses some strong language against those he believes are damaging the church.

    Greg, Phil 3:2 certainly uses dog as an insult, in a fairly sophisticated way. "Dog" refers to that which is unclean and therefore Gentile. Paul's use of the term for Judaizers - those who think they are super-Jewish - is a way of calling their religious practice and maybe their identity into question. In the same verse, he calls them κατατομη (mutilation, chopping) to mock their self-given title of περιτομη (circumcision). (Cp. Gal 5:12).

    I didn't do a search of uses of "dog" outside of the NT and OT, but my take on the word is that it is an insult, not a swear word.

  • Aaron Vriesman Oct. 13, 2015 at 9:00 AM

    Some helpful research here. A couple challenges to posit if I may; firstly it seems that words have different levels of offensiveness in different circles. Pastoring a church with dairy farmers, I have found that certain words for dung I was not allowed to use growing up are perfectly acceptable in the context of raising cows. It seems possible that the word may have been acceptable among people using it in a technical sense within a certain context, but not so acceptable among religious people in discussing theological matters.
    Secondly, it seems notable that the church fathers only used the word in context of mentioning Php 3:8. If the word was not offensive or rude, then why was it not used by the church fathers elsewhere? The opportunities to use an unloaded word like "trash" or "refuse" would be plentiful. E.g. The world only offers us trash and like trash all its glistening goods will someday be thrown out like refuse. But that the early fathers avoid the word outside of mentioning the Philippians verse seems significant.
    Granted, I did not do the research. But the data presented could potentially allow for other conclusions.

  • Gerry Todd Nov. 19, 2015 at 7:00 AM

    A nice article Gary and one that clarifies the term.
    Michael R Cosby in his book "Apostle on the Edge an inductive study of Paul" suggests that it should be translated by the S word.
    In fact he seems to be intent on getting as much shock value out of it as he can.
    But as has clearly been shown, that is the least likely use of the term.


  • Gary Manning Nov. 30, 2015 at 2:30 PM

    Thanks for the comments, Aaron. Your point that words can be offensive in some settings but not in others is important, and makes it difficult to provide a linguistically clear definition of swear words. However, I think the examples I gave provide an answer: the three religious texts from the 1st century or earlier all use skubala as a standard word for refuse/waste/dung, with no sense that they were using a swear word. Further, the church fathers would at times apologize for the necessity of referring to something distasteful, and they did not do so that I could find in their allusions to Paul's skubala saying. Finally, ancient Greek writers sometimes commented on what words to avoid so that they would not sound vulgar. This means that normal history and philosophy books generally avoided such words. So its fairly standard use in medical, philosophical and historical texts, with no hint of humor or insult, means that they saw it as a neutral word, certainly not a swear word.

  • Jerzy Marcol Jul. 25, 2016 at 4:10 AM

    Garry, in the light of other texts written by Paul at the same time from prison in Rome and regarding our speech:

    Eph 4:29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
    Eph 5:4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
    Col 3: 8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.

    your interpretation is fully acceptable.
    The word used by Paul could not have had the profane / vulgar meaning. In my language (Polish) we have different words to describe the waste or even excrement. (The first word has a more general meaning, the other very specific). Some of them are acceptable in all circumstances, others are vulgar and should not be used in polite speech. In the light of the verses I quoted above (larger context) I am convinced that Paul used an appropriate word and it should be translated in other languages in the same way.

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