Obscenity in Paul? The Question of σκύβαλον

This post continues a series that began as questions about lexical and grammatical topics asked on Facebook on the Nerdy Language Majors FB Group. This particular topic grew substantially longer than I intended so now I am splitting it out into a few posts.

For the full set of posts on σκύβαλον, see here: The complete series on σκύβαλον

When Paul uses the word σκύβαλον in Philippians 3:8, is it an obscenity/taboo word? It is sort of an odd question and one that makes many uncomfortable. Other readers might find the possibility more appealing, even to the extent that they simply assume its true because they want it to be.  The fact that σκύβαλον can be glossed ‘dung’ likely encourages some to want to extend it a little further and gloss it as an English obscenity.

  • ἡγοῦμαι πάντα ζημίαν εἶναι διὰ τὸ ὑπερέχον τῆς γνώσεως Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ τοῦ κυρίου μου διʼ ὃν τὰ πάντα ἐζημιώθην, καὶ ἡγοῦμαι σκύβαλα ἵνα Χριστὸν κερδήσω
    I consider everything as lost because of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for the sake of whom I have suffered everything and consider it σκύβαλα so that I might gain Christ (Phil 3:8).

This idea is further encourage by a translation note in the NET Bible on their rendering ‘dung’:

The word here translated “dung” was often used in Greek as a vulgar term for fecal matter. As such it would most likely have had a certain shock value for the readers. This may well be Paul’s meaning here, especially since the context is about what the flesh produces.

The trouble is that simply seeing the possibility of a gloss is not sufficient justification for such a rendering. Acting on such inclinations results in bad lexicography. There are a number of reasons why ‘shit’ is an unacceptable gloss.  For one, even though σκύβαλον has a socially avoided referent, that does not mean the term itself creates the visceral reaction that a true obscenity would. More importantly, σκύβαλον has a distinctly different distribution in its usage compared to the English obscenity shit. The lexeme is comfortably at home in a wide variety of contexts, including in medical texts, for example. Consider how the medical writer, Aretaeus Of Cappadocia (2nd c. CE), uses σκύβαλον in his accounts of jaundice and its accompanying symptoms.

  • λευκὰ δὲ καὶ ἀργιλώδεα τὰ σκύβαλα · ουʼ γὰρ γίγνεται χολήβαφα, ὅτι περ οὐκ ἴσχει τοῦ χυμοῦ τὴν ἐπιρροήν
    But the hardened fecal matter is white and clayey, for there is no color to them because the digestive tract is blocked.

Similarly in another medical writer, Soranus, also from the 2nd c. CE, according to LSJM (I do not have access to the actual text), uses σκύβαλον with the noun ἐποχή ‘stoppage, retention’ to refer to what appears to be constipation in the lexical entry for the latter noun. Here is the relevant section of the entry (my emphasis):

ἐποχή, ἡ, (ἐπέχω) check, cessation, ἡ κατὰ τὸν πόλεμον ἐ. Plb.38.11.2; μετʼ ἐποχῆς with a check, Id.10.23.4; ἐποχὰς ποιεῖν .. τῆς προκοπῆς to check advance, Plu.2.76d, cf. Plot.6.2.13. \2. retention, σπέρματος Gal.8.420; οὔρων Philum.Ven.25.2; σκυβάλων Sor.2.20; ἀναπνοῆς (in hysteria) ib.26; γαστρός Gal.6.315; but ἐ. ἐμμήνων suppression (not retention) of the menses, Sor.2.6, al.

These medical usages are important for at least a couple reasons. First, the descriptive precision of the genre means that the referent of the lexeme is explicitly clear. Secondly, they demonstrate the fundamental issue with the use of an English lexeme obscenity sh*t as a translational gloss for σκύβαλον. The English obscenity simply is not used in this type of clinical context. The appropriate clinical gloss here would either be ‘fecal matter’ or ‘feces’. This marks a fundamental semantic distinction between it and σκύβαλον. The Greek, in its usage is simply too complex for such lazy renderings.

But defining and then, in turn, glossing the word σκύβαλον is a difficult affair. BDAG is not helpful. And once we examine all the data, that will be clear.

σκύβαλον, ου, τό useless or undesirable material that is subject to disposal, refuse, garbage (in var. senses, ‘excrement, manure, garbage, kitchen scraps’: Plut. et al.; PSI 184, 7; PRyl 149, 22; PFay 119, 7; Sir 27:4; Philo, Sacr. Abel. 109; 139; Jos., Bell. 5, 571; SibOr 7, 58.—τὰ σκύβαλα specif. of human excrement: Artem. 1, 67 p. 61, 23; 2, 14 p. 108, 21; Jos., Bell. 5, 571 [cp. Epict., Fgm. Stob. 19 ἀποσκυβαλίζω].—MDibelius, Hdb. on Phil 3:8) πάντα ἡγεῖσθαι σκύβαλα consider everything garbage/crud Phil 3:8 (cp. AcPl Ha 2, 23; Spicq. s.v. “to convey the crudity of the Greek … : ‘It’s all crap’.”).—DELG. TW.

So there are a few things listed here. We have the definition which, to the extent that it’s too general, is basically incorrect. Then some translation glosses And finally the citations that are (more or less) organized into two groups: (1) The “in var. senses, ‘excrement, manure, garbage, kitchen scraps’” citations. (2) The “of human excrement glosses”

I will be examining as many of these citations as I can get my hands on over the next week or two. And as a prelude, this is how I think the data is best organized compared to BDAG. In examining the wide usage of this particular one, two divisions stand out: rural vs. urban and then also medical vs. non-medical. Then separate from that are those lexeme tokens that do not have an identifiable and specific referent of excrement, but are used in comparisons or analogically. I think understanding the usage of this word in these contexts is more important than BDAG’s groupings for glosses.