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.

9 thoughts on “Obscenity in Paul? The Question of σκύβαλον

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  1. Contextually I can see a word picture where Paul calls those who are the circumcisers “dogs” but then says that he considers all his own background credentials as valuable as dog poop. It isn’t an attempt at obscenity, but rather a picture of contrasting value. Manure has value, but dog poop does not. Dog poop to the 1st century Greek would have been a reminder of a nuisance- a street dog.

    That being said, my above description is an attempt to expound upon Paul’s phraseology in a Pastoral emphasis- not an attempt to give lexical definitions. Prior to preaching through Philippians, my going picture was that these former soldiers which made up the city of Philippi likely had times in their marching where they had to march across horse poop, or trash in the streets, and after their long day of marching, before they went down for the night, they scraped that σκυβαλον off their sandals on the outskirts of camp. I am imagining that from the military context of Philippi, this would have been a common experience.

    Then again, I whole heartedly admit that those could just be my sanctified imagination.

    Anywho, thanks for this post. I appreciate every part of what you are doing in it. It bothers me very much when people try to use this verse as a proof text to use speech unfitting of our Everlasting, Holy, and Perfect Heavenly Father.

    1. This is one of the reasons that in the next couple posts, I’ll be wanting to distinguish between rural farm usages where dung can have a practical purpose and urban usage, where any sort of excrement waste becomes very difficult to deal with and only causes problems.

  2. I think the issue is not how it was used in Greco-Roman times but your modern view of shit as a swear word and if is taboo or not to use in translations. Growing up on a mid-western farm many people would use ‘shit’ for manure in the barn or garbage/junk that needs thrown away. Perhaps the issue here is less lexical and more personal.

    1. I wouldn’t draw a firm distinction between personal and lexical. Lexicality is predicated on usage…which is simply how individuals use language.

      When I use the term ‘taboo word’, I’m talking about a linguistic category, but I’m not making a claim about all dialects of English. Currently the usage of ‘shit’ is getting more and more varied and for the most part isn’t remotely taboo for most social groups in North American English, though it continues to retain certain register differences.

      And you sort of touch on my point about domains of usage, too: urban vs. rural. What is normal in a rural agrarian context is not necessarily acceptable in urban ones.

      Relative to σκύβαλον, though, and not ‘shit’. is another bigger problem. We have no research or data simply on the category of obscenity and taboo language for Ancient Greek. It’s well documented for Latin and there is a minor amount of discussion in the literature on Aristophanes.

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