Skubalon. This word is far more than a simple debate for amusement amongst Greek scholars. This word encompasses lifestyles and a general understanding about the kinds of people the Apostles were, and poses a certain threat, or comfort, depending on which side of the isle you happen to be on.
A little context: Paul and I seem to have some connecting points. I was raised in an incredibly conservative home, and we grew up under the pretext of always seeming to want to outdo the purity index. My mom’s constant phrase was, “don’t water down your faith”. In her perspective, “water down” could probably be seen as “not profitable” as a hail to the verse, “all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable”. The mistake that I think happened, was that my mom with golden intentions, translated that verse in her head as, “if it isn’t profitable, it isn’t lawful”. The issue with that, is that the term “profitable” should be relative, while “lawful” should be black and white.
Consequently, I grew up with a constant push to be more “lawful”. If music wasn’t Christian, or if it was too rocky, it wasn’t lawful. If fashion was too “worldly”, it wasn’t lawful. If speech wasn’t proper, it wasn’t lawful. If romantic relationships weren’t practical, they weren’t lawful. So for example: since marriage wasn’t practical in Jr High or High School, romantic feelings weren’t lawful, and I was watched like a hawk by my other siblings to make sure that I wasn’t being flirtatious with a girl when I was 14, lest I break the family law. The music I listened to was heavily monitored and my parents used to preview my CDs, track by track, removing any of the tracks that had too much electric guitar. My Audio Adrenaline CD was taken away, and my Avalon CD was whittled down to 6 tracks. Bright colors became popular when I was in high school, so I once bought a bright orange t-shirt from Target, and when I showed it to my parents, they made me take it back and get my money back.
My parents would tell me that no one was going to hell by breaking those rules, but that those precepts would help to make sure that my faith wasn’t “watered down”.
There’s something in all of us I think, that wishes for an ideal. We see the Holiness of God, and understandably don’t measure up, so we climb ladders in a hope that God doesn’t need to come down quite as far to reach us.
I think Paul had a similar mindset. He was raised in a hyper-conservative home, became a top Pharisee, and seemed to also see everything “not profitable” as equating to “not lawful”. If holiness was a ladder, Paul seemed to be in the business of manufacturing rungs.
So back to Skubalon — this word seems to be of a special importance to me, because curiously, Paul uses this word to describe his previous accolades in wrung manufacturing:
“Although I myself could boast as having confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he is confident in the flesh, I have more reason: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, these things I have counted as loss because of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them mere skubalon, so that I may gain Christ”
So what does skubalon mean exactly? The controversy rests in the NET bible cliff notes describing this word:
“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.”
So if we take this note to heart, then the word should have been more properly translated to “shit” or “bullshit”. I mean, what other word could be translated “dung”, but with shock value? “Crap” simply doesn’t have shock value, since you could use that word in a G-rated movie (although amusingly, some translations have suggested “crap” as the appropriate translation).
From what I’ve seen, this causes a conundrum amongst two sides of the church: the first side seems to be those who came from the world and who are careful to not give someone liberty to swear. They would use the verse “let no unwholesome thing come out of your mouth” as pretext for why Paul would have never used a cuss word. The other side (the one I came from) are those who come from religion and find this word as a source of freedom to explain that not only is Paul outlining the fact that his religious background was worthless, but he was using a cuss word to do it in order to further extend the point.
Espousing a different perspective, even momentarily, can be among the most alien and offensive concepts to our human nature. In my case, it’s very difficult to consider the idea that Paul DIDN’T cuss, because it offers sweet justification for why I no longer identify with the legalistic and religious views that I was raised with. However, I must also consider the perspective of those who find this concept offensive, because in many cases, those on the opposing side of the isle have found a ton of freedom in the structure and self-discipline that the Christian life offers, and this appears to be an affront to that.
So as with many things, I must be careful not to straw man either side (“straw man” is when you prop up an unfairly weak argument on the opposing side so as to be able to easily dismantle it). In preparing for this, I read many articles on both sides of the issue in order to get a full understanding.
So without further ado, the answer lies in etymology, as do many controversial topics to the Christian faith.
Skubalon is another one of those words that only show up a few times in ancient writings, and only once in the Bible. The first record of this word was in the 3rd century BC, and the last reference seems to have been in the late 4th century. As many obscure greek words go, the meaning seems to have changed a bit in those 700 years, becoming less offensive as time went on.
During the time of Paul, the word was used primarily for “dung”, but there seemed to be a distinction between dung in a chamber pot, and dung that was thrown out:
“till, there is a problem and not a small one in the work of the engineers. When they paved the streets they did not install beneath them underground drainage. Instead τὰ σκύβαλα covers the surface, and especially in the rain when τῶν ἀποσκευῶν is thrown out” (Strabo, Geography. 14.1.37)
Here, the dung (σκύβαλα (Another form of Skubalon) covers the surface, while another word is used when it is thrown out.
Critics have argued further that the word would have been an acceptable word, since there are references to it in a medical sense:
Artemidorus, Oneirocritia (second century AD) “ In the context of his first book, a discussion of anatomy, he refers to human excrement as σκύβαλον (Skubalon)”
Conversely, Josephus uses it to outline the disgusting practices of those suffering a famine during the fall of Jerusalem:
“some persons were driven to that terrible distress as to search the common sewers and old dunghills of cattle, and to eat the dung [σκύβαλα] which they got there”
Because of this, scholars have been divided on the meaning of the word, and it becomes tricky whenever something in the Bible is gray, because both sides can bring strong claims, and thus, your individual perspectives end up reigning supreme.
However, (perhaps because of my own perspective) I found the work of John David Punch to be helpful in this analysis, since he brings up the argument that Paul could have used several other words, yet chose not to. In his words:
“While it is important to remember that it is always tenuous to suggest what words an author must or must not use, it is wise to consider alternative terms that were available at the time of composition, especially any technical terms that are more widely used than obscure slang”
κόπρος, σκῶρ, περίττωμα/περίσσωμα, and χέζω are all words that could have been easily substituted for a less controversial tone, and all those words are used far more commonly in ancient writings. όπρος is associated with animal waste and was used by Homer and is generally seen as an unoffensive term. σκῶρ was commonly used for human waste in an unoffensive way. περίττωμα was used as a medical term describing human waste and was used commonly and without controversy. Lastly, χέζω was used to describe “bowel movement”, and was acceptable to general audiences. As Punch describes:
“Each of these terms has thousands of occurrences dating back to the time of Homer, none of which appears to have offensive overtones. By contrast, σκύβαλον occurs only a very few times in a comparable period and at least a handful of these appear to have the intent of provoking strong reactions to foul and loathsome descriptions.”
“This provides the second piece of evidence to consider. It seems apparent that the term σκύβαλον, and likely various related terms, are regularly used to provoke an emotional response, at least in earlier references. Later usage shows signs that the term had lost much of its shock value (Wallace 2007), but early references seem to suggest that σκύβαλον was used to express extreme disgust. As Lang comments (1985, 445), ‘Only with hesitation does literature seem to have adopted it from popular speech.’ The infrequent occurrence of the term in written form should confirm that understanding of it.”
Lastly, and perhaps the most convincing, is the graffiti at Pompeii. The reason that this is the most convincing to me, is because we have a nearly perfect date (79AD), and we have the word (or at least a derivative) in full context. The graffiti at Pompeii looks very similar to the graffiti of today — a litany of “street terms” that are often inappropriate, and yet sometimes even profound. Here are a few amusing inscriptions that were found:
“I screwed the barmaid.” — Caupona of Athictus; right of the door
“Celadus the Thracian gladiator is the delight of all the girls.” — House of the Gladiators; column in the peristyle
“Cruel Lalagus, why do you not love me?” — On the Vico degli Scienziati
“Blondie has taught me to hate dark-haired girls. I shall hate them, if I can, but I wouldn’t mind loving them. Pompeian Venus Fisica wrote this.” — Atrium of the House of the Large Brothel
“If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze at my girl friend.” — Atrium of the House of the Ara Maxima
“Atimetus got me pregnant.” — In Vicolo del Panattiere, House of C. Vibius
So amongst those wonderful phrases (as well as several that were too obscene to list), are 4 phrases with the original latin word (cacare), which is the base for the word κόπρος, a derivative of our word used by Paul:
“Lesbianus, you defecate (cacare) and you write, ‘Hello, everyone!’” — Pottery Shop or Bar of Nicanor; right of the door
“To the one defecating (cacare) here. Beware of the curse. If you look down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy.” — House of Pascius Hermes; left of the door
“Defecator (cacare), may everything turn out okay so that you can leave this place.” — Just outside the Vesuvius gate
“’Secundus defecated (cacare) here’ three time on one wall.” — House of the Centennial; in the latrine near the front door
“Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated (cacare) well here.” — House of the Gem
This to me, offers some legitimate context. Skubalon was a word that would have been at home amongst bathroom stall scribbles. It was crude and offensive.
Paul was clearly wanting to convey a certain amount of harshness. That fact is something that most scholars agree to on both sides, due to the fact that he seems to be increasing the intensity as the verse goes on:
“But whatever things were gain to me, these things I have counted as loss because of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss (zēmia, “loss” is a good translation) in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss (zēmioō, [passive] to suffer damage — more intense) of all things, and count them mere skubalon (most intense), so that I may gain Christ”
Taken in the context of etymology, it would seem as if the term would have been at best slang (due to the profound lack of commonality of the term), and at worst offensive. I tend to lean towards the offensive side of the scale.
If you’ve read the Bible enough, this doesn’t seem too far out of character. Jesus called the Pharisee’s “sons of snakes” and “white-washed tombs”. In Galatians, Paul sarcastically tells the religious that if they view circumcision as the means to salvation, they should go all the way and “emasculate themselves entirely”.
In closing, I believe that there are certain instances where one cuss word can say a thousand words. We should note however, that just like today, there were many Greek cuss words that Paul could have used, and yet didn’t, and the cuss word that he did appear to use was only written once. I don’t believe that cussing like a sailor is helpful to your witness or in line with the language of the apostles:
“If someone believes they have a relationship with God but fails to guard his words then his heart is drifting away and his religion is shallow and empty”
I also don’t believe that truly obscene phrases and words are helpful, and that’s further emphasized with the verse “let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth”.
However, there is a difference between offensive, and unwholesome. The Bible can be very offensive, but it is always wholesome. Telling someone, “you’re a badass” may be offensive if there are kids in the room, but the effect you would have on someone would be positive, thus, wholesome.
Looking back at my past and comparing notes with Paul gives me a bit of context I think. I can look back at all of my religious strivings and happily use the word “bullshit” to describe them, especially after experiencing the true freedom of Jesus. The fact that I would use a slang and offensive term to describe it carries even more meaning, since by using the word, I am also ironically betraying the concepts of religion. So after much study, I believe Paul was doing the same.