In Philippians 3:8, Paul uses the word σκύβαλον (skubalon), which is usually translated as "dung" , "garbage", or "rubbish". I've heard that this was considered an impolite word with much stronger force behind it, and that the typical translations don't really do it justice.

Was this word considered profane in Paul's day, and if so, why do most translations sanitize it?

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    fascinating article bible.org/article/toward-evangelical-theology-cussing. it doesn't address your question in its entirety, but may have some relevant application.
    – swasheck
    Aug 14, 2012 at 20:48
  • swasheck, the author of that link is horridly offensive. He lumps together "earth-worshippers, tree-huggers, witches, Democrats" as if they were altogether dirty words. Did he mean to say, that Republicans, Libertarians and pro-lifers have no business hugging trees because his gospel believes that decent people do not and should not be ecologically conservative and he probably thinks excessive human activities do not kill born/unborn babies worldwide thro increased global warming.
    – Cynthia
    Aug 15, 2012 at 6:06
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    @Blessed Geek: Actually, the author of the article is trying to be funny. Aug 15, 2012 at 6:30
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    Apologies, I was in a hurry reading it and obviously in a hurry giving my two rupees of opinion.
    – Cynthia
    Aug 15, 2012 at 22:45
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    @swasheck - If i'm not mistaken this term is a hapax legomina, so exactly, contemporaries to Paul as well as context will be needed. Its been a while, but my last look into this revealed that the word was used typically in a derogatory sense. Perhaps another matter that someone could take up would be what other options did Paul/God have to use in penning this concept, and choosing this word. Aug 21, 2012 at 17:43

3 Answers 3


Using a Greek Lexicon, I was able to find that this same word is used in the Septuagint (LXX). This passage makes it seem that it is not offensive (Ecclesiasticus – Sirach):

27:4 As when one sifteth with a sieve, the refuse remaineth; so the filth of man in his talk.

27:4 ἐν σεισματι κοσκινου διαμενει κοπρια οὑτως σκυβαλα ἀνθρωπου ἐν λογισμω αὐτου

The word means excrement or dung, which are polite and respectable words for offensive things which people, when bitterly cursing in anger, naturally refer to.

To make the case that Paul uses profanity, or even a word that would offend others, would require more examples with more positive proof, especially considering that Paul opposes profanity:

Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:4 ESV)

Paul also emphasised avoiding things that offend a brother, like meat sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8:13). Therefore it is difficult to imagine he broke his own rule publicly, especially in a writing to the churches. For Paul to use a crude or offensive word would then be out of line with Paul's own imperatives.

If Paul used offensive language, he would have detracted from the argument that he was making. What Paul was saying is that righteousness based on the law was a human work that needs to be expelled with absolute prejudice, naturally lending itself to the concept of human waste.  Indeed, in his mind righteousness by works was to be expelled from the body and put somewhere disgusting without touching it with one's hands. He intended to make one feel righteousness of the law as loathsome.  To bring attention to himself by a obscene or offensive word would detract from the shock of the idea that everything we do in dedication to God, if without faith, is disgusting.  The reason why he searches for an idea so revolting, like human waste, is because he wants the reader to understand how necessary the free gift of salvation through Christ's atonement is. Everything else must be expelled into a toilet. In this way inoffensive words present a clear, possibly offensive, doctrine.

To be thorough, I looked up the word in arguably the most famous, exhaustive and academically authoritative book on biblical Greek definitions. Here is what I found in his final conclusion after many pages of evaluating many references in Greek writings:

The two elements in σκύβαλον, namely, worthlessness and filth, are best expressed by a term like “dung.” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittel, Volume 7, 447)

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    "If Paul ussed offensive language, he would have weakened the argument that he was making." - I can't understand this point at all. Why not use a word that is commensurate in force with the meaning? Stronger word => Strong meaning, right?
    – user474
    Aug 23, 2012 at 14:49
  • @Eric - people who are offended by cussing do not think it adds force to an argument it just seems to indicate a bitter and angry spirit. If Paul seemed bitter nobody would listen to him. The LXX fully support my post and I doubt you will find any better objective reference than that.
    – Mike
    Aug 23, 2012 at 15:32
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    The inherent flaw in all of this is that we are presuming that such a term was profane, or that the variety of cultures from 4C BCE through 1C CE held the same standards for the profane that we do in "modern" culture. It could still be extremely emphatic without being "profanity."
    – swasheck
    Aug 31, 2012 at 16:00
  • @swasheck - yes I agree.
    – Mike
    Aug 31, 2012 at 16:20
  • @Mike There are some things about this answer that are excellent and (contra Eric) demonstrate research on the topic. I was helped by it (+1). Nevertheless, I think that it is weakened by some of the other aspects. I've edited it for spelling; may I offer a further edit for content? We're not supposed to do that in general so I wanted to ask first. You can always do a rollback on the edit I submit if you don't like it.
    – Kazark
    Sep 22, 2012 at 20:37

I do not think that obscenities/profanities can be pigeon-holed. There is no point in figuring out if σκύβαλον is an obscenity. From one era the N word is acceptable and the next it is offensive. From one period calling someone a dyke is offensive but in recent years it is celebrated by those who accept a certain life-style.

Is it considered offensive to hang a noose behind your truck? Why? Is it profane or vulgar? However, hanging a noose behind one's trucycle (my term for a three-wheeled motorcycle made into a truck) in indonesia has no significance.

Faecal matter is universally time-invariant offensive. There would be no time and no place in the world that it would not be offensive. Except in villages where faecal matter is a valued source of fuel and therefore could be used as a form of currency and hence a indicative commodity of prosperity.

Moreover, profanity may not be considered an offensive habit during those days. So that there is no point for Paul to express his displeasure using profanity if profanity is a degenerated acceptable way of life.

Therefore, the question should not be whether it was profanity but whether it was offensive.

I feel it is expedient to analyse the time-invariant offensiveness/vulgarity of a word or phrase.

If someone were to call you or your accomplishments sh!t/crap and you have not hard feelings for it, you would be a strange human being. If a whole society accepts that word casually, it means that society has degraded and degenerated to such low levels of humanity.

And if Paul had not intended to use the term in a deliberately offensive way, it would mean that Paul himself is participating in maintaining such a degenerate society by accepting that term as trivial.

So a quick way is to check the contemporary literature of that time to see how frequent the term is used. However, we need not perform the check, due to the following thought experiment:

  • frequent = proves that Paul is contributing to/participating in a degenerate env
  • infrequent = Paul intended to be offensive.


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    I'm not sure I understand the frequent/infrequent test. But I think I agree with your overall conclusion that it's a bit pointless to determine if Paul was "swearing" or some such. Aug 15, 2012 at 6:38
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    @JonEricson, The thing I'm trying to get at is whether the word Paul used had the same connotation/force as the English word crap/sh*t. There is a large segment in Christianity that considers the utterance of these words a sin - so I do think it is interesting to know if the word Paul used would have had the same societal connotation/force/tabooness of these words.
    – user474
    Aug 15, 2012 at 14:14
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    I think Eric makes a good point, and this answer hasn't addressed it. Aug 20, 2012 at 17:32
  • It's impossible to make a point on this issue because profanity as we understand today is highly correlated to obscenity and vulgarity - which are considered art forms and elegance in those days. The elegance is how well you could articulate your obscenities. So to be profanely elegant or elegantly profane would have been a very commendable skill then.
    – Cynthia
    Aug 20, 2012 at 18:07
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    I generally do not vote down unless a person has a huge unwaranted bias, or is irrational. To see a thougjtful answer in the negative is contrary to the value of this sight so I must (+1) even if i am pushing your answer ahead of mine ;) To many armchair critics around who are not willing to lift a thoughtful finger themselves.
    – Mike
    Aug 24, 2012 at 3:45

Theologian and author Michael J. Svigel, whom contributor Swasheck provided a hyperlink to (in a comment beneath OP's question), said it well:

"We should embrace a translation that conveys the rhetorical effect intended by the author [my emphasis], as crass and base as it may seem to our perhaps overly-pious ears (cf. Eccl 7:16 ['Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself?'])."

If Paul were to have used the S-word (and I am NOT suggesting he did), he did so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and for emphasis, not to shock or offend. Perhaps the use of the equivalent of the S-word in Paul's day did not offend people. I don't know. We do know that the word (i.e., σκύβαλον'--skubalon) was used by many authors in Paul's day as emphasis (see both Svigel, cited above, and Wallace, cited below) .

Contributor Eric, above, cited an excellent article by Professor Daniel B. Wallace (in a comment beneath the OP's question), in which he suggests

" The context [my emphasis] of Phil 3:1-8 is both polemical in tone [my emphasis] and contrasting flesh vs. spirit in content. As Lightfoot pointed out, v. 2 refers to Paul’s opponents as 'dogs.' But it does more than that—it also refers to them as 'the mutilation.' This term is a play on words with 'circumcision' (v. 3) and is only euphemistically translated as 'those who mutilate the flesh.' The etymology of both words reveals the apostle’s true intent: 'circumcision' (peritomhv) is made up of two roots which suggest “cutting around” while 'mutiliation” (katatomhv) is made up of two roots which suggest “cutting down” or 'cutting off.'6 Thus Paul is accusing his opponents of botching the job of circumcision so badly that the victim is left with mutilated genitalia. There is strong shock value in the apostle’s words here.

This statement is followed immediately by a diatribe [my emphasis] on the lack of value of the flesh. Thrice in vv. 3-4 is 'flesh' explicitly mentioned; it is further implied in references to circumcision (vv. 2, 3, 5). In this section Paul is essentially arguing that if his opponents could claim that the flesh had some value, he would be in a better position to do so. Yet he himself acknowledges that the flesh and his former life as a devout Jew are worthless; he counts them as nothing (v. 8). The crescendo of his argument is at the end of v. 8 where he says 'indeed, I regard them as skuvbala that I might gain Christ.' Having said this, he launches into a positive presentation of his new life in Christ."

In conclusion, the guiding principles of hermeneutics help us to interpret a haplax legomenon such as skubalon as we draw upon whatever cultural factors might be relevant to its use. More important, however, is the rhetorical purpose of the original author, as Professor Wallace so ably explicates.