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A Brief Word Study on Σκύβαλον

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(neuter noun, used once in the New Testament [Phil 3:8])

This essay is a basic diachronic word study on a rare term, found only once in the New Testament, in Phil 3:8. The NET Bible renders this verse as follows: “More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!–that I may gain Christ…”

Most other modern English versions have ‘rubbish’ (ESV, NRSV, NKJV, NIV, NAB, REB) or ‘garbage’ (TEV, NJB, TNIV) for the term. At issue is more than whether slang is used in the NT; the sense of Paul’s view of is former life—his life apart from Christ—is involved. If mere ‘rubbish’ is the force, then a sense of worthlessness is in view; if ‘dung’ is the force, then both worthlessness and revulsion is in view.

Rather than be fully explicit, this study will address the meaning in more genteel terms and use asterisks where the more sophisticated (or perhaps less sophisticated!) can supply the appropriate letters.

Range of Meaning

This word is used primarily for excrement, especially human excrement; secondarily for rubbish, dirt, leavings, etc. It is a NT hapax legomenon (Phil 3:8).

1. Dung, (Human) Excrement

(especially in the plural, as in Phil 3:8); or with a stronger emotive connotation (and the concomitant shock value), crap, s**t. NT: Phil 3:8* (debatable; may belong under definition 2); Other: Plu. 2.352d; Alex. Aphr. Pr. 1.18; Aret. SD 1.15; Artemid. Onirocr. 1.67; 2.14; Str. 14.1.37; J. BJ 5.571; 5.13.7; PFay. 119.7 (i/ii AD).

Illustrations:

Josephus’ description of the conditions within the walls of Jerusalem during the final siege of the Romans in the Jewish War (66-73 CE) is intended to evoke the strongest reaction by his readers (Josephus, Jewish War 5.571):

. . . the corpses of the lower classes thrown out through the gates amounted in all to 600,000; of the rest it was impossible to discover the number. They added that, when strength failed them to carry out the poor, they piled the bodies in the largest mansions and shut them up; also that a measure of corn had been sold for a talent, and that later when it was no longer possible to gather herbs, the city being all walled in, some were reduced to such straits that they searched the sewers and for old cow dung and ate the offal therefrom, and what once would have disgusted them to look at had now become food.

In Strabo’s description of the rebuilt Smyrna, he lauds the plans and efforts of Antigonus, Lysimachus, and the citizens, noting however one glaring flaw (Strabo, Geography 14.1.37):

But there is one error, not a small one, in the work of the engineers, that when they paved the streets they did not give them underground drainage; instead, excrement covers the surface, and particularly during rains, when the cast-off filth is discharged upon the streets.

Proportionately, the word seems to have occurred in the papyri and other non-literary documents far more frequently than in the literature. A good illustration is found in Papyrus Fayum 119.7 (c. 100 CE) in which Gemellus informs his son that the donkey driver has bought “a little bundle and rotten hay, the whole of which is decayed so that it is like crap.”

2. Rubbish, Dirt, Scraps, Leavings

NT: Phil 3:8* (debatable; may belong under definition 1); Other: Jul. Or. 5.179c; PCairZen 494.16 (iii BC); PSI 3.184.7 (plural, AD 292); Sirach 27.4; PRyl 2.149.22 (AD 39-40).

Illustrations:

In Sirach 27:4 the word bears emotive force, though it is not as dramatic as a vulgar rendering would suggest: “As when one sifts with a sieve, the refuse remains; so also the filth of man in his speech.”

But even in the first century CE the word was used occasionally with no shock value connotations. For example, in the collection of the Rylands Papyri 2.149.22 (39-40 CE) the writer speaks of animals grazing “on the gleanings of my vegetable-seed crop.” Thus “gleanings” or “table scraps” is a legitimate (though admittedly rare) nuance in use during the time of Paul.1

By the fourth century CE, the shock value of the term seems to have worn off, so much so that it is even seen as a proper name—cf. P. Oxy. 1.43, verso iii.25 (295 CE). Nevertheless, Chrysostom can refer to σκύβαλον as bearing the meaning of “manure” in Phil 3:8, but he seems unaware of its emotive force—even arguing that there is some value in manure! (Cf. Chrysostom’s commentary on Philippians, MPG 62:263-265, where he mentions the word twelve times).

As well, in the fourth century CE, the emperor Julian can use the term to describe the earth, though with intent to evoke some sense of disgust by way of contrast (Julian, Orations 179C):

But is not this Logos Attis, who not long ago was out of his senses, but now through his castration is called wise? Yes, he was out of his senses because he preferred matter and presides over generation, but he is wise because he adorned and transformed this refuse [our earth] with such beauty as no human art or cunning could imitate.

Related Terms2

Words from the σκυβαλ- root:

  • σκυβαλίζειν: to regard as dung, to treat contemptuously (D.H. Orat.Vett 1)
  • σκυβαλεύειν (a derivative from σκυβαλίζειν): to regard as dung, to treat contemptuously (Schol. on Luc. Nec. 17)
  • σκυβαλικός: scorned, filthy (Timocr. 1.6)
  • σκυβαλώδης: waste, dung-like (Anon. Londinensis 29.39)
  • σκυβαλισμός: contemptuous rejection; table crumbs (Polyb. 30.19.12; Ps.-Phocyclides 156)

Terms not from the σκυβαλ- root:

  • κοπρός: excrement, manure—especially as used in animal husbandry (i.e., not as a vulgar term) (Od. 9.329; Hdt. 3.22; Thphr. HP 2.7.4)
  • σκῶρ: dung, excrement (Ar. Ra. 146; Stratt. 9)
  • περίττωμα, περίσσωμα: excrement—apparently used as a medical term in particular (Arist. GA 724b26, HA 511b9; Epicur. Fr. 293; Meno Iatr. 4.35)
  • χέζω: to empty one’s bowels, to ease oneself (Stratt. 51; Id. Ach. 1170)

Summary

That σκύβαλον took on the nuance of a vulgar expression with emotive connotations (thus, roughly equivalent to the English “crap, s**t”) is probable in light of the following considerations: (1) its paucity of usage in Greek literature (“Only with hesitation does literature seem to have adopted it from popular speech” says Lang in TDNT 7:445);3 (2) it is used frequently in emotionally charged contexts (as are its verbal cognates) in which the author wishes to invoke revulsion in his audience; (3) there is evidence that there were other, more common and more acceptable terms referring to the same thing (in particular, the agricultural term κοπρός and the medical term περίσσωμα);4 (4) diachronically, the shock value of the term seems to have worn off through the centuries; and (5) a natural transfer of the literal to a metaphorical usage, in which disgust, revulsion, or worthlessness are still in view, argues for this meaning as well.5 Nevertheless, that its shock value was not fully what “s**t” would be is suggested in the fact that in the Hellenistic period (c. 330 BCE-330 CE) the word was also used on occasion for “gleanings” or “table scraps.”

Authorial Usage

The usage of this term in Phil 3:8 has been taken in two different ways (each with two variations of their own):

1. (Human) excrement

a. dung (without strong shock value)

b. crap, s**t (with strong shock value)

2. non-excrement

a. rubbish, refuse

b. table scraps, leavings

Some scholars feel that σκύβαλον in Phil 3:8 means “table scraps,” pointing to the connection with “dogs” in 3:2 (so Lightfoot [1881 commentary, p. 149]). But not only is the connection somewhat distant, and overly subtle, but the absolute negation of any value to the apostle’s former life outside of Christ would seem to require something stronger than “table scraps.” For this reason, others have suggested that “rubbish” is the best gloss for our term (so, apparently, Beare [116], and several modern translations). As Lang points out, however, “To the degree that the Law is used in self-justification, it serves the flesh and is not just worthless but noxious and even abhorrent. The two elements in σκύβαλον, namely, worthlessness and filth, are best expressed by a term like ‘dung’” (TDNT 7:447).

Moises Silva, whose expertise in lexical studies is well known, sees emotive connotations wedded to the word in Phil 3:8 (Philippians, 180):

And yet the apostle goes even further: what he once regarded highly he now finds revolting. There is no need to downplay the meaning of skybala with such equivalents as “rubbish” (NASB, NIV); while such a meaning is attested (cf. Sir. 27:4—the Greek term could be used of various kinds of filth), a specific reference to excrement is not uncommon and the KJV rendering “dung” is both appropriate and probable.

Silva goes on to say that the gloss “crap” would certainly communicate worthlessness, but is probably not strong enough to communicate revulsion (ibid., n. 20). He thus leaves the question of appropriate translation to the reader’s imagination.

Besides the reasons we have given for seeing shock value in the word (under “Summary” mentioned earlier), there is one other reason why the intertwined notion of worthlessness and revulsion seems to be related to human excrement. The context of Phil 3:1-8 is both polemical in tone 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” (περιτομή) is made up of two roots which suggest “cutting around” while “mutiliation” (κατατομή) 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 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 σκύβαλα that I might gain Christ.” Having said this, he launches into a positive presentation of his new life in Christ. If σκύβαλα is translated “s**t” (or the like), a word picture is effectively made: this is all that the “flesh” can produce—and it is both worthless and revolting. That the apostle is not above using graphic and shocking terms has already been demonstrated in vv. 2-3. The reason for the shocking statement in v. 8, then, may well be to wake up his audience to the real danger of his opponents’ views. It is not insignificant that there is precedent for the apostle’s white-hot anger over a false gospel being couched in not-so-delicate terms: his letter to the “foolish Galatians” is replete with such evocative language.

Conclusion

In Phil 3:8, the best translation of σκύβαλα seems clearly to be from the first group of definitions. The term conveys both revulsion and worthlessness in this context. In hellenistic Greek it seems to stand somewhere between “crap” and “s**t.” However, due to English sensibilities, and considering the readership (Christians), a softer term such as “dung” is most appropriate. The NET Bible, along with a few other translations, grasp the connotations here, while most modern translations only see the term as implying worthlessness. But Paul’s view of his former life is odious to him, as ours should be to us. The best translation, therefore, is one that picks up both worthlessness and revulsion, and probably a certain shock value.


1 Even here it takes little imagination to see a derivative and metaphorical sense from the original notion of crap or s**t. One can easily imagine someone saying, “We were starving and so we went to a man’s field, but since the harvest had recently occurred, all that was left was σκύβαλα!”

2 None of the related terms occurs in the NT.

3 This would be expected if the term especially had an emotionally-charged force to it. Its paucity can be seen by a computer search of the Thesaurus Lingua Graecae (1990 version). Out of 3165 authors and over 65 million words (from Homer to 1453 CE), there are only 178 instances of σκύβαλον (for comparisons, see the following footnote).

4 A TLG search revealed 1736 instances of κοπρός and 2858 of περίσσωμα (or περίττωμα).

5 I recall reading a papyrus fragment some time ago in which sailors used this term as an exclamation of disgust when seagulls overhead emptied their bowels, but I have been unsuccessful in relocating the reference.

6 I am not here arguing for etymologizing as a legitimate approach to lexicography; however, the word-play seems to be intentional and the meanings of the terms in hellenistic Greek do indeed reflect their roots.

Related Topics: Grammar, Terms & Definitions