[It's a bit of a challenge to write about vulgarity without alluding to vulgar words, especially when the question is about a particular vulgar word. I'm hoping I've pulled this off. I mean, sometimes you just have to give examples.]
I get emails —
How would you understand Eph 5:4 in such a way that it doesn’t condemn Paul in Phil 3:8? I’ve found a handful of scholarly sources over the years that claim that “rubbish” in Phil 3 is equivalent to what we would consider a ‘cuss-word.’ I was reminded of this just the other day because a guy at my church said that he took a class from Curt Nicum at OC who claimed “rubbish” was best translated “s**t.” Do we raise too big of a fuss over a list of words?
There are many verses teaching us not to be vulgar in our speech –
(Eph 5:4 ESV) 4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.
(Eph 4:29 ESV) 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
(Col 3:8 ESV) But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.
(Psa 10:7 ESV) His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue are mischief and iniquity.
(Psa 59:12 ESV) For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter,
It seems pretty clear that God is opposed to vulgar speech. So how can Paul get away with such talk?
According to R. P. Martin’s commentary in the Tyndale series,
Skubala can mean simply “refuse” (so RV mg., RSV). The derivation is a choice between human waste product and the unwanted food which is consigned to the garbage heap. … [T]he derivation of skubalon from es kunas balein, “to throw to the dogs,” is accepted by Moulton-Milligan.
Jac J. Muller in the New International Commentary writes,
It seems as if ??????? is used with two meanings, although the true derivation is uncertain, viz. (a) excrement from the body; (b) refuse of fragments remaining after a feast which are removed from the table and thrown away (to the dogs?)
The Friberg Lexicon gives as a definition —
anything that is to be treated as worthless and thrown out, translated according to the context dung, rubbish, garbage, offscourings
Louw-Nida Lexicon says,
worthless or unwanted material that is rejected and normally thrown out – ‘rubbish, litter, trash.’
Thayer defines it as —
any refuse, as the excrement of animals, offscouring, rubbish, dregs, etc.: (A. V. dung) i. e. worthless and detestable
However, the NET Bible has a footnote:
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.
Robert McLaughlin comments,
Dr. Fredrick Lang, an excellent German scholar, says that; “Skubala means excrement or dung” and then he quotes the Septuagint where “skubala” occurs only once and he said “It is used for lumps of manure remaining in the sieve to illustrate the refuse, impurity, and wickedness in the mind of man”.
The choice of this word used by the apostle stresses the force and totality of this change in his life, and tells us what Paul thought of his celebrityship, his education, his genius, his power, plans and his ability. Our plans and the human ability we possess is “skubala” when it comes to the plan of God. Skubala is what human power, celebrityship, ability and talent is, when we try to use it to worship or impress God.
Lang’s comment refers to —
(Sir 27:3-4 KJA) 3 Unless a man hold himself diligently in the fear of the Lord, his house shall soon be overthrown. 4 As when one sifteth with a sieve, the refuse remaineth; so the filth of man in his talk.
This is the only other use of the term in the Bible or Apocrypha. Sirach, by Ben Sira, also known as Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach, the Wisdom of Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus is a Second Century BC book included in the Apocrypha. Although not inspired, it was a very popular work and surely very well known to Paul and many of his readers. And in this context, despite Lang’s comment, I have trouble seeing skubala as meaning “dung” or anything quite like it. It seems to clearly mean “refuse.” Why would you filter dung out of water? I mean, the water would still be far too nasty to drink or wash or cook in. What would be the point? But any filtration process would leave refuse of some kind. In any event, there’s no indication that the word is vulgar in that passage.
Now, vulgarity is a funny thing. Some words are vulgar in some contexts and not in others — “mother” and “suck” would be classic examples. There are many more. Moreover, vulgarity changes quickly in time, because vulgarians enjoy the novelty of new cuss words. “Snafu” began as very profane during WWII and is now generally considered entirely innocent.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that the experts disagree on just how vulgar skubala is. Indeed, in English, we have degrees of vulgarity — some words shock more than others. And a translator unfamiliar with our spoken language would have trouble distinguishing very mild profanity — “darn” — from much worse. They look the same in writing unless you’ve lived here.
And so, I have to disagree with the OC professor — assuming he was accurately quoted.