Coarse Language

I strongly believe that I should always present myself as a Christian gentleman, avoiding offense in every way in order that I might more effectively present the true offense, the Cross. But I am not sure that the human authors of Scripture were as careful as I try to be. The Bible uses filthy words and concepts to portray very vividly and repulsively the true nature of evil. How offended do you think Ezekiel’s congregation was at his diatribes against Judah, comparing her to a slut in Ezekiel 16 and 23? Isaiah 64:6 refers to human righteousness as a “cloth of the times,” referring to a protective cloth used during menses, something not only odious but ceremonially defiling as well. (Leviticus 15:19-24) I have literally preached thousands of sermons to my congregation here in Louisiana and, in spite of being accused of being rather too graphic at times, I have never dared to give an exposition from Ezekiel’s two filthy chapters.

Ever since the Battle of Hastings, old Saxon, onomatopoetic, monosyllabic, physiological terms have been frowned on. Norman elitism looked down on all things Anglo-Saxon, and only Latin was viewed with more respect than Norman French.  Consider the level of sophistication of the following words as an example:  Latin, “Interrogate;” French, “Question;” Saxon, “Ask.”  Added to that is the fact that so many Old Saxon words were onomatopoetic words that reminded the hearer of the actions they described—take puke and snot—merely uttering them conjures up vivid pictures in the mind.  Remnants of Old Saxon earthiness are found in the King James Version of the Bible’s use of the word, piss:  “But Rab-shakeh said, Hath my master sent me to thy master and to thee to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men that sit upon the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?” (Isaiah 36:12; Cf. 1 Samuel 25:22, 34; 1 Kings 14:10; 16:11; 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8; 18:27.) 

I’ll stop with these three examples, because I don’t want to go too far and give offense.  But that does not mean that their use is absolutely proscribed. Consider the Lord’s holy apostle’s statement in Philippians 3:8, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish (SKYBALAN [dung, crap]), in order that I may gain Christ.” 

When we think about idle talk and speculation, Saint Paul’s vulgar word, SKYBALON comes to mind. In The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, we find the following statement: “As when one sifteth with a sieve, the refuse remaineth; so the filth of man in his talk.” (Sirach 27:4, KJV)

“In a shaken sieve manure (KOPRIA) is left behind, so the crap (SKYBALA) of man (is seen) in his reflections (calculations, reasoning, sentiments).” (Sirach 27:4, RBV)

Thinking about Jesus’ words above, I get the modern picture of people sitting around “shooting the bull.” Human beings are all experts in Bovine Scatology; there is a B.S. artist down inside us all. That was true in Jesus ben Sirach’s day in the second century before Christ, and it is true today. Nothing stands out more vividly as an example of the ability of people to pontificate on subjects about which they know next to nothing than the incident when the U. S. Presidential race was still in doubt on December 12, 2000, and television journalists dashed in front of cameras, scanned the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision and shared what they had gleaned with facile declarations as they read. Even an attorney would need time to read the whole document and digest it before commenting on it, but here were people who, at the most, simply have degrees in journalism, leafing through a carefully crafted but complex document, and pontificating off the cuff.

When I think about such foolishness, I sometimes mutter “SKOObahlon.”

Friedrich Lang alerted me to ben Sirach’s deuterocanonical reference in his article on SKYBALON in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (Vol. 7, Page 445-447). I have expanded his abbreviations for clarity, transliterated his Greek into Roman letters and written it below.

‘Only with hesitation does literature seems to have adopted it from popular speech. Lit(erally) . . . SKYBALON means 1. “dung,” “muck” both as “excrement” . . .and also as “fodder or food that has gone bad”. . . 

‘B. Hellenistic Judaism.

‘The employment of the word in Hell. Judaism remains within the compass of Gk. usage. In the LXX SKYBALON, occurs only once in a late work and in a transf(erred) sense. Sir(ach) 27:4 uses the image of lumps of manure (KOPRIA) remaining in the sieve to illustrate the refuse, i.e., the impurity and wickedness in the mind of man (SKYBALA ANTHRWPOU) . . . Joseph. tells how the inhabitants of Jerusalem, during the famine when the city was besieged by Titus, had to search sewers and dung for something to eat, Bell(um Judaicum—Wars of the Jews), 5, 571. . . .

‘C. The New Testament.

‘In the NT SKYBALON is used only once by Paul at Phil. 3:8. As one who has been led to faith by Jesus Christ he is evaluating all the natural and religious factors (v. 5f.) which seemed to him to be very important in his former life: . . . “I count them all as dung.” . . . The threefold use of . . . (count, consider) forms a crescendo. The perfect . . . (v. 7) relates to conversion; since this Paul has learned to regard all his former . . . (gain as loss) . . . for Christ’s sake. The present . . . (count, consider) (v. 8a) confirms that this is his judgment now. The second present . . . (count, consider) (v. 8c) strengthens this by substituting SKYBALON for ZHMIA (loss). The intensification lies in the element of resolute turning aside from something worthless and abhorrent, with which one will have nothing more to do. The choice of the vulgar term stresses the force and totality of this renunciation. The divine privileges of Israel (R[omans] 3:1 ff.; 9:4 f.) and the spiritual character of the Law are not herewith denied. But the striving for self-righteousness by one’s own achievement is unmasked as . . . (having put confidence in flesh) (v. 3), as a carnal and worldly enterprise, the complete antithesis of faith. Materially, perhaps, Paul chose SKYBALA, which in religious Hellenism was used for the dualism of the divine and the secular . . ., to echo the contrast between spirit and flesh, XRISTOS (PNEUMA) and SARX, in the passage. 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 SKYBALON, namely, worthlessness and filth, are best expressed by a term like “dung.”

‘The post-apost(olic). fathers do not use the word.’  Friedrich Lang, “SKYBALON,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (Vol. 7, Page 445-447). 

Here are two other scholarly comments on Saint Paul’s word:

SKYBALON . . . useless or undesirable material that is subject to disposal, refuse, garbage (in var. senses, ‘excrement, manure, garbage, kitchen scraps . . . specif. of human excrement . . . consider everything garbage/crud Phil 3:8. “to convey the crudity of the Greek . . . : ‘It’s all crap’”). [Frederick William Danker (ed.), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. Third edition (BDAG) (based on Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der frühchristlichen Literatur, sixth edit. Chicago/London: Chicago University Press, 2000.), p. 932. (emphasis mine.)]

skybalon, scrap, debris, refuse, dung, excrement ‘It is not easy to translate this NT hapax at Phil 3:8, where St. Paul,
renouncing confidence in the flesh, meaning his privileges as a Jew, says they are worthless, to be discarded . . ., in order to know Christ, gain him, be in him, share in the power of his resurrection.’ 

IV.—In any event, the word means what must be eliminated. J. Huby’s comment is exactly right, in spite of the anachronism: “All of that is worth no more than the contents of a garbage can.” {J. Juby, Les Epitres de la captivite, Paris, 1934, p. 335} To convey the crudity of the Greek, however: “It’s all crap.” {The translation of E. Osty . . . in Ecole de langues orientales anciennes: Memorial du Cinquantenaire, Paris, 1964 . . ..}’ [Ceslas Spicq, The Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994) Vol. 3, pp. 263-265 (emphasis mine.)]

SKYBALON—what a word; it sums up all my efforts to feel good about myself except as I stand washed in the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and clothed in his righteousness.

Bob Vincent