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Saint Paul says shit

swearingInteresting reactions to the use of the word “shit” in “Shit people say to ministers“. Almost as if saying “shit” is unbiblical. It’s actually quite the opposite. Saint Paul, in his letter to the Philippians (3:8) wrote

ἀλλὰ μενοῦνγε καὶ ἡγοῦμαι πάντα ζημίαν εἶναι διὰ τὸ ὑπερέχον τῆς γνώσεως Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ τοῦ κυρίου μου, διὃν τὰ πάντα ἐζημιώθην, καὶ ἡγοῦμαι σκύβαλα, ἵνα Χριστὸν κερδήσω…

If your Greek is a bit rusty, there’s no point in reaching for your English translation (straight from the culture that uses the euphemisms “going to the Rest Room” – I think it’s a pretty weird place to rest!, “going to the bathroom” – still looking for that bath there!…)

Here’s what Saint Paul says:

But indeed I also regard everything to be loss on account of the surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I have suffered the loss of all things; and I consider them shit so that I may gain Christ…

Yep – σκύβαλα (skubala) = shit.

Not the nice excrement, dung, or poop. In Saint Paul’s day σκύβαλα/shit was used in polite conversation about as much as we use it now. He is being very vulgar.

One of the top scholarly lexicons of Greek words A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition translates σκύβαλα as “refuse”, “garbage”, “human excrement”, “crud”, and “crap”.

…I forfeited all things; and I consider them crap so that I may gain Christ…

If I quoted the scatological references, say, from Martin Luther, some would never return to this site again! In 1521, the Cardinal of Mainz said in Luther’s presence, “I know very well that without God’s grace there is nothing good in me, and that without God’s grace I am as much a piece of useless, stinking shit as anyone else, if not more.”

It sometimes can appear as if the church’s primary role is to make people prim and proper. That catechesis is about knowing which fork to use. That the body is a nuisance God is liberating us from. That clergy are employed to prevent swearing. That there are good words and bad words, good people and bad people. Good people go to church, and know how to behave properly in church, and dress properly, and only use proper words, and go to bathrooms and rest rooms.

How down-to-earth is your spirituality? How down-to-earth is your God? Would your God say “shit”? If not – what’s it doing in the Bible?!

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37 Responses to Saint Paul says shit

  1. I wish I could share this post with Dad. He would’ve loved it. He studied NT Greek (he would call me θυγατέρα). I looked up his Greek parallel New Testament – it’s “rubbish/refuse” there too. Isn’t language fascinating? Another great post. Thank you, Bosco!

    • Claudia, I think Google translate is getting better and better all the time. I remember the days when you’d translate back and forth into a language to see how well it worked and “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” came back as “The gin is fine but the meat has gone off”. Blessings.

      • In this case I suspect Google translate is struggling with ancient greek instead of modern greek – half the words didn’t even attempt to translate:
        but he menounge lead zimίan all things are under the yperέchon gnώseos of Christ Jesus the Lord my dione ezimiώthin of all things, and lead skύvala, in order that Christ kerdήso
        God bless.

  2. Indeed, Bosco! Great post for the Conversion of our earthy Apostle to the Gentiles! It’s well to remember that, despite his high and mystical insights, Paul could talk like the hoi polloi.

    It’s always puzzled me why we ‘vulgarise’ bodily functions that are marvellous in their efficiency and also parts of the body, without which none of us would be here and by which most of humanity derives their chief form of pleasure.

    Why aren’t the following words ‘vulgarised’in our speech: poverty, abuse, violence, corduroy etc?

    • Thanks, Steve. I think it is fascinating how the strongest expletives vary from culture to culture. English clearly has body-image issues, as you suggest, and I also point to in my post. In other cultures religion is a stronger focus. Your question is a good one. Thanks. Blessings.

  3. Interesting. I just went and ploughed through the 20 or so English versions of teh bible on the bible gateway and the closest they come is “dung”.

    Other variants have “sewer trash” or “garbage” or “dirt”. The greek version does indeed have the samw word as you and the closest I can see that I vaguely recall from my Latin days is the vulgates use of ‘feci’.

    Excuse me won’t you Bosco whilst I go and offend my pastor! LOL

  4. I sort of like “sewer trash” rude but perh not unreadable in Church????- but of course this is before we even start on Paul’s gag at Galatians 5:12…

  5. I remember how electrified our congregation was years ago when, from the pulpit, our curate used the word “bloody” as an emphatic.

    Inspired by Steve above with “Why aren’t the following words ‘vulgarised’in our speech: poverty, abuse, violence, corduroy etc?”

    Especially corduroy…

    I also remember finding out what the filthy rags in Isaiah 64:6 were. No, most of the translations won’t help you with this one either.

  6. This is my two cents on “vulgarity” or “curse words”. As Christians, we should be MORE concerned with the fact that we have the ability and the lean to spew death to fellow followers (and non-followers alike) when we gossip, tear down and belittle others. That should be more of a concern. It hurts more people. Causes more pain and division then whether I say fuck, shit or any other word deemed “vulgar” by a society. It’s a shame that we get so caught up on this topic that should really be a NON issue.

    I digress. I’m glad you brought it up– don’t get me wrong, but I’m frustrated that it even needs to be debated.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Good considered post,Holly,we need millions more like you to ‘save’ ourselves from ‘bad language’.
      (see also reply to Jill below)
      PS It would seem Paul was more in touch with the ‘camel and the eye of a needle’, something conveniently ignored by most ‘Christians’ today.

    • Well Holly the bible does say that Peter started to curse to prove that he wasn’t a friend or follower of Jesus…because he was afraid that he would be killed….therefore I believe using foul language is not something a Christian should do.

  7. Wow…Holly, how about we check vulgarity at the door AND refrain from spewing death by means of gossip, etc. I find it hard to believe that encouraging vulgarity would be worth a pastor’s time. We are to be Christ-like…but if you prefer to be like Paul, so be it.

    • Sorry Jill, that’s complete crap.
      You, like the majority of individuals, pride yourself on being Politically Correct rather than doing any good. You really think you’re above it all, vulgarity, (your word not mine.) As Holly said, there’s no such thing. It’s a tool of control created by those who deludedly believe they have power. Try to understand Holly’s meaning and confront your own thoughts rather than being so smug in your ignorance.
      Understanding is challenging, but ignorance is bliss.
      PS No doubt 19 years old kids being mutilated and killed by ‘Christian’ made and fired munitions sits OK with you whilst ‘bad’ language is offensive ?
      PPS Don’t take this too personally, you’re only one of endless millions who need to ‘get a grip’ on reality.

  8. Thanks for a thought (and word) provoking post, Bosco.
    I was born into a Christian (RC) family but really couldn’t swallow most of the ‘teachings’ to which I was exposed from the wider ‘Christian’ church. (This is not an apology.)
    Kind regards,

  9. I have been a firm believer of this translation of that word for a long time. I have even thought that Paul would have delivered the phrase with the vehemence that the word “bullshit” sometimes carries with it.

    It doesn’t hurt to remember that the Puritans didn’t show up for about 1500 years after Paul, so he wasn’t influenced by them as much as many of us have been.

  10. Late to the party… But… Folks here, including the writer of this article… Seem to ignore the fact that it was Paul speaking.

    That’s Paul…Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, a called apostle, someone separated unto the gospel of God, a called apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God, an apostle of Christ Jesus baccording to the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, a prisoner of Christ Jesus… You hear what I’m saying… That’s Paul, the writer of most of the new testament of God.

    When any of you folks get to the point where you feel confident to rattle of even half of Paul’s resume as your own.. Let us know… Maybe then we’ll lend you and ear.

    Until then… Shut the **** up with you silly, foolish opinions about Paul use a vulgar word in his speaking… You’re all like a bunch of 12 year old school girls who just found out something naughty and want to let each other know that you know.

    Pure vanity.

    Fact is… You all know jack.

    Most can’t get even the basics of a proper life in Christ down… And yet think to voice an opinion on this matter.

    You know what Paul would call your opinion on this matter?


  11. Those taking delight in the possibility that Paul said the word “shit” in Phil. 3:8 completely ignore that the Greek word Skubala is also translated as trash, refuse, rubbish. Keeping that in mind we can only speculate as to what was in Paul’s mind. He was referring to his worthless, former life being cast away and exchanged for his new life in Christ. He very well may have intended that his old life was refuse, or rubbish.

    This brings another question to mind. Paul warns the gentiles not to let any inappropriate words come out of their mouths. Is that the same as the emphatic use of a written word in a letter or essay. Was his letter a public communication or private communication written to church leaders intended to be conveyed to the body. If Paul, indeed, intended the word to express feces he did not say it, he wrote it. The answer to the question “Did Paul Say shit in Phil. 3:8” would have to be no. In any case,it is folly to try to compare the two words, “skubala” and “shit” in terms of their relative vulgarity. Skubala is of Greek origin and shit is Germanic.

    Some words lend themselves to profanity better than others. “Shit” is one that does but it is not Greek. Generally, brief, four letter vulgarities in our language and perhaps the Germanic are more powerful; the crack of a pistol compared to a distant roll of thunder. How can a modern vulgarity be compared with any accuracy to an ancient word in a different language? When we step in doggy doo barefoot and it comes oozing up between our toes we don’t say “Aw excrement!” Although the word is synonymous with shit, excrement loses power in an expletive. Did the gentiles say “Aw skubala” when they stepped in it? Who knows?

    Was Skubala merely a more informal word for feces? Some words while being more crude than their counterparts are nevertheless not considered profane. A person might say, “I puked up my guts” without being condemned for profanity.

    Could it be that Paul intended to write that his former life was worthless rubbish? Taking into consideration Paul’s apostolic nature, his virtue and his other writings I believe the latter. If he had intended to use a crude vulgarity after admonishing the gentiles not to wouldn’t he have been stepping back into the exact former life that he was condemning?

  12. This isn’t true at all, sir. This word is used in any lexicon, Pauline epistle and various works of the Greek Fathers in even more definite contexts with no leeway for silly modern interpretations like this, which are aimed at nothing more than vulgarizing the Gospel and the Apostolate of Our Lord. By their fruits you shall know them- thus is the barren vineyard of neo Protestantism.
    Eph 4:29

  13. My apologies for coming off uncharitable in speach on my own account. Please take my last comment not as an ad hominem attack, but frustration, by the daily assault on piety and the constantly scandalized state of Our Lord and His Saints. No one is more of a wretched sinner than myself, and certainly no less deserving of His grace. I find myself too quickly ready to go on the offensive when doing so does not serve to glorify Him, but only to satiate my personal frustration. May God have mercy on us all.

  14. A very good article!!!

    I am still wondering how to translate things for a liturgical-use bible. When Saul swears to his son, should I translate that as «fils de pute»? Because that is what he says.

  15. Humans, in some way, have to put the ineffable into human language. We inevitably translate the bible through the matrices of language, education and world-view. It is a shame we lose sight of that

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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