Monday, 28 March 2011

What a load of Skubalon!

Hello world,

It has indeed been a long time since I last blogged. This is largely due to one of the following reasons:
  • Nothing interesting to write about. (I'm sure you may be thinking that this didn't stop me writing my previous posts.)
  • A non-justifiable use of my time. I have a lot of other work to do, and should probably be doing that instead of writing a non-essential secondary piece.
  • Plain laziness.
Anyway, I am writing one now. I shall explain the history and occasion for writing this particular post. This semester I have been studying in a Greek Texts module. This has involved translating sections of the New Testament from the original language into a modern day English version that captures the original meaning but is a easy to comprehend.
We started by translating John 9, as John's style of writing is much simpler than that of other writers such as Luke (Author of Acts and Luke's gospel) who was a physician or Paul (author of many NT epistles), who was a highly educated Jewish convert to Christianity; who originally led the persecution against the early Church before his miraculous conversion which turned him into one of the most influential people in the Christian faith.
After we had warmed up our translating skills we moved onto translating Philippians. We have been working on this for the last four weeks. Each week we have been set a chunk to translate at home with questions to answer on different verses. Some questions covering issues in the grammar others covering inconsistencies found in various Greek manuscripts. This variations can come down to innocent mistakes made by the scribes who have been copying the manuscript out and misread a line, or if being dictated to mishearing a word. Other times there can be a more sinister reason for the variants such as people not agreeing with the doctrine portrayed in the earlier manuscript.
This week we have been translating the whole of chapter 3. I suggest you read it as it really is fantastic stuff. While translating the chapter I came across a word in verse 8. The Greek word is 'skubalon'. The various nuances that this word has has produced several translations. This post will hopefully look at the different possible ways of translating it and attempt to suggest a suitable version in the context of the passage.

Here are a few current mainstream versions of Philippians 3:8b :
  • King James Version (AV): I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them dung, that I may win Christ.
  • English Standard Version (ESV): For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.
  • New International Version (NIV): I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ.
  • The Message: Everything I thought I once had going for me is insignificant - Dog Dung. I've dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ.
  • Steve's Almost Literal Translation (SALT): Thereby everything is loss and counted as waste in order to win Christ.
As you can see there are several different words used for skubalon. I am not adept in kakalogology (the study of bad words, kakos meaning bad, logos meaning word and ology being the study of).

A dictionary definition of Skubalon is:
  1. any refuse, as the excrement of animals, offscourings, rubbish, dregs.
  2. of things worthless and detestable
It is obvious that translating such a word is not as simple as looking at the dictionary and copying it. This word had caused people to justify their bad language. 'Paul swears in the Bible swearing must be okay.' Did Paul swear? Was skubalon used in a vulgar way?
Let's see what Paul is talking about. If you have a Bible turn to Philippians 3, in the verses preceding v. 8 Paul has just explained that if any has any reason to be confident in their own flesh and works to secure their salvation he has more! Then he lists a load of qualifications that by the Law of Moses make him pretty much excellent. He tells us that he counts all of this as loss through Jesus Christ. Knowing Christ is worth so much more than being faultless according to the Jewish custom of the day. He tells us that he has suffered the loss of all things and counts it as 'skubalon' for the sake of gaining Christ.

Some scholars (I can't use footnotes to reference here sadly) such as Moises Silva, (Lexicologist) suggest that a more vulgar term was a likelihood. Silva goes on to say that the word“crap” would certainly communicate worthlessness, but is probably not strong enough to communicate revulsion. She thinks that Paul was trying to
shock his readers to show them how important Christ is.

The article on this word written for says that the word was probably somewhere between 'crap' and 'S***', but personally I don't feel that this is a suitable use of the word. I know that I am going against the grain of some high rollers in the lexilogical world but I feel that other translations work just as well, such as rubbish. Here are some reasons why I think that it could be this.

  • If Paul wanted to cause shock and or refer to excrement without a doubt he could have used the word kopron, which literally means excrement. Instead he used a word which can range from table scraps to offal to dung and to refuse.
  • Things being counted as loss also works as long the lines of throwing it away. Paul left behind his previous life of being a brilliant Pharisee by responding to Christ's call. It is possible to interpret it as he threw away his old life, like yesterday's rubbish, in order to take up the Cross of Christ.
  • If Paul used a vulgar word (aka a swear word) then it would not only contradict other scriptures but he would also contradict himself. Colossians 3:8 (a verse from another Pauline epistle) says, 'But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and flithy language.' As a believer of infallible scripture I don't think that Paul would have gone against himself let alone the rest of scripture.
  • The term skubalon is used in other Greek classic scripts. But not in a vulgar way. Places where it would be expected for a vulgar term to be used such as Greek comedies it is not. In the hellenistic era it seems to not be present as a vulgar term.
  • If it does refer to excrement it is used in reference to animal feces. The AV translates skubalon as dung.
These are just a few reasons that I feel justify a less vulgar reading of the verse. I am not a fan or a promoter of foul language and looking at the history of the Church and the Bible feel that it is out of place and out of context to be found in the Holy Scriptures.

You may disagree, but I feel that an interpretation of rubbish is more appropriate for the context as he has just described what he has thrown away and also because I don't think a vulgar term is in keeping with Paul's own teaching.

In my translation I translated the word as 'waste'. This is to cover many bases at once mainly, but I feel that it still captures the original meaning.

I hope that you have found this blog post interesting. I know that it may not interest many of you, but I found this interesting and though I'd share my thoughts with you all.

In the next few weeks, I will be writing a lot of words for my dissertation which is just over half complete and writing two essays and translating the remainder of Philippians. I'll speak to you soon.

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