In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the apostle uses powerful rhetorical language to argue his points. Unfortunately, this robust rhetoric is sometimes misread as Paul devaluing his own Jewish traditions and culture. One locus of misunderstanding is Phil 3:7-9: “Whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ… and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ” (NASB). It is not unusual to read in commentaries that Paul considered the Torah and his Jewish heritage “rubbish” (NASB) “garbage” (NIV) and even “dung” (KJV).

The Greek σκύβαλον (skubalon), indeed, means trash, refuse, and even filth (in Hebrew: גֵּל; gel) — in other words, something that is usually discarded. In the case of Philippians 3, Paul uses σκύβαλον as what we might call “workplace jargon” in the context of a business trade; specifically, Paul notes that what he had once deemed profitable or valuable — what he calls “gain” (κέρδος; kerdos) — he now counts as forfeiture or “loss” (ζημία; zemia). In place of such “loss,” Paul stands to accrue or “gain” (κερδαίνω; kerdaino) the Messiah; once again, the terminology Paul uses is the language of economics, and business (cf. Luke 19:18; Jas 4:3). In other words, Paul affirms that, in gaining Jesus, he makes a better investment. Insofar as Paul is invested in Jewish Messiah, the apostle speaks of “not having a righteousness his own derived from the Law”, but “the righteousness which comes from God” on the basis of faith or “trust” (πίστις; pistis, אֱמוּנָה; emunah).

In Paul’s economical equation, his reference to “loss” is commonly equated with Torah and Judaism. Yet unlike some modern Christians, as an ancient Jew Paul does not think of Torah negatively. Just a few verses before his discussion of loss and gain, Shaul boasts that he can have confidence in his flesh via his Jewish heritage (Phil 3:4-6): he is a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee in his interpretive approach to the Torah, and in relation to righteousness, “blameless” or “perfect” (ἄμεμπτος; amemptos, in Hebrew: תָּם [tam]). That’s quite a claim! Paul is hardly calling his Judaism useless garbage.

Paul uses all of this comparative rhetoric “in view of the surpassing value of knowing (Jewish) Christ” (Phil 3:8 NASB), which implies that Jesus is a superior investment to what he had received within his Jewish heritage. Most people do not think of following Yeshua in terms of Paul’s language of commerce, but the apostle is comfortable employing this kind of marketplace terminology. Paul is not comparing bad and good, but good and better. Jewish identity certainly has value (cf. Rom 3:1-2) but knowing the Jewish Messiah is even more valuable.

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16 COMMENTS

  1. I was interested in this particular passage as to why Paul called his Jewish background “dung”, “garbage”, or “rubbish”. Those are strong words as if he was renouncing Judaism in order to follow Christ. So which word is it, Professor? Should there have been a “better” word in that passage?

    • Your question is “why”. The answer is effect, impact, impression! That is what one does in rhetoric. That is why evil people get called “nazis” even if they have nothing to do with fascist ideology and would not even recognize a nazi if they met one. Words do not necessarily have objective meaning in rhetoric. They have to be understood in the overall context and purpose of rhetoric. Paul’s purpose is crystal clear. To present something as greater you have to compare it with something lesser. The greater the gap, the more dramatic is the comparison. Paul simply wants to extoll Christ and does it at the expense of putting down (very, very low to the point of filth) everything else – a rhetorical method.

      • Your explanation of rhetoric here shows how so much misunderstanding happens when it is unrecognized as such and read in literal terms instead.
        J.

  2. I love it. Thank you so much. Reading it through the Jewish mindset is the only path to true understanding. The western mindset messes everything up.

  3. Many thanks Mate. You make sometimes confusing subjects crystal clear. May Adonai blees you and keep you and your good work in His Name.

  4. Thank you Professor. Your discussion concerning compartive rhetoric reminds me of Yeshua’s use of comparative rhetoric when confronting the Samaritan woman, comparing His well (eternal salvation) with the well provided by Jacob (Jewish heritage). Both wells were good and provided a form of respite/salvation but Yeshua’s respite/salvation was comparatively greater.

  5. I have an observation I would like to propose…Paul was trying to point out that ANYTHING produced by human effort and not by God (him being conceived and birthed as a Jew, his Jewish education, his circumcision into the mosaic covenant, and anything else produced solely by human endeavor he considered a “loss” compared to knowing Jesus Christ) was skubalon. Skubalon was not just rubbish or dung but it was human excrement…. why?? Because it too was made by human effort and not by an animal (dung). What man has made will all pass away…. what God has made (the intimate knowing and relationship of Father God) will last for all eternity.

    • Exactly, but people take the flip side of the idea and make it a theological assertion and support doctrines with it.

  6. Having trouble reconciling the point that Yeshua was something better than what he received through his Jewish heritage. Yeshua was precisely what he DID receive through that heritage! Yeshua is what the entire TNK points us all to, especially Torah. Like all the apostles, Rav Shaul gave up everything except his heritage (including Torah) to follow his Messiah. He did give up the esteem of those in authority in Judaism when he quit killing Notsarim and joined them. And like those first apostles called in Luke 5 who walked away from their boats, nets, a HUGE catch, and their businesses, Paul walked away from everything worldly to follow his Messiah. I think those worldly things, both physical possessions and his social standing are what he counted as refuse.

    • Well said, Daniel. We have to read the big picture of what Shaul says. The heritage or no heritage is not the issue here. The apostle wants to demonstrate how precious Messiah is and merely creates a contrast. What he creates a contrast with is not as important.

  7. To my understanding the ‘garbage’ refers to the offal (Ex 29:14) of the offering. The meaning is that it is unsuitable to please God. So it is not a comparison of GOOD and BETTER, but unprofitable (flesh, Phil 3:3,4) and profitable.

    • A novel proposal to consider. Thank you. I like when we have alternative possibilities to think over. However, this proposal presupposes a negative view of sacrifices, common to Christians, but unnatural for Paul. He himself sacrificed, worshiped in the temple, and believed the temple to be legitimate as all other Christ-followers of the early era. The idea that sacrifices and temple are garbage is not an organic Jewish idea from the 1st century, but a later one, developed in church theology. So it is hard to consider it seriously for the apostolic way of reasoning that would explain Paul’s language. Also “flesh” is not inherently bad or evil, but can be holy in Jewish thinking vs. Platonism where only spiritual can be holy.

  8. I am often challenged by your commentaries so it was a pleasant surprise when the position I’ve always held was affirmed by this one. Thank you!

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