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.