(1 Cor. 4:13) Did Paul swear?

CLAIM: Paul uses the term “scum” (Greek perikatharma) and “refuse” (Greek peripsema). In the original Greek, these words were fairly profane. Blomberg writes, “The words translated here as ‘scum’ and ‘refuse’ are fairly vulgar in the original Greek; their closest English equivalents would offend so many people that modern translations use euphemistic language like this instead!”[1] Did Paul cuss here?

RESPONSE: One thing to notice here is the fact that Paul directs this word toward himself—not others. He is saying, “We are the scum,” rather than, “You are the scum.” In other words, Paul isn’t cussing someone out. Instead, he is sarcastically explaining how the apostles lead simple lives—unlike the leaders in Corinth. However, regarding foul language in general, the Bible doesn’t seem to be bashful using it.

Jesus refers to human waste falling “into the latrine” (Mt. 15:17 see NET note).

Paul writes that his former life was “rubbish” (Greek skubalon) compared to the knowledge of Christ (Phil. 3:8). This Greek word literally means “dung” or “excrement.” Of this word, theologian J.I. Packer writes, “In secular Greek this depressing word means rubbish and muck of many kinds: excrement, rotten food, bits left at a meal as not worth eating, a rotting corpse. Nastiness and decay are the constant elements of its meaning; it is a coarse, ugly, violent word implying worthlessness, uselessness, and repulsiveness.”[2] It isn’t as though Paul was saying that something smelled like dung. Instead, he was comparing legalistic religious practices to dung.

Elsewhere, the apostle wishes his legalistic enemies would “mutilate themselves” or “cut themselves off” (Gal. 5:12), rather than try to circumcise his Gentile converts. Consider how many modern Christians would gasp if their preacher used language like this in a Sunday sermon. In Philippians 3:2-3, Paul uses a play on words in the Greek to describe his enemies. He calls them the “false circumcision” (katatome), and he calls Christians the “true circumcision” (peritome). Katatome means to “cut through” the penis, whereas peritome means to “cut around.” This is a pretty vulgar way of describing his enemies.

Moses describes Jacob’s “direct descendants” (Gen. 46:26; cf. Ex. 1:5). The Hebrew (yerēḵô) literally states “from his own loins” or “those coming out of his body.”[3] Genesis records Abraham making a covenant with his servant: “Please place your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven” (Gen. 24:2-3). Waltke notes, “This is a euphemism for genitalia.”[4] Gordon Wenham writes, “By putting his hand under Abraham’s thigh, the servant was touching his genitals and thus giving the oath a special solemnity. In the ancient Orient, solemn oaths could be taken holding some sacred object in one’s hand, as it is still customary to take an oath on the Bible before giving evidence in court. Since the OT particularly associates God with life (see the symbolism of the sacrificial law) and Abraham had been circumcised as a mark of the covenant, placing his hand under Abraham’s thigh made an intimate association with some fundamental religious ideas.”[5]

Isaiah writes, “The Lord will lay bare their secret parts” (Isa. 3:17 ESV). The NET Bible notes, “Since the verb in the line means “lay bare, make naked,” some take פֹּת as a reference to the genitals (cf. KJV, ASV, NRSV, CEV).” Regarding Babylon’s judgment, the prophet writes, “Remove your veil, strip off the skirt, uncover the leg, cross the rivers. 3 Your nakedness will be uncovered, your shame also will be exposed” (Isa. 47:2-3). The NET Bible translates this as, “Let your private parts be exposed! Your genitals will be on display!” Isaiah 64:6 likens our self-righteous acts to “filthy rags.” Literally, the Hebrew word for “filthy” (Hebrew iddah) refers to menstruation. Thus, Isaiah was really saying our self-righteousness is similar to used menstrual rags. To put this in modern terms, he was comparing our righteousness to bloody tampons.

Ezekiel writes, “When they ask you, ‘Why are you groaning?’ you will reply, ‘Because of the report that has come. Every heart will melt with fear and every hand will be limp; everyone will faint and every knee will be wet with urine’” (Ezek. 21:7 NET). He also writes, “You engaged in prostitution with the Egyptians, your sexually aroused neighbors, multiplying your promiscuity and provoking me to anger” (Ezek. 16:26 NET). The NET Bible states, “The word “flesh” is used here of the genitals. It may simply refer to the size of their genitals in general, or, as the translation suggests, depicts them as sexually aroused.” In vivid language, the prophet compares Israel to a lusting woman. He writes, “There she had longed for her lovers. Their private parts seemed as big as those of donkeys. And their flow of semen appeared to be as much as that of horses” (Ezek. 23:20 NIRV).

For instance, Saul uses foul language in 1 Samuel 20:30. This was a colloquial expression, which was extremely filthy in the original context. Commentator Ronald Youngblood explains,

The vile epithet Saul hurled at his son Jonathan, which the NIV translates euphemistically as ‘You son of a perverse and rebellious woman,’ is difficult to render without being equally vulgar—although TEV’s ‘You bastard!’ and NJB’s ‘You son of a rebellious slut!’ come close.[6]

While we shouldn’t follow Saul’s example (this is descriptive—not prescriptive), it’s interesting that the biblical authors didn’t “bleep out” this foul language from Saul—even though modern translators do.

Many modern Christians have made swearing and foul language one of the cardinal sins of the Bible. However, when we read through the Bible, we do not see this emphasized. James tells us that we can hurt people with our speech (Jas. 3:1-12). However, he doesn’t explicitly mention “swear words.” When the Bible does speak against filthy or obscene language, it is usually found in the context of being edifying with our speech (Eph. 4:29; 5:4; Col. 3:8). In other words, instead of swearing, we should consider how to be more loving with our language. While Christians shouldn’t swear, our focus or emphasis should not be on refraining from using certain curse words. Instead, our focus should be on loving others with our words. Of course, these two concepts are not mutually exclusive. However, Christians who focus on the sins of cussing often seem to neglect the weightier portions of the law (Mt. 23:23-24).

[1] Blomberg, Craig. From Pentecost to Patmos: an Introduction to Acts through Revelation. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006. 173.

[2] Packer, J. I. (1986). σκύβαλον. In L. Coenen, E. Beyreuther & H. Bietenhard (Eds.), . Vol. 1: New international dictionary of New Testament theology (L. Coenen, E. Beyreuther & H. Bietenhard, Ed.) (480). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[3] Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (2001). Genesis: a commentary (p. 577). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (2001). Genesis: a commentary (p. 327). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] Wenham, G. J. (1998). Genesis 16–50 (Vol. 2, p. 141). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[6] Youngblood, R. F. (1992). 1, 2 Samuel. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 3: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 724.