A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a Pentecostal minister I know–or used to know. He is an Assemblies of God minister, and we were discussing the Bible as we often did, which was not always a fun thing to do because he took the stance that he was always right in whatever he asserted, even when he had no scholarship or evidence to back it up, and that if I disagreed, I was wrong, even though I could back up what I was saying with scholarship and evidence.
So we were in a coffee shop we both frequented and talking shop and somehow were discussing Philippians, and I mentioned that I love that book because St. Paul uses bad language–probably from spending all that time with sailors.
He was offended at the idea that St. Paul, who to him is just Paul, or maybe the Apostle Paul, would ever utter profanity. So I explained to him that St. Paul uses the word σκύβαλον (skubalon), which means “shit.” St. Paul says that he counts his former life as shit compared to the life he now has in Christ. I even explained to him, as it was explained to me by my mentor and New Testament professor, that the Greeks were apparently more obsessed with waste than we are because they had more words for it. You can always tell how important something is in a culture by how many different words they have for something (for instance, the Inuit have like hundreds of words for “snow”). I explained that if you arranged all the words on a continuum, ranging from the most polite form — possibly “manure” — and went to the must vulgar, we would end with “shit” but the Greeks would keep going, and σκύβαλον is far more vulgar and offensive than the most vulgar and offensive word we have in English. And since our job in translation is to translate what the documents say as best we can (not what we want them to say, but what they actually say) I have to say it in the most vulgar way I can to accurately translate it.
Well he was not pleased. He said he understood my point, but that it was still wrong to have St. Paul say the thing he said, or as close as I could say it in English. “After all, you could make the point without resorting to profanity” was his argument.
And I agree. You could render it into English without using the word “shit”–but it is what St. Paul said. And that is important to me, not just because I’m an egg-head, but because Paul is a Saint, and saints sometimes use profanity to make a point. He speaks the language of the people he is dealing with because that’s how they talk. He addresses them where they are, not where he decides they should be–certainly not where we decide they should be, and certainly not where this minister decided we, St. Paul, and the Philippians should be.
So this went on for a while and finally I had to ask something that was bothering me.
“You believe that the Bible is inerrant, yes?”
“Yes,” he proudly replied.
“More than that, you believe that the Bible is, not only the Word of God as a principle, but the very literal words of God, yes?”
“Yes,” he proudly replied once more.
“Well, there’s where I’m confused. If God dictated the Bible to the people who wrote it, and it’s infallible, and it is both the Word and words of God, why are you refusing to let God use the word that God chose to be used in that place?”
His head snapped back like I punched him in the jaw.
“If God isn’t offended by the word, why are you? Do you think it is your job to censor God or clean up His language?”
“No, of course not.”
“But isn’t that what you’re doing? God said “shit” through St. Paul, and because you don’t like the word, you’re offended by me translating the word that God chose to use, while at the same time saying you believe the words are God’s words. If the word is good enough for God, why isn’t it good enough for you?”
He paused for a minute and thought about what I just said. The conversation ended quickly after that with him telling me that I had given him a lot to think about; yet, I could tell that he wasn’t happy about it.
It turned out to be another example of what a friend of mine in seminary told me years before: “You always make me think, and that really pisses me off!”