Thursday, February 4, 2010

σκεῦος = penis

Most of your Bible translations have two possible rendering of 1 Thes 4:4, something along the lines of either
that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honour (NRSV)
that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honour (NRSV, note)
But the word translated variously "wife" or "body" is σκεῦος, which is a very strange word to use for either.  Of course the "wife" translation is especially wierd, as "knowing how" to take a wife presumably has little effect on your behaviour unless you actually do so!  And they are both wierd because if σκεῦος is a metaphor for either, what does the use of that metaphor add to the discussion?  σκεῦος is essentially a word for a useful object and has a semantic range broad enough to cover ship's rigging, kitchen pots, and human functionaries!  Instead, as both FF Bruce and Gordon Fee argue in their respective commentaries on 1&2 Thessalonians, σκεῦος is here best understood as a euphemism for penis.  There is even an example of this usage in the LXX (the Greek version of the OT) in 1 Sam 21:5-6.  

My contribution to this discussion is simply to concur with Fee's (much more detailed- this is just a very brief summary) argument and to point out that this would help explain Paul's use of τιμή (honour) here as in 1 Cor 12:23 he also talks about how the less presentable parts need to be treated with special τιμή (honour).

My translation suggestion?
that each one of you know how to control your own thingy in holiness and honour
Let me know what you think, :-)


  1. my suggestion :)

    '...that each one of you know how to manage your member in holiness and honour.'

    or 'instrument' or 'manhood' ;)

    and yes, the 'member' translation would fit well with the 'body' metaphor of 1 Cor 12 (a 'member' of the body?) :)

  2. The idea of 'vessel' is probably the most likely: as in the body being a vessel or tent.

    That said, I think that the idea of its use as a euphemism for penis is an interesting one. After all, the NRSV does sometimes have a tendency to 'water down' some of the less pleasant parts of Scripture. (Compare 1 Kings 16:11 to the Hebrew original! The AV has retained the sense of the Hebrew here!)

    In the context of πορνεία in the previous verse ('harlotry', 'prostitution'), the sense ought, I think, to contain the idea of sex, or rather the abstention therefrom, and so perhaps penis might be a valid rendering.

    Love in Christ!

  3. Dale, for exactly that reason "member" is not appropriate because it suggests all sorts of resonances that aren't there! But that is used in one translation, perhaps the Jerusalem Bible?

    Matt, leaving the euphemism/metaphor in place is the option taken by some interpreters but one expects the original readers would have been fairly confident what it might mean. "Vessel" really isn't very close to the definition of skeuos, if you are going to leave the euphemism/metaphor as its stands then "utensil" would probably be better, vessel has so many metaphorical overtones (e.g. needing to be filled, or used to float on or contain water!) personally I'm convinced by Fee's argument so I refer you to that commentary!

    Good discussion gents, pax vobiscum

  4. Here's another suggestion coming from my daughter (in another context completely):

    '...that each one of you know how to manage your water stick in holiness and honour.'