Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

“Workers at home” or “keepers at home” in Titus 2:5?

For Bronwen and Ashley

Twice in the past week someone has asked me about a Greek word used in Titus 2:5. The NASB translates this particular word as “workers at home”. Other translations have “good managers of the household” (NRSV); “homemakers” (HCSB); “busy at home” (NIV); etc. The King James Bible however has “keepers at home.” I have written about this word in an endnote attached to a previous article, but since this word seems to be something that people are asking about, I’ve expanded the endnote for this article.

Oikourgos or Oikouros? 

The word translated into English as “workers at home” is the Greek adjective oikourgous, (the accusative plural of oikourgos. Oikourgos is the lexical form.) The etymology of oikourgos suggests the meaning “worker at home” (oikos = house + ergos = worker.)[1] BDAG defines this word as “busy at home” and “carrying out household duties”.[2] The LSJ defines this word as “working at home”.[3]

In a few Greek texts, however, there is a slightly different word: oikourous (which is the accusative plural of oikouros.) The etymology of this word suggests the meaning “house-keeper” (oikos = house + keeper, watcher, or guardian.) This word is found in Titus 2:5 of later Greek manuscripts and in editions such as Stephanus (1550) and the Textus Receptus. The King James Bible was translated from later manuscripts, and this is why it is different from other translations and has “keepers at home” in Titus 2:5. BDAG defines oikouros as “staying at home” and “domestic”.[2] The LSJ defines this word, in the context of women, as “keeping at home”.[3]

Evidence from Older Manuscripts

Bruce Metzger observes that most minuscule manuscripts (i.e. Greek manuscripts which use a style of writing which dates from the 9th to 12th centuries) as well as most of the Church Fathers have oikourous in Titus 2:5, and he notes that this word occurs frequently in Classical Greek. However earlier, older surviving manuscripts of Titus have oikourgous, a rarer Greek word.[4]

Metzger (and the committee of the United Bible Societies, who publish a respected, critical edition of the Greek New Testament) preferred oikourgous as being the original word “because of superior external support, and because it was regarded more probable that an unusual word should have been altered by copyists to a well-known word, than vice versa.”[4] Most modern English New Testaments translate from oikourgous in Titus 2:5.

Whether one word is the original, or the other, doesn’t make much difference, however, as both oikourgos and oikouros have a similar meaning. Both words are about staying at home and domesticity, but oikourgos has the added meaning of being productive in the domestic setting.

"Workers at home" or "keepers at home" in Titus 2:5?

A medieval scribe copying a manuscript.

Keepers at Home or Guardians of the Home?

I’ve heard people elevate the meaning of “keeper” or “watcher” in oikouros, but oikouros simply refers to a home life that was typical of respectable married women in Greco-Roman society. (Note that kēpouros, which also has ouros (keeper/watcher) as part of the word, is simply translated as “gardener” in John 20:15 without any lofty connotations.)

Unlike what some people have suggested, Paul was not thinking about women taking on a significant role of spiritual protection or guardianship of the household when he wrote Titus 2:5. Rather he wanted the young women to comply with the usual moral standards of the typical Roman matron. Paul’s reason for this compliance was that he did not want the behaviour of the young women to cause controversy and unease in broader society which could lead to the gospel being given a bad name and dishonored by pagan neighbours. Note the last phrase of Titus 2:5: “so that no one will malign the word of God.”

Scrubbing Floors or Managing the Household?

In 1 Timothy 5:14, Paul uses another word which has a similar meaning to oikourgos. He uses the infinitive of oikodespotēs, the etymology of which suggests the meaning “house master/mistress” (oikos=house + despotēs=master or lord.) This word is about managing the household, and, like Titus 2:5, this verse is aimed at young women — idle young widows to be precise.

A conservative estimate is that one-third of the population were slaves in the Roman Empire, and the young wives and widows who Paul was referring to in Titus 2:5 and 1 Timothy 5:14 would have had domestic slaves for the more unpleasant, tedious, and difficult domestic duties. Paul was not speaking about scrubbing floors or washing clothes when he used the word oikourgos or oikodespotēs, he was speaking about the management of the home, which would have included the management of slaves and home-based industries such as spinning and weaving. (Also, Paul was not addressing female slaves here, even though slaves were equal members of the church. Slaves usually could not choose to get married and they did not have the option of keeping busy and managing their own homes as per the instructions in 1 Timothy 5:14.)

A Definitive Statement or a Shameful Waste?

Housework is a necessary part of life, and there is nothing at all wrong with someone who devotes their time to keeping a clean and orderly home, but it is important to note that neither Titus 2:3-5 nor 1 Timothy 5:14 represents a definitive statement about the role of Christian women. There are many godly women mentioned in the New Testament (and Old Testament) who are not primarily described as women who stayed at home. These women made important contributions to their church communities and helped to spread the gospel; they were prophetesses, teachers, evangelists, ministers, apostles and patrons.

I was reading Plato’s Laws this week, and he comments (through the voice of the Athenian) on the wastefulness of the Greek custom of women staying at home and not contributing to broader society (Laws 7.804a-805). Plato called this custom “irrational” and said that when only men contribute in society, you only have half a state instead of a whole one. He recognised this weakness and flaw in his culture. Still, many in the church are copying this weak, flawed model in the mistaken belief that it is biblical. We need a whole church, not half a church, for the body of Christ to be healthy and effective, but many Christians are effectively coercing their women to bury their talents and ignore their gifts instead of encouraging and supporting them to use them in the wider world for the cause of the kingdom. (See Jesus’ parable of the talents recorded in Matthew 25:14-30, esp. Matt. 25:25ff.)

The statement in Titus 2:4-5 describing the virtues of young Greco-Roman women simply cannot be taken as Paul’s definitive command for every young woman, as he greatly valued his female colleagues and friends in ministry, and these women were not restricted to being workers at home.

Endnotes

[1] The etymology of a word does not always give a true indication of how the word is actually used and understood.

[2] BDAG = Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, revised and edited by F.W Danker (University of Chicago Press, 2000) 700.

[3] LSJ = Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th Edition, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996) 1205

[4] Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd Edition, (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1994) 585.


Related Articles

“Busy at Home”: How does Titus 2:4-5 apply today?
Female Masters, Male Slaves, and the NT Household Codes
Working Women in the New Testament: Priscilla, Lydia, and Phoebe
Equality and Unity in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 12
Beauty, Marriage, Motherhood, and Ministry
Biblical Roles for Biblical Women
7 things you may not know about the King James Bible

Posted September 23rd, 2014 . Categories/Tags: Bible Translation and Interpretation, Equality and Gender Issues, Greco-Roman Culture, , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

13 comments on ““Workers at home” or “keepers at home” in Titus 2:5?

  1. TL says:

    Because Thayers Lexicon lists the meanings of depoteo as master, to rule, to manage, I would think that we would view both oikodespotēs, and oikourgos with a stronger emphasis on leading and organizing the household rather than doing all the work of the household.

    • Marg says:

      I don’t think any of the three Greek words in this article are about doing housework as we understand it, let alone doing all the work of the household. There were slaves to do that. Paul was writing to young women who could make choices and could have households to manage.

      ~ Oikodespotēs is about managing the household. (I mention this in the article.)
      ~ Oikourgos is about being busy and productive in the household, by managing the housework and any home-based business.
      ~ Oikouros is simply about staying in the household.

      The etymology gives us an idea of how the words were used in the 1st century, but it is only a hint. The context is always the key.

  2. […] Whether one word is the original, or the other, doesn’t make much different as both oikourgos and oikouros have practically the same meaning.  I’ve heard people elaborate on, and elevate the meaning of, the “keeper” element in oikouros; but  oikouros (house-keeper) simply refers to domestic duties and industry.  Paul was not thinking about young women taking on the role of spiritual protection or guardianship of the household when he wrote Titus 2:5.  [More on this here.] […]

  3. judy says:

    1 Cor.7: 29 But this I say , brethren, the time is short : it remaineth , that both they that have wives be as though they had none; 30 And they that weep , as though they wept not; and they that rejoice , as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy , as though they possessed not; 31 And they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away . 32 But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: 33 But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife…”

    It seems here that Paul is speaking of the urgency of the times and the first line seems to say that even if the man marries he should behave as if he is single in order to do the Lord’s work…and so on…he seems to want us to be ‘free’ to serve God and warns the woman that at least unmarried she will be more able to please the Lord…all of this makes the enforcement of the woman in the home clearly not the INTENT of Paul…he is more concerned with the work of God and is gently encouraging us all to put our focus there rather than pleasing a husband or wife…yet I have never heard such teaching reflected in my churches..instead the focus is on getting women under the roof and away from the work of God.

    • Marg says:

      Excellent point, Judy.

      Paul’s advice to both men and women to remain single so that they can devote themselves to ministry is rarely “pushed” in evangelical churches.

  4. I agree, which what I posted on my blog regarding women in the workforce. From what I learned, the Greek word “oikouros” didn’t mean staying at home which was bad translation but watcher, guardian of the home. Paul wasn’t defining gender roles,but was reffering to the culture in Crete, where the people had bad reputations of being lazy neglectful enganging in drunkiness and teaching false doctrines. He was telling the older women to teach younger women how to be better wives and not being lazy or neglectful of the homes and to care for the husbands and children. I never got the idea that oikouros refers to domestic servitude but how women should be attentive the wellbeing of her family and her home. In Paul’s day women managed their homes a bit differently then they do now, so culture and time period does play a role. Great post once again.

    • Marg says:

      Hi CT,

      The way Ancient Greek writers used the word oikouros does indicate that it simply meant staying at home. But I completely agree with your point that Paul’s comments in Titus 2:3-5 are framed by the culture at Crete.

  5. I still have to slightly disagree on the meaning of oikouros. Having done further research, there is another word oikourgos that was used in some Greek translation of the Titus scropture. This word didn’t mean staying at home but keeping, working or caring for the household rather staying at home. Many have misinterpreted this word to claim women are meant to stay home and take care of the house in children and not work for a living. However, in those times many men and women earned their living from home. The nuclear family unit that we are used to didn’t exist back then. Whether the original word is oikouros or oikourgos, I do believe in it could apply today as many women do manage and care their homes in different ways be staying at home or juggling a career and family.

    • Marg says:

      My article is about these two words oikouros and oikourgos, and it says many of the same things you are saying in your comment. So I think we are in agreement.

      Our only disagreement is about the meaning of oikouros. I have read blog posts about oikouros where the writer has used sources, such as the LSJ, in a a very clumsy manner and misrepresented how the word is used. The best lexicons simply have “staying at home” or something similar for oikouros when used in the context of women.

  6. […] Marg Mowczko at New Life explores: – “The Prominence of Women in the Cultic Life of Ephesus” – “Titus 2:5 – ‘Workers at home’ or ‘Keepers at home’?” […]

  7. Nate Sparks says:

    I really enjoyed this Marg. I think verses 3-5 together provide some enlightening context as well.

    “Likewise, tell the older women to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited.” (NRSV)

    If the old women must give up slander and drunkenness so they can teach the women, there was probably an issue with women surrounding those issues. It appears the old women might have been setting a bad example for the younger.

    Verse 6, with its admonition for the young men to “Likewise” practice self-control seems to lend itself to this.

    • Marg says:

      Thanks Nate, I agree that the older women needed to change their behaviour.

      I think the instructions in these few verses are basic, and it’s misguided to make them say more than was intended. Some, for instance take these verses as saying women can teach theology, but only to other women. But theology or Christian teaching is not mentioned here. Others claim these verses indicate that the word for “keeping house” means that women have been given a spiritual guardianship of the home. I think these verses are just saying “behave yourselves according to cultural norms so you don’t give your pagan neighbours cause to say bad things about the word of God.”

      I get the impression from these instructions, and other comments in Titus, that the behaviour the Cretan Christians was poor (Titus 1:12-13).

      • Nate Sparks says:

        I totally agree. I am always amazed when people who take a “nothing outside the text” approach to Scripture make such convoluted arguments that do such violence to the text then claim they are just speaking “clear and plain-text” meaning of Scripture.

        Blessings Marg 🙂

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