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] LSJ defines this word as “working at home.”[3] (See here.) Most of the earliest surviving Greek texts that contain the letter to Titus have the word oikourgous.  

In a few Greek texts, however, there is a slightly different word: oikourous (the accusative plural of oikouros.) The etymology of this word suggests the meaning “house-keeper” (oikos = house + ouros = keeper, watcher, or guardian.) This word is found in Titus 2:5 of later Greek manuscripts and in texts such as Stephanus’ Greek New Testament (1550). The King James Bible was translated from texts that relied on later manuscripts, and this is why it is has “keepers at home” in Titus 2:5. BDAG defines oikouros as “staying at home” and “domestic.” LSJ defines this word, in the context of women, as “keeping at home”. (See here.)

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 sense 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 the domestic life that was typical of respectable married women in Greco-Roman society. Words closely related to oikouros also have an ordinary sense of domesticity (e.g., oikourēma, oikouria, oikourios). (Note that kēpouros, which 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; though pagan Greco-Roman women did play a part in household religious observances. Rather, Paul 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 might lead to the gospel being given a bad name and being dishonoured 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 that has a similar meaning to oikourgos. He uses the infinitive of the verb oikodespoteō. The etymology of this word suggests the meaning “to be a house master/mistress” (oikos=house + despotēs=master or lord). LSJ gives the meaning of oikodespoteō as “to be master of a house or head of a family” and it cites 1 Timothy 5:14. (See here.) The implication of this word is that the young widows who are being addressed in 1 Timothy 5:14 are relatively wealthy. And, like Titus 2:5, the activity in view is being in charge of the domestic management of a household.

A conservative estimate is that one-third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves, 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 words oikourgos or oikodespoteō; 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 or poor women in Titus 2:5 or 1 Timothy 5:14, even though these women were equal members of the church. Slaves usually could not choose to get married and many slave women and poor women did not have the option of keeping busy in their own homes or have the luxury of managing their own homes as per the instructions in 1 Timothy 5:14. Poor women might live in a one-room unit that didn’t need “keeping” or managing, and slave women would often live in their master’s home.

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 Plato 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 basic virtues of young Greco-Roman wives simply cannot be taken as Paul’s definitive or comprehensive statement concerning all young women, as he greatly valued his female colleagues and friends in ministry, and these women were not restricted to being workers at home.

Footnotes

[1] The etymology of a word does not always give a true indication of how that 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.


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