A medieval scribe copying a manuscript.
For Bronwen and Ashley
Twice in the past week, someone has asked me about a Greek word used in Titus 2:5. The CSB and NASB translate 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 something different in Titus 2:5; it has “keepers at home.”
I have previously written about Paul’s instructions in Titus 2:4–5 here, but since this word seems to be something that people are asking about specifically, so here’s is an article on it. But what is the Greek word in question?
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, or dictionary, form.
The etymology of oikourgos suggests the meaning “worker at home”: oikos = house + ergos = worker. BDAG define this word as “busy at home” and “carrying out household duties”. LSJ define this word as “working at home.” (See LSJ here.)
Most of the earliest surviving Greek texts that contain the letter to Titus have the word oikourgous. This word occurs in Titus 2:5 in Codex Sinaiticus (ℵ∗ or 01) written in c. 330–360, Codex Alexandrinus (A or 02) c. 400–440, Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (C or 04) c. 450, Codex Claramontus (D∗ or 06) c. 550, Codex Freerianus (I or 016) 400s, etc, but it is not in Codex Vaticanus (B or 03) c. 325–350.
The second-century physician, Soranus of Ephesus, used the rare word oikourgos when he described the quiet lifestyle of women (in comparison with men who exercised at gymnasia): “they look after the house (oikourgos) and lead a sedentary life” (οἰκουργὸν καὶ καθέδριον διάγειν βίον). Soranus, Gynaecology 1.27.
Oikourgos also occurs in 1 Clement 1.3 where it is typically translated as “manage the affairs of their household”
In a few Greek texts of Titus 2:5, 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. BDAG define oikouros as “staying at home” and “domestic.” LSJ define this word, in the context of women, as “keeping at home.” (See LSJ here.)
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 has “keepers at home” in Titus 2:5.
One example of its use in literature roughly contemporary with the letter to Titus is where Plutarch criticised Fulvia, the wife of Mark Anthony. Plutarch described her as “a woman who took no thought for spinning or housekeeping (oikouros) …” Plutarch, The Life of Anthony 10.1 (from The Parallel Lives LCL p. 161).
Evidence from Older Manuscripts
Bruce Metzger observes that most minuscule manuscripts (i.e. Greek manuscripts which use a style of writing that 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.
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.” Accordingly, 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 nuance of being productive in the domestic setting.
Keepers at Home or Guardians of the Home?
I’ve heard people elevate the meaning of “keeper” or “watcher” in oikouros, but this word 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.
Cassius Dio, a Roman administrator and historian who died in 235 CE, posed this rhetorical question about a good Roman wife and used the word oikouros, but he used a different word for household management. (He also uses the word sōphrōn found in Titus 2:5.)
For is there anything better than a wife who is chaste (sōphrōn), domestic (oikouros), a good house-keeper (oikonomos), a rearer of children; one to gladden you in health, to tend you in sickness; to be your partner in good fortune, to console you in misfortune; to restrain the mad passion of youth and to temper the unseasonable harshness of old age? (Cassius Dio, Roman Histories 56.3.3 English, Greek)
Paul’s reason for compliance with social norms was that he did not want the behaviour of the young Christian 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 the master/ mistress of the house”: oikos = house + despotēs = master or lord.
LSJ give the meaning of oikodespoteō as “to be master of a house or head of a family” and it cites 1 Timothy 5:14. (See LSJ here.) The implication of this word is that the young widows who are being addressed in 1 Timothy 5:14 are relatively wealthy and have largish homes. 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 doing the laundry when he used the words oikourgos or oikodespoteō; he was speaking about the management of the home. This would have included the management of slaves and home-based industries such as spinning and weaving that were traditionally undertaken and overseen by the mistress of the home. (The feminine of despotēs is depoina and this Greek word was used for a mistress, that is, “the lady of the house.”)
Using the voice of a character named Ischomachus, Xenophon speaks about the most basic of skills that a young teenage wife would have had: “If when she came she knew no more than how, when given wool, to turn out a cloak, and had seen only how the spinning is given out to the maids, is not that as much as could be expected?” Xenophon, Economics 7.7.
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. Most slave women and poor women did not have the luxury of staying home and managing their own homes—presuming they had their own home—as per the instructions in 1 Timothy 5:14. They were too busy working for others. Poor women might live in a one-room unit that didn’t need “keeping” or managing, and slave women would often live in quarters within or attached to their master or mistress’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 days 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 who are not primarily described as women who stayed at home. (I’ve compiled a list of some of these women here.) 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.
 The etymology of a word does not always give a true indication of how that word is actually used and understood. Usage is what determines the meaning of words, not etymology.
 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.
 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.
 Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd Edition, (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1994), 585.
 Note that the meaning of “despot” in English today and what it meant in Greek in the first century are not the same. “Master,” or “Mistress” for the feminine, is an adequate translation of the Greek. Note also that God is addressed in prayers as despotēs (“Master, Lord”) in Luke 2:24, Acts 4:24 and Revelation 6:10. The word is also used for God in 2 Peter 2:1 and Jude 1:4.
© Margaret Mowczko 2014
All Rights Reserved
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