Is there any difference between the words “gift” and “government”? How about “management” and “trust”? “Work” and “plan”? “Commission” and “dispensation”? “Position” and “obligation”? Believe it or not, all of these very different words are used in well-known Bible translations as equivalents for a single Jewish-Greek word: οἰκονομία (oikonomia).

The Greek oikonomia is the origin of our word “economy.” In ancient Hellas, it meant “household management,” that is, the administration of the affairs, possessions, and servants of a family unit. This noun appears twice in the Jewish-Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible (Isa 22:19, 22:21). The related verb, οἰκονομέω (oikonomeō) “to manage a household,” appears once:

Good is the man who pities and lends:
he shall manage (oikonomeō) his affairs with judgment. (Ps 111/112:5)

This couplet is a clear instance of “parallelism” in Hebrew poetry. The second line develops the meaning of the first line, explaining that a person who lends money out of compassion for a neighbor – as the Hebrew Torah commands – is in fact “managing a household” justly and well.

The word oikonomia also appears several times in the first-century Jewish messianic writings known to Christians as the “New Testament” (Lk 16:2-4; 1 Cor 9:17; Eph 1:10, 3:2, 3:9; Col 1:25; 1 Tim 1:4). Probably the most common English translation is “stewardship,” which is not a bad option. However, English versions are very inconsistent in translating the term, using all of the words listed at the beginning of this essay and many more as well! This means that most readers have no idea that the original Jewish-Greek texts use the same word in all these places. In addition, readers may receive a very misleading impression of some passages.

Some English versions use the word “dispensation” in a few places to translate oikonomia. Like any word, this one can have various meanings. When isolated from other passages that use the word oikonomia and divorced from the original contexts, phrases like “the dispensation of the grace” (Eph 3:2) and “the dispensation of the mystery” (3:9) sound like they are talking about something obscure, theological, and non-Jewish – certainly not something as mundane as “household management.” In fact, entire theological systems (like “dispensationalism”) have been built up around such words. Very often those religious systems of thought – together with the inconsistent translations – orient people in an extremely anti-Jewish direction. The only solution is to study the language, literature, and culture of the first-century Jewish world in order to understand these texts in their original settings.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Shalom! Deixe-me ver se interpretei bem o texto; Devemos, no plano da graça, conduzir nossa vida com justiça? Se me falta..por favor ajude-me a entender melhor. Não que o texto esteja complicado.Não. Pelo contrário, está graciosamente bem explicado. Só nesse ponto da dispensação (Ef 3.2). Acertei? Obrigado.

    • Thank you for the comment, Maria. In Eph 3:2 the Jewish writer Shaul/Paul is explaining why he addresses Gentiles (non-Jews). He says he has been entrusted with this particular area of “household management” or “stewardship.” Later theological writers took this phrase out of context and used it as a foundation for an entire theory of interpretation and worldview. Shalom!

  2. Is the Lxx Jewish-Greek or the translation of the TaNaK in Greek done around 250BCE by Greek speaking Jews for the sake of the Hellenic speaking Jews who lived in Alexandria Egypt? Why call it Jewish-Greek? Are you not stretching this academic point hitch as a tremendous blessing to the use of the scripture to non-Jewish peoples? So in Ephesians 3:2 should we say economy of Grace rather than dispensation of grace and in 3:9 economy of the mystery? You should know Dr Eli that we use the best idiom and sense to translate from one language.

    • Thanks for the comment/questions, Amos. You raise large issues that are dealt with in more detail in our courses and in multiple articles on this site. I’ll try to give some brief answers here:
      LXX = Jewish Greek or the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible? Both.
      Why call it Jewish Greek? These Greek texts written by Jews have special characteristics that distinguish them from other Greek texts. Hence, “Jewish Greek” — a term that is straightforward, easily understandable, and commonly used by scholars in the field.
      Stretching a hitch? I’m not sure what you mean here.

    • [cont.]
      Always translate oikonomia as “economy”? Not in my opinion. However, it is very important to understand the meaning of the term in context, recognize the various places where it appears (something that is often obscured in translation), and avoid decontextualized theologizations! These are the points made in the article.
      Best idiom? Well, there are many different approaches to translation. All of them have advantages and disadvantages. Every single translation choice will have pros and cons. However, the point is that many of these inconsistent translations actually distort the original.
      Dr. Eli? Here is his take:
      https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/the-original-language-of-new-testament/

  3. I have continually disagreements with people. “But this word doesn’t mean “this”, it means “that”, and I tell them “a word means what it originally meant. People changes their meanings. Words; never”.

  4. I agree completely that the writings of a first century Jewish religious sect ought to be studied within that context. I’d add it also ought to be studied within the context of first century Roman culture and religion. This is especially true of writings intended for Gentile audiences.

  5. Shalom, I propose a suitable way to consider translation is ultimately based on fundamentals of communication: The end goal is to produce a similar picture in the mind of the listener that is in the mind of the speaker. This picture reproduction will need to overcome existing baggage everyone collects.

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