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.