Dispensation, the most important word in the most important chapter in the Bible

Ephesians 3
2if netheles ye han herd the dispensacioun of Goddis grace, that is youun to me in you.
9which is the dispensacioun of sacrament hid fro worldis in God, that made alle thingis of nouyt;

Wycliffe’s Bible

The English translator of this verse died while saying Mass in the parish church on 28 December 28, 1384.  John Wycliffe (1324-1384)  suffered a stroke escaping the condemnation of the pope.[1]  The Catholic Church was not to be deprived of a victim.  On May 4, 1415 the Council of Constance officially declared Wycliffe a heretic.  The Council decreed Wycliffe’s works should be burned and his remains exhumed. In 1428, at the command of Pope Martin V  his corpse was exhumed,  burned and the ashes thrown into the River Swift.  Although by that time, he probably really did not care.

Yes this is an English translation of Ephesians 3:2&9, but it is an English of the 14th Century.  Although this translation may seem unimpressive the translator, Mr. Wycliffe paid dearly for it.  He was a 15th century priest who dared to translate the Scriptures from the Latin Vulgate into English.  Wycliffe understood the importance of having the Scriptures available in the common tongues, “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”

The resistance of the Catholic Church is quite ironic, the official translation of the Catholic Church is in Latin and called the Vulgate because it was translated into the common language of the people from Hebrew and Greek into the “vulgar” language of Latin. Although Catholicism has a history of suppressing and inhibiting the translation of the Scriptures into the common dialects, the original translation of the “official” Catholic Bible was translated into Latin for the express purpose of making Scripture available to the common person in the vulgar language.  In the 4th Century AD Jerome translated into Latin, then the common tongue of the empire, the Scriptures using manuscripts in Old Latin, Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and the Septuagint and the Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament.

Jerome’s regard for the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts is indicated by his letter to Pope Damasas.  Jerome was upset over the many Latin versions of the Scriptures and the poor quality of these versions.  His goal was to produce a good translation in the Latin from the original languages of the apostles and prophets.

If, however, truth is to be a seeking among many, why do we not now return to the Greek originals to correct those mistakes which either through faulty translators were set forth, or through confident but unskilled were wrongly revised, or through sleeping scribes either were added or were changed?

Jerome, Letter to Pope Damasus: Preface to the Gospels

Certainly, Jerome was certainly no Protestant, but he shared a love for Scriptures with those Protestants not yet born.  The Scriptures had been translated into Latin but the available Latin manuscripts were in an Old Latin and often stilted style. The Latin Jerome spoke and wrote was not considered an ecclesiastical exclusive language, it was the common Latin spoken in the streets of the Empire.   Jerome has a high regard for the original Greek manuscripts to the extent of using the Greek originals to correct the Latin versions.  He even has the hubris to declare some of the Old Latin versions were translated by incompetent scribes.  Jerome’s Latin version of the Bible the  Vulgate (meaning “common”) was widely used as the official version of the Roman Catholic Church but become the officially recognized version of the Catholic Church by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.

Ephesians 3, Vulagate
2 si tamen audistis dispensationem gratiae Dei quae data est mihi in vobis
9 et inluminare omnes quae sit dispensatio sacramenti absconditi a saeculis in Deo qui omnia creavit

The English word dispensation or Old English dispensacioun is from the Latin dispensatio, which is a good translation of the Greek word oikonomia.  The Latin verbal form of this noun means “to weigh out or dispense.”  The Greek word οἰκονόμος  comes from the verb that means to manage, regulate, administer, and plan.   This is a compound word from οἶκος, meaning house and νέμω to dispense or manage.  The one who manages a house (Hesychius ὁ τήν οἶκον νεμόμενος), could be free-born, or, a slave.  His duties included the management of the business affairs, including the receipts and expenditures, and paying the wages of every servant and sometimes the care of master’s children.

The duties and the responsibilities of the steward are illustrated in the parable of the unjust steward.

Luke 16:1-4

Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager (οικονομον)was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management (οικονομιας), because you cannot be manager (οικονομειν)any longer.’
3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job (οικονομιαν). I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job (οικονομιας) here, people will welcome me into their houses.’

If someone is not a theologian the parable is easy to understand.  Jesus is using mockery to ridicule the unbelievers.  Jesus is preaching generosity and love to the believers but the unbelievers should also practice generosity and love.  The unbelievers are going to need all their friends in the afterlife. This parable offers insight into the responsibilities of stewards and the accountability exercised by their masters.

In this parable the steward is the unsaved person, the master is God and the business owners are the other unsaved persons of the world.  God commends the unjust steward for acting shrewdly, and then Jesus recommends both to the unsaved and the saved:  use worldly wealth to gain friends.  You will need them in the afterlife.

The steward’s role is to protect the master’s assets but he has been wasting them.  Obviously the steward has the legal power to act on behalf of the master.  He has the power to enter into contracts, to collect moneys and disburse assets.  He knows he has been wasting assets and that an audit will reveal his misdeeds.  Using his authority he approaches his master‘s debtors, reduces their debt, binds his master by his legal in return for some future benefit.

The Latin dispensationem from which the English word dispensation is derived is a good translation of the Greek word oikonomia (οικονομιας).  The Greek word is used for our modern word of economy which means “the process or system by which goods and services are produced, sold, and bought in a country or region.”

The word that is translated “dispensation” or “stewardship” at various places in both the Old and New King James Bibles is the Greek word oikonomia. It is the word from which we get our English word “economy”.

Contrary to the relatively good translations of Jerome and Wycliffe, Mr. Tyndale introduced an inferior translation of this word.  Yes, William Tyndale, the greatest English translator of the Bible.  He influenced the all major English translations of the Protestant reformation (Great Bible, Geneva Bible, Bishops Bible, Douay-Rheims Bible and the King James Bible) and still is a major influence on modern translations.  He combined a plainness in diction and syntax, with an appreciation for a poetic echo of artful richness in rhythm and rhyme.

Eventually, Tyndale was betrayed by a friend while in Antwerp and imprisoned in the castle of Vilvoorde  near Brussels.  He was convicted of heresy in 1536 and condemned to be burned to death.  Mercifully he was strangled to death while tied at the stake, and then his dead body was burned.  His final words the stake were reported as “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.”  His prayer was answered in the production of the King James Version of the Bible.

Tyndale New Testament
2If ye have heard of the ministration of the grace of God which is given me to youward: 9and to give light to all men, that they might know what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God which made all things thorow Iesus Christ,

To be fair to Tyndale, he probably possessed a Greek version of Ephesians similar to the Textus Receptus that substituted koinomia (fellowship) for oikonomia (dispensation).  With the advent of modern critical analysis, it has been determined that the Majority Text comprising 90% of all manuscripts supports oikonomia (dispensation) as do the Critical texts comprising the remaining 10%.  The Textus Receptus had a mistake.

“ministration” is a take on administration which refers to the running of a business.  This in itself is not a bad translation but the second use of fellowship is bad.  The word fellowship means a “friendly association, especially with people who share one’s interests.”  Why is this a bad and misleading translation?  The NASB translates verse 6 as

Ephesians 3:6 New American Standard Bible
6 to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel,
6 ειναι τα εθνη συγκληρονομα και συσσωμα και συμμετοχα της επαγγελιας εν χριστω ιησου δια του ευαγγελιου

Although I consider the NASB translation of this verse to be superior to all other translations the common use of fellowship is a voluntary friendly association of people.  This is not what Paul intended in the use of the term “συv” a preposition meaning “with.”  He meant the totality of the persons who are together in this body of Christ.  There are three Greek nouns meaning heirs, body and partakers joined by the word “with” in Greek “συv.”  The word as used “denotes the totality of persons who are together, or who come together…sharing a common task.”2

In contrast to the prior dispensation which had “chosen” people, priests, and Levites.  The body of Christ is made up of common and equal partners who are fellow heirs, fellow members of the body and fellow partakers.

What is disturbing from using two different words to translate the term  “oikonomia” is that the English reader is not are of the relationship verses 2 and 9.  The reader is encouraged to believe that the fellowship has always existed from the beginning of the world, but it was not seen until Paul revealed it.  In reality the dispensation did not exist until Paul was chosen to be the acting steward of this new dispensation called the “mystery.”
Ephesians 3 King James Version (KJV)
2 If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:
9 And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ:

2 ει γε ηκουσατε την οικονομιαν της χαριτος του θεου της δοθεισης μοι εις υμας
9 και φωτισαι τις η οικονομια του μυστηριου του αποκεκρυμμενου απο των αιωνων εν τω θεω τω τα παντα κτισαντι

The NKJV and the KJV follow Tyndale in using two different words for dispensation.  To Paul was given the stewardship of the grace of God.  The stewardship, dispensation or administration all have the same basic meaning.  The stewardship is handing out the rewards and supervising the responsibilities of the dispensation of the mystery.  If Paul’s commission was simple, revealing a hidden truth that had not been revealed in the past, this can hardly be called a stewardship.  In verse nine Paul is bringing to light not just a mystery but the administration of the mystery.

Ephesians 3 New King James Version (NKJV)
2 if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you,
9 and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ;

Ephesians 3 New International Version (NIV)
2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you,
9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.

The NIV has an acceptable translation of the two verses using administration both times.  What is intriguing is the word mystery in italics.  I could not find any controversy in the critical analysis about the use of this word in verse nine.

What is needed to explore dispensation of the mystery is to show that not only the mystery was hidden and not traceable in the Old Testament, but the mystery is a dispensation with significant theological differences from the other dispensations of God.  This will be done in future articles.

A dispensation covers a period of time.  A steward serves his master for a period of time.  Some modern critics believe dispensationalism is refuted because traditional dispensationalists define dispensation with reference to time. This is a non sequitur argument.  (Latin for “it does not follow”)  Even if one proves that the Greek word for dispensation does not imply a period of time, the word does imply an agreement between God and men in the stewardship of God’s world.  Of course these stewardships happen in time but they are not dependent on time. They are dependent on the agreements between God and man.
[1] By the insinuation of many, if they are indeed worthy of belief, deploring it deeply, it has come to our ears that John de Wycliffe, rector of the church of Lutterworth, in the diocese of Lincoln, Professor of the Sacred Scriptures (would that he were not also Master of Errors), has fallen into such a detestable madness that he does not hesitate to dogmatize and publicly preach, or rather vomit forth from the recesses of his breast, certain propositions and conclusions which are erroneous and false…Moreover, you are on our authority to arrest the said John, or cause him to be arrested and to send him under a trustworthy guard to our venerable brother, the Archbishop of Canterbury

Bull of Pope Gregory XI, Against John Wycliffe

2) Kittel, Gerhard, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1981). Volume VII, p. 770.


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