Who was the Chosen Lady in 2 John?

John’s second letter in the New Testament is addressed “to the chosen (or elect) lady and to her children” (eklektē kuria kai tois teknois autēs). In this short letter, John warns the lady and her children about false teachers “who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” (verse 7), and he instructs them not to offer hospitality to the false teachers (10-11). As in his Gospel and other letters, John emphasises the themes of truth (verses 1-4) and love (verses 5-6).[1]

There has been much speculation as to who the original recipients of 2 John were. In particular, who the “chosen lady” was? Was her name Electa, Kyria, or Martha? Was she a mother, a house church leader, or a congregation?

WHAT WAS THE CHOSEN LADY’S NAME?

Electa?

Εklektē means “chosen” or “elect.” This woman addressed in 2 John was a Christian chosen by God, as all Christians are. While it is more likely that the word “elect” is simply used to describe the lady, Clement of Alexandra believed that eklektē was this woman’s name, a name we would translate into English as “Electa.” If so, eklektē kuria in 2 John 1:1 could be translated as “to Lady Electa.” However, the sister mentioned in the last verse of 2 John is also given the description as being “elect.” While it is not improbable that two women, somehow related, would have the same name—in Roman times, sisters could have the same name—it is more likely that the chosen lady and the chosen sister are individuals like Rufus, a man described as “chosen” or “elect” in Romans 16:13.

“She who is in Babylon”, a congregation cryptically mentioned in 1 Peter 5:13 is also described as “elect.” Clement of Alexandria wrongly believed that “she who is in Babylon” was one and the same as the “chosen lady” in 2 John. [See endnote 14 for a discussion on this.] In his notes about 2 John, Clement wrote: “The second Epistle of John, which is written to Virgins, is very simple. It was written to a Babylonian lady, by name Electa . . .”

I think it is unlikely that the chosen lady’s name was Electa. Furthermore, if her church was comprised of virgins, as Clement claims, it is important to note that the congregation was not just of virgin women, as we will see below.

Kyria?

If her name was not Electa, could 2 John have been addressed to a woman called Kyria?

Kuria (or kyria) is the feminine equivalent of kurios, a common word in the New Testament. BDAG gives two definitions for kurios: (1) “one who is in charge by virtue of possession”, and (2) “one who is in a position of authority.”[2] Corresponding with these definitions, kurios is usually translated into English as “lord,” “master,” or “sir.”[3] The feminine kuria is usually translated as “lady” or “mistress” in texts outside of the New Testament.

While the word only occurs in 2 John 1:1 & 5 in the New Testament, kuria occurs several times in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.) It is used of Sarah as the mistress of Hagar the slave girl (Gen. 16:4, 8, 9); it is used of the widow of Zarephath who was mistress of her own household (1 Kings 17:17); it is used of Naaman’s wife (2 Kings 5:3); it is used metaphorically of God as mistress (Psalm 123:2); and it occurs in sayings that figuratively contrast a mistress with her slave girl (Prov. 30:23; Isa. 24:2).

Furthermore, I’ve come across the word in several Jewish and early Christian non-biblical Greek texts. For example, kuria is used in direct address by Isaac to his mother Sarah in The Testament of Abraham (3.10 recension A) (circa 100 AD); it is used by Hermas to his former owner Rhoda in the Shepherd of Hermas 1:5) (circa 100 AD); and it is used by Perpetua’s brother and father to their sister and daughter, respectively, in the account of Perpetua’s martyrdom (para. 4 & 5) (202 or 203 AD). Thecla is also referred to as a kuria in The Acts of Paul and Thecla (para. 10)  (circa 150 AD).

Moreover, kuria occurs in hundreds of surviving papyrus letters addressed to women,[4] and is used by pagan writers. For example, in The Enchiridion (para. 40), Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher who lived circa 50–135 AD, wrote that kuria was used by men to flatter young women.

Kuria is not an obscure word. Considering how the word is used, it is apparent that kuria was a term of respect, and used for a woman in a powerful or elevated social position. Nevertheless, some believe kuria may have been the chosen lady’s name.

Athanasius was possibly among the first to propose that Kyria (a common transliteration of kuria) was actually the woman’s name.[5] John Wesley (who did not have access to many of the ancient Greek documents that are now available, such as the ones mentioned above) also believed that Kyria was the woman’s name. In his explanatory notes on John’s second letter,[6] Wesley claims that “Kyria is undoubtedly a proper name, both here [in 2 John 1:1] and in 2 John 1:5; for it was not then usual to apply the title of lady to any but the Roman empress.” BDAG, however, claims that it was rare for kuria to be used as a proper name and that its rare use as a proper name was late; (i.e. at a later time than the time of the writing of the New Testament). It is unlikely that the recipient of 2 John was a woman named Kyria.

Martha?

It has been suggested that the chosen lady may have been Martha of Bethany, a friend of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels of Luke and John (Luke 10:38-41; John 11; 12:1-3).[7] Kuria is a Greek equivalent of “Martha,” “Martha” being the feminine form of an Aramaic word meaning “lord” or “master.”

Martha was a woman of tremendous faith and spiritual insight (John 11:22, 24, 27). She was also the mistress of an affluent home that was spacious enough to accommodate Jesus and others (John 12:1-5). Martha may well have hosted and led a church in her home after Pentecost. Was “the chosen sister” (mentioned in 2 John 1:13) Mary of Bethany, Martha’s sister? As appealing as this idea may be, there is no evidence in this letter, or from early Christian writings, that “the chosen lady” was Martha.

Other Speculations

Some people believe that the chosen lady was Mary the mother of Jesus. Certainly, Mary would have been worthy of the title “lady.” However she would most likely have been deceased by the time John wrote this letter (circa 90-100 AD). Also, it seems unlikely that John would have had to write a letter to Mary, of all people, to warn her about being deceived by false teachers. Moreover, Mary and the apostle John may have shared the same home after Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:26-27). Presuming that John the apostle is the author of 2 John, he would not have written a letter to a housemate.[8] So for various reasons, Mary the mother of Jesus could not have been the chosen lady.

Others suggest that the chosen lady was one of Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:8-9). Early church writings inform us that Philip’s daughters were held in high esteem by the early church. Perhaps the chosen lady was one of Philip’s daughters, and the “chosen sister” another daughter. Some of Philip’s daughters went to live in Asia Minor, and it is commonly believed that the “chosen lady” was in Asia Minor.

WHAT WAS THE CHOSEN LADY’S ROLE?

While we do not know this woman’s name, there are some details in John’s second letter which indicate her role. This becomes even clearer when we compare 2 John with John’s other two New Testament letters, especially 3 John, as there are several distinct similarities between 2 John and 3 John.

A Mother?

Some people who take the word “children” (tekna) literally believe that this letter was written to a mother with believing children (2 John 1:1, 4 & 13).[9] What these people have failed to take into account is that, in each of his three letters, John frequently used the word “children” (tekna and teknia) as a term to refer to Christians, to “spiritual children.”[10]

In 3 John 1:4, John writes to a man called Gaius[11] saying, “I have no greater joy than this: to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”[12] Compare this with what John writes to the chosen lady in 2 John 1:4: “I rejoiced greatly having found out from [some of] your children that they are walking in the truth.”

3 John 1:4 is very similar to 2 John 1:4. The children of 1, 2 and 3 John are “spiritual children,” not natural biological children. The children of the chosen lady were her “spiritual children,” Christians she personally cared about, her congregation.

A Church?

Some Christians who are reluctant to accept the possibility that a first-century woman could have been a house church leader believe that 2 John was addressed to a Christian community which John metaphorically referred to as “the chosen lady.”[13] They also believe that the “chosen sister” in 2 John 1:13 refers to another Christian community.

The shortcoming of this view is that nowhere else in the New Testament (or in later writings) is a Christian community referred to as a “lady” kuria (or a “sister” adelphē).[14] John uses the word “church” (ekklēsia) three times in his third letter: in 3 John 1:6, 9, 10. Why would John use the word “church” plainly in 3 John, but supposedly refer to the church metaphorically as a “lady” in 2 John?

Furthermore, John addressed his second letter to “the chosen lady” and to “her children.” If the “chosen lady” represents a church, who then are her children? If the “chosen lady” is a congregation and the children are a congregation, then John is addressing the same group twice. This simply doesn’t make any sense.

John used singular pronouns in the Greek when addressing the lady directly (in 2 John 1:4, 5 twice, 13 twice). For instance, in verse 5, John speaks directly to the woman and says, “Now I ask you (sg) lady . . .” This does not sound at all as though John were addressing a congregation. However, at other times in this letter, John used plural pronouns when referring to the lady and to her “children.”[15] The children were the church. The “lady” is not a metaphor for a church; she was the church’s leader.

A Leader of Women?

Still another speculation is that the woman was indeed a church leader but that her congregation consisted only of women. This speculation, however, does not stand up to the Greek grammar of the text. When John speaks about the children as those “whom” he loved in verse 1, the relative pronoun translated as “whom” is grammatically masculine in the Greek. The participle for “walking” in verse 4, referring to the “children,” and the reflexive pronoun “yourselves” in verse 8 are also grammatically masculine in the Greek.

The masculine gender is the “default” grammatical gender in Greek and is often used for groups that include both men and women.[16] If the church of 2 John was only comprised of women, we would expect feminine relative pronouns and participles, etc. The Greek grammar rules out the possibility that the chosen lady was the leader of an all-female congregation.

A House Church Leader?

For the first couple of hundred years following the day of Pentecost, most Christian churches were house churches. We have ample and, I believe, irrefutable evidence that some of these churches were hosted and led by women. In the New Testament, there are several women mentioned who were hosts and leaders of house church leaders.[17] It seems that John’s second letter was written to such a woman.

The simplest and most straightforward explanation of who the “chosen lady” in 2 John 1:1 & 5 was, is that she was a host and leader of Christian house church whom John addressed directly at times in his second letter. The most straightforward explanation of who her “children” were, is that they are members of her household and congregation. It is unlikely that the chosen lady was simply a mother. It is also unlikely that she symbolised a church. I believe that the chosen lady was a female house church leader.


Endnotes

[1] Some Bible scholars believe that 2 John was written by a well-known elder named John (mentioned by Papias and others), and was not written by John the apostle.

[2] BDAG refers to A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, by Walter Bauer, revised and edited by F.W Danker (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

[3] In the Gospels, the owner of a vineyard is called a kurios, that is, he was the owner of the vineyard and the master of those who worked there (Matt. 20:8; 21:40; Mark 12:9; Luke 20:13, 15). Jesus is often referred to as “Lord” (i.e. kurios) in the New Testament.

[4] In the 1800s–1900s large amounts of ancient papyri were discovered in Egypt. Some of these papyri were letters addressed to women using the term kuria in a way that seems to denote both respect and affection. (Similarly, some men are addressed as kurios as a term of respect and affection.) Kuria can be translated as “dear madam” in this context. (And kurios as “dear sir”.) These papyrus letters date from the first few centuries of the common era.  More about this here.

[5] Others, such as James Strong (who collated Strong’s concordance), also believe that Kyria was a proper name.

[6] John Wesley’s notes on 2 John can be found here.

[7] One such person is German theologian, Johann Benedict Carpzov II (1639–1699).

[8] Mary the mother of Jesus and John the Apostle may have spent their last years at Ephesus. It is believed that John wrote his Gospel and his letters from Ephesus.

[9] Matthew Henry, who refers to the chosen lady as Lady Electa, believes she was a mother, a “noble Christian matron,” rather than a church leader.

[10] In his first letter, John used the word “children” (tekna and teknia) numerous times  (e.g., 1 John 2:1, 28; 3:1-2, 7, 10, 18; 4:4; 5:2, 21). These verses are not referring to his natural children, but to “children of God” or “Christian disciples.”

[11] Gaius was a common Roman name. There are possibly four men named Gaius in the New Testament: a Macedonian who was Paul’s travelling companion and was seized at Ephesus (Acts 19:29); a man of Derbe who accompanied Paul from Corinth to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4); a Corinthian who was baptised by Paul (Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 1:14;); and the man who was the recipient of 3 John.

[12] The apostle Paul also used the word “children” or “child” in reference to the Christian converts at Corinth and Galatia, and of Onesimus and Timothy, etc (1 Cor. 4:14-15; Gal. 4:19; Philem. 1:10 cf. Phil. 3:22).

[13] Jerome (ep. xi. ad Ageruchiam) believed that the word “lady” (kuria) was used symbolically for a church (i.e. a Christian community). This is a popular view for people who do not acknowledge that women were church leaders in New Testament times.

[14] It is true that God’s people in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament are often referred to in feminine terms. The Greek word for “congregation” or “church,” ekklēsia, is grammatically feminine. But a congregation is never referred to as a “lady” or a “sister,” or anything even remotely similar, in the New Testament. In the Shepherd of Hermas, an elderly woman speaks to Hermas in visions. This woman represents the church and Hermas calls her kuria when speaking to her. However, this lady appears to Hermas as an actual woman, not as a congregation.

In 1 Peter 5:13, Peter writes, “She who is in Babylon, chosen together (or  co-elect) with you sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark.” As mentioned in the article, Clement of Alexandria believed that “she” in Babylon was the same person as the chosen lady in 2 John. I do not believe that the female article in 1 Peter 5:13, translated into English as “she”, refers to an individual. Peter describes the Christians in Asia Minor as “elect/chosen” in the opening of his letter (1 Pet. 1:1). “She who is co-elect/chosen in Babylon” is mentioned in the closing of his letter and probably refers to the Christian community in Babylon, or more likely Rome. The syntax in First Peter is quite different to the syntax in 2 John. I am strongly inclined to believe that the chosen lady and the chosen sister are individuals, like Rufus who is described as chosen/elect in Romans 16:13. (The NASB translates chosen/elect as “choice” in Rom. 16:13.)

[15] The old English of the King James Version makes it easier to distinguish between the singular (sg) “you” (i.e. “thee/thy”) and the plural (pl) “you” (i.e. “ye/you”). Here is the King James Version of 2 John in its entirety with pertinent words highlighted to indicate that they are singular or plural in the Greek:

1 The elder unto the elect Lady and her children, whom (pl) I love in the truth; and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth;
2 For the truth’s sake, which dwelleth in us, and shall be with us forever.
3 Grace be with you (pl), mercy, and peace, from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love.
4 I rejoiced greatly that I found of thy (sg) children walking in truth, as we have received a commandment from the Father.
5 And now I beseech thee (sg), Lady , not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee (sg), but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another.
6 And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard (pl) from the beginning, ye should walk (pl) in it.
7 For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.
8 Look to yourselves (pl), that we [you (pl)] lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we [you (pl)] receive a full reward. [Translation in square brackets is from better Greek manuscripts.]
9 Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God.  He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.
10 If there come any unto you (pl), and bring not this doctrine, receive (pl) him not into your house, neither bid him God speed:
11 For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.
12 Having many things to write unto you (pl), I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you (pl), and speak face to face, that our joy may be full.
13 The children of thy (sg) elect sister greet thee (sg). Amen.

[16] It is important to note that many grammatically masculine participles and other words used in the New Testament apply equally to men and women believers. Many verses about salvation, for instance, are written using the default masculine gender (e.g. John 3:16).

[17] Priscilla (with her husband Aquila) (Acts 18:26; Rom. 16:3-5, etc), possibly Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11), Nympha (Col. 4:15), Apphia (with Philemon and Archippus) (Philem. 1:2), as well as “the chosen lady” (2 John 1:1, 5) and “the chosen sister” (2 John 1:13), may have been house church leaders.

Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9), Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), Junia (Rom. 16:7), Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3) and probably Lydia (Acts 16:40), plus others, were New Testament women with significant Christian ministries which may have included being leaders of house churches. Just as there have been good and bad male leaders, there were good and bad female leaders. Sadly, the church in Thyatira was being corrupted by the teachings and false prophecies of a wicked and immoral female leader (Rev. 2:20-24), as was the church in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3-4 cf. 2:12).

© 29th of January 2011, Margaret Mowczko


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