Kyria in Papyrus Letters
I spent a few hours today reading some of E.A. Mathieson’s 2006 doctoral thesis: The Perspectives of the Greek Papyri of Egypt on the Religious Beliefs, Practices and Experiences of Christian and Jewish Women from 100 CE to 400 CE.
Some of the papyri Dr. Mathieson examined for her thesis were letters addressed to older Christian women of some standing. These Christian women are typically referred to as kyria “lady” in the letters. Often, but not always, mētēr “mother” is added to “lady” to form the appellation “lady mother.”
Here are some examples.
A 4th-century letter is addressed “to my lady mother Surias” (SB 12.10840).
A 4th-century letter from a woman named Allous is addressed “to my lady mother Faustina” (SB 14.11881).
A 3rd or 4th-century letter, from a woman named Athanasias, is addressed to two women who are addressed together as “lady mothers” (P.Berl.Zill. 12).
A 4th-century letter is addressed “to my lady, dearest sister in the Lord” (P.Oxy. 63.4365).
An early 4th-century letter appears to have been sent from a kyria who is also identified as a teacher (kyrian tēn didaskalon) (SB 14.11532).
There are more papyrus letters that mention kyriai in the postscripts below.
Some other papyri examined by Mathieson were letters addressed to older Christian men of some standing. In a similar fashion, these men are referred to as kyrios (“lord, sir”) often combined with patēr “father” (e.g., P.Oxy 12.1592 sent by a woman, P.Oxy. 12.1593, and SB 18.13612). The context of the letters shows that these men were spiritual fathers just as the “lady mothers” were spiritual mothers.
Kyria in Jewish and Christian Literature
Kyria does not only occur in ancient letters. I’ve come across the word in early Jewish and Christian literature where it is sometimes used for real family members rather than spiritual mothers. It is used in direct address by Isaac to his mother Sarah in The Testament of Abraham (3.10 recension A) (circa 100 CE), and by Perpetua’s brother and father to their sister and daughter, respectively, in the account of Perpetua’s martyrdom (para. 3 & 4) (202 or 203 CE).
Kyria is used for a woman with a relatively high social standing in the following examples. Hermas (a freed slave) calls Rhoda (his former female owner) kyria in the Shepherd of Hermas 1:5 (circa 100 CE), and he frequently calls a woman who appears to him in visions as kyria (e.g., Herm. 5:3; 9:3; 13.3). In the Acts of Paul and Thecla (circa 150 CE), Thecla is referred to as a kyria, or “mistress,” in relation to the maidservants in her household (para. 10). Kyria also occurs several times in the Septuagint (Gen. 16:4, 8, 9; 1 Kings 17:17; 2 Kings 5:3; Psa. 123:2; Prov. 30:23; Isa. 24:2).
Kyria in Second John
Kyria occurs twice in the New Testament, both times in John’s second letter which is addressed to a kyria (2 John 1:1, 5). More precisely, the letter is addressed “to the chosen (or, elect) lady and to her children” (eklektē kyria kai tois teknois autēs). Some people who take the word “children” literally believe that this letter was written to a mother with believing children (2 John 1, 4, 13). What these people have failed to take into account is that, in each of his three letters, John typically uses the word “children” in reference to Christian disciples—“spiritual children.”
The kyria of 2 John is a spiritual mother of a group of Christian disciples.
At the time John wrote his letter, kyria and kyrios were used as terms of respect, and were often used when addressing a high-status person. This usage, however, changed over time. Dr Mathieson comments that in fourth-century papyri kyria and kyrios tend to “lose their honorific sense and become terms of affection, although they continue to designate persons with power.” (p. 38)
Kyria and Kyriakon
Whether kyria is a term of affection, respect, or importance, the chosen lady in 2 John is almost certainly an individual woman who functioned as a house church leader. “The chosen lady” is not a metonym or metaphor for a congregation.
Mathieson notes that to kyriakon, meaning “the Lord’s household” (i.e. a Christian congregation), is known from the third century, and not before. (p. 194) I have not found any evidence that Christian congregations were called anything like kyria or kyriakon in the first or second centuries.
If early Greek-speaking churches had recognised kyria as another word for a congregation or church, a biblical word at that, you’d expect it to be used by the early church for congregations. But it isn’t.
While most ministers were men in New Testament times, it was not uncommon for women to be ministers, especially in house church settings. The chosen lady in 2 John was such a woman.
 I have previously observed in Greek papyri dating from the 4th and 5th centuries that some Christian women addressed as kyria seem to have been leaders of Christian communities, probably monastic communities (e.g. P.Oxy. 10.1300).
Unfortunately, very few papyrus letters addressed to women that date from the first and second centuries have survived. In postscript 1, I mention P.Oxy. 3.498 which was written sometime in the second century, and in postscript 2, I mention P.Brem 63 which was written in either 116 or 117 CE.
 I did not happen to see this short letter (P.Oxy. 63.4365) mentioned in Mathieson’s thesis. The woman addressed in the letter appears to be literate and wealthy enough to own at least one book of scripture. She is asked to lend a copy of Ezra and is reminded that she had previously borrowed “the little Genesis” (probably Jubilees).
 I did not see SB 14.11532 in Dr. Matheson’s thesis. I probably missed it. But I’ve written about this papyrus letter here.
 Kyrios (masculine) and kyria (feminine) are forms of the same word. Here is the LSJ entry of kyrios and kyria.
 Paragraphs 3 to 10 of The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas were originally written by Perpetua herself, possibly in Latin, just before her death sometime in 202 or 203. “This makes it one of the earliest pieces of writing by a Christian woman.” (Source) However, I read this work in an early Greek translation.
 This richly dressed, powerful woman, who is often described as carrying a book, is repeatedly referred to as presbytera (an elderly women or woman elder). In Hermas 2:8 she is called a gynē presbytis, a woman elder. At one point this presbytera is identified as “the church” (Herm. 8:1). However, Hermas speaks to the presbytera as to a real person and he addresses her with respect: he calls her “lady” (kyria). This is the only early source that I can find where kyria (“lady”) is in any way associated with “the church.” A summary of The Shepherd of Hermas is here.
 Kyria is a term used in ancient Greek non-biblical texts for ruling councils. However, I could find no evidence in the numerous surviving documents of the early church that any early Christian congregation was called kyria.
I have more about the chosen lady in 2 John, here.
A Christian Lady Teacher in Egypt in the 300s AD
I have more women church leaders in the New Testament, here.
An article on the “co-elect” woman in Babylon (1 Pet. 5:13) is here.
Postscript 1: December 30 2021
I came across these two ancient documents online today that contain the word kyria. The editors of these Greek texts have assumed kyria is a name. It is likely, however, the word is used as a term of respect in both documents.
P.Oxy. 3.498 is dated to the second century and may have been written soon after 2 John was written. The opening address of this letter reads, “To Antonia Asklepias, the one also called ‘Kyria.'” (My translation)
In P. Oxy. 6.914, dated 486 CE, the mother of the man being honoured is referred to as mētros kyrias (“mother lady”). (Is her name Hareoutē?)
Postscript 2: January 13, 2023
This week I attended the Macquarie Ancient Languages Summer School, as I do almost every January, and I read several papyrus letters (and other Greek texts). Three of the letters happened to contain the word kyria.
P.brem. 63 is a letter that was written in the year 116 or 117. So it dates to roughly the same time as 2 John. It was written by a Jewish woman named Eudaimonis to her pregnant daughter Aline. The daughter is called kyria in line 20. The plural of kyria is used in line 14 referring to mistresses (female masters) of slave girls. A translation and photo of the letter are here.
PSI 4.229 is a letter written in the late 200s by a man who had fallen ill. (To be precise, as with many ancient letters, it was probably written by a professional scribe on the man’s behalf.) It is addressed to a woman who he calls kyria adelphē (“lady sister”) in line 1. She is addressed again as “sister” in line 11. In lines 19–23, greetings are passed onto the woman from her father and brother who are each called kyrios.
In P.Oxy. 46.3314, a Jewish man named Judas, who is severely injured after falling off a horse, writes a letter to his father Joses, who he calls kyrios and “father” in line 1, and to his wife Mariam, who he refers to as kyria mou adelphē (“my lady sister”) in lines 5–6 and again in line 12. This letter was written sometime in the 300s.