Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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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”.[1]

Here are four 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).[2]

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.12.1593  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 AD), 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 AD).[3]

Kyria is also used of a woman with a higher social standing. Hermas (a freed slave) calls Rhoda (his former female owner) kyria in the Shepherd of Hermas 1:5 (circa 100 AD), and he frequently calls a woman who appears to him in visions as kyria.[4] In the Acts of Paul and Thecla (circa 150 AD), 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; Psalm 123:2 Prov. 30:23 & Isa. 24:2).

Sarah, Perpetua, Rhoda, Thecla, and the real and figurative ladies mentioned in the Septuagint, were high-status women or householders.

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 Christian house church leader or pastor. “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.[5]

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.

More about the chosen lady in 2 John here.
More women church leaders in the New Testament here.
An article on the “co-elect” woman in Babylon (1 Pet. 5:13) is here.


Footnotes

[1] I have previously observed in Greek papyri dating from the 4th and 5th centuries that some Christian women addressed as kyria were leaders of Christian communities, possibly monastic communities (e.g. P.Oxy.10.1300). Unfortunately, papyrus letters addressed to women which date from the first and second centuries have not survived. (I think the earliest surviving copy of 2 John dates to the 4th century.)

[2] I did not happen to see this short letter 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. In the letter, she is asked to lend a copy of Ezra and is reminded that she had previously borrowed “the little Genesis” (possibly Jubilees).

[3] 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 AD. “This makes it one of the earliest pieces of writing by a Christian woman.” (Source)

[4] This woman is later identified as “the church” (Herm. 8:1). However, Hermas speaks to the lady as to a real woman. He is not speaking to a congregation.

[5] Kyria is a term used in ancient Greek non-biblical texts for ruling councils. However, there’s no evidence in the numerous surviving documents of the Early Church that any Christian congregation was called kyria.

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9 thoughts on ““Kyria” in Papyrus Letters and the Elect Lady

  1. This is very interesting information. Thanks!

  2. Great insight. I have noticed that somewhere in the 1970s, modern scholarship went from the consensus that 2nd John was written to a woman and embraced the idea that the letter was written to a church. However, I have not read the combination being considered: that it was written to a woman and the children were her spiritual “offspring.”
    Have you found any information about the appearance of the word ἐκκλησία appearing twice in an acrostic form in the letter? Part of the κυρίᾳ debate has centered around the fact that the word church does not occur. Thank you for sharing this new concept.

  3. Hi Dan, Thanks for your thought provoking comment. Very interesting.

    ~ I believe the idea that the chosen lady was a metonym for a congregation goes back a lot further than the 70s.

    ~ In my other article on the Chosen Lady I look at the switch in grammar from singular to plural when John is addressing the lady and then her children, and vice versa. And I look deeper at John’s use of the word “children” in each of his letters.

    ~ The language of 2 John and 3 John shows that the Chosen Lady and Gaius were ministers. I see no reason do discount that the Chosen Lady was not part of a church, or its leader, simply because the word ekklesia is not used. Philippians, for example, is clearly addressed to the church in Philippi but Paul does not use the word ekklesia in his greetings. Moreover, 2 John 10-11 is about welcoming itinerant teachers into the assembly that meets in her home. (I’m writing a thesis at the moment about the itinerant ministries of apostles, prophets and teachers, and the sedentary, i.e. local, ministries of overseers, elders and ministers (diakonoi).)

    ~ The acrostic idea sounds far-fetched to me. But who knows? There may be some credence to it. Sound like a project for a rainy day. 😉

  4. Very interesting! Its been a while since I’ve read 2 John. It hadn’t dawned on me that the lady being addressed might be a woman of high standing, even a pastor.

  5. Hey Brian, thanks for recommending this post to Rachel Held Evans. She’s included it in this week’s Sunday Superlatives. 😀

  6. Your post is very interesting reading, as I am working on my Masters thesis on the subject of John’s kuria. I am wondering if you know if I can find Mathieson’s PhD thesis online?

  7. Hi Lovisa,

    I do not believe that the thesis is online but it is in the process of being published. I’ll ask around and see if anyone has more information on this.

    Dr Mathieson’s thesis covers a broad range of activities by women. I don’t even know if she mentions the kuria in 2 John. I pulled the pieces together for this post.

    I would be interested in reading your paper when you’re finished. It’s a fascinating subject.

  8. Thank you for your quick answer! I actually do not need the whole thesis since, as you say, it covers so much. I am doing a brief study on the usage of kuria in reference to Christian women of importance, so what I am after is to know what page numbers the examples are on that you give in your article. (since I need to quote Mathieson as source, I need to have the exact page numbers..)

    (i.e. A 4th century letter is addressed to “my lady mother Surias” (SB 12.10840).
    A 4th century letter from a woman called Allous is addressed to “my lady mother Faustina” (SB 14.11881).
    A letter from the 3rd or 4th century, from a woman name Athanasias, is addressed to two women who are addressed together as “lady mothers” (P.Berl.Zill.12).)

    I don’t know if you still have access to her work and would you know.. But if you do, could you please help me?!

  9. Hi Lovisa, I’ve sent you an email of my notes with the page numbers. I’m glad it can be of some use to you. (When I have more time I might add the page numbers to the post.)

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