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Kuria 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 kuria “lady” in the letters. Often, but not always, mētēr “mother” is added to “lady” to form the appellation “lady mother”.[1]

For example:

A 4th-century letter 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 named Athanasias, is addressed to two women who are addressed together as “lady mothers” (P.Berl.Zill.12).
A 4th-century letter addressed ” to my lady, dearest sister in the Lord” (P.Oxy.63.4365).[2]

Other papyri examined by Mathieson were letters addressed to older Christian men of some standing. In similar fashion, these men are referred to as kurios “lord”, 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”.

Kuria in Jewish and Christian Literature

Kuria does not only occur in letters. I’ve come across the word in Jewish and Christian literature where it is sometimes used for real family members women 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] Hermas (a freed slave) calls his former female owner, Rhoda, kuria in the Shepherd of Hermas 1:5 (circa 100 AD), and he frequently calls a woman who appears to him in visions as kuria.[4] In the Acts of Paul and Thecla (circa 150 AD), Thecla is referred to as a kuria, or “mistress”, in relation to the maidservants in her household (para. 10). Kuria 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, Rhoda, Perpetua, Thecla, and the real and figurative ladies mentioned in the Septuagint, were high-status women or householders.

Kuria in Second John

Kuria also occurs twice in the New Testament, both times in John’s second letter which is addressed to a kuria (2 John 1:1, 5). More precisely, the letter is addressed “to the chosen (or elect) lady and to her children” (eklektē kuria 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 frequently, and typically, uses the word “children” in reference to Christian disciples—“spiritual children”.

The kuria of 2 John is a “spiritual mother” of a group of Christian disciples.

At the time John wrote his letter, kuria and kurios 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 kuria and kurios tend to “lose their honorific sense and become terms of affection, although they continue to designate persons with power.” (p.38)

Kuria and Kuriakon

Whether kuria is a term of affection, respect, or importance, the chosen lady in 2 John is almost certainly an individual woman who functioned as Christian leader or pastor. “The chosen lady” is not a metonym or metaphor for a congregation.

Mathieson notes that to kuriakon, meaning “the Lord’s household” (i.e. a Christian congregation), is known from the third century, and not before. (p.194) There is simply no evidence that Christian congregations were called anything like kuria or kuriakon in either the New Testament or post–apostolic periods.

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.


[1] I have previously observed in Greek papyri dating from the 4th and 5th centuries that some Christian women addressed as kuria 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.

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