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 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).
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).
Kyria is used of a woman with a higher 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 AD), 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 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).
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.
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 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.)
 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).
 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) However, I read it 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 the 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, there’s no evidence in the numerous surviving documents of the Early Church that any Christian congregation was called kyria.
Postscript: December 30 2021
In his commentary on 2 John, Henry Alford mentions two Oxyrhynchus papyri that contain the word kyria. He takes kyria to be a personal name. Alford’s Greek Testament Critical Exegetical Commentary. (Source: StudyLight)
I think he’s mistaken, however. I think kyria is used as a title of respect in the opening lines of these letters, and in P.Oxy 6.914 we have another “lady mother” (literally, “mother lady”).
The following are my translations. Note the early date of P. Oxy 3.498; this letter was written soon after 2 John.
P. Oxy 3.498 (second century): Ἀντωνίᾳ Ἀσκληπιάδι τῇ καὶ Kυρίᾳ: To Antonia Asklepias, the one also called “Kyria”
P. Oxy 6.914 (dated 486 CE): Αὐρήλιος Ἀπφοῦτος υἱὸς Ἁρεοῦτος Μητορὸς Κυρίας: Aurelius Apphoutos, son of Areoute(?), a “mother lady”
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