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In this blog post, I’ve made a few short notes about SB 14 11532, a papyrus letter possibly written in the early 300s AD.[1] The letter seems to have been sent from an unnamed Christian woman who is a teacher, and it was to be delivered to a man named Philoxenos who was himself a teacher.[2] The words “lady the teacher” in the accusative case (κυρίαν τὴν διδάσκαλον), as well as appearing in the body of the letter, also appear, abbreviated, in the left margin.

Unfortunately, as is frequently the case with ancient letters, some of it is damaged. The first few lines (often crucial for establishing the context) are missing, as are about 16 letters on the right side of each line. What remains is mainly a list of names of men and of women. Most of the names are given with the masculine title kyrios or the feminine title kyria and they likely refer to prominent people who are to be greeted (cf. Romans 16:3-16). (I’ve written about these titles, here.)

Three men and three women are clearly identified in what remains of the letter. Ute Eisen observes that “The high percentage of women—relative to literary texts—is characteristic of Christian papyrus letters.”[3]

Nagel Marcel, who has taken a close look at the letter, believes the tone of the greetings suggests the people named in the letter belonged to some kind of religious fraternity.[4] Unfortunately, there is not enough information to work out what kind of Christian fraternity it was, or to work out the occasion or purpose of the letter. However, it seems to be addressed to someone who had recently arrived in Alexandria and is staying with Philoxenos.

Philoxenos may have been the leader of the fraternity, or community, in Alexandria. The unnamed lady teacher may have been the leader of the fraternity, or community, situated in another Egyptian town or city.

Below is the English translation given in Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook, under the subheading “56. My lady the teacher.”[5] (I’ve adapted it slightly.) The Greek text is from Papyri.info. (I’ve highlighted the Greek words that mention the lady teacher in bold.)

. . .] to you new in Alexandria [. . .]
ναι σοι καινη ἐν Ἀλεξανδρεί[ᾳ . . .]

my lord brother Julianus [. . .]
ἀδελφὸν κ(ύριό)ν μου Ἰουλ[ι]ανὸν π̣ι̣[. . .]

and if you wish [. . .]
καὶ ἐὰν θέλετε μ[  ̣  ̣]ον ομου[. . .]

what good we can. The [. . .]
μεν ὃ δυνάμεθα καλόν· τὸν [. . .]

lady the teacher. The [. . .]
κυρίαν τὴν διδάσκαλον· τὸν κ[. . .]

who wrote to me and a letter [. . .]
τὸν γράψαντά μοι καὶ ἐπιστολὴν [. . .]

my lady Xenike, my lady Arsinoe, and [. . .]
κυρ(ίαν) Ξενικὴν, κυρ(ίαν) Ἀρσινόην καὶ π[. . . ἀ-]

of truth(?) the august free [. . .]
ληθείας τὸν σεβας  ̣  ̣ ἐλεύθερον κ̣[. . .]

Philoxenos and those with you. The lord [. . .]
Φιλόξενον καὶ τοὺς σοὺς. ὁ κ(ύριο)ς μ̣[. . .]

the fine Phoibammon and all his [household greet] you.
ὁ καλὸς Φοιβάμμων καὶ πᾶσα ἡ ο̣[ἰκία προσαγορεύου-]

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ [be with you all.]
σιν ὑμᾶς. ἡ χάρις τοῦ κ(υρίο)υ ἡμῶν Ἰη(σοῦ) [Χρ(ιστοῦ) μετὰ πάντων ὑμῶν].

(In the left margin and perpendicular to the rest of the text)
Lady the teacher.
[Κυρ]ίαν τὴν διδάσκ(αλον)

(On the verso [back of the letter], on two perpendicular lines close to the left edge)
[Deliver to] Philoxenos, best of all men, teacher.
[ἀπόδος τῷ] παναρίστῳ Φιλοξένῳ διδ(ασκάλῳ)][6]


[1] The date of the early 300s is suggested in Yanne Broux and Willy Clarysse, “Would You Name Your Child After a Celebrity? Arsinoe, Berenike, Kleopatra, Laodike and Stratonike in the Greco-Roman East” in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 200 (2016): 347–362, 352. The PDF of the journal article is easy to find by searching online, or read it at Academia.edu.
The letter is briefly discussed in New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity (AKA New Docs) Vol 1 (1981) p. 121. Here, Edwin Judge proposes that the letter was written when Lucinius I, emperor of Rome (308–324), made laws “designed apparently to curb the social effectiveness of the churches.” Men were forbidden from teaching women, men and women were even forbidden from meeting together in church buildings (“houses of prayer”), so women teachers were needed. However, this law is only mentioned by Eusebius, no one else, and may not have been strictly observed if, in fact, it existed (Eusebius, Life of Constantine 1.53).

[2] Another example of a papyrus letter sent by a Christian woman to a Christian man roughly around the same time is P.Oxy 12.1592. The feminine participle δεξαμένη in line 7 shows that the author is a woman. For more on this letter, see Benjamin R. Overcash, “Revisiting the Unknown Female Sender of P.Oxy. XII 1592: An Early Example of Female Asceticism?” in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 207 (2018): 199–205. (Available on JSTOR)

[3] Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders In Early Christianity, Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press-Michael Glazier, 2000), 90. (Google Books) Beginning on page 91, Dr. Eisen provides an interesting discussion on early Christian teachers in Egypt. Here is an excerpt.

As late as the first third of the third century we have evidence from Origen and Dionysius of Alexandria of an office of Christian teachers in Egypt, parallel to the clergy. In the fourth and fifth centuries these attestations are increasingly sparse because the independent institution of the teaching office was largely subsumed by the clergy from the third century onward. Nevertheless, there are witnesses to the continuance of a group of Christian teachers independent of clergy in Egypt: Didymus of Alexandria was a lay ascetic and important Alexandrian teacher of the fourth century; he was in the succession of leaders of the Alexandrian school for catechists.
Eisen, Women Officeholders In Early Christianity, 91.

[4] Nagel Marcel, “Lettre chrétienne sur papyrus (provenant de milieux sectaires du IVe siècle?)” in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 18 (1975): 317–323. (Available on JSTOR)

[5] Jane Rowlandson (editor), Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 76–77. (Google Books)

[6] There are a few more legible letters on the back, but they do not form readable words. (The word pragmatos has been suggested as one of the words.) See here.

© Margaret Mowczko 2023
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Explore more

“Kyria” in Papyrus Letters and the Elect Lady in 2 John
A List of the 29 People in Romans 16:1–16
Believing Wives and Female Co-workers of the Apostles (mentions Grapte, a woman teacher)
Women Elders in Early Christian Texts (3-part series)
Marcella of Rome: Academic and Ascetic (who was a teacher)
A Female Teacher and Deacon in Antioch (AD 360s)
Chrysostom on 5 Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
Remembering Theosebia of Nyssa
All my articles on women in the early church are here.


Domnina of Syria (from the Menologion of Basil II) Public Domain (Wikimedia)

7 thoughts on “A Christian Lady Teacher in Egypt in the 300s AD

  1. Greek women tend to talk a lot and men listen. Men are always at war, never at home.

    1. Ron, How does this apply to Egyptian men and women in the early 300s?

      For a different perpsective of ancient women in Africa, you may be interested in this article on the Kandakes of Meroe just south of Egypt: https://margmowczko.com/queen-candace-of-the-ethiopians/

      Or this article about wealthy women in various part of the Roman Empire: https://margmowczko.com/wealthy-women-roman-world-and-church/

  2. Hi Marg,
    How do we know how many letters are missing in each line?
    Thank you,

    1. It’s an estimate, but for people with experience with papyrus documents, there are ways of working it out.

      These experts will have some idea of how large the original sheet was, especially if, in some places on the document, the original width survives. They will have some idea about how wide the margins were, and they can see how large the letters are.

      Often damage occurs, and letters become illegible, because of folds in the papyrus, but the rest of the sheet may be more or less intact. If this is the case with SB 14 11532, it wouldn’t be difficult to estimate the number of letters around the fold that are lost and unreadable.

      Unfortunately, I have not been able to find an image of this letter.

  3. Thanks very much, Marg. Very interesting reading 🙂

  4. […] [3] I did not see SB 14.11532 in Dr. Matheson’s thesis. I probably missed it. But I’ve written about this papyrus letter, that mentions a Christian lady teacher, here. […]

  5. […] A Christian Lady Teacher in Egypt in the 300s […]

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