Kuria “Lady” in Papyri 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, Practises 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”.
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).
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.
John’s second letter is addressed to a kuria. 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 and 13). What these people have failed to take into account is that, in each of his three letters, John frequently used the word “children” in reference to Christian disciples – “spiritual children”.
The word kuria appears in 2 John verses 1 and 5. At the time John wrote his letter, kuria and kurios were used as terms of respect, and were often used of high status people. 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.” (p38)
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. (p194) Churches were not called anything like kuria or kuriakon in either New Testament times or the Post-Apostolic period.
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.
Endnote  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, papyri letters addressed to women which date from the 1st-2nd centuries have not survived. (I think the earliest copy of 2 John dates to the 4th century.)
This entry was posted on Friday, August 23rd, 2013 at 10:05 pm and is filed under Equality and Gender Issues, Women in Ministry. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.