Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

“Kuria” in Papyrus Letters and the Elect Lady

"Kuria" in Papyrus Letters and the Elect Lady

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.

Additional Notes

[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.

Posted August 23rd, 2013 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Women in Ministry, , , , , , , , ,

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19 comments on ““Kuria” in Papyrus Letters and the Elect Lady

  1. Kristen says:

    This is very interesting information. Thanks!

  2. Dan Knight says:

    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. Marg says:

    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. Brian LePort says:

    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. Marg says:

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

  6. Lovisa says:

    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. Marg says:

    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. Lovisa says:

    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. Marg says:

    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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