Terminology Tuesday: ELECT LADY
ELECT LADY [Gk eklektē kyria (ἐκλεκτη κυρια)]. The phrase “Elect Lady” is found only in the salutation of 2 John 1 as the designation of the addressees (cf. v 5 where kyria recurs). There has been considerable debate whether “elect lady” should be taken literally of an individual, or figuratively of a particular Johannine church.
The literal interpretation partly assumes that since 3 John is addressed to a specific individual (Gaius), so is 2 John. Clement of Alexandria (Hypotyposes) assumed that the addressee was a Babylonian woman named Electa, hence “lady Electa.” However there is insufficient evidence to assume that electa was a proper name. Clement is probably not dependent upon historical tradition, but instead on 2 John 1 in light of 1 Pet 5:13 where he found reference to a syneklektē (“chosen together”) in Babylon. The concluding greeting from the children of an elect sister (2 John 13) would necessitate that the supposed Electa had a sister by the same name.
Athanasius called the addressee “noble Kyria.” Kyria is attested as a personal name and there are early Christian examples of eklektē modifying a proper name (Rom 16:13; Ign. Phild. 11.1). A related proposal suggests that the identity of the woman is unknown, “elect lady” being equivalent to the expression of courtesy “dear lady.” Ruling against literal interpretations is the fact that if it is a name, the phrase would be kyria tē eklektē, not eklektē kyria (cf. v 13; 3 John 1; Rom 16:13).
The figurative interpretation assumes that the “Elect Lady” is a personification, possibly of the Church universal (Jerome, Oecumenius). The lack of a definite article preceding the address is inferred to indicate that 2 John is a Catholic letter. However this leads to the implausibility of the children of an elect sister (v 13) greeting the Church universal. This implausibility can be circumvented if the broader church context is limited to a group of Johannine churches which is greeted by an individual Johannine church.
By far the most widely held view is that the Elect Lady is a personification of an individual Johannine church whose identity is unknown. Groups of believers are described as the elect (Matt 24:22; Rom 8:33; 16:13; Col 3:12; 2 Tim 2:10; Titus 1:1; 1 Pet 1:1; Rev 17:14). In the body of the letter the alternation from singular to the plural with reference to the addressees is more easily explained if a collectivity is involved. The content of the letter is more appropriate to a church than an individual (esp. vv 1–3, 5–6, 8). The admonition (v 10) suggests a house church, and the greeting (v 13) is best thought to be from a Johannine church from which the Elder is writing, rather than a sister’s children greeting their aunt.
As personification, “Elect Lady” stands in the Jewish-Christian tradition of referring to the covenant people of God using feminine imagery. Israel and Jerusalem are portrayed as Yahweh’s bride (Isa 54:1–8; 62:4–5; Jer 2:2; Hos 1–3) and as mothers (Isa 54:1–3; Bar 4:5–5:9; Gal 4:26–27). The Church is portrayed as a woman (1 Pet 5:13), the bride of Christ (2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:21–33; Rev 19:6–8; 21:2), and as a mother (1 Pet 5:13; Rev 12:1–2, 17). This feminine imagery is carried through 2 John with the address of the church members as children (vv 1, 4) and the sending church as sister (v 13). For further discussion see Epistles of John AB.
Bibliography Harris, J. R. 1901. The Problem of the Address in the Second Epistle of John. Exp 3 (6th ser.): 194–203.
Watson, D. F. (1992). Elect Lady. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 2, pp. 433–434). New York: Doubleday.