2 John is addressed to "the lady chosen by God"

[1]The elder,

To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth— [2] because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever:

[3] Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love...

...[13] The children of your sister, who is chosen by God, send their greetings.

I imagine that the letter is not addressed to a specific woman, but instead the elder is allegorically referring to the Church or a particular church- perhaps her "sister" is another church?

Who are the "lady" and her "sister" in 2 John?


Historical Views

Gerald Bray, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, 231-232:

Clement of Alexandria (Adumbrations, i.e. fragments on Comments on the Second Epistle of John) believed the elect lady was an actual woman, named 'Elekta', and was identical with the 'she who is in Babylon' from 1 Peter.

Hilary of Arles (Introductory Commentary on John 2) said the elect lady was a personification of a church, as described above.

Andreas (Catena) decided the elect lady was a literal woman, some sort of leading figure in her church or household.

The Common Critical View

According to Bart Ehrman The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 186, 'most scholars' view the elect lady as a personification, similar to Hilary of Arles above.

Birger Olsson, A Commentary on the Letters of John, 61:

The letter is addressed to "the elect lady and her children" (2 John 1), and it ends with a greeting from her "elect sister's children" (2 John 13). These formulas are unique, although they do have counterparts in the milieu. In antiquity, a group of people, such as a city, could be referred to as a "lady," kyria.

Olsson provides a handful of examples from the Hebrew bible, where the Israelites are called 'daughter of Zion' and 'virgin Israel' (Zephaniah 3, Jeremiah 34), and the Samaritans are 'Jerusalem's sister' (Ezekiel 16, 23). Olsson continues, 62:

The nearest linguistic parallel to this is found in 1 Pet 5:13, where "she who is in Babylon, chosen together with you"—that is, a congregation in Rome—greets "the chosen" who are named in the letter's introduction (1 Pet 1:1).

Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, continues:

In the course of his letter, however, the author stops speaking to this "lady" and begins to address a group of people ("you" plural, starting in v. 6). This shift has led most scholars to assume that the term "elect lady" refers to a Christian community, a group of people who are considered to be the chosen of God.

Beyond that, the letter does not provide enough information to determine which church this would be.

The author has often been identified as John the Elder, who was closely associated with churches in Asia, particularly Ephesus. The overlap between the Johannine letters and the letters of Ignatius and Polycarp in vocabulary, and theological and ecclesiastical concerns1, especially in such close temporal proximity,2 substantiates that association.

If we are correct to identify the author, 'the Elder', with this figure John the Elder, it is possible the churches personified as the 'elect lady' and her 'sister' were churches in the Asian region sometime at the turn of the century.


1 Ehrman, The New Testament, 190. The Johannine epistles are critical of 'antichrists', a group of (from the Elder's perspective) of pseudo-Christians who deny Jesus 'has come in the flesh'. This was evidently an emerging theology of docetism. The letter of Polycarp of Smyrna to the church in Philippi quotes 1 John 4.3, and further alludes to 4.7. The letters of Ignatius of Syrian Antioch repeatedly emphasize the 'flesh' of Jesus, and Ignatius' letter to the church in Smyrna specifically criticizes 'certain unbelievers' who claim Jesus 'only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be', and will be condemned to be 'divested of their bodies, and be mere evil spirits'.

2 The New Oxford Annotated Bible (ed. Michael Coogan). The Johannine epistles 'were written ca. 100 CE'. Ehrman, The New Testament, places Ignatius and Polycarp 'around 110 C.E.'


There was a time when the recipient was considered a real person, as it appears from Matthew Henry for example:

The elect lady; not only a choice one, but one chosen of God. It is lovely and beautiful to see ladies, by holy walking, demonstrate their election of God. And her children; probably the lady was a widow; she and her children then are the principal part of the family, and so this may be styled an economical epistle.
-- Matthew Henry ([Commentary on 2 John][1])

In more recent times, it appears to have reverted to a reference to two churches and the congregations such as in Asbury Commentary.

The letter is addressed to the chosen lady. This may refer to an individual, or it may be a euphemism for a local congregation. The nature of the contents leads most contemporary interpreters to identify the lady as a church. Her children would then refer to members of the church who are known to the author. These somewhat veiled references may reflect a period of persecution when it was prudent to avoid speaking too openly. -- Asbury Bible Commentary ([Commentary on 2 John][1-2])

John hopes for a personal visit in the near future. Some have suggested that the words reflect the failing strength of an old man to whom writing is a burden. He sends greetings from the members (children) of a sister church, no doubt the congregation where he lives. -- Asbury Bible Commentary ([Commentary on 2 John][12-13])

Josephus wrote about Persecution and could certainly have played a part in the cryptic terminology.

Now the number of those that were carried captive during this whole war was collected to be ninety-seven thousand; as was the number of those perished during the whole seige eleven hundred thousand, the greater part of whom were indeed of the same nation (with the citizens of Jerusalem), but not belonging to the city itself. -- Josephus, War of the Jews [6.9.3]

Some may have been Jewish Christians still in the city, though many left the city in previous decades according to a Christianity Today article.

Where were the Christians? Out of town, basically. Many had been driven out of Jerusalem by persecution decades earlier. Eusebius wrote that when the revolt began, in A.D. 66, some of the remaining Jewish Christians fled to Pella, a city across the Jordan River. -- A.D. 70 Titus Destroys Jerusalem, Christianity Today: Issue 28: 100 Most Important Events in Church History, 1990.

The fish symbol is a classic example of cryptic use during Roman persecution. According to tradition, ancient Christians, during the time persecution in the first few centuries of Christianity, used the symbol to mark meeting places or to distinguish fellow believers.

According to one ancient story, when a Christian met a stranger in the road, the Christian sometimes drew one arc of the simple fish outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both believers knew they were in good company. Current bumper-sticker and business-card uses of the fish hearken back to this practice. -- Elesha Coffman (August 8, 2008). "What is the origin of the Christian fish symbol?" christianitytoday.com.

Years ago, I was informed by one my church's leaders who met with clergy of an underground church in the former Soviet Union that they would pray in public using cryptic methods.

  • Welcome to BH.SE! Adding quotes and links for cited references allows readers to see the evidence as you see it. I have added one for Matthew Henry, as I see it demonstrating your point. Can you re-edit to add others for Asbury and Josephus, and something to support what you have said about the fish symbol, etc.
    – enegue
    Jun 7 '17 at 4:25

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