Mary, Simeon or Anna: Who First Recognized Jesus as Messiah?

Read Ben Witherington III’s article “Mary, Simeon or Anna” as it originally appeared in Bible Review, Winter 2005. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily in 2013.—Ed.


THE PRESENTATION IN THE TEMPLE. When Joseph (far left) and Mary (left of center) bring baby Jesus to the Jerusalem Temple, they are greeted by Simeon, who embraces the baby, and Anna, the New Testament’s only prophetess, shown at right with a scroll, in this 1342 tempera painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Simeon instantly and independently recognizes Jesus as messiah. Anna begins to preach: “She came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Both are quicker than Mary to comprehend who Jesus is. Uffizi/Scala/Art Resource, NY.

Being first to hear doesn’t always mean being first to understand. In Luke’s birth narrative, Mary is the first to be told that Jesus will be the messiah. Luke adds that she “treasures the words” the angel Gabriel speaks to her. But Mary is also puzzled by the divine message; she is “perplexed” when the angel greets her and must “ponder” the meaning of his words (Luke 1:29; see also 2:19). In this, Mary contrasts sharply with Simeon and Anna, two elderly individuals who happen to be in the Temple when Joseph and Mary bring the infant Jesus to Jerusalem for the first time.

According to Luke 2:22–24, “[Joseph and Mary] brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’ [quoting Exodus 13:2, 12]) and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’ [based on Leviticus 12:2–8].”

At the Temple, the family is approached by a man named Simeon, who has been told by the Holy Spirit that he will not die until he has seen the messiah. (The same Spirit told him to go to the Temple that day, too.) Simeon takes Jesus in his arms and praises God: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:28–32). Having seen the messiah, Simeon is now prepared to die.


In the free ebook Who Was Jesus? Exploring the History of Jesus’ Life, examine fundamental questions about Jesus of Nazareth. Where was he really born—Bethlehem or Nazareth? Did he marry? Is there evidence outside of the Bible that proves he actually walked the earth?


Anna then approaches the Holy Family. She, too, recognizes Jesus as messiah, but she has a very different reaction: “At that moment, she came and began to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). She is 84 years old, according to Luke, and she does not want to die: She wants to proselytize. Like the disciples who will follow her, she is driven to bear witness to what she has seen. Mary was the first to have the good news announced to her, but Anna is the first woman to understand fully and proclaim the good news.

This is because in addition to being a proselytizer, Anna is a “prophetess” (Luke 2:36). In fact, she is the only woman in the New Testament explicitly described as a “prophetess.” She then stands in the line of figures like the judge, military leader and prophetess Deborah and the Jerusalem prophetess Huldah, who, in the days of King Josiah, was asked to verify that an ancient scroll (a form of Deuteronomy) discovered during Temple renovations was indeed the word of God (2 Kings 22).

Unlike Simeon, Anna is not just visiting the Temple for the day; she is there all the time. According to Luke, Anna “never left the Temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37). Perhaps she was part of some sort of order of widows (Luke tells us her husband died after only seven years of marriage) who had specific religious functions in the Temple. She may have been able to undertake this role in the Temple because she was no longer in periodic states of ritual impurity caused by menstruation.

Learn more about Anna in Robin Gallaher Branch’s Bible History Daily article “Anna in the Bible.”


Mary startles when Gabriel and God the Father appear in her home and interrupt her prayers. In Lorenzo Lotto’s unusual rendition of the Annunciation, dated to 1535, Mary’s cat is equally frightened by the divine apparition. According to Luke, Mary treasures the angel’s message, but does not fully understand it. Only after years of “pondering the message in her heart” does she become a true follower of Jesus." Museo Civico, Recanati, Italy/Scala/Art Resource, NY.

Luke may also have seen Anna as the second witness in or around the Temple needed to validate Jesus’ significance. Deuteronomy 19:15 stresses the importance of having two witnesses to validate an event.

The pairing of Simeon and Anna reflects Luke’s penchant for male-female parallelism when he writes about the recipients of divine blessing and salvation. The story of Jesus’ birth is framed by two such stories—that of Elizabeth and Zechariah in Luke 1 and Anna and Simeon in Luke 2. Interestingly, in both, the woman is portrayed as the more positive example of discipleship. The women are not only more receptive to the message, they are more willing to act upon it, with Elizabeth realizing that her cousin is carrying the messiah and praising God for this blessing and Anna spreading the good news.

Alfred Plummer, in his classic commentary on Luke, suggested that the difference between Anna and Simeon provides a clue to Luke as a salvation historian, a chronicler of the mighty acts of God for his people through the ages. Yes, a messiah has arrived, as Simeon recognizes, but, as the prophetess Anna suggests, a new era, with a new and living voice of prophecy, has at the same time dawned.1 In this new era, the living voice of God will continue to speak about the messianic one. Anna is the first in a line of prophetic disciples who will speak about Jesus to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel.

Not everyone can be a prophet, however. Mary, for example, does not fully understand what Anna immediately recognizes. And she won’t for several years.

Twelve years after the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the Holy Family returns to Jerusalem and Jesus returns to the Temple, this time by himself. Mary and Joseph search for him frantically for three days. When at last they find him listening to and asking questions of the teachers in the Temple, Mary asks, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Jesus responds, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But, Luke reports, “they did not understand what he said to them … [but] his mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:48–51). The late New Testament scholar Raymond Brown wrote: “Luke’s idea is that complete acceptance of the word of God, complete understanding of who Jesus is, and complete discipleship is not yet possible. This will come through the ministry of Jesus and particularly through the cross and resurrection.”


This article was originally published in Bible Review. All Bible Review articles (1985-2005) are available in the BAS Library, as well as on the Bible Review Archive CD. Not a BAS Library member yet? Sign up today.


Clearly, Luke is not painting an idealized portrait of Mary or Joseph. Rather, he paints a very human and realistic picture of Mary and Joseph as good parents, anxious, concerned, striving to be obedient and understanding, but not yet comprehending. Brown adds, however, that “Luke does not leave Mary on the negative note of misunderstanding. Rather in 2.51 [“his mother treasured all these things …”] he stresses her retention of what she has not yet understood and … her continuing search to understand.”2

Of course, in the end, Luke portrays Mary as successfully making the spiritual journey into the family of faith; in Acts 1:14, when the apostles gather in the upper room after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, Mary is with them. But the story of Simeon and Anna suggests Mary had much to learn before she could enter into the Kingdom, and into the spiritual family of faith, which they already belonged to, and which is to be the primary family of Jesus in the eschatological age.

Luke’s Christmas story is full of surprising reversals of fortunes and roles, in which outsiders become more intimate associates than family members, and in which women play a more active role then men. In this way Luke both prepares for and signals one of his major themes in the Gospel of Luke and in Acts—the least, the last and the lost are becoming the most, the first and the found with Jesus’ coming. Luke portrays the rise of a form of Judaism that would rely on the testimony of women as well as men, and that would empower them once again to fulfill roles like Miriam of old.

The first Christmas and the Christ child come at a particular point in time, but for many, like Mary and Joseph, the significance of the event is only understood incrementally and over the course of many years. But the prophetic insight into God’s intentions is a gift which keeps on giving and renewing the people of God. And at the outset of a long chain of such prophetic insights stand Simeon and Anna, one satisfied that prophecy has been fulfilled and the other pointing to the future, a future as bright as the promises of God.


“Mary, Simeon or Anna” by Ben Witherington III originally appeared in Bible Review, Winter 2005. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily on February 12, 2013.



1. See Alfred Plummer, Luke, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1905), p. 71.

2. Raymond E. Brown and Karl P. Donfried, eds., Mary in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), pp. 161–162.

God Language in the New TestamentBen Witherington III is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland. A graduate of UNC, Chapel Hill, he went on to receive the M.Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of Durham in England. He is now considered one of the top evangelical scholars in the world, and is an elected member of the prestigious SNTS, a society dedicated to New Testament studies. Dr. Witherington has presented seminars for churches, colleges and Biblical meetings in the U.S., England, Estonia, Russia, Europe, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Australia. He has written over thirty books, including The Jesus Quest and The Paul Quest, both of which were selected as top Biblical studies works by Christianity Today. In addition to his many interviews on radio networks across the country, Professor Witherington has been featured on the History Channel, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, The Discovery Channel, A&E, and the PAX Network.



Posted in New Testament.

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Add Your Comments

25 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. James says

    I’ve been reading these magazines for more than twenty years, I don’t recall when Prof. Wetherington was first published in them but he has long since been my favorite columnist, among many I do like. However, this is absolutely the first time that I think he entirely missed the boat and ended up all wet. The analysis of two witnesses in Luke I think is spot on, but the question of Mary, “as successfully making the spiritual journey into the family of faith” etc., is flabbergastingly distracting. There is no way we can read Mary as not accepting of the message of the angel, there is no way of reading Luke where Mary requires some sort of conversion for salvation. Yes we can imagine a Mary that doesn’t understand the implications of her son being the Messiah, but to pretend she didn’t know he was the messiah is simply badly reading Luke.

  2. J NEWLAND says

    For someone to say that Luke was talking about Christmas is absurd .Christmas is man made, no one knows when Christ was born and the Bible does not tell us to celebrate his birth . Thank you your friend Jane

  3. Wardell says

    Jesus was born in 100 BCE and died in 67 BCE under Queen Salome and the Pharisees.

    Jesus was aka the Teacher of Righteousness of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
    Jesus, uniquely foresaw the coming of the “End Times ” of the Age of Aries and the coming New Age, the Age of Pisces.

    Jesus learned of this during his exile in Alexandria Egypt form 88 BCE to 76 BCE.
    His Apocalyptic Message seemed to associate him with the expected coming of the Messiah.

  4. how says

    I was wondering if you ever thought of changing the structure of your
    website? Its very well written; I love what youve got
    to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or 2 images.

    Maybe you could space it out better?

  5. Susanna says

    “Both are quicker than Mary to comprehend who Jesus is” This statement seems rather presumptive to me. You seem to have forgotten about Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary many months before Mary met Anna at the temple. Surely you’ll recall how the unborn John the Baptist leaped in his mother’s womb at the presence of Mary and the unborn baby Jesus? Elizabeth proclaims “How is it that the mother of our Lord should come to me?” My bet is even if Mary, as you infer, had no idea who Jesus was, then Elizabeth was the first to notify her of the significance of Jesus. Even better, Mary understood that she had indeed been greatly blessed, and that “all generations would call [her] Blessed.” Anna wasn’t there to tell Mary something she didn’t already know. Seems to me, she was there to let the rest of us know.

  6. Tom says

    Nice job Susanna! You’re on the money. Plus, even before Mary was with the Apostle’s during Christ’s ressurecction, she also (quite a few years before) told Jesus’ friends (Apostles) to do what he tells them at the wedding in Cana! She knew who he was! That is also why she stood at the cross and did not kneel.

  7. Grant says

    I think one of the things Mary was “pondering in her heart” must have related to the Shepherds’ visit
    at the manger. They likely would have communicated to her the sign they had been given by
    the angels (you will find the babe swaddled and laying in a manger.). If these shepherds were in charge of
    birthing the sacrificial lambs for the nearby temple, as some scholars claim, then this sign would present some
    disturbing images regarding jesus’ future.

    Apparently sacrificial lambs were wrapped (swaddled) at birth
    and lain in a manger as they were being inspected for blemishes that would disqualify them for sacrifice.
    Keeping them wrapped prevented them from becoming blemished later on. Even modern day shepherds
    outfit new lambs in protective coats, especially in cold weather. A suffering messiah was not yet on
    anyone’s radar, so I think Mary indeed had a lot to mull over as she put all the extraordinary information
    together regarding her first born.

  8. David says

    I like the stress on Mary and Joseph as good parents who nevertheless don’t get it. One of the themes of Jesus in the Synoptic tradition seems to be the emphasis that one’s own family can become a stumbling block to their walk of faith. Some of the biggest misunderstandings come from people who are related to Jesus.

  9. Regina says

    we can know when Jesus was born. Zacharias the father of John the baptist was from the house of Abija, we read in Luke 1.5. In Davids time the yearly service of the highpriest priests was divided in 24 houses, each makíng the service in the temple in Jerusalem for half a month. . The house of Abijahs servicetime was the number 8, thus the second half of the 4th month of the jewish year which was about June. The jewish year in ancient Israel times began in spring, the month of Nisan ,which is about our March/April . We then count 3 and a half months from 1. Nisan till the begnning of the service of the house of Abija, which gives us end June as the earliest possible conception date for John, when his father Zacharia went home after his templeservice and went to his wife. 6 months later, thus about December Jesus was conceived in Mary, and born 9 months later which gives us September for the birth of Jesus which is the time of the feast of Sukkoth which is now fullfilled in the coming of the Word of God to dwell among us in a human body: Greek skenos means tent and figuratively the human body . thus the feast of Sukkoth is a symbol for God dwellling among us in Jesus . Hebrew Sukkot is the plural from Suka booth, tent, tabernacle. . The jewish month has only about 29 days .please google the theme here and you will find all detailed informations for what I wrote here.

  10. Regina says

    I want to add: each jewish month has exactly 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, 3 1/3 seconds.

  11. Jürgen says

    Jesus was never the Messiah ! He could not be as he did not fulfill the requirements, i.e. bringing peace to earth and rebuilding the temple. Additionally he was not a direct descendant of David. So what? See who and when the Apostles wrote their stories.

  12. betty jo says

    So you are saying that when the Shepard’s and the wise men came Mary had no idea Jesus was Messiah? Also, what she went through when almost stone, seems many want to believe Mary just forgot all that, As well as, all the towns people. This is a stand that is very difficult for me to follow how one gets there, since Mary was told by Gabriel, John (to be the Baptist) at 6 mos responded, Elizabeth told her, again all the torment when she rtnd from Elizabeth’s, the shepard’s and the wise men– the woman would have had to of had amnesia not to know. Are there verses I have missed about her memory leave her?>

  13. robert says

    Didn’t Jesus’ family try to kidnap him at one point during his ministry. Doesn’t it say that they thought he had gone mad? Seems to me like they didn’t “get it”.

  14. Lisa says

    August 22,2014 2:02 am. IVE JUST FINISH READING ANNA IS A PROPHETESS FOUND LUKE 2:36. Your statement says she is the only woman in New Testament explicitly described as a prophetess. Teaching Women of the Bible. we are in the 8th month. Its amazing all the women named or not named. God bless you and your work.

  15. Rene says

    OK, so I have a slightly different interpretation when it comes to Joseph and Mary finding Jesus after he’s been missing for three days. Jesus mouthing off to his mother in public after they have been frantic after losing him in a larger metropolitan area for three days. She’s pondering all right, she’s pondering just how hard she’s gonna tan his little hide when she gets him home.

  16. Grant says

    I like to think it was the shepherds. They were given a sign – a baby “swaddled, laying in a manger.” If (as some scholars claim) this band of shepherds were those caring for the temple flocks, they would recognize this treatment. (Apparently) this was how new lambs were inspected for defects and kept unmarred for eventual sacrifice for forgiveness of sins. No wonder they “spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,” (luke 2:17).

    Makes sense to me.

  17. Loren says

    Nicely done Ben. It has provided much food for thought. One issue does provide some hesitation for me though. In referring to Alfred Plummer’s Commentary on Luke, (along with your proposal that Luke’s women were “more positive example’s of discipleship”) you write, “Yes, a messiah has arrived, as Simeon recognizes, but, as the prophetess Anna suggests, a new era, with a new and living voice of prophecy, has at the same time dawned.” That is quite a leap as Luke offers only a one-line summation of her input after he quotes Simeon at length. Furthermore, Joseph seems to be Mary’s equal regarding “getting it.” Let’s not forget that God spoke to Joseph in dreams and he obeyed each time.

  18. Kenneth says

    Good Stuff Ben and I love preaching on Simeon and Anna over the years, thanks.
    But also wanted to add two points:
    1) it is said in the New Testament that Philip had four daughters who prophesied and certainly could be considered prophetesses, with Anna not the only one:

    Acts 21:8-9
    On the next day we who were Paul’s companions departed and came to Caesarea, and entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. Now this man had four virgin daughters who prophesied.

    2) I’m not sure why Simeon’s reaponse has to be considered “less than” Anna’s? At least that seems to be what you imply. Hey, if the Holy Spirit tells Simeon he will not die till he sees the Messiah, and if he’s been waiting his entire life perhaps, and he’s faithful and in the temple and he comes and serves as that second witness ~ that may be Gods total will for his life’s ending, different from Anna’s, but just as powerful.

    Who are we to really imply something different for the amazing Simeon and his song??!!!

  19. Patti says

    I enjoyed your article and found only one flaw which to some lends itself to your research or thoroughness of it. Luke says of Anna: “And there was Anna … she was of great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; And she was a widow fourscore and four years, …” You give Anna the age of 84…however considering girls were approximately 15 when wed, she lived with her husband 7 years and had been a widow 84 years. Anna was about 106 years old +- depending upon when she wed. Does not detract from the subject matter, but some would doubt your research capabilities. I am surprised no one else caught this prior to publication.

  20. Scott says

    For such a learned scholar he does not read throughly all of Luke. Elizabeth was the first to call Mary the mother of my Lord! Mary also tells the Archangel Gabriel she agrees to having the Son of God. And Mary’s Magnificent states her understanding of what is happening within her. Further Zacharias announces who is son John shall be and who Mary’s Son shall be in his discourse before Jesus or John are even born.

  21. Paul says

    And nobody’s recognizing John the Baptist’s “testimony” to knowing who Jesus was…from the womb!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. “Lost” Manuscripts of J.B. Lightfoot Found! | linked to this post on March 13, 2014

    […] Witherington III’s full essay “Mary, Simeon or Anna: Who First Recognized Jesus as Messiah?” is accessible online for free. Want to learn some-more about his research? Read “Understanding […]

  2. macys coupon code linked to this post on May 9, 2014

    macys coupon code

    Mary, Simeon or Anna: Who First Recognized Jesus as Messiah? – Biblical Archaeology Society

  3. macys in store coupon april 2013 linked to this post on May 10, 2014

    macys in store coupon april 2013

    Mary, Simeon or Anna: Who First Recognized Jesus as Messiah? – Biblical Archaeology Society

  4. “misplaced” Manuscripts of J.B. Lightfoot discovered!Signals News | Signals News linked to this post on May 17, 2014

    […] Witherington III’s full letter “Mary, Simeon or Anna: Who First identified Jesus as Messiah?” is permitted on-line during no cost. wish to examine some-more about his analysis? learn […]

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.

Send this to friend

Hello! You friend thought you might be interested in reading this post from
Mary, Simeon or Anna: Who First Recognized Jesus as Messiah?!
Here is the link:
Enter Your Log In Credentials

Change Password