Anna in the Bible

Luke reveals the prophetess as a Biblical model for aging

St. Anna the Prophetess by Rembrandt Van Rijn. Luke's depiction of Anna in the Bible paints her as a pious prophetess whose advanced age and honorable behavior usher in the new covenant.

Anna is one of the Bible’s most unusual women. Introduced at the end of the Birth Narrative (Luke 1:1-2:40), Anna concludes the sextet of named, pious Israelites surrounding the miraculous births of John and Jesus. The others are Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph and Simeon. Anna arrives at the purification of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the Temple, 40 days after Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:22-38). It is a scene repeated over and over in Israelite culture, for the law required a sacrifice of a lamb or two pigeons or two doves after a son’s birth (Leviticus 12:2-8).

However, this purification is unlike any other, for Simeon and Anna arrive at the ritual independently, though both seem led by divine direction (Luke 2:22-38).

Luke’s pairing of Simeon and Anna provides an interesting comparison. Simeon arrives first, and Luke records more of his encounter. Simeon is an old man. He exclaims, “Now, Sovereign Lord, you can let your servant depart in peace” (v. 29). He prophesies that the child in his arms is God’s salvation, “prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:28, 30b-32). Notice Luke’s deft writing: Simeon praises the Lord while Anna offers thanks; he prophesies, but she is called a prophetess (Luke 2:29-32, 34-36).
 


 
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Regarding Anna, Luke provides three terse verses that manage to vividly depict her as a woman deserving the honor bestowed on the elderly in the ancient Mediterranean world (v. 36-38). The appositive prophetess heads her description (Luke 2:36). In this she outranks Simeon, a man praised as righteous and devout (Luke 2:25) who may be a priest because he holds the baby Jesus. Anna is the New Testament’s only named female prophetess. Luke gives her father’s name, Phanuel, but not her husband’s. He mentions her tribe, Asher. As such, she numbers among the few New Testament characters with tribal listings. Others include Jesus, of the house and lineage of David and the tribe of Judah (Luke 2:4; Matthew 1:1-16), Saul of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5) and Barnabas, a Levite (Acts 4:36).

Luke summarizes Anna’s encounter with the little family. Unlike Simeon, her direct speech is narrated—yet it is powerful. While Simeon speaks of the larger and later context of the child to the Gentiles and Israel (vv. 30-32), Anna evangelizes immediately and selectively—to those “looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (v. 38). She and Simeon join others in Luke’s gospel in recognizing this child’s great significance and wide import: the angel Gabriel (1:31-33), Elizabeth and John (in uterus) (1:42-45), Zechariah (1:76-79) and the Bethlehem shepherds who also evangelize (2:11-12, 20).

As a prophetess, Anna receives insight into things that normally remain hidden to ordinary people; she recognizes who this child is and tells of his significance to selected people in Jerusalem. Her actions affirm Amos 3:7: “Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plans to his servants the prophets.”

Luke dwells on Anna’s advanced age with ambiguity. Let’s simply agree with the text: she is ancient! Luke tells us she was married for seven years, then widowed. Her widowhood has either lasted 84 years or she is 84 years old when she crosses the Biblical stage (vv. 36-37). If the former, she could well be 105 years old, the same age as the apocryphal figure Judith when she died (Judith 16:28). Some scholars figure it this way: Anna married at age 14, evidently a common age, was widowed at age 21, and then meets the young family 84 years later at age 105.
 


 
What did the story of Jesus’ birth meant to the earliest Christians? What significance did they give to each member of the cast of characters? In the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition, discover what Bible experts have to say about the Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth and the associated figures in the Bible.
 

 
I tend to see her as 105 because it is in line with the numerous miracles and unusual occurrences already surrounding the Birth Narrative, including the advanced age of Zechariah and Elizabeth when John was conceived (Luke 1:7, 13, 18, 57), and the Holy Spirit’s action of overshadowing Mary, who was able to conceive without intercourse (Luke 1:31-35). My point is this: age 105 is not out of line with Luke’s narrative replete so far with angelic visitations and miracles—especially when Luke fills in with more details about Anna. In Deuteronomy, Moses prophesies that for the tribe of Asher, Anna’s tribe, “your strength will equal your days” (Deuteronomy 33:25). Surely Anna’s life shows evidence of that.

Luke’s description of her lifestyle may be seen as eccentric today, and quite likely was considered so at the time. She never leaves the Temple (v. 37). She worships night and day, fasting and praying. She is a workaholic, available 24/7. Yet her lifestyle evidently invigorates her, for she is mobile, articulate, alert, spiritually savvy and unselfish.

Luke indicates that her habits of worship, prayer and fasting represent a routine, probably one of decades. Evidently she resides within the Temple or on its premises. A precedent in earlier centuries could have been the presence of Levite musicians and heads of families “who stayed in the rooms of the temple and were exempt from other duties because they were responsible for the work day and night” (1 Chronicles 9:33). So perhaps this behavior was not so unusual during the first century because of the full time work of worship the Levites undertook.

Anna, this worship workaholic, sets her own hours, schedule, route and routine. Arguably she listens to God and prays as directed. Others recognize her as a prophetess. The work of prayer indeed characterizes a prophet, for God told Abimelech that Abraham was “a prophet and he will pray for you” (Gen. 20:7). Anna knows fasting brings results. Biblical precedents include Esther’s three-day fast before courageously approaching Xerxes (Est. 4:15-16), and the abstinence of Daniel and his three friends regarding the delicacies of King Nebuchadnezzar’s table (Dan. 1:12).

Let’s consider Luke’s textual silences. Luke omits mention of her family; perhaps she had outlived her children. But if she has living family members, what do they think of her lifestyle? Do they share her devotion to constant worship? What about her finances? Is she independently wealthy, or do others provide her food? What did she look like? These questions remain unanswered, for they do not contribute toward Luke’s themes.
 


 
Who was the first person to truly recognize Jesus as the Messiah and understand the implications? In the article “Mary, Simeon or Anna: Who First Recognized Jesus as Messiah?” Ben Witherington III takes a close look at the account given in Luke, and sheds some light on what the Biblical narrative has to say about who was the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Read the full article online for free in BHD as it appeared in Bible Review.
 

 
The Biblical text, however, contains clues regarding her appearance and character. Her lifestyle of fasting may indicate thinness; her ability to walk around the Temple indicates her fitness and that her eyesight and hearing are intact; her designation as a prophetess indicates her spiritual acuity; her talk of the child to those interested in the redemption of Jerusalem indicates her deep connection with a likeminded community.

With this in mind, Anna shows one model of aging in the Biblical text. Luke presents her positively, as a woman without the bitterness that may come with age and as one full of hope. As she moves throughout the Temple, no doubt she seeks to do good to those whom she encounters. Luke’s description shows her as well adjusted, engaged in Israel’s life and useful to the Lord. She may well have become the model for the righteous church widows Paul describes in 1 Timothy 5:5. Arguably the best representatives of the Old Covenant—Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, and worship workaholic Anna—although all elderly, all ably serve as transitions to the New Covenant.

 


 

SBL Meeting Gives New Insights on Paul

Robin Gallaher Branch

Robin Gallaher Branch is professor of Biblical studies at Victory University (formerly Crichton College) in Memphis, Tennessee, and Extraordinary Associate Professor in the Faculty of Theology at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas in Austin in 2000. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for the 2002-2003 academic year to the Faculty of Theology at North-West University. Her most recent book is Jereboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women (Hendrickson, 2009). Contact Dr. Branch.

 


 

Bibliography

Arias, Mortimer. 1984. “Simeon and Anna Sodalities: A Challenge to Churches in Transition.” Missiology: An International Review 12(1):97-101.

Barclay, William. 1956. Luke. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Branch, Robin Gallaher. 2004. “Genesis 20: A Template for Prophecy.” In die Skriflig 2004 38 (2):1-18.

Campbell, Joan Cecelia. 2009. Phoebe: Patron and Emissary. Collegeville: Liturgical Press.

Fee, Gordon D., & Douglas Stuart. 2003. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Geldenhuys, Norval. 1979. Commentary on The Gospel of Luke: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Hastings, James, ed. 1926. The Speaker’s Bible: St. Luke, Volume 1. Aberdeen: The Speaker’s Bible Offices.

Hendrickson, William. 2002. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Marshall, I. Howard 1978. The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Exeter: The Paternoster Press.

Marshall, I. Howard. 2004. New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Wright, Tom. 2004. Luke for Everyone. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
 


 

Recent Bible History Daily articles by Robin Gallaher Branch

The Bible and Sexuality in South Africa: How Tamar’s story is helping redefine sexual attitudes

Barnabas: An Encouraging Early Church Leader, part one.

Barnabas: An Encouraging Early Church Leader, part two.

Judith: A Remarkable Heroine, part one.

Judith: A Remarkable Heroine, part two.

Widows in the Bible

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  1. Vern says

    A question screams to be addressed. Wasn’t the tribe of Asher among the so-called “Lost Tribes of Israel” some seven centuries BCE?

  2. James says

    A very interesting article. Illuminating the corners normally in shadow can be very useful for a better grasp of the whole.

  3. Stephen says

    For a fictional narrative that covers how her background and family information may have been remembered see

    http://thesignofconcord.com/Book_One_Chapter_Five.php

  4. Mary Ann says

    The tradition of the “lost” tribes of Israel is post-biblical. Paul claims that he belongs to the tribe of Benjamin. There’s a good article about this – if I remember, I’ll look it up and post the reference.

  5. JAllan says

    The “lost” tribes really WERE lost, in the sense of being forced to assimilate culturally with other peoples of the Assyrian empire. The Israelites who were deported to multiple provinces of the empire were absorbed into those cultures and their descendants lost their national and tribal identities (which also means that every nation Assyria conquered could have Jewish DNA, whatever one may mean by that). The few who were left were joined by people from multiple OTHER provinces, and the newcomers adopted the Northern Israelite interpretation of the worship of JHVH (with some of their own traditions added). The result was the nation referred to in the New Testament as Samaritans. In the post-exilic prophetic books they are called the “people of the land” or am-ha-eretz, which is one possible origin of “Samaritan”, the other being the name of their former capital, Samaria (it is also possible that their land, and its capital, were anachronistically renamed from “am-ha-eretz”). Of course, the Samaritans were considered “half-breeds” both genetically and religiously by Second Temple Era Jews, which is obviously why Jesus chose this unlikely hero for his famous parable on compassion.

    But remember, not all the members of the “lost” tribes were IN the Northern Kingdom when Assyria attacked; some members of each tribe were surely living in the Southern Kingdom (Judah) and never went “home,” just as some Judahites were surely trapped up north at the time. And the two tribes that were NOT lost are Judah and Benjamin, which makes Paul’s claim legitimate. And of course, the Levites had always been scattered among the tribal lands, with most of them in the territory of Judah because of the Temple.

    As for Anna, those of us who are not dogmatic inerrantists but do revere the symbolism in the Bible, both the parts that are reliable as literal history and the other parts, wonder whether Anna and Simeon are actual individuals or composites of various Jesus-honoring Jews of the day. One problem is that, comparing Luke and Matthew, it would seem extremely dangerous for the Holy Family to stay in Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, for these public appearances, without being found by King Herod. In any event, there are spiritual and devotional benefits in these passages, with their beautiful prayers.

  6. Rose says

    Anna is translated as Annas in Luke 3:2 and she is a High Priest. This is no typo, it would have been a huge insult to call Annas Anna as is reflected here when Sosius calls Antigonus Antigona.

    Wars I, 18, 2
    Then it was that Antigonus, without any regard to his former or to his present fortune, came down from the citadel, and fell at Sosius’s feet, who without pitying him at all, upon the change of his condition, laughed at him beyond measure, and called him Antigona. Yet did he not treat him like a woman, or let him go free, but put him into bonds, and kept him in custody.

    The words ‘son of’ are not in Luke’s Greek text, it’s just ‘of’ as in, Joanna of Rhesa of Zorobabel of Salathiel of Neri and so forth.

    Luke 3
    27 Which was [the son] of Joanna, which was [the son] of Rhesa, which was [the son] of Zorobabel, which was [the son] of Salathiel, which was [the son] of Neri,

    Who is woman Jo-Anna listed in Lukes genealogy?

    12 Tribes
    There were 12 tribes in 35 BCE or so, according to Josephus. Josephus says that the High Priest Eleazar sent six men from each tribe (it was a total of 72 men), to Ptolemy in Alexandria with copies of the Hebrew ‘books’ so Ptolemy could write the Septuagint.

    Antiquities XII, 2
    6……We have also chosen six elders out of every tribe, whom we have sent, and the law with them. It will be thy part, out of thy piety and justice, to send back the law, when it hath been translated, and to return those to us that bring it in safety. Farewell.”

    7. This was the reply which the high priest made. But it does not seem to me to be necessary to set down the names of the seventy [two] elders who were sent by Eleazar, and carried the law

  7. Mathew says

    Hi Robin, I’m just querying Luke’s assertion that Anna ‘never left the temple’. Is there any evidence to show that homeless widows were somehow accommodated in the Temple; or are we to read it as Luke’s hyperbole for ‘she never went anywhere else’? Thank you so much!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Anna | The Noontimes linked to this post on December 21, 2013

    [...] For insight into the importance of Anna the Prophetess, one of the Bible’s most unusual women, by Robin Gallaher Branch, click on the image above or go to: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/anna-in-th… [...]

  2. Why is Anna the Prophetess significant? | literaryloudmouth linked to this post on January 31, 2014

    [...] I found that Anna was the only female prophetess in the New Testament to be given a name, an honor that her husband is not granted within the verses above. This in itself mandates an importance to her mentioning within the text. Her interaction with Jesus and his family is to confirm the messianic prophecy and obviously spread the word that he had come (Biblical Archaeology). [...]

  3. Presentation of the Lord | Beyond The Frame linked to this post on February 1, 2014

    [...] the Scriptures tells us something different. In light of the New Evangelization Anna evangelized [...]

  4. Pc Service linked to this post on May 10, 2014

    Pc Service

    Anna in the Bible: Luke reveals the prophetess as a Biblical model for aging – Biblical Archaeology Society

  5. King Lemuel’s Mother: The other Proverbs 31 Woman linked to this post on July 23, 2014

    […] As a respected and pious prophetess who had seen the Messiah with her own eyes, Anna and her words would have been influential and significant, otherwise Luke would not have mentioned Anna and her speaking in his account of the gospel.  [More on Anna here.] […]


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