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.”
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.”
Dig into more than 9,000 articles in the Biblical Archaeology Society’s vast library plus much more with an All-Access pass.
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.
Ben 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.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.
Dig into the illuminating world of the Bible with a BAS All-Access membership. Combine a one-year tablet and print subscription to BAR with membership in the BAS Library to start your journey into the ancient past today!Subscribe Today
While considering Dr. Witherington’s question, I would like to ask, “How about Elizabeth, wife of Zachariah, whose response to Mary’s arrival plainly states that the Spirit revealed to her the identity of the unborn Messiah?” Luke 1:41-43 reads, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? ” If Mary were first to know, then surely Elizabeth was second, or if Mary did not realize, then Eizabeth was first to know.
The presentations by all, are excellent and non-controversial. The wisdom of Almighty God is unsearchable! Romans 11:33-34 and Isaiah 40:28. Fear God, love God and honor God for the multitude of things he has done in our behalf, the love He has given us and the graciousness He has shown us through His Son and the Holy Spirit! God is testing us everyday and has given us the right to make our own choices. May Almighty God, Jesus, The Holy Spirit and Christianity be our guiding lights, our safety nets and our inspiration for loving happiness with Almighty God! Amen!
ben witherington and all readers,
my name is david snyder. i am a veterinarian in texas and i am catholic! i have a tremendous teachin about the physiologic process a body experiences, during crucifixion. i was searching for private visions by people who have had additional explanations, suvh as the annunciation. i know PROTESTANTS don”t credit private interpretations. If you ever want to read something that fills in the blanks an,d plays out like a movie, read MYSTICAL CITY OF GOD by SISTER MARY of AGREEDA.
Keeping with SOLO SCIPTURUAE, we have left out the first procession of CORPUS CHRISTI, which is MARY visiting ELIZABETH.
SCRIPTURE, proclaims elizabeth asking in wonder, “how is it that the MOTHER of my LORD comes to me?” i could go on and on
Adding to what David said, Two important points, to say the least:
1. Gabriel made it quite clear to Mary who is Jesus:
“And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call him Jesus. He shall be great, and men will know him for the Son of the most High; the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he shall reign over the house of Jacob eternally; his kingdom shall never have an end.”
2. In response, Mary made it quite clear to Gabriel that she understood:
“Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be unto me according to thy word.”
3. Mary then announced to Elizabeth (and the world):
“My soul magnifies the Lord; my spirit has found joy in God, who is my Saviour, because he has looked graciously upon the lowliness of his handmaid. Behold, from this day forward all generations will count me blessed; because he who is mighty, he whose name is holy, has wrought for me his wonders. He has mercy upon those who fear him, from generation to generation; he has done valiantly with the strength of his arm, driving the proud astray in the conceit of their hearts; he has put down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has protected his servant Israel, keeping his merciful design in remembrance, according to the promise which he made to our forefathers, Abraham and his posterity for evermore.”
Exactly. Mary knew.
John in the womb.
GOD THE FATHER, HOLY SPIRIT, JESUS AND MARY AT THE TEMPLE
It was Mary and Joseph’s job to bring up Jesus the Son of Man, as Jesus often referred to himself, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord to be a responsible adult in the Jewish culture. It was God the Father’s and Holy Spirit’s job to prepare Jesus until he was ready to start His ministry.
At the Temple scene, Mary definatly shows she knows this by how she address him after looking for him for three days. She is not shaking in her boots because inwardly Jesus is the Son of God. Which she knows fullwell, she had pondered this in her heart. God gave her a job to do and she is doing it.
Jesus, the adolecent, wasn’t sining or lying here he was jumping the gun. You can be sure God the father and Holy Spirit let Him know about it. Which scripture acknowledges by saying “Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them.” He was obident and honored them for another 18 yrs until the God given time had come and He revelled himself by changing the water into wine at the Cana wedding.
It wasn’t that Mary had forgotten that Jesus was also the Son of God that she didn’t understand. She didn’t understand why he
was saying and revelling himself at this age – God had her back on this one!
THE WEDDING AT CANA
It is evident from scripture, by the fact that the people in His hometown and His siblings didn’t know He was the Messia (after thirty yrs), that Mary, Joseph or Jesus ever revealed this.
Mary at the Cana wedding sensed, maybe with the Holy Spirit’s nudging, that perhaps this was the time for Jesus to reveall him self in a big way. He had been baptized and already started gathering his disciples.
Instead of the adolecent’s response, Jesus said this time, “my time has not yet come.” Followed immediatly by changing the water into wine.
The song ‘Mary did you know’ yes Mary did know that her son – God’s son – was capable of not only performing miracles but of saving any one who has faith in Him from eternal death and blessing them with eternal life.
A tour to the pyramids of Giza will reveal some fascinating facts
about the historical past and tradition of historical Egypt.
And nobody’s recognizing John the Baptist’s “testimony” to knowing who Jesus was…from the womb!
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.
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.
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:
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??!!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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?>
[…] 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 […]
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.
I want to add: each jewish month has exactly 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, 3 1/3 seconds.
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.
macys in store coupon april 2013
Mary, Simeon or Anna: Who First Recognized Jesus as Messiah? – Biblical Archaeology Society
macys coupon code
Mary, Simeon or Anna: Who First Recognized Jesus as Messiah? – Biblical Archaeology Society
[…] 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 […]
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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?