At the time of Jesus’ birth, few recognized that he would be the instrument of Israel’s redemption. Though the infant does nothing demonstrable, when Jesus is presented at the temple (Luke 2:22-24), two great witnesses emerge: Simeon (Luke 2:25-32) and Anna (Luke 2:36-38). The early witness of these elders is often overlooked when recounting Jesus’ life, even being omitted from the 2006 movie The Nativity Story.
Anna is not referenced in any other book of the Bible, much less extrabiblical materials. Though her story constitutes only three verses, Anna gets the last word in Luke’s infancy narrative (Luke 2:36-38).
And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38 NASB)Even as an infant, Jesus’ mission is recognized. Fred B. Craddock (b. 1928) summarizes:
The truth of Simeon’s prophetic witness is confirmed by Anna, a devout prophetess of advanced age...Being a woman with the gift of prophecy who lives in the temple area continually in prayer and fasting, she...comes to the scene precisely where and when Jesus is being presented. She thanks God and witnesses about the child to all who have kept alive hope for “the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Jerusalem and with it the temple represent the whole of Israel’s hope before God. And Jesus will return to Jerusalem because, as these two have testified, God is leading Israel to the Messiah, just as God is giving the Messiah to Israel. But Jesus will weep over the city because it did not recognize the time of the messianic visitation (Luke 19:41-44). (Craddock, Luke (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 40)Balancing a male witness with a female counterpart is characteristic of Luke. Neal M. Flanagan (1920-1985) identifies 13 man-woman parallel stories in Luke’s gospel (Flanagan, “The Position of Women in the Writings of St. Luke”, Mareanum 40, 288-304). In Luke-Acts, women are paired with men even when, as in the case of Anna (Luke 2:36-38) and Philip’s four prophetess daughters mentioned alongside Agabus (Acts 21:9-11), they add nothing to what has been said.
Both Simeon and Anna are models of piety and devotion (Luke 2:25, 36-37) making Anna a reliable corroborating witness. Joel B. Green (b. 1956) compares:
As a counterpart to Simeon, Luke introduces Anna. Both are prophetic figures (cf. Acts 2:17-18), aged, pious, related to the temple, and among those who await eschatological salvation. And both recognize in Jesus the advent of God’s redemptive intervention in the world, with the result that they praise God. In this way, Anna’s testimony is added to that of the angels (Luke 2:10-14) and Simeon (Luke 2:28-35), who respond to the wondrous child by praising God and interpreting the significance of Jesus’ coming. Focusing as they all do on God and on eschatological hope, however, they bear witness to Luke’s interest in a narrative aim that transcends the birth and manifestation of Jesus. Luke is concerned preeminently with the redemptive purposes of God, grounded ultimately in God’s own designs, expressed in the Scriptures, anticipated by the faithful of Israel, now coming to fruition in the arrival of Jesus. In the present scene, Luke actually devotes more time to emphasizing Anna’s reliability than to her reaction, a further attempt to render unimpeachable her testimony concerning Jesus. (Green, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 150)As Green alludes, Luke provides a striking amount of information about Anna. Though the gospel does not specify what she actually said, more introduction is given her than Simeon.
Anna’s comprehensive resume includes the following details:
- She is a woman. Anna appears only in Luke and among the gospels, Luke pays special attention to women (43 references).
- She is a prophetess. Though she is the only woman in the gospels described as a prophetess, the description is not uncommon in Scripture (Exodus 15:20; Judges 4:4; II Kings 22:14; Nehemiah 6:14; Luke 2:35; Acts 2:17, 21:8-9; I Corinthians 11:5).
- She is named Anna. In the Apocrypha, this is the name of Tobit’s wife (Tobit 1:9, 20, 2:1, 11-14, 4:3-4, 5:18-6:1, 10:4-7, 11:5-6, 9, 14:12). The name is the female equivalent of John (Johannah) and the Greek version of the Hebrew, Hannah. Despite being Biblical the name was not popular during the Second Temple period. Richard Bauckham (b. 1946) notes, “Of the 247 Jewish women in Palestine from the period 330 BCE-200 CE, whose names are known, our Anna is the only one who bears this name (Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels, 92).” In Jewish tradition, her namesake Hannah is also considered a prophetess (b. Meg 14a). As both women are depicted as praying in the temple and there are similarities between the presentations of Jesus and Hannah’s son Samuel (I Samuel 1:22-24; Luke 2:22), many have seen an intentional allusion. As Anna is “looking for the redemption of Israel” (Luke 2:38 NASB), both the barren Hannah and Anna are praying for miracle babies.
- She is the daughter of Phanuel. Phanuel is otherwise unknown and the only other biblical figure with this name is equally obscure (I Chronicles 4:4). Phanuel is not important enough to be listed anywhere else and as such, being the daughter of Phanuel was of no great consequence. The name Phanuel is the equivalent of place name Peniel (Genesis 32:31-32). As both Anna and her father have Biblical names, it can be deduced that she comes from a godly heritage. Anna inherits a spiritual legacy and builds upon it.
- She is from the tribe of Asher. This detail likely seemed as remote then as it does now as Asher was one of the ten “lost” northern tribes of Israel (Genesis 30:12-13, 35:26) which settled in northern Gilead (Joshua 19:24-31). Anna retains her ancestral heritage. In fact, she is not referenced in connection to her deceased husband, but rather to her people to whom she presumably has a stronger connection. Given that she waited for decades in the temple it is not surprising that Anna can trace her genealogy. Most have attached no significance to the connection to Asher as Luke is typically more interested in symbolism than geography (whom his audience would not have known). In his article “Anna of the Tribe of Asher”, however, Richard Bauckham (b. 1946) argues that the original audience would have understood Anna as a returnee from the exile of the northern tribes in Media. Others have seen this reference as alluding to the restoration of all of the tribes of Israel. Asher is one of the least significant tribes and this coupled with her unsubstantial father may collectively speak to humble origins, like Gideon (Judges 6:15). The world would have viewed Anna’s heritage as insignificant, a fact which was equally insignificant to God.
- She is elderly. Her age is emphasized by redundancy in Greek which reads “she was very old in her many days” or “she was exceedingly old and full of years”. In her culture, her agedness would have merited respect. The text is ambiguous regarding her exact age. It could mean that she was eighty-four or that she has been a widow for eighty-four years. The more natural way to interpret the syntax is the latter (Darrell L. Bock [b. 1953], Luke [BECNT], 1:251-52; I. Howard Marshall [b. 1934], Luke [NIGTC], 123-24). If this is the case, and she was married at the standard age of 14, she would have been 105 years old. This fits both the improbable nature of the nativity and Luke’s emphasis on her agedness and would also connect her to Judith, another widow who served God night and day (Judith 8:1-8, 11:17) and lived to be 105 years old (Judith 16:23). Either way, Anna is at least 84. One is never too old to serve or experience God in dramatic fashion. In Anna’s case, her greatest contribution comes at the end of her life.
- She is a widow. Three widows are featured in Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:36-38, 7:11-15, 21:1-4) and the evangelist also includes a widow as the star of a parable (Luke 18:1-8). A later description of Christian widows shares marked similarities with the description of Anna (I Timothy 5:3-16). Tragically, Anna’s husband died just seven years into their marriage (Luke 2:37). She presumably had no children and chose not to remarry. Instead, she devoted herself to God. When faced with tragedy, one has the choice to move closer or farther away from God. Instead of getting bitter, Anna got better.
- She never leaves the temple. Serving “night and day” reflects the Jewish belief that the day began at sunset (Deuteronomy 28:66; I Kings 8:29; Isaiah 27:3; Jeremiah 14:17; Mark 5:5; Luke 2:37; Acts 20:31, 26:7; I Thessalonians 2:9, 3:10; II Thessalonians 3:8; I Timothy 5:5; II Timothy 1:3). It is theoretically possible that she resides in the temple’s women’s court but there is no precedent for this arrangement. Like the English expression “all of the time”, Luke is most likely using hyperbole as women were not normally allowed to stay in temple at night. Widows were typically poor and practically speaking, the temple may have been the best place for Anna. Then again, perhaps her devotion and expectation were such that she never leaves the temple precincts. Whatever her reasons, she is a fixture at the temple. Luke likely intends to accent her piety. Later tradition asserts that Mary herself was raised in the temple (Protoevangelium of James 7:1-8:2). Depending upon one’s perspective, Anna is living a life of worship or is a religious fanatic. Either way, Anna has found her niche. Though no priest notices the baby Jesus, someone associated with organized religion takes notice and though Anna could not go into the Holy of Holies she sees God in person.
- She fasts and prays. These are classic expressions of piety. Fasting coupled with prayer is evidence of self-denying focus (Psalm 35:13; Daniel 9:3; Tobit 12:8, Matthew 17:21; Luke 2:37). As the third traditional good work of almsgiving is not mentioned, some have deduced that Anna was poor, fitting her status as a widow. Some interpreters suggest that the story of the widow’s mite near the end of Luke’s gospel (Luke 21:1-4) is best read while remembering the poor widow at the gospel’s outset (Luke 2:36-38). Anna likely prays for “the redemption of Israel”. This expression comes from Isaiah 52:9 and a similar phrase was used on Jewish coins in Bar-Kokhba’s Jewish revolt against Rome (132-136 CE).
Why is she there? What does she seek? What is it about the life and worship of the Temple that sustain her?...On a practical level, we might understand Anna’s proximity to the Temple as her only means for daily survival. Because she has no husband or child, and because she is elderly, she is among the most economically vulnerable of her society. She is no longer physically able to glean the agricultural fields for leftover grains and fruits, as poor widows were legally permitted to do in order not to starve. Her life may depend on alms she might receive from pilgrims visiting the temple...Anna’s story, however, is not manifestly about a widow’s economic destruction and helplessness. In this, her story differs from many about widows in the Bible...We have no sense that Anna is impoverished, anxious or desperate...She seems to be yearning for something that is not practical at all. (Parkerton, Person and Silver, Where You Go, I Shall: Gleanings from the Stories of Biblical Widows, 71-72)David Lyle Jeffrey (b. 1941) adds:
In some deep sense, Jesus is an answer to the prayers of Anna, even as to those of Simeon. Arriving on the scene precisely at the moment of Simeon’s prayer she acts as what dramaturgists call “fifth business”; in her words she not only gives thanks to God but Luke adds, like the shepherds, also immediately begins to spread the good word “to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). (Jeffrey, Luke (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 48)
In painting this picture of Anna, Luke has given his witness credibility. Just as Simeon’s piety give him tenability to make an important pronouncement (Luke 2:25) so does Anna’s character make her a reliable spokesperson. In someways, it is not surprising that the supergodly woman recognizes God when she sees the baby Jesus.
In doing so, Anna carries out her prophetic role. While angels announce Jesus’ coming to Zechariah (Luke 1:11), Mary (Luke 1:26) and the shepherds (Luke 2:9), Anna does so for holy city (Luke 2:38).
Are you a credible witness? Which of the details that Luke uses to describe Anna most defines her? Who do you know who is devout like Anna? Who do you know with great spiritual insight? For whose benefit is Anna’s prophecy? How do you think that her prophecy was received? Did anyone even notice? Compare and contrast Simeon and Anna; are they more alike or different? How does Anna know Jesus is the one she has been seeking?
Simeon and Anna recognize Jesus in part because they are looking for him. They live in a state of perpetual hope. The persevering elderly duo never give up. How many babies must Anna have seen in all of those decades at the temple? Yet, after all that time, she waits expectantly.
N.T. Wright (b. 1948) applauds:
Mary and Joseph needed Simeon and Anna at that moment; the old man and old woman needed them, had been waiting for them, and now thanked God for them. (Wright, Luke for Everyone, 27)
R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) adds:
Simeon and Anna represented all who saw that their only hope was in the mercy and grace of God. Along with the poor carpenter and his wife and the outcast shepherds, they were flesh-and-blood examples of those to whom Christ comes. They personified the paradox of being profoundly empty and profoundly full — “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). They longed for righteousness and consolation that would come only through the Messiah. They came to God’s house hungry, and they received as few others have in the history of the world...Lives like these are rare. Such longing is not in vogue today. (Hughes, Luke (Volume 1): That You May Know the Truth (Preaching the Word), 95)Waiting is often one of the marks of the faithful. Henri J.M. Nouwen (1932-1996) notes, “Waiting...became the attitude of only the remnant of Israel, of that small group of Israelites that had remained faithful (Nouwen, Finding My Way Home: Pathways to Life and the Spirit, 95).”
Simeon and Anna are emblematic of the patient faithful. Like today, though the remnant may have dwindled, people are still expecting the Messiah to come.
Is anticipation a necessary component of faith? What, if anything, are you currently anticipating? Do we long for Jesus as Anna does?
“We possess the past by memory and the future by anticipation” - Paul Tillich (1886-1965), The Shaking of the Foundations, p. 35