Anna the Prophetess

 

And the Hope of All Israel

 

 

by Doug Ward


Traditional Christian nativity scenes give a convenient visual summary of people and events connected with the birth of Jesus. They generally include Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus, with a manger and animals, often accompanied by shepherds, angels, and magi.

 

As with any shorthand representation of reality, a nativity scene sacrifices some precision and detail for the sake of simplicity. Nativity scenes that include both shepherds and magi collapse together two separate events, since the magi probably arrived in Bethlehem some months after the shepherds. A more accurate portrayal would require two separate scenes, one at a manger and another at the house visited by the magi (Matt. 2:11).

 

In between the two Bethlehem snapshots we could insert a third scene, at the temple complex in Jerusalem. About six weeks after the birth of Jesus, his family traveled from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to present the offerings prescribed in Lev. 12 (Luke 2:22-24). In this scene Jesus and his parents are joined by Simeon, an old man who blesses God for the coming of the Messiah and prophesies about the implications of Jesus' birth (Luke 2:25-35); and by Anna, an elderly widow who also rejoices in the birth of the Messiah.

 

Although this third scene is sometimes overlooked-it is not included in the movie The Nativity Story, for example-it has much to teach us. From the fact that Joseph and Mary made the trip to Jerusalem, we learn that they were observant Jews, careful to carry out the requirements of the Torah. From the fact that they could not afford a lamb for the offering (Luke 2:24; Lev. 12:8), we find out that they were not wealthy.1 Simeon's prophecy highlights the importance of the birth of the Messiah as well as the trials and challenges that Jews in general-and Mary in particular-would face as a result of that birth.

 

And what about Anna? Luke's description of her is brief:

 

"There was also a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old, having been married to her husband for seven years until his death. She had lived as a widow since then for eighty-four years. She never left the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment, she came up to them and began to give thanks to God and to speak about the child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem" (Luke 2:36-38, NETBible).

 

It turns out, however, that these few verses have a great deal to tell us about where Anna was from, why she was named Anna, why she was drawn to the temple, and what the birth of Jesus meant for her personally. My purpose in this article is to explore, with the help of some fascinating research by New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham ([1], [2]), what Luke intended to communicate in his short account of Anna.

 

Anna's Name and Tribe


To begin, we note that Anna's name can also be written in English as "Hannah". The original biblical Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel, was a prophetess herself (I Sam. 2:1-10). It is very likely that Luke intended his readers to connect the two, since he seems to emphasize the parallels between Samuel and Jesus in Luke 1-2. The parallels between I Sam. 1-3 and Luke 1-2 include the following [4]:


The births of both Samuel and Jesus were miraculous, and both were accompanied by great thanksgiving.

 

Both Samuel and Jesus were presented before God by their parents (I Sam. 1:22,24; Luke 2:22). The parents of both received a blessing during their visits to the house of God (I Sam. 2:20; Luke 2:34).

 

With their parents not present, both Samuel and Jesus were active at the house of God at relatively early ages (I Sam. 3; Luke 2:42-49).


Both were said to have "grown in favor with God and man" as they grew up (I Sam. 2:26; 3:19; Luke 2:40,52).2


There is additional significance in the name Anna in Luke 2, as we shall see soon. To understand this significance, we will need to consider another piece of information from Luke 2:36: the fact that Anna came from the tribe of Asher, one of the northern tribes of Israel. What did this detail mean to the original readers of the Gospel of Luke?

 

Bauckham ([1], pp. 163-164) explains that in the time of Jesus, Jews did not think of the northern tribes as being "lost." A first-century Jew who heard about a person from the tribe of Asher living in Jerusalem would have had some good guesses about that person's background. Bauckham carefully examines what those guesses might have been.

 

One possibility is that Anna could have come from northwestern Galilee, the traditional homeland of the tribe of Asher. Many people from this region were taken captive by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser in about 733 B.C. (see e.g. 2 Kings 15:29), but others were left behind. When King Hezekiah of Judah organized a special Passover celebration at Jerusalem about twenty years later, he invited people from the northern tribes, and a few-including some from the tribe of Asher-made the trip to Jerusalem (2 Chron. 30:10-11).

 

Galilee was inhabited mostly by Gentiles by the time of the Maccabees in the second century B.C., but there was apparently still an Israelite minority living in the region (see I Macc. 5:21-23). When the Hasmoneans took control of Galilee, they replaced pagan settlements by Jewish ones, bringing in many Jewish families from Judea ([1], p. 165).

 

By Jesus' time there was a lot of friction between Israelites and Gentiles in the Galilee region. An Israelite from a family that had maintained its tribal identity through the centuries undoubtedly would have been very patriotic and loyal to Jerusalem and the temple. Bauckham observes that it would not have been surprising that "a Galilean prophet, expecting the redemption of Israel from pagan rule, should move to the religious heart of the nation and the expected centre of God's eschatological restoration of the nation, in order to spend her time in the temple ..." ([1], p. 165).

 

Exiles in Media: The Tobit Connection


The other main possibility is that Anna came from a family whose ancestors had been taken into captivity by the Assyrians. 2 Kings 15:29 does not mention precisely where people from Galilee were taken, but it is reasonable to suppose that they ended up settling together with the second wave of exiles from the northern tribes that came just twelve years later. Of these Israelites, we read the following in 2 Kings 18:11 (NETBible):

 

"The king of Assyria deported the people of Israel to Assyria. He settled them in Halah, along the Habor (the river of Gozan), and in the cities of the Medes."

As the centuries went by, it was with the third of these locations-Media, a territory that today is part of Iran [3]- that the exiles from the northern tribes came to be associated. For example, the historian Josephus wrote in the late first century A.D. that the captives from the northern tribes had been taken "into Media and Persia" (Ant. 9.14.1).

 

One main evidence of and source for the association of the northern tribes with Media was the popular story of Tobit.3 In the Book of Tobit, Tobit is a Galilean from the tribe of Naphtali who is taken captive to the Assyrian city of Nineveh (Tobit 1:10). Relatives of his have settled in the Median cities of Ecbatana (3:7) and Rages (4:1; 5:6). At the end of the book, Tobit on his deathbed instructs his son Tobias to take his family to Media, which Tobit believes will be the safest place to go after the prophesied destruction of Nineveh takes place (14:3-4). Tobias obeys, moving to Ecbatana where his in-laws live (14:12-15).

 

Bauckham observes that "awareness of tribal membership may be more likely to have survived in the eastern diaspora than in Galilee" ([1], p. 169). Many exiles in Media, in the midst of an alien culture hundreds of miles from Israel, apparently banded together in communities and worked to preserve their Israelite identity. Such a picture is certainly reflected in the Book of Tobit, where Tobit and his family have a detailed knowledge of their ancestry and are concerned about marrying within their tribe.

 

At some point the Median exiles established formal ties with Jerusalem and the Temple. Bauckham believes this connection with Jerusalem may have begun sometime during the Persian period, after exiles from the House of Judah had returned to Israel and rebuilt the Temple. Josephus records that when Ezra led another group of Jews back to Israel from Babylon (c. 458 B.C.), they were accompanied by some members of the northern tribes from Media (Ant. 11.5.2).4 Perhaps these returnees from the northern tribes helped facilitate a relationship between Jerusalem and the Median diaspora community.

 

Media was viewed as a very remote location by people in Judea, especially because the trip between Media and Jerusalem had to be made entirely by land.5 Still, there was regular communication back and forth between religious leaders in Judea and Israelites throughout the diaspora, including Media. One interesting example is a letter written by Gamaliel the Elder (the teacher of the apostle Paul) dealing with a calendar issue ([1], pp. 174-175). Gamaliel's letter, which makes the announcement that an extra month is being inserted in the calendar that year, is addressed to "our brothers belonging to the exile of Babylonia and belonging to the exile of Media and all the other exiles of Israel."

 

An attachment to Jerusalem among pious Israelites in Media is reflected in-and was probably promoted by-the Book of Tobit. At the beginning of the book, Tobit explains that his tribe of Naphtali had gone into captivity because it had abandoned Jerusalem and the Temple and fallen into idolatry (Tobit 1:4-5). He knows that Israel's exile resulted from its sins (3:4) and fulfilled prophecies of the scriptures (2:6), all of which God would faithfully carry out (14:4). Tobit finds hope in the prophecies, which also assert that Israelites will one day be able to return to Jerusalem, where all nations will worship the true God (13:1-17; 14:5-7). In the meantime, he advocates that his countrymen hasten the fulfillment of these prophecies by obeying God, in particular by being generous to the poor (13:6; 14:8-11).

 

For Median Israelites who felt as Tobit did, there were several ways to express a connection with Jerusalem. One was to pay the annual half shekel temple tax. Josephus reports that this money was collected in the eastern diaspora at the cities of Nehardea and Nisibis, from whence it was transported to Jerusalem (Ant. 18.9.1). In Jerusalem, sacrifices were offered on behalf of the people in the diaspora.

 

Given sufficient funds, an Israelite could achieve a more direct connection with the Temple by personally undertaking the long trek to Jerusalem for Passover, Pentecost, or the Feast of Tabernacles. People who did so were again following the example of Tobit, who had faithfully journeyed to Jerusalem for the pilgrim festivals before he was taken into captivity (Tobit 1:6). Acts 2:9 mentions that the pilgrims who came to Jerusalem for Pentecost in the year of Christ's resurrection included Medes.

 

Finally, there were a few who had the means and inclination to actually move to Jerusalem. One example preserved in Jewish tradition is Rabbi Nahum the Mede, who taught in Jerusalem during the final years of the Second Temple (see Nazir 5:4 in the Mishnah). Judging from his name, either he or his parents had moved from Media to Jerusalem.

 

Bauckham ([1], pp. 179-180) observes that Nahum was an ideal name for a Median Israelite. The prophet Nahum had predicted the destruction of Nineveh, as emphasized in Tobit 14:4, 15. The fulfillment of this prophecy was very significant for the exiles in Media, because it provided evidence that God would also carry out his promises to bring them back from captivity. In addition, the name "Nahum" means "comfort" or "consolation." The corresponding verb is often used in the book of Isaiah in the expression of promises of the restoration of Jerusalem and the return of the exiles (Isa. 40:1; 49:13; 51:3,12; 52:9; 61:2; 66:13). By the first century, the words "comfort" and "consolation" had become synonymous with the deliverance brought by the Messiah. (For example, Simeon in Luke 2:25 looks forward to the consolation of Israel.) The parents of Nahum the Mede expressed their faith in the fulfillment of God's promises by giving their son the name Nahum.

 

Based on all of this information, it seems quite plausible that Anna could have belonged to a family from the Median diaspora that at some point migrated to Jerusalem, as the family of Nahum the Mede had done.

 

Anna the Mede?


We have discussed two possible scenarios for the background of Anna the prophetess in Luke 2:36-38. Perhaps Anna's family hailed from the traditional territory of the tribe of Asher in Galilee. Or perhaps her family went into exile in Media, then later came back to Israel.

 

Which is more likely? Here it turns out that Anna's name is an important clue that may help us decide the answer to this question.

 

Bauckham points out that, as far as we know, the name Anna/Hannah was not especially popular in Israel during the late Second Temple Period: "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" ([1], p. 178).

 

On the other hand, there is reason to believe that the name Anna could have been popular among religious Israelites in the eastern diaspora, the people for whom the Book of Tobit was especially meaningful. In the Book of Tobit, Anna is the name of Tobit's wife!

 

This fact helps tip the scale in favor of our second scenario, the one in which Anna comes from a family that moved back to Israel from Media. Just as it would be natural for such a family to name a son Nahum, so it would be natural for a family from this background to name a daughter Anna.

 

While we are thinking about names, we should also consider the possible significance of Phanuel, the name of Anna's father. The name Phanuel was not a popular one, as far as we know. It appears in two biblical genealogies, one from the tribe of Judah (I Chron. 4:4) and the other from the tribe of Benjamin (I Chron. 8:25). Bauckham knows of only one other instance of this name besides the one in Luke 2. It appears on an ostracon (an inscribed piece of pottery) from Beersheba from the late eighth century B.C. ([1], p. 180).

 

Would this name have had a special meaning for an Israelite from the Median diaspora? Phanuel means "face of God," which in the Hebrew Scriptures is a metaphor for the favor (or disfavor) of God. For example, a familiar line in the Aaronic benediction (Num. 6:24-26), "May the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you" is a prayer for God's favor.

 

This metaphor often appears in the Hebrew Scriptures in connection with the themes of exile and return ([1], p. 181):

 

In Deut. 31:17-18; 32:20, a future captivity of Israel is described in terms of God hiding his face.


Psalm 80, a psalm that exiled Israelites could have sung as a prayer for return from captivity, has the following refrain: "Restore us, O God; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved" (v. 3, NIV; cf. vv. 7, 19).


When King Hezekiah invited the people who remained from the northern tribes to his special Passover celebration, he exhorted them to repent so that their friends who were in exile would be able to come back (2 Chron. 30:6-9). God "will not turn his face from you, if you return to him," Hezekiah wrote (v. 9, NRSV).


In interceding for Jerusalem and for his people in exile, Daniel prays, "let your face shine upon your desolated sanctuary" (Dan. 9:17, NRSV).


These examples suggest that for Israelites in Media, the name Phanuel could have expressed a hope that God would show favor to his people and bring them back to the land of Israel. Similar "face of God" imagery appears in the Book of Tobit (3:6; 4:7; 13:16).

 

The Annotated Anna


We can now understand more fully what Luke intended to communicate in his brief passage about Anna in Luke 2:36-38. Phanuel and Anna came from a family of the tribe of Asher that had lived in the eastern diaspora in Media. Like other exiles from the northern tribes, they treasured the story of Tobit. Phanuel told this story often to his daughter, whom he named after Tobit's wife. Like Tobit, he longed for the time when the exiles in Media would be able to return home to Israel, so he was overjoyed when he was able to actually move to Jerusalem. He passed along to Anna his love for Jerusalem, the Torah, and the Temple. In her widowhood, Anna expressed this love in her continual worship at the Temple complex.

 

When Anna met Joseph and Mary and God revealed to her that their baby was the promised Messiah, she rejoiced in the wonderful news. God had shined his face upon Israel, as her father's name expressed. He was fulfilling his promises and would surely bring his people back to the land of Israel.

 

Bauckham ([1], p. 185) observes that the accounts of Simeon and Anna in Luke 2 complement each other nicely. Simeon, a member of the House of Judah, highlights Israel's role as a light to the nations (2:30-32). Through the work of the Messiah, salvation would go out from Jerusalem to all the world. Anna, a member of the House of Israel, represents Israel in exile, scattered among the nations. Through the work of the Messiah, Israel one day would come back to Jerusalem. With his accounts of Simeon and Anna, Luke beautifully communicates the hopes of all Israel.

 

References:

 

1.  Richard Bauckham, "Anna of the Tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36-38)," Revue Biblique 104 (1997), pp. 161-191.

 

2.  Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2002.


3.  Gerald M. Bilkes, "Medes, Media" in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, David Noel Freedman, Editor, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2000.


4.  Craig A. Evans, Luke, New International Biblical Commentary, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1990.


Footnotes:

1This is also an indication that the magi arrived in Bethlehem later. If the magi had already come and presented their gifts, Joseph and Mary might have purchased a lamb.

 

2For more on Samuel as a type and forerunner of the Messiah and on the prophecies of I Sam. 2, see the article "Samuel and the Gospel" in Issue 7 of Grace & Knowledge.

 

3For an introduction to this story, see the article on the Book of Tobit in Issue 13 of Grace & Knowledge.

 

4This is a detail not found in the scriptures-see Ezra 8-although it may be hinted at in I Chron. 9:3. Bauckham speculates that Josephus might have been acquainted with people in Jerusalem whose ancestors had come from the Median Diaspora ([1], p. 172).

 

5Bauckham ([1], pp. 173-174) mentions a story preserved in the Talmud about a rabbi in Israel whose father lived in western Media. When the father died, his son didn't find out about his death until three years later.


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