The Gospel of Luke presents Jesus’ mother Mary and her husband Joseph as devout, Torah-observant Jews. Luke mentions (Lk 2:21) that they had Jesus circumcised when he was eight days old, as specified in Genesis 17:12. A few weeks later, they brought him to the temple in Jerusalem (Lk 2:22-24) for Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth (Lev 12) and his redemption as a firstborn son (Ex 13:2; Nu 18:15-16).
During that visit to Jerusalem, God revealed to a prophetess named Anna that Jesus would be the promised Messiah. Anna, an elderly widow, had been fasting and praying at the temple for many years, fervently desiring the restoration of Israel. She thankfully received and spread the good news that her prayers were being answered (Lk 2:36-38).
Luke gives just a few details about Anna, telling us that she was “the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher” (v 36). These few words, however, communicate a great deal about who she was, why she had come to Jerusalem, and what her hopes were.(1)
The original homeland of Anna’s tribe of Asher was in northern Israel, in the western hills of Galilee (Jos 19:24-31; Jdg 1:31-32). The tribe later became divided when Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III conquered Galilee in about 733 BC and took many people captive (2 Kings 15:29). Not all went into exile, however. Later, when King Hezekiah of Judah organized a special Passover celebration in Jerusalem and invited members of the northern tribes to attend, some Asherites answered the invitation (2 Ch 30:11). There were also members of the northern tribes who moved permanently to Jerusalem after the Assyrian conquest (1 Ch 9:3).
By the time of Jesus, Israelites in Galilee or Judea who had preserved their tribal identities would have looked forward to a time when they would be reunited with those who were in exile, as pictured in prophecies like Ezekiel 37. It is easy to imagine a woman from the tribe of Asher dedicating herself to continual prayer for the fulfillment of these prophecies. This is one possible background story for Anna.
Another possibility is that Anna’s ancestors were taken captive by the Assyrians and became part of one of the communities of Israelite exiles that formed in Media. These communities developed close ties with Jerusalem during the Second Temple period. According to Josephus, many paid the annual temple tax (Antiquities of the Jews 18.9.1). Some occasionally traveled to Jerusalem for a festival (Acts 2:9). There was also regular correspondence between Jerusalem and Media. For example, Paul’s teacher Gamaliel once wrote a letter to Israelites in exile informing them of an upcoming calendar adjustment.(2)
A revealing portrayal of the culture of the Israelite exiles appears in Tobit, a book preserved in the Old Testament Apocrypha. Tobit, the title character, came from the tribe of Naphtali, another northern tribe. He and his family were faith-ful followers of Yahweh who maintained their tribal identity and married other members of their tribe (Tobit 1:9; 4:12-13).
Sometimes exiles in Media had the opportunity to migrate back to the land of Israel. One example is Nahum the Mede, who was a leading judge in Jerusalem at the end of the Second Temple period. (Some of his rulings are preserved in the Talmud.) Presumably, either Nahum or his parents moved to Jerusalem from the Median diaspora.
The name Nahum was important for these Israelites. The prophet Nahum correctly foresaw the downfall of the powerful Assyrian Empire that had taken their ancestors into captivity, giving them confidence that all the words of the prophets would be fulfilled, including the prophecies of their eventual return from exile (Tobit 14:3-7). The name Nahum itself means “comfort” or “consolation,” and the related Hebrew verb is often used by Isaiah in prophecies about the restoration of Israel (40:1; 49:13; 51:3,12; 52:9; 61:2; 66:13).
All of this information points to the possibility that Anna came from an Israelite family in the Median diaspora. This possibility seems even more likely when we consider that in the book of Tobit, Tobit’s wife was named Anna (Tobit 2:1). We can imagine Anna’s parents, who would have loved the story of Tobit and the hopes for Israel’s restoration expressed in that book, naming their daughter after a main character in the story.
Anna would have grown up with a knowledge of the words of the prophets and a desire to see their fulfillment. After finding a way to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, she then found a way to stay in the place she saw as her true home.
The name of Anna’s father, Phanuel, is also interesting in this regard. Phanuel means “face of God,” a familiar biblical metaphor connected with Israel’s exile from, and return to, the land. In Dt 31:17-18; 32:20, a future exile is described in terms of God hiding his face. On the other hand, restoration from exile is described in terms of God’s face shining or turning toward his people and Temple (Ps 80:3,19; 2 Ch 30:6-9; Dan 9:17). Phanuel’s name, then, can be seen as expressing the hope of the exiles for a return to the land, a hope that he passed on to his daughter Anna.
Whatever the details of Anna’s story, in exploring it we come to a deeper understanding of the message of Luke 2:25-38. Simeon, representing the hopes of Jews in Jerusalem, saw Jesus as the One who would carry out Israel’s mission to be a light to the nations (Lk 2:32). Anna, representing the hopes of diaspora Jews, thought of Jesus as the One who would one day bring all the tribes together again in the land of Israel. The two prophets highlighted two important aspects of the work of the Messiah.
(1) See Richard Bauckham's paper "Anna of the Tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36-38),"Revue Biblique 104 (1997), pp. 161-191.
(2) Bauckham, pp. 174-175.
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