AND THE HOPE OF ALL
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
In between the two
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
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 (, ), 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 :
· 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. ,24; Luke ). The parents of both received a blessing during their visits to the house of God (I Sam. ; Luke ).
· With their parents not present, both Samuel and Jesus were active at the house of God at relatively early ages (I Sam. 3; Luke -49).
· Both were said to have "grown in favor with God and man" as they grew up (I Sam. 2:26; ; 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
Bauckham (, 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
One possibility is that Anna could have come from
By Jesus' time there was a lot of friction between
Israelites and Gentiles in the
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 (NETBible):
"The king of
As the centuries went by, it was with the third of these
locations-Media, a territory that today is part of
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
Bauckham observes that
"awareness of tribal membership may be more likely to have survived in the
eastern diaspora than in
At some point the Median exiles established formal ties with
Media was viewed as a very remote location by people in
An attachment to
For Median Israelites who felt as Tobit
did, there were several ways to express a connection with
Given sufficient funds, an Israelite could achieve a more
direct connection with the
Finally, there were a few who had the means and inclination
to actually move to
Bauckham (, pp. 179-180)
observes that Nahum was an ideal name for a Median Israelite. The prophet Nahum
had predicted the destruction of
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
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" (, 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
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. ). 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
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. -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 (, p. 181):
· In Deut. 31:17-18; 32:20, a future
· 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
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
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
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
Bauckham (, 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
1. Richard Bauckham, "Anna of the Tribe of Asher (Luke -38)," Revue Biblique 104 (1997), pp. 161-191.
2. Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in
the Gospels, Eerdmans,
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,
is also an indication that the magi arrived in
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 (, p. 172).
(, pp. 173-174) mentions a story preserved in the Talmud about a rabbi in
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