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The Annunciation, Anna, and Luke’s Egalitarianism

No synoptic gospel mentions more about females than Luke. Alfred Plummer referred to Luke’s gospel as the “Gospel of Women.”1 Half of Luke’s gospel is found nowhere in Matthew and Mark, and this includes some accounts and insight about Jesus’s interactions with women.

Luke desired to express something Matthew and Mark did not, and one unique aspect of Luke is the issue of the eminence of women.2 Thurston writes, “Nearly one-third of the material unique to Luke deals with women.”3 Women were not thought of highly in that society, but they were clearly important to this gospel writer.4

Scholarship has been divided on the significance of the large amount of material on women in Luke. Some argue that Luke writes about women in a positive light, while others argue that women are written about in a negative one.5 This article will argue for the first understanding. Two passages unique to Luke highlight how women were not second-rate society members compared to men, but were prominent: the annunciations of Zechariah and Mary—simply referred to as the Annunciation, highlighting the virgin birth—and account of Anna, the prophet at the temple. In these accounts, Luke emphasizes women in light of their life situations (Sitz im Leben) to communicate their equal importance with men.

The Annunciation: Luke 1:5–25, 26–38

When this passage is discussed, the primary topic is the annunciation of Christ’s birth from Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, but there is another annunciation before Mary’s: that of Zechariah. These two passages announce the births of John the Baptist and Jesus.6 Raymond Brown writes,

A close comparison of the introductions to the two Lucan annunciations reveals an even more significant difference between them. Zechariah and Elizabeth in their piety have been yearning for a child, so that the conception of the Baptist was part of God’s answer to Zechariah’s prayers (Lk 1:13); but Mary is a virgin who has not yet been intimate with her husband, so that what happens is not a response to her yearning but a surprise initiative by God that neither Mary nor Joseph could have anticipated. The Baptist’s conception, while a gift of God, involved an act of human intercourse. Mary’s conception involves a divine creative action without human intercourse; it is the work of the overshadowing Spirit, that same Spirit that hovered at the creation of the world when all was void (Gen 1:2). . . . Luke underlines the uniqueness of Jesus who, even in conception and birth, is greater than the Baptist (Lk 3:16).7

Already, Luke is revealing women in an equally prominent role with men by contrasting John’s father, Zechariah the priest, with Mary. Not only is Jesus greater than John, but Mary’s faith will be greater than Zechariah’s. Zechariah, an older man and priest, would be considered one of the highest members of society, male or female, being highly educated in order to read, study, and teach Torah. 

Luke 1:5–25 begins with Zechariah and Elizabeth being old and barren. They probably felt they would never conceive. It seems unjust, since they are both described with such positive adjectives, and infertility was often associated with being cursed. Leon Morris observes, “The piety of this couple is brought out with the adjectives righteous and blameless. This means . . . they served God faithfully. . . . It made their childless state hard for them to understand, for people believed that God would bless faithful servants by giving them children.”8 One would think that Zechariah and Elizabeth would be the couple that God would choose to bear Jesus. In the Old Testament, Abraham was chosen by God to produce a great nation and, through his offspring, all the nations of the world would be blessed. He and Sarah were barren for almost twenty-five years after God first made this covenant with them; thus, Abraham had to wait twenty-five years before his son Isaac was born, and then he would have to wait another sixty years for grandchildren. But God did not choose either Abraham and Sarah or Zechariah and Elizabeth to bear Jesus.9

Zechariah was not only an older educated man with a prominent position in society, but was also privileged with burning incense in the temple. This was something that a priest could only do once in a lifetime, and it would not be uncommon if a priest never offered incense.10 Performing this rite would be the apex of Zechariah’s priestly career. Zechariah’s priestly division was on duty and incense was required to be burning on the altar in front of the Most Holy Place before the morning sacrifice and after the evening one. The assignment was determined by lot. Zechariah, being old in age, would have waited a long time to receive this honor. Joel Green notes:

The “altar of incense” was located in the sanctuary itself, in the outer chamber of the Holy Place. On the one side was a curtained doorway leading to the inner chamber or Holy of Holies. This was the locus of God’s glory and could be entered on only one day each year, the Day of Atonement, and then only by the high priest. The offering of incense, then, would bring Zechariah as close to the presence of God as any person other than the high priest might ever come. Many priests might never experience this honor, and it was forever out of the reach of nonpriests. . . . Zechariah is portrayed as having been selected by God for an honorable task, one that might even bring him divine blessing.11

In contrast, Mary, in society’s eyes, would not be as prominent as Zechariah.12 She was possibly as young as a teenager when the angel Gabriel visited and could have been as young as eleven or twelve years of age.13 She was female and likely uneducated, possessing a limited knowledge of Torah. Yet, when the angel Gabriel announced the birth of their “special” children, Zechariah did not believe and Mary did.

Zechariah would have been at the height of his priestly career as well as close to the presence of God, but he did not believe. Morris writes that Zechariah “refused point blank to believe the angel. His question is identical with that asked by Abraham centuries before (Gen. 15:8), but it is asked in a different spirit. . . . Zechariah speaks from unbelief as he reminds the angel that both he and his wife are old (his I is emphatic).”14 Luke is clearly communicating the prominence of women by contrasting Zechariah, an educated male priest who is at the pinnacle of his priestly career, with Mary, a young girl likely no older than a teenager. Raymond Brown writes,

Worthy of note is Gabriel’s addressing Mary in 1:28 as “Favored One.” This has the connotation of being especially graced, whence the Latin translation that gave rise to the “full of grace.” The favor or grace that Mary “has found with God” (1:30) is explained in 1:31 in future terms: She will conceive and give birth to Jesus. The address “Favored One” anticipates that future favor with certitude, but it also corresponds to a status that Mary has already enjoyed.15

But Zechariah should have been “favored,” as he was a priest offering incense in the temple close to the Holy of Holies. Like Abraham, he was older and barren with neither child nor grandchild. Mary, by all accounts, was just living an ordinary life.

If the writer’s main goal was to highlight the annunciation of Christ’s virgin birth, there would be no need to spend such detail describing the circumstances of Zechariah’s unbelief. Zechariah, experiencing the most important event in his priestly career and one of his holiest moments, does not believe the angel Gabriel’s annunciation. Zechariah knew that Abraham and Sarah had conceived in their old age, yet he did not believe he and his wife could, and was struck mute. The young woman Mary believes, despite a limited knowledge of Torah. Contrasting Zechariah and Mary is a literary technique Luke uses to communicate the prominence and importance of women to society and God. Despite Zechariah being in the most prominent moment of his life, Mary receives more. Luke’s contrast of Mary and Zechariah may be his way of showing his readers that all women, not just Mary, have significance in the eyes of God.

One can make the argument that Luke is not trying to communicate the prominence of women by comparing and contrasting Zechariah and Mary, but, in the context of the entire gospel, women are prominent in the presentation of Jesus at the Temple (2:21–40), the raising of the widow’s son at Nain (7:11–17),16 the encounter with the homeless woman (7:36–50), the list of ministering women whose names are written in the same section as Jesus’s disciples (8:1–3), the story of Mary sitting at Jesus’s feet while Martha prepares for hospitality (10:38–42), the healing of a crippled woman (13:10–17), and the parable of the widow and the judge (18:1–10). All of these passages are unique to Luke and found nowhere else in the gospels. In addition, Luke 23:50—24:53, which highlights the death and resurrection of Jesus, describes women in a positive light.

Showing Mary believe while Zechariah does not reveals that a young woman, maybe as young as eleven or twelve, has more faith than a godly righteous old priest who is as close to the Holy of Holies as he will ever come at the pinnacle of his priestly service. While this would paint men in a bad light (which would be countercultural in those days), it also shows that women are prominent in the kingdom of God, able to believe without the benefit of being a priest, studying Torah, and being close to the physical presence of God.

Anna: Luke 2:22–40

From Zechariah and Mary, Luke now moves to compare and contrast two more people: Simeon and Anna. Following Jesus’s birth, Joseph and Mary needed to follow the law of purification rites. Mary would have to wait forty days before she could go to the temple to offer a sacrifice.

Some have questioned why Luke would even mention Anna, because there are only three verses attributed to her appearance. Zechariah (Nunc Dimittis), Mary (Magnificat), and Simeon (Benedictus) all have songs attributed to them, but Anna does not. For example, Bonnie Thurston writes, “It is clear why Luke devotes such attention to Elizabeth, the mother of the Forerunner, and to Mary, the mother of the Savior, but who is Anna?”17

Darrell Bock believes the purpose of contrasting Simeon and Anna in the temple is to show that all people should rejoice at the coming of Jesus.18 But Luke may not have been Jewish, and the scene takes place at the temple. Had this been a prominent theme for Luke, he could also have made a reference to a non-Jewish person who had been allowed in the courtyard. It is likely that Luke had in mind to communicate that women were important—more important than in society’s view.

Anna’s appearance can be puzzling, Stein admits: “Why Luke made mention of her coming from the tribe of Asher is unclear . . . the years of her widowhood is [sic] uncertain. . . . Whether Luke sought to portray Anna here as a prototype of the Christian widow is also uncertain.”19

Thurston may provide the answer to Stein, explaining that “Anna” is the Greek form of “Hannah,” “Phanuel” is the Greek form of “Penuel,” and “Asher,” meaning “luck,” is the name of the outlying northern tribes. Women are important in Luke’s writing because they are daughters of Abraham.20 Anna’s story may be perceived as unnecessary from an initial perusal, but Luke’s purpose is to communicate that women were important.

One thing we do know is that Anna is in a Lucan pair with Simeon. Luke uses pairs of men and women throughout his gospel to demonstrate “the spiritual equality of men and women in the Christian community.”21

Luke also uses a literary technique known as intercalation to illustrate the eminence of women in the temple pericope.22 Mark Allan Powell explains that intercalation is “wrapping one story around another to make . . . a ‘literary sandwich.’”23 Powell continues, “The rhetorical effect seems to be to invite the reader to look more closely at the two stories, to compare and contrast them. Thus, the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree helps to interpret the account of his purging the temple: like the fig tree, the temple no longer bears fruit . . . and so, like the fig tree, it is doomed.”24 Rhodes and Michie add that “the two related stories illuminate and enrich each other, commenting on and clarifying the meaning, one of the other.”25 Fowler concludes that intercalation is an “invitation to read the framed episode in light of the frame episode and vice versa.”26 Though this technique is more common in Mark and usually used with two stories, here Luke intertwines three: the stories of Simeon and Anna sandwiched in between Luke 2:21–24 and 2:39–40, the account of the temple visit of Mary.

When they arrive at the temple, they meet a man named Simeon. Simeon is described in Luke 2:25–26 as “righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (NASB). Upon seeing the child, Simeon recites what is now known as the Nunc Dimittis, from the Latin Vulgate meaning “Now dismiss,”27 and pronounces a blessing on Jesus.

While dedicating ten verses to Simeon, Luke only uses three to describe Anna.28 The fact that Luke insists on inserting Anna’s story shows that he wants to elevate the prominence of women during the New Testament times.

One significant adjective describing Anna is that she is a prophetess.29 Jane Schaberg identifies Anna as the only woman in a gospel given the title of prophetess.30 Bock writes, “In Jewish tradition, seven women were mentioned as prophetesses: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther. . . . Anna is a vessel for revelation from God.”31 Being in the tradition of these seven prophetesses makes Anna’s role indistinguishable from that of the male prophet equivalents.32 Thurston observes, “Prophecy was a normal part of Christian worship (1 Thess 5:20; 1 Cor 12:28–29) and in later lists of charisms ‘prophet’ ranks with apostles, teachers and leaders (see Eph 4:11–13). Acts 21:9 indicates that women were numbered among the prophets of the church.”33

To Nelson Estrada, Anna’s appearance would seem redundant as she and Simeon have many similarities:

  1. Both were promptly introduced with the customary Greek imperfect kai . . . en (2:25; 2:36).
  2. Both were pictured as faithful, devout, and were in the temple during the time of Jesus’s presentation. Simeon was “righteous and devout” (v. 25), and Anna “did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day” (v. 37b).
  3. Both were seen to be of old age. Simeon was told “that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (v. 26b), while Anna “was of great age . . . she was eighty-four” (vv. 36b, 37).
  4. Both held significant cultic offices. Simeon was possibly a priest serving in the temple, for only temple priests were permitted to do child presentations (v. 27), whereas Anna was called a prophetess (v. 36).
  5. Both were able to recognize the child.
  6. Both gave thanks and spoke of God’s salvation upon seeing the child. Simeon “took him up in his arms and blessed God” (4:28), while Anna, “coming up at that very hour, gave thanks” (v. 38a).34

So Anna’s appearance might seem superfluous, as she does not really add anything to the pericope. But, sandwiched in the midst of the presentation of Jesus in the temple and contrasted with Simeon, clearly it demonstrates Luke’s insistence on not leaving out the eminence of women.

Anna and Simeon are contrasted at the temple, but Simeon moves into the temple courts while Anna never leaves the temple. The temple is a prominent motif that begins (Luke 1:5–25) and ends the gospel (Luke 24:55). Zechariah receives his annunciation in the temple, Jesus is presented in the temple in chapter 2, and the chapter closes with Jesus as a twelve-year-old boy sitting at the temple learning and teaching. But noticeable in the other two synoptics is that there is no association of women with the temple. Luke fixes that, communicating to those who value the temple that women are important, and, by showing Anna associated with the temple, underscoring that women are significant.

Sandwiching Anna’s story in the midst of the temple appearance of Jesus is one of many ways Luke shows women’s prominence. Thurston further comments on the three power-packed verses on Anna:

She personifies the long history of an expectant people, those who have looked for the fulfillment of God’s promises. She is a prophetess, a widow and an early evangelist. Each of these roles refers in the New Testament to a person of note, and each had positive associations in early Christianity and in Luke’s community. Additionally, Anna exercises the ministries of prayer, fasting and worship.35

Clearly, Anna’s placement in this pericope highlights the prominence of women by showing a woman active in the temple, proclaiming the advent of Christ, worshipping and fasting, and being called the final prophet before John and Christ. Thurston writes:

With Simeon, she exemplifies the male/female balance which characterizes the literary construction of the Gospel and which points to the theological equality with which Luke received and proclaimed the gospel of Jesus. . . . Her role as evangelist at the beginning of the Gospel forms a great inclusion with the women who proclaim Jesus’ resurrection at its conclusion.36

Conclusion

These are two of many examples in Luke that show women have equal importance with men. Mary is a young woman, yet she is portrayed as greater in the eyes of God than a much older male priest who is experiencing the pinnacle of his priestly service while being in close proximity of the Holy of Holies.

Luke also makes sure to show that women, and not just men, had a significant part in the temple. Stating that Anna never left the temple communicates to the reader that women had an important function and were allowed to worship in the temple area. While the other gospels do not make reference to women and the temple, Luke ensures that his readers know that women worshipped at the temple and were important. Anna is also described as a prophetess living with great piety, proclaiming the advent of the Messiah—titles of prominence that are largely held by men.

Notes

  1. Alfred Plummer, The Gospel according to St. Luke (New York, NY: Scribner’s, 1907), 305.
  2. Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), 154, 159.
  3. Bonnie Thurston, “Who Was Anna? Luke 2:36–38,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 28, no. 1 (2001): 47.
  4. There is debate on whether the author of the gospel is the doctor referred to in Scripture as Luke or an anonymous author. I will not delve into that debate in this article.
  5. See Robert J. Karris, “Women and Discipleship in Luke,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 56 (1994): 2–5, for a brief summary of the scholarship, both positive and negative, on Luke and women. See Powell, New Testament, 154, 157, for a positive view of women in Luke. For a position that argues that Luke writes about women in a negative light, see Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, ed., Searching the Scriptures 2 (New York, NY: Crossroad, 1994), and Mary Rose D’Angelo, “Women in Luke-Acts: A Redactional View,” Journal of Biblical Literature 109 (1990): 441–61.
  6. D’Angelo writes, “Lucan ‘pairs’ of one or the other type can be detected in almost every chapter of the Gospel.” “Women in Luke-Acts,” 444. See also 444–46 for the list of Lucan pairs.
  7. Raymond Brown, “The annunciation to Zechariah, the birth of the Baptist, and the Benedictus (Luke 1:5–25, 57–80,” Worship 62, no. 6 (1988): 482–96.
  8. Leon Morris, Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans/IVP, 1988), 85.
  9. Scripturally, Jesus would be born through the line of Judah, and Zechariah and Elizabeth were in the line of Levi, so there would be no possible way for them to be in Christ’s line genealogically.
  10. Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 68, explains that Luke notes that Zechariah “belonged to the priestly order of Abijah” (v. 5) and refers to Zechariah’s “section” and “time of service” (vv. 8, 23). This terminology reflects the division of the priesthood into twenty-four orders or courses, made necessary by the sheer number of priests. Each order would serve at the temple on a rotating basis during two separate weeks each year. At any given time, one would find only a subdivision on duty in the temple.
  11. Green, Luke, 70–71.
  12. Zechariah was also experiencing one of the most important events of his life. Morris, Luke, 85, writes, “A priest could not offer incense more than once in his entire lifetime . . . and some priests never did receive the privilege. Thus, the time when Zechariah offered the incense was the most important moment in his whole life . . . he would go into the holy place with other priests, but they would retire, leaving him alone.”
  13. Thurston, “Anna,” 49, writes, “In the Second Temple period, girls were betrothed at eleven or twelve years of age.”
  14. Morris, Luke, 87.
  15. Brown, “Annunciation,” 252.
  16. Thurston, “Anna,” 48, writes, “Luke adds to Mark the example of the widow of Zarephath (4:24–30), the widow of Nain (7:11–15), and the parable of the widow and the unjust judge (18:1–11). Luke, in fact, refers to widows more frequently than does any other Gospel.”
  17. Thurston, “Anna,” 47.
  18. Darrell L. Bock, Luke, IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: InterVarsity, 1994), 57.
  19. Robert H. Stein, Luke: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1992), 117–18.
  20. Thurston, “Anna,” 49. Many also see parallels with Samuel 1 Sam 1–2; see also Raymond Brown, “The Presentation of Jesus (Luke 2:22–40),” Worship 51, no. 1 (1977): 5–6.
  21. Thurston, “Anna,” 48.
  22. Green, Luke, 152, states that Luke is forming an inclusion with 2:21–24. Other scholars have stated that Luke is using a chiastic structure.
  23. Powell, Introducing the New Testament, 131.
  24. Powell, Introducing the New Testament, 131.
  25. David Rhoads and Donald Michie, Mark as Story (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1982), 51.
  26. Robert M. Fowler, Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1991), 143.
  27. On the issue of the Magnificat, Benedictus, and Nunc Dimittis as responses of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon to the fulfillment of the promises individually revealed to them, see  Stephen Farris, The Hymns of Luke’s Infancy Narratives: Their Origin, Meaning, and Significance (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985), 101.
  28. There were no verse divisions when Luke first wrote his gospel, but there is a clear discrepancy at the number of words. Simeon clearly has more.
  29. Prophetess is used here and in Rev 2:20. Though some translations use “prophet” instead of “prophetess,” there is clearly a feminine distinction indicating that women had the position to prophesy.
  30. Jane Schaberg, “Luke,” in Carol A. Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe, eds., The Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 278.
  31. Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), 251.
  32. Thurston, “Anna,” 50.
  33. Thurston, “Anna,” 50.
  34. Nelson P. Estrada, “Praise for Promises Fulfilled: A Study on the Significance of the Anna the Prophetess Pericope,” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 2, no. 1 (1999):  8–9, http://www.apts.edu/ajps/99-1/99-1-n-estrada.htm, accessed Feb. 17, 2012.
  35. Thurston, “Anna,” 52.
  36. Thurston, “Anna,” 54.

 

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