a widow’s mite

True generosity

The widow is unnamed, just a face in the crowd. Despite this her story has been told and retold over many centuries.

Main themes of the story

  • It is not the size of a gift that matters, but what remains after it has been given (see below)
  • Just before this story in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been teaching and debating in the Temple courts. He has been surrounded by the opulence and luxury of King Herod the Great’s newly constructed Temple. Money, money, money, everywhere. This story encapsulates his reaction to the values (or lack of them) behind the lavish buildings on the Temple Mount.

The story of the Widow has two parts:

1. Jesus sees her as she places her offering in the Temple Treasury

2. He points her out to his disciples as a model of true generosity


Who was the widow?

Fayum portrait

Immediately before this story begins, we are given a hint as to why it appears in the gospels at all. After all, the woman in the story is a nobody, penniless and alone in a society that values wealth and family connections. Why is she even mentioned?

What we discover is that she has something all the rich people in the Temple courtyard will never have: the admiration of Jesus of Nazareth.

We are given a hint of who she is by the positioning of her story. In the previous chapter there has been heated controversy about a whole range of questions: who is God, whom should we obey, what are our responsibilities? And the words written immediately before her story begins mention the way poor people’s rights are trampled on by the rich and powerful:

38 And in his (Jesus’) teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places
39 and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts,
40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Groundplan, Jerusalem temples of Ezra and HerodIt’s worth remembering that in the years immediately preceding this incident, King Herod the Great had taken over large areas of Jerusalem to provide land to extend the Temple Mount and its huge administration blocks, colleges, and priests’ quarters. You can see this by comparing the ground plans of the earlier Temple precincts (built by Solomon and Ezra) with the grand Temple built by King Herod. At right are two plans,

  • one of the Temple Ezra constructed on the same scale as Solomon’s Temple,
  • and the other, grander Temple Herod built at the time of Jesus.

The extra land needed for Herod’s Temple precinct must have been gained by the demolition of existing buildings. It’s very possible that ‘widow’s houses’ had actually been destroyed to make way for the new Temple buildings, and even that the widow in the story had been among those robbed of their homes in this land repossession..

What was the treasury?

The ‘treasury’ mentioned in the story could have been one of two things:Pile of gold coins

  • a specially designated room next to the Women’s Court or
  • a receptacle for offerings; along the colonnade which surrounded the Court of the Women there were thirteen chests with trumpet-shaped openings (Hebrew sapaiw) provided for offerings from the worshippers.

The ‘small copper coins’ mentioned in the story were the smallest amount in circulation at the time of Jesus, the least valuable coin available (see an example at the top of this page). A ‘penny’ was the Roman quadrans, which was 1/64 of the daily wage for an ordinary worker.

Reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple built by King Herod the Great

(Above) Reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple built by King Herod the Great. The Women’s Court, where Jesus saw the widow, is the courtyard in the left of the picture.

Reconstruction of the 1st century Temple in Jerusalem

(Above) Reconstruction of the 1st century Temple in Jerusalem. The Women’s Court where this story unfolded is in the upper left of this photograph

painting of the Presentation in the Temple

This painting of the Presentation in the Temple shows the steps leading up into the Men’s Court of the Temple; women were not allowed past this point.

What happened?

Jesus sat at some vantage-point in full view of this part of the Temple. He was probably weary from the day’s prolonged debates. His eye fell upon the solitary figure of a poor widow who put in two copper coins (Greek lepta, the smallest copper coin in use) which the evangelist Mark, for the benefit of his Roman readers, computes in terms of Roman coinage as equivalent to a penny (Greek kodrantés).

He called the attention of the disciples to the woman. She had given two of the tiniest coins in circulation (‘mites’) as her offering, alongside the large gifts of the rich. In the sight of Jesus her gift was the greatest, for what God measures is not so much the size of the gift as what remains after it has been given. In this particular case the donor had given her whole income.

The lesson of the story is that Jesus’ first concern is not what men have, or give, but how they give it. Money in itself has no value in the kingdom of God; so Jesus refused to count totals. Instead he looked at the motives of the donor. The essence of all true giving is sacrifice, and the value of every gift relative, not absolute.

Notice that in Luke’s retelling of the story, Jesus contrasts the rich donors and this poor widow not once but three times, to emphasize the glaring difference between the two sorts of people.


The Bible text

Mark 12:41-44

41 And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.
42 And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny.
43 And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.
44 For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”

Luke 21:1-4

1 He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury;
2 and he saw a poor widow put in two copper coins.
3 And he said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them;
4 for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had.”

Reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem


Notes

  • This story brings welcome relief after the heat of controversy preceding it, for here is one who, in her simplicity, gave to God everything she had. It was no doubt positioned deliberately by Mark, because he put the story of the devouring of widows’ houses immediately before (verse 40).
  • 41 It is not certain that there was a building called the treasury (Greek gazophylakion) but along the colonnade which surrounded the Court of the Women there were thirteen chests with trumpet-shaped openings (Hebrew sapaiw) provided for the offerings of the worshippers. At some vantage-point in full view of this part of the Temple Jesus sat, probably wearied by the prolonged teaching/arguments of the day. The lesson of the whole story is that Jesus’ first concern is not what people give but how they give it. Money in itself has no value in the kingdom of God; so Jesus refused to count totals but looked at the motives of the donor (see 2 Corinthians 8:12).
  • 42 Therefore when his eye fell upon the solitary figure of a poor widow who put in two copper coins (Greek lepta, the smallest copper coin in use) which Mark, for the benefit of his Roman readers, computes in terms of Roman coinage as equivalent to a penny (Greek kodrantés, a transliteration of the Latin quadrans, ‘a farthing’)
  • 43, 44 In answer to the question of how Jesus came to know the amount of her gift, he may have discovered by quite ordinary means which are not disclosed; but in any case the question is irrelevant to the story. The essence of all true giving is sacrifice, and the value of every gift relative, not absolute.

princess salome story

Salome:the name comes from the Hebrew word ‘shalom’, meaning ‘peace’

Herod and Herodias were both family names stemming from the Greek word ‘heros’, meaning hero or warrior

Main themes of the story

  • The misuse of power. John the Baptist makes a valid objection of the marriage between Herod Antipas and his brother’s wife Herodias. For this he is punished with sudden death. Powerful people brook no criticism.
  • Making women carry the burden. History blames Herodias and her daughter Salome for the death of John the Baptist, but what about the ruler Herod Antipas? He was the ultimate authority, yet he shifted the blame onto them, the women of his own family.

The story of Salome raises two questions:
1 Who were Salome, Herodias and Herod Antipas? Salome’s and her treacherous family. Why did they hate John the Baptist? The political world of 1st century Palestine.

2 What were her motives?: (Mark 6:17-20, Matthew 14:1-5 Bible text below.)
Why did Salome collude with her mother (and possibly Herod Antipas) to kill John the Baptist

Everyone thinks they know this story well. John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod Antipas, whose step-daughter Salome danced at a banquet and demanded John’s head as a reward. Herod Antipas acquiesced because he had an incestuous passion for his step-daughter, John died, and Salome and her mother Herodias were cast as villains forever.

Here are some facts that add a deeper layer to the story.

First of all, who was Salome?

Salome was the daughter of Herodias, about 14-16 years old at the time of John’s death. She was on the threshold of marriage herself, ‘a green fruit come to ripening’.

Salome as a degenerate seductress, in a Ken Russell production

Salome has been repeatedly demonized by male artists and writers, as in this Ken Russell production (above)

She had been brought up in the sedate court of Philip, her real father, a dull but competent man. Her mother Herodias was a clever woman but bored and frustrated in Philip’s court. For little Salome, it was probably a secure environment. Then her life was disrupted by her parents’ divorce.

The divorce happened because Herodias had fallen deeply in love with her husband’s step-brother, Herod Antipas. In Jewish law, a marriage between them would be incestuous, but they went ahead. In doing so, they played into the hands of critics of the royal family, among whom was John the Baptiser. At the time there was an unremitting war of nerves going on between John’s political/religious sect and Salome’s family.

Salome was politically astute enough, even though young, to see the danger her mother was in from John the Baptist. She reacted in a way normal for children who experience any assault on their mother: she became very protective. When it came to the crunch, she was prepared to use her sexual power to do whatever she had to, to protect her mother. In dancing before the guests at the banquet, she was saying to Antipas ‘do now what you should have done already, and protect my mother’.

What sort of person was she? The Greek words ‘to korasion’ were used to describe Salome at the time John’s head was given to her, and when she later took the head to her mother. The words describe a well-born young woman of marriageable age.

Ironically, these same words were also used in connection with the daughter of Jairus, whom Jesus cured. These two young women were both of high social status, though from different worlds. It was a phrase that implied respect. Putting it in the context of John’s severed head may have been an ironic attack on the Jewish royal family: Salome’s a princess, but look what she did!

Who was Herodias?

Herodias’ marriage to her first husband had not been a success, though it had produced Salome. Then she fell madly in love with Philip’s half-brother, and he with her. They broke every rule so that they could marry each other, and they faced social condemnation because of it.

Herodias, being the woman in the situation, was blamed more than Antipas. Perhaps this was because she came from a priestly family. The punishment for daughters of priestly families who behaved improperly was very severe. John the Baptist Was this another reason for John’s condemnation of her incestuous marriage? Was her sin worse because she came from a priestly background?

John, called the Baptist attacked Herodias at least as much as he attacked her husband. She looked to Antipas to do something about it, but of course he did not. It was not in his nature. He was passive, where Herodias was a woman of action. But she was also politically clever, and she knew she must bide her time, even though she seethed with frustration.

Who was Herod Antipas?

Antipas seems to have been insecure, both personally and politically. His father Herod the Great had been a brilliant madman. Among many other atrocities, he strangled his princess-wife in a fit of jealousy (real or feigned?) and also murdered two other sons. Royal families seem to spawn the occasional madman, and the Hasmoneans were no exception. Antipas learned early that the best course of actions was to be passive.

A selection of luxurious tableware from a painting excavated at Pompeii

He is presented by history as a libertine (sex, banquet, luxury), but in fact he never had the multiple wives his father had, nor the murderous family feuds. He liked to utter threats rather than take action, hoping the threat would do the job.

He was a man of his time, believing in magic and magicians. He was also interested in theology and ideas.

Herod Antipas, called by Jesus ‘that fox’, not because he was cunning but
because he was needlessly destructive,
as foxes are

Fox_face

Herod Antipas, called by Jesus ‘that fox’, not because he was cunning but because he was needlessly destructive, as foxes are

He may have had a roving eye, since people believed it when he made an extravagant promise to Salome – or didn’t believe it but were clever enough not to say so.

Antipas preferred to put things off than take decisive action. He only made a claim for his throne after his aunt, the older Salome, promised to help him. So, as in other events in his life, it was a woman who organised things for him. He did not actually leave his first wife. She left him. And as a final example, John had been denouncing him for quite some time before Herod consented to act.

So Herodias and Salome could not simply persuade him to act against John. They had to lever him into a position where he had no option other than to kill the prophet.

Ancient Greek jewellery. Curiously enough,
a snake was a symbol of eternal life.

Ancient Greek jewellery. Curiously enough, a snake was a symbol of eternal life.

The truth is that the whole episode of Salome’s dance was probably a sham, to get rid of John the Baptist without losing too much face. Antipas has probably done this sort of twisty thing a dozen times before.

The question is, was Antipas a party to the plan from the beginning? Did the three of them, Antipas, Herodias and Salome, decide the whole thing together? It is highly likely. Antipas’ lavish promise seems too improbable for a man who procrastinated.

What were Salome’s motives?

Salome was a young woman whose mother Herodias was under attack from an outsider, John the Baptist. Her response was to be protective of her mother. She stood by her mother and the interests of the Herodian family.

Was Antipas attracted to her? If so, it would have made her uneasy, but she was shrewd enough to realise it was something that could be used to her family’s advantage.

In the end, Salome was as ruthless in disposing of an enemy as her grandfather Herod the Great had been. She was the lion’s cub.

What happened to her afterwards?

The gospels have no further mention of Salome, but history does. According to Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, Salome married Philip the tetrarch and afterwards Aristobulus, the grandson of Herod and brother of Agrippa. (Josephus: Antiquities 18.5.4) She was what is nowadays called a ‘royal’, and seems to have had a long and comfortable life.


The Bible text Mark 6:17-29

17 For Herod had sent and seized John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Hero’di-as, his brother Philip’s wife; because he had married her. 18 For John said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Hero’di-as had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Hero’di-as’ daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it.” 23 And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 And she went out, and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard and gave orders to bring his head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Matthew 14:1-12

1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus; 2 and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist, he has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him.” 3 For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison, for the sake of Hero’di-as, his brother Philip’s wife; 4 because John said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5 And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. 6 But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Hero’di-as danced before the company, and pleased Herod, 7 so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9 And the king was sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given; 10 he sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11 and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12 And his disciples came and took the body and buried it; and they went and told Jesus.


Paintings of Salome

Salome, Jean Benner


Herodias and Salome with the head of John the Baptist Onorio Marinari


Salome, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530


Salome with the head of John, Sebastiano del Piombo


Salome with the head of John, Bernardino Luini

 


Salome’s Dance, Iman Maleki, Morteza Katouzian

wife of pilate’s her dreams

She warned, he didn’t listen

Names in the Bible often tell us something about the person:
This woman is nameless; she appears only briefly in one of the gospels, Matthew’s.

In later centuries she was called Claudia Procula, but it is impossible to tell whether this was her real name or an invented one.

Pontius‘ is a variant on the Latin word ‘pons’, meaning ‘bridge’. It may also have been a family name linked to the ancient Roman province of Pontus in Asia Minor – at the eastern end of the Black Sea. The origin of ‘Pilate‘ is unknown. A similar Latin word is ‘pilum’, or javelin.

She was not named in Matthew’s gospel because naming a person makes them real and individual, and that was not the purpose of the gospel writer. To him she was a symbol or a literary device rather than a real person – though she obviously existed.

Portrait of a Roman woman, by Henryk SiemiradzkiThe writer of Matthew’s gospel wanted his listener/reader to focus on the incident and what it showed about Pilate, rather than on the person who was Pilate’s wife.

Main themes in this incident

  • Messages from God. People in the ancient world were aware of the subconscious. They believed dreams could carry a significant message from God – or in the case of this Roman woman, from ‘the gods’.
  • We should listen for God’s voice in whatever guise it takes. Pilate’s wife called Jesus ‘this innocent man’. Through her, God gave Pilate a chance to do the right thing. He did not.
  • Listen to your own conscience. Pilate acted as he did because he cared so much about his Roman masters’ opinion. Yet for two thousand years he has been held in contempt by the whole Christian world for his fateful decision to condemn Jesus.

The wife of Pontius Pilate advises her husband

The story in Matthew’s gospel

During the trial of Jesus, Matthew mentions the wife of Pontius Pilate. We know very little about her except that she was high-born, Roman, well-educated and wealthy – and the wife of the Roman governor at the time of Jesus’ death.

On the morning of the trial of Jesus, she sent an urgent message to her husband: ‘I had a troubling dream. Do not have anything to do with this man.’ Pilate ignored his wife’s advice and condemned Jesus to death, making his name infamous.


Who was Pilate?

He was a very political man, always concerned about Rome’s opinion of him. His patron in Rome was Sejanus, who virtually governed Rome after the Emperor Tiberius retired to his villa at Capri. Pilate would keep his job only as long as he delivered relative peace and stability in the province he governed.

Judea was a difficult, rebellious part of the Roman Empire, and Pilate’s job was far from easy. Commentators call him cruel and oppressive, but this fails to take into account the turbulence of Jerusalem, especially at a time of one of the great festivals, when the city was jam-packed with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. Rebellion was a constant threat, and Pilate no doubt saw Jesus of Nazareth as a potential rebel, who must be neutralized as quickly as possible.

'Ecce Homo' (Behold the Man), Antonio Ciseri

What was Pilate’s relationship with his wife?

He travelled constantly, keeping an eye of each area of Judea. It seems that his wife travelled with him. This may show something of the closeness of their relationship, since life in the administrative center of Caesarea would certainly have been more comfortable for her.

Perhaps he was accustomed to seek out her advice on difficult matters; educated Roman women were often quite powerful figures behind the scenes – think of Livia’s relationship with her husband Augustus. Pilate’s wife is the only person recorded who appealed the decision to condemn Jesus.

You can read the verse in Matthew’s gospel in a negative way, seeing Pilate’s attitude as dismissive, patronising, impatient.

But is could also show a man who was affectionate, tring to reassure his wife in what was a combustible situation that everything would be alright. Who knows with a husband and wife?

Messages in Dreams and Omens

'Ecce Homo' (Behold the Man), Antonio Ciseri, detail of painting showing Pontius Pilate presenting Jesus to the crowd.When she did appeal her husband’s decision, she quoted a terrible dream she had the previous night. This dream frightened and bewildered her so much that she felt impelled to act on it.

Dreams were given great significance in the ancient world, more so than they are now. Usually they were seen as warnings against some danger, or as prompts sent by God to persuade a person to take a particular course of action.

The New Testament records several dreams that changed the course of history:

the dream of the Magi, warning them not to return to Herod (Matthew 2:12)

the dream of Joseph of Nazareth, warning him to flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13)

the dream telling Joseph to return from Egypt and settle in Galilee (Matthew 2:19 and 2:22)

All of these dreams appear in the gospel of Matthew, who was writing for a Greek, Jewish and Christian audience. In his own way he knew about the promptings of the subconscious.

The Ara Pacis, an altar to Peace built by the Emperor Augustus, newly built at the time Priscilla was living in Rome

The Ara Pacis, an altar to Peace built by the Emperor Augustus. This was newly built at the time of Jesus’ death. The wife of Pilate must have seen this shrine, and even attended a religious sacrifice there.

The Dream of Pilate’s Wife

Gold crescent pendant from the Roman period

For jewelry worn by rich Roman women, see Ancient Jewelry

So why is the incident even mentioned?

Perhaps her dream is a warning to Pilate from someone he knows and trusts. He ignores it, and therefore the gospel implies that, coming from her, he was at fault when he took no notice of it. In much the same way, Calpurnia is supposed to have warned Julius Caesar not to go to the Senate on the Ides of March. Both stories show a man who will not even take advice from a tursted person. The sin of pride is therefore worse.

Keep in mind that the gospel writers were going out of their way to present the Roman authorities in a good light. This was sensible political policy at the time, since the gospels were written down not long after the disasterous rebellion against Rome, in which a good proportion of the Jewish population were annhilated. It was sensible (if you wanted to survive) to present the Roman authorities at the time of Jesus’ death in a good light, and cast the blame on the Jewish hierarchy. This was only prudent. But even so, the gospel writers would not concede that Pilate was blameless. They refused to exonerate him from guilt.

_____________________________________________

PILATE’S WIFE

by Carol Ann Duffy

Firstly, his hands — a woman’s. Softer than mine,
with pearly nails, like shells from Galilee.
Indolent hands. Camp hands that clapped for grapes.
Their pale, mothy touch made me flinch. Pontius.

I longed for Rome, home, someone else. When the Nazarene
entered Jerusalem, my maid and I crept out,
bored stiff, disguised, and joined the frenzied crowd.
I tripped, clutched the bridle of an ass, looked up

and there he was. His face? Ugly. Talented.
He looked at me. I mean he looked at me. My God.
His eyes were eyes to die for. Then he was gone,
his rough men shouldering a pathway to the gates.

The night before his trial, I dreamt of him.
His brown hands touched me. Then it hurt.
Then blood. I saw that each tough palm was skewered
by a nail. I woke up, sweating, sexual, terrified.

Leave him alone. I sent a warning note, then quickly dressed.
When I arrived, the Nazarene was crowned with thorns.
The crowd was baying for Barabbas. Pilate saw me,
looked away, then carefully turned up his sleeves
and slowly washed his useless, perfumed hands.
They seized the prophet then and dragged him out,
up to the Place of Skulls. My maid knows all the rest.
Was he God? Of course not. Pilate believed he was.

Marble bust of a Roman matron


Bible study activities and questions

Imaginative reconstruction
Scene from the film 'The Passion of the Christ', with Jesus being presented to the crowd by Pontius PilateImagine that you are a friend of Pilate’s wife, or her maidservant. When her message is ignored, Pilate’s wife hurries to the room where the seat of judgment is. You accompany her. You catch a glimpse of the condemned man Jesus as he is led away. Describe

  • what he looks like
  • what he says, and what the people around him say: onlookers, soldiers, etc.
  • your immediate response: what do you do and say?
  • your own private emotions when you realize what is happening
  • your thoughts a few days later, after he has been horribly killed.

Present these descriptions and responses in the form of a journal entry, or tell the group or a learning partner about your imagined experience.

If you are interested in the way that modern films present people from the New Testament, look at
Modern Images of Jesus and
Modern Images of Mary

Women in films

Identify recent films about the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.
What methods has the film used to present the story of Jesus? What was your response to these films? Favorable, unfavorable or both? Explain.

Dozens of extra ideas at Activities for Bible Study Groups and Schools

Pontius Pilate, from a modern movie

A real Roman couple: Terentius Neo of Pompeii, who lived just a few years later than Pontius Pilate and his wife

Bible Study Resource, Women in the Bible: Wife of Pontius Pilate, the trial, her dream, her warning

Anna story

A meeting with Jesus

Anna is a form of ‘Hannah’. The name means ‘grace’ or ‘favor’. She is identified as the daughter of Phan’u-el

Phan’u-el means ‘face of God’; this may be a play on words, since Anna will be among the first to recognise the face of God when she sees the infant Jesus. Phan’u-el, her husband, was from the tribe of Asher, one of the northern tribes from the so-called ten lost tribes of Israel.

Main themes of the story

  • Like many stories in the New Testament, this is not about the woman Anna but about Jesus. Its purpose is to show who Jesus is.
  • Anna, a holy and wise woman, can see what is not yet apparent to others: the destiny of the small child she holds in her arms

The story of Anna has just one episode:

She sees the infant Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem, brought there by his parents (Luke 2:36-38, see this text at the bottom of the page). Anna had divine insight into things normally hidden from ordinary people, and so could recognise something other people did not see. She sees the infant Jesus in the Temple and knows immediately who he is, and how significant he will be.

Who was she? Stained glass window of Anna, prophetess

We are given a surprising amount of detail about Anna. We find out about

  • her tribe and family, and that after seven years of marriage she had become a widow; there is a nice parallel here: the Jewish heroine Judith likewise did not remarry after her husband’s death, and lived to be about the same age; her way of life was similar to Anna’s.
  • her advanced age; she is an elderly Jewish woman of at least eighty-four years, possibly more.

It’s odd that her age is mentioned: talking about the age of a person, man or woman, in the New Testament is rare. I can’t think of another example. But here the text dwells on how long she has lived, the long, long years she has waited, for the Holy One of God. The reader (or listener) knows more than she does: that the Holy One has come. Not only that, but she holds him in her arms.

Perhaps the point of telling us how old she is, is twofold:

  • to parallel the long years the Jewish people have waited for their Messiah
  • as if the waiting, and the certainty of an eventual reward, has kept her alive

Anna at the Temple in Jerusalem

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, by James TissotMary and Joseph are there at the Temple because they have brought their newborn son Jesus for the customary ceremony. After the birth of a male child, the mother was ritually unclean for seven days and had to remain at home for a further thirty-three after which, on the fortieth day, a purification sacrifice had to be offered (see Leviticus 12:2-8).

As well as this a first-born child, male or female, had to be ‘redeemed’. Each firstborn was regarded as holy or consecrated to God. The firstborn of animals was sacrificed, but the firstborn of men and women were redeemed by a payment of 5 shekels when thery were one month old (Exodus 13:13, Numbers 18:15, 16). The Law did not require the child’s presence at the Temple when payment was made, but on this occasion the two ceremonies were held together.

Anna came in just after Simeon proclaimed Jesus to be the long-awaited ‘salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’. (Luke 2:30-33) It is not clear from the text whether Anna has heard these words, or not.

What happened when she saw Jesus?

Anna in the Temple, by Jerry BacikWhat is she doing there? We are told that Anna was constantly at the Temple, day and night. The words do not mean that she never left it, rather that prayer in the Temple was the focus of her whole life. She is a holy woman concentrating all her remaining energy on communion with God.

At that moment described in Luke’s gospel, Anna steps forward and overcome with sublime joy, begins praising God for what she knows has happened. The Greek word used suggests the idea of recognition. She ‘sees’ what others cannot. Her reaction is immediate and dramatic: she speaks in as loud a voice as she can muster, telling anyone near her about this extraordinary child. Here, in front of their eyes, is the Being who will bring redemption to Israel.


The Bible text, Luke 2:36-38

36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phan’u-el, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, 37 and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.


Read about more fascinating women of the Old and New Testaments

Presentation in the Temple, by Bellini

Bible Study Resource for Women in the Bible: Rebecca – Women of the Old Testament Anna, prophetess, recognised Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem

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