The Nativity Stories in Luke and Matthew Aren’t Contradictory — But the Differences Are Bizarre

In The Bible is Rife with Contradictions and Changes, we saw myriad examples of different biblical accounts of the same event that cannot all be true — they contradict each other. But we also saw how other discrepancies aren’t contradictions if you use your imagination. The following example was too long to examine in that already-massive writing, so we will do so now.

It’s interesting that while the authors of both Matthew and Luke have Jesus born in Bethlehem and then settle down in Nazareth, the two stories are dramatically different, in that neither mentions the major events of the other. For example, the gift-bearing Magi arrive, King Herod kills children, and Jesus’ family flees to Egypt in Matthew, but Luke doesn’t bother mentioning any of it. Luke has the ludicrous census (everyone in the Roman Empire returning to the city of their ancestors, creating mass chaos, when the point of a census is to see where people live currently), the full inn, the shepherds, and the manger, but Matthew doesn’t.

These stories can be successfully jammed together. But it takes work. In Matthew 2:8-15, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are in Bethlehem but escape to Egypt to avoid Herod’s slaughter. Before fleeing, the family seems settled in the town: they are in a “house” (2:11) beneath the fabled star, and Herod “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” visitors concerning when the star appeared (2:16, 2:7). This is a bit confusing, as all boys from born-today to nearly three years old is a big range for someone who knows an “exact time” (2:7). But it suggests that Jesus may have been born a year or two ago, the star was over his home since his birth, and the Magi had a long journey to find him. Many Christian sites will tell you Jesus was about two when the wise men arrived. In any event, when Herod gives this order, the family travels to Egypt and remains there until he dies, then they go to Nazareth (2:23).

In Luke 2:16-39, after Jesus is born in Bethlehem the family goes to Jerusalem “when the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses” (2:22). This references the rites outlined in Leviticus 12 (before going to Jerusalem, Jesus is circumcised after eight days in Luke 2:21, in accordance with Leviticus 12:3). At the temple they sacrifice two birds (Luke 2:24), following Leviticus 12:1-8 — when a woman has a son she does this after thirty-three days to be made “clean.” Then, “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth” (Luke 2:39). Here they simply go to Nazareth when Jesus is about a month old. No mention of a flight to Egypt, no fear for their lives — everything seems rather normal. “When the time came for the purification rites” certainly suggests they did not somehow occur early or late.

So the mystery is: when did the family move to Nazareth?

Both stories get the family to the town, which they must do because while a prophesy said the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, Jesus was a Nazarene. But the paths there are unique, and you have to either build a mega-narrative to make it work — a larger story that is not in the bible, one you must invent to make divergent stories fit together — or reinterpret the bible in a way different than the aforementioned sites.

In this case, Option 1 is to say that when Luke 2:39 says they headed for Nazareth, this is where the entire story in Mathew is left out. They actually go back to Bethlehem, have the grand adventure to Egypt, and then go to Nazareth much later. This is a serious twist of the author’s writing; you have to declare the gospel doesn’t mean what it says, that narrative time words like “when” are meaningless (in the aforementioned article I wrote of us having to imagine “the bible breaks out of chronological patterns at our convenience”).

Option 2 is that they go to Nazareth after the rites as stated. Then at some point they go back to Bethlehem, have the Matthew adventure, and end up back in Nazareth. Maybe they were visiting relatives. Maybe they moved back to Bethlehem — after Herod dies it seems as if the family’s first thought is to go back there. Matthew 2:22-23: “But when [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.” So perhaps it’s best to suppose they went to Nazareth after the temple, moved back to Bethlehem, hid in Egypt, and went again to Nazareth. Luke of course doesn’t mention any of this either; the family heads to Nazareth after the temple rites and the narrative jumps to when Jesus is twelve (2:39-42).

Option 3 is that Jesus’ birth, the Magi visit, Herod’s killing spree, the family’s flight, Herod’s death, and the family’s return all occur in the space of a month. This of course disregards and reinterprets any hints that Jesus was about two years old. But it allows the family to have Matthew’s adventure and make it back to Jerusalem for the scheduled rites (which Matthew doesn’t mention), then go to Nazareth. One also must conclude that 1) the Magi didn’t have to travel very far, if the star appeared when Jesus was born, or 2) that the star appeared to guide them long before Jesus was born (interpret Matthew 2:1-2 how you will). It’s still odd that the only thing Luke records between birth and the temple is a circumcision, but Option 3, as rushed as it is, may be the best bet. That’s up to each reader to decide, for it’s all a matter of imagination.

Luke’s silence is worth pausing to consider. The Bible is Rife with Contradictions and Changes outlined the ramifications of one gospel not including a major event of another:

Believers typically insist that when a gospel doesn’t mention a miracle, speech, or story it’s because it’s covered in another. (When the gospels tell the same stories it’s “evidence” of validity, when they don’t it’s no big deal.) This line only works from the perspective of a later gospel: Luke was written after Matthew, so it’s fine if Luke doesn’t mention the flight to Egypt to save baby Jesus from Herod. Matthew already covered that. But from the viewpoint of an earlier text this begins to break down. It becomes: “No need to mention this miracle, someone else will do that eventually.” So whoever wrote Mark [the first gospel] ignored one of the biggest miracles in the life of Jesus, proof of his divine origins [the virgin birth story]? Or did the author, supposedly a disciple, not know about it? Or did gospel writers conspire and coordinate: “You cover this, I’ll cover that later.” Is it just one big miracle, with God ensuring that what was unknown or ignored (for whatever reason, maybe the questionable “writing to different audiences” theory) by one author would eventually make it into a gospel? That will satisfy most believers, but an enormous possibility hasn’t been mentioned. Perhaps the story of Jesus was simply being embellished — expanding over time, like so many other tales and legends (see Why God Almost Certainly Does Not Exist).

In truth, it is debatable whether Matthew came before Luke. Both were written around AD 80-90, so scholars disagree over which came first. If Matthew came first, Luke could perhaps be excused for leaving out the hunt for Jesus and journey to Egypt, as surprising as that might be. If Luke came first, it’s likely the author of Matthew concocted a new tale, making Jesus’ birth story far more dramatic and, happily, fulfilling a prophesy (Matthew 2:15: “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son'”). If they were written about the same time and independently, with the creators not having read each other’s work, they were likewise two very different stories.

Regardless of order and why the versions are different, one must decide how to best make the two tales fit — writers not meaning what they write, the holy family moving back and forth a bunch, or Jesus not being two when the Magi arrived with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

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