The first post in this series can be found here.
In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, we aren’t told how or why Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem. We also aren’t told exactly how old Jesus was by the time the wise men came, but it’s possible that he was already a year or two old. And by the time they do arrive, Joseph and Mary are staying in a house (Matt 2:11). In 2:13-15, an angel tells Joseph to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt because of Herod. Then, once the threat was over, we’re told in verses 19-23 that they moved from Egypt to Nazareth, as though it was the first time they had ever been there. In fact, verse 22 says that Joseph wanted to go back to Judea, but was afraid of Herod’s successor.
Luke’s account is pretty different. In Luke 2:4, we see that Joseph and Mary were already living in Nazareth, but had to go to Bethlehem for a census. Several scholars have been puzzled by this reasoning, but that in itself is nothing conclusive. Luke agrees that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but he says there was no room in the inn, so Jesus was laid in a manger after his birth. Luke has shepherds that visit, but there’s nothing about Herod or the wise men.
According to Luke, the family of three stays in Bethlehem until Mary’s time of purifying was over (Lev 12:1-8); this would have been about 6 weeks. Then they travelled to Jerusalem to perform the purification rituals. Once that was completed, they returned to Nazareth (Luke 2:39).
This is not merely an instance where Matthew provides more information than Luke – Luke actually doesn’t allow an opportunity for going to Egypt – nor does there seem to be any reason to. In Luke’s account, Joseph and Mary obviously weren’t concerned about Herod, because they went right into Jerusalem. In order to agree with Matthew, we could say that after their trip to Jerusalem, they returned to Bethlehem, where they met the wise men and were warned about Herod. But this disagrees with Luke 2:39 (where they go straight back to Nazareth), and it also doesn’t make any sense. If their home was in Nazareth, as Luke says, why would they return to Bethlehem?
We could also try to find agreement by saying that they left Bethlehem for Jerusalem, went to Nazareth, and then fled to Egypt. But Matthew says that Herod’s murder of the infants only happened in Bethlehem, so there would be no need to leave Nazareth. In fact, if they left Bethlehem to escape the infanticide, why not just go straight to Nazareth?
Here’s what I think: Jesus was from Nazareth. Jews believed that the Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), as seen in John 1:46, when Nathanael asks if anything good can come out of Nazareth. So Matthew and Luke both needed to have Jesus born in Bethlehem. Matthew simply had Joseph and Mary start out there. But then he needed a reason to have Jesus come to Nazareth, so he devised Herod’s slaughter of the infants, which no historian ever recorded, even those who weren’t fans of Herod. In creating the infanticide, he also found an opportunity to work in the “out of Egypt” “prophecy” that we talked about earlier.
Luke decided to start Jesus out in Nazareth and used a census to bring him down to Bethlehem. Again, most scholars have been puzzled by this since it also seems a little contrived. [Note: After all, Luke says they needed to go to Bethlehem for the census because Joseph was of David’s lineage. But David lived a thousand years before these events – can you imagine the upheaval that would occur if every family had to go back to the hometown of their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great- great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grand father (could be more, depending on the genealogy you use) every time there was a census?] Once Luke had them in Bethlehem, it simply makes sense for Mary and Joseph to wait there until they could present Jesus at the temple. From there, they simply went home to Nazareth.
The bottom line is that these accounts are widely divergent when it comes to the details. The most likely explanation seems to be that they were written by two people who knew that Jesus was from Nazareth, but came up with different ideas about how he could have been from Bethlehem too.
In the next post, we’ll look at the conflicts surrounding Jesus’s genealogy.