Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Culture, Faith, God, Religion, Truth

Contradictions Part 5: Out of Egypt

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.

238 thoughts on “Contradictions Part 5: Out of Egypt”

  1. Incredible research. I’ve studied the bible in great detail, especially the gospels, and I’ve never noticed this conflict. Just a note, when reading about geneology, at least in my translation, both lines seem to follow Joseph, but supposedly one follows Mary — this is how it was explained before I read it. If you know the answer, please provide a little info. I’m anxious to hear your thoughts.

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  2. Thanks for the comment! Yes, people often try to explain the genealogies by saying that one of them is through Joseph and one is through Mary. But you’re right — both genealogies claim Joseph. So the answer to this is that Luke’s genealogy (though some people claim it’s Matthew’s) is actually talking about Mary’s line because Mary was the only child of Heli. Therefore, Joseph would be considered his “son” by marriage. But there’s no real evidence that this scenario is correct. In fact, Luke expressly lists the genealogy as going through Joseph, so this explanation is nothing more than supposition. There is a passage in the Talmud that claims Mary was the daughter of Heli, but this comes much later than the gospels and (to me) seems to just be hearsay spread by people who were trying to rationalize the gospels. Plus, even if it were through Mary, it wouldn’t explain why both genealogies converge on Shealtiel and Zerubbabel — that wouldn’t be biologically possible. So of course, other suppositions are thrown in there to try to reconcile that issue.

    Some people also try to explain the discrepancy by saying that both genealogies really are through Joseph, but that he was the product of a levirate marriage. This would mean that he had a biological father and a “legal” father (someone who was probably dead before he was born). But this again is just supposition. I’m not aware of any evidence that actually supports it.

    And of course, if the Bible really were inerrant and inspired, then it should provide the answers to these issues already. And the fact that they’re different isn’t the only problem with them. I should have my post about it finished up later today or tomorrow.

    Thanks!

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  3. Good post. Yes it is clear as can be that the entire Bethleham narrative is a contrivance used to back peddle Jesus into a prophecy. Of course given the fact that the gospels admit that certain acts were carried out specifically to fulfill prophecy this tendency to contrive prophecy fulfillment should not surprise us.

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  4. It’s actually easy to explain.
    In Bethlehem Jesus is a baby(brephos) and as stated they go to their home in Nazareth after the purification(6 weeks or so). They go to Jerusalem every year for the Passover where Bethlehem is close by. They have to stay somewhere so it’s logical to stay close to Jerusalem in a house in Bethlehem. At this time, Jesus is now a child(paidion). Don’t forget that Matthew 2 starts “after His birth”. It is at this time that the Magi come “from the East”. The Magi trick Herod, causing him to (kill all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under), according to the time which he had determined from the magi. They therefore fled to Egypt when Jesus was somewhere around 2 yrs old.
    I think what throws everyone off is that every Easter the Magi are there at the birth. But the Scripture clearly shows they came later.
    Ed

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  5. Hi Ed,

    Thanks for the comment. The explanation you offer is certainly interesting — it’s not one I’ve heard before. I wouldn’t classify it as an easy one though, there’s a lot of speculation required to make this pan out.

    First of all, Passover is not mentioned at all. So it’s really just speculation to say that’s why they were in Bethlehem. Plus, Bethlehem is about 6 miles from Jerusalem, and it’s hard to understand why they would stay that far away if the purpose of their visit was to observe the Passover.

    Also, if they were only visiting Bethlehem when the wise men came, why didn’t God just tell Joseph to go back home to Nazareth instead of going to Egypt? That would have kept them just as safe, and it would have allowed them to be in their own home.

    When it comes down to it, Matthew gives no indication that Nazareth plays a role in Jesus’ early life at all. And don’t forget that when Joseph and his family return from Egypt, Matthew says that they wanted to go back to Judea, but only settled in Nazareth because they were afraid of Archelaus. Why did they want to go to Judea if Nazareth was their home? And Matt 2:23 clearly indicates that this was the first time they were moving to Nazareth.

    I’m sorry, but there’s just not a good way to reconcile these issues. It’s pretty clear that Matthew and Luke are drawing their information from two different sources (or they’re just making up their own accounts).

    Thanks again though — I do appreciate your comment, and I hope you’ll come by the blog again soon.

    Nate

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  6. Nate,

    Haven’t really had time to comment here for quite some time. But, just a quick thought on this. Ed’s explanation and several other explanations of presumed contradictions are sufficient – even if they are speculative. As long as there is a possible explanation then the ability to claim a clear contradiction is undermined. This is true in every day life. We don’t assume (and certainly don’t assume as demonstrable) our friends are lying or being duplicitous even if we see some sort of contradiction we ourselves cannot explain in their actions. If we do, that will undermine those relationships. When they give us an explanation that accounts for everything – we wind up being the ‘bad guy’ for having prejudged them. It’s happened to everyone at some point.

    I also think that even without sufficient explanations of a contradiction, that it is not enough to demonstrate a significant problem. This is the same issue that many in the scientific community raise about Intelligent Design folks who ostensibly set forth a “God of the gaps” theory. There are areas where there is no explanation as to how a form of life or aspect of the universe came about – a “gap” in explanation by modern science. Some ID folks – I’m in disagreement with this perspective – say the only explanation is to postulate God. Of course, the problem is, what happens when science comes up with a scientific explanation? Well then, they have filled in the “gap” and the presumed “problem” goes away. Scientists have repeatedly noted this logical problem with the ID position and they are right. But, that sword cuts the same way in the opposite direction with presumed “unexplained” contradictions in Scriptures. As soon as a reasonable explanation arises, the assumed contradiction on which one has based their faith, or rather un-faith, is gone.

    A classic example of this is when Isaac Newton could not fully explain planetary wobble – which would/should cause them to spin out of orbit. He postulated God. When the French scientist LaPlace wrote his theory – he gave a scientific explanation and famously stated, “I have no need for God” (a slap at Newton). The fact that Newton could not explain the problem did not mean there was no explanation; or that God was operating in every “gap” in scientific knowledge. Some things to think about. Thanks!

    All the best … Jeff

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  7. Jeff,

    I guess that I disagree… kind of… you say that if a reasonable explanation can be given, then that should be enough. But I guess that there is a debate over what is reasonable. As you said, the sword cuts both ways. So if there is a reasonable explanation for the bible to be false, then it must be; and if there is a reasonable explanation as why the bible is true, then it must be. See the problem?

    But what is reasonable? Like Newton, we can use God for every unknown, because for God, anything is possible and therefore could be viewed as “reasonable.” Should God be used for everything unknown? The fact remains that there are apparent contradictions in the bible, and the “reasonable” explanations that attempt to resolve them are inventions of man and are not provided by the bible itself.

    I guess people could debate over these issues all day forever and always have, but I’d like to know what a “real contradiction” is, because the bible seems to have some, to me. If the apparent contradictions in the bible are not real contradictions, then i’d like to see and example of a real explanation if you would provide one. At the moment, I am convinced that a “reasonable” explanation can be given to bridge across any contradiction. I could be wrong of course – I have been before.

    Will

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  8. Hi Jeff,

    I was out of town last week — sorry for the delayed response. I think you make a very good point. But the problem I have with this particular issue is that I’ve never heard a reasonable explanation. Even Ed’s has a glaring problem in that Matthew 2:23 says that Joseph and his family only went to Nazareth because they couldn’t go back to Judea. To me, it seems very plain that this was the first time they had ever settled in Nazareth, which completely contradicts Luke’s version.

    But I also think it’s important to note that if the Bible really is from God, and God really wants everyone to believe it, then why would he allow even seeming contradictions? An honest communicator tries to make his message as clear as possible. If God is the perfect communicator, how could his message be misleading?

    Furthermore, if we can say that a future explanation of this problem is possible, therefore, keep believing in the Bible, why can’t other religions do that with their “contradictions”? Maybe one day we’ll find archaeological evidence that substantiates Joseph Smith’s claims that Jews once settled in America.

    Anyway, I do think your overall point is reasonable. I’ll try to keep it in mind as I study these issues.

    Thanks,

    Nate

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  9. Really good discussions here, Nate. I’m loving them.

    “If God is the perfect communicator, how could his message be misleading?”

    You forget another possibility – we are imperfect “understanders”. I still think, Nate, you’re expecting the Bible to make perfect sense to all people of all times. There are too many variables here – time, language, knowledge available, etc – for this claim to hold any water. Contradictions for us likely were not contradictions at the time, and the reverse would also be true given the huge multi-faceted gap between ancient Jerusalem and modern America. All people do not have the same point of reference. In order for God to communicate perfectly to us we would have to all have the same point of reference. That’s not possible unless only one people of one time of one culture existed. You are operating on an assumption I believe to be false – that God can do anything. I don’t think this is true. God cannot make a circle that is square. He cannot make a human that is a rabbit. He cannot be perfect and sin. He cannot make communicate the same information to me and to Judas Iscariot and expect us to both understand it the same way. He couldn’t even communicate the same information to my sister and I and expect us to understand it the same way.

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  10. I said “one people of one time of one culture”. I really should have said God could only communicate to us perfectly unless he only created one person. That’s the only way “everyone” would have the same perspective.

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  11. Hi Josh,

    Thanks for the comments, and again, I really appreciate your taking time to read these.

    I don’t know if you have kids or not, but I’m going to ask you to do a thought experiment. Imagine you have two children: an 8-year old girl and a 3-year old boy (the gender here’s not important, I’m just trying to help with the visualization — pick whatever you want). You live near a street with a decent level of traffic on it. Your children want to play out in the front yard — how do you communicate to them the importance of safety?

    To illustrate your point above, it’s very true that you can not communicate with an 8-year old and a 3-year old the same way. So should you just communicate in a way that your 8-year old understands and leave your 3-year old’s fate a bit more to chance? As a father, I think you would communicate to both of them in whatever way is most appropriate. There’s no reason why you have to limit your communication to one statement — talk to both of them! And with the 3-year old, you might even decide to not let him play in the front yard unless you can be out there with him.

    There are many ways you can handle the situation, but the one thing you won’t do is give one kind of communication that can’t be readily understood by one of your children. If you were talking to them about the merits of football, then you wouldn’t care as much if your 3-year old didn’t understand you. But when you’re talking about life or death, you can’t afford to take such a chance.

    Do you agree?

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  12. I do see what you’re saying, but I think you’ve actually lent more credence to my point than your own. I believe, as has been suggested to you in other comments, that God has adequately communicated the message of what he accomplished in history, and why he did it. To borrow from your illustration, you’re asking the parent to communicate in a way that the 3-year old and 8-year old all have the exact same information. And, if they don’t have all the exact same information, then the father has failed in communicating the message to both of them. You agreed, in your illustration, that the message would have to be communicated differently to them, and its seems you even implied that the 3-year old may not even understand much of the reasoning behind the communication, or even that the entire scenario would have to be removed from the 3-year old’s understanding in order to keep them safe. My point is exactly what I think you illustrated – we cannot expect that communication to one group of people would translate perfectly to another separated by time, culture, and language. We can, I think, reasonably conclude the message has been preserved, but the details will get lost because we cannot make ourselves see from the perspective of the ancient Jew.

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  13. Ah, but that means the 3-year old is left at a much greater risk of being hit by a car. I didn’t give the illustration to say that it was okay to communicate in such a way — I was saying that no decent father is going to leave his 3-year old to such a fate.

    That’s why the Bible such a poor communication. Too much is at stake (eternity) to leave our fate up to chance. If God is a loving father at all, he would want each of us to understand exactly what his will for us is. But anyone who looks at the world will see that that’s never been the case. Even people within the same religion will disagree about what God wants, not to mention those who believe in different (or no) gods altogether.

    When we accept the failings of the Bible and say that we shouldn’t expect any different, because God couldn’t write a book that would clearly communicate to everyone, then that’s only further reason to think he never wrote a book to begin with.

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  14. Hey Nate-
    See my response to William over at, I think it’s Contradictions Part 8.
    I really do love these discussions because I love to be challenged intellectually and to try to meet that challenge. However, in reality, I absolutely see your point and I think either position is reasonable to hold. I’ve given, in my response to William, what I consider to be a very brief explanation of why I think the imperfect communications in scripture are, from my perspective, irrelevant. It all hinges on Jesus, whether or not the scriptures can be validated.
    This isn’t meant, necessarily, to derail conversation. I just want to boil it down to what, for me, is the real issue.
    -Josh

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  15. looks like i’m quite late to this conversation, but just today was doing some research and came across the site. interesting discussion, and i’d like to add a few thoughts about the bible in general, and then specifically about the nativity stories found in matthew and luke.

    many people have seen the so-called contradictions in them. i used to criticize the bible because of such contradictions, and one day a question came to mind that caused me to re-think my criticisms: were the individuals who ultimately decided on the books of the bible – particularly the 4 gospels – really so ignorant or sloppy that they allowed stories to be included that said completely different things? wouldn’t they be opening up the entire faith to what would be well-deserved criticism that the christian faith was based on nothing but fabricated stories? why would they have done that?

    if the leaders of the early church decided that both nativity accounts should be in the bible, i at least had to be open to the possibility that they did so intentionally. i began looking for ways of reconciling (synchronizing) seeming contradictions that were at least plausible, without stretching things beyond reason.

    regarding the nativity stories, what i believe could have been left out is a “move” from one home (nazareth, where mary was from) to another home (bethlehem, where joseph was from). i believe this move could have occurred after luke 2:39 (when Jesus would have been approximately 6 or 7 weeks old), but before matthew 2:1 (when Jesus could have been up to 2 years old). If this move actually took place, the two accounts could be fairly easily synchronized.

    why would this “move” not have been recorded? i don’t know, but there are lots of things not recorded. consider the first 30 or so years of Jesus’ life. we don’t have volumes – just a few chapters. the gospel writers have told us the important pieces – at least, what was important to them and apparently the early church that found these gospels to be true.

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  16. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for your comment!

    You know, in some ways, you’re right that if Jesus’ family moved from Nazareth to Bethlehem at some point between his birth and Herod’s infanticide, it would help explain the differences. But I think there are a few issues we’d still have to gloss over to make it work.

    For one thing, as you acknowledge, there’s no scripture to make us think such a move occurred. And our only reason for suggesting it is because the accounts conflict with one another. In a way, you’re essentially saying that the error is so obvious it must not really be an error. I’ve actually heard someone say that very thing before, but I don’t find that to be a believable objection. That line of thinking would mean that the more ludicrous a story, the more we should believe it, because surely someone wouldn’t say something so crazy unless it were true. Of course, in practice, things don’t usually work out that way.

    I also think that the other elements of the narratives make it difficult to work in an extra move for Jesus and his family. As I pointed out above, when Matthew talks about their family coming back from Egypt, he says this:

    And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.

    So Joseph tried to go back to Judea. It was only his fear that brought him to Nazareth. Now according to Luke, as well as your theory, Nazareth is a place they had already lived in. Yet Matthew says “a city called Nazareth,” as though it were a new place to them. Furthermore, Matthew says it was to fulfill a prophecy — one that would already have been fulfilled if Jesus had lived there earlier.

    And what about Herod and the wise men? Both groups focus on Bethlehem to find the baby Jesus, but why? According to Luke, he was only born there as a fluke and would have been back in Nazareth. If we incorporate your theory, then Jesus’ family moves back to Bethlehem for some reason, and that’s the only thing that brings them in contact with the wise men. It’s funny, in a way, that both groups (the wise men and Herod) assume they will find Jesus in Bethlehem when his real hometown was Nazareth. If your theory is true, then it’s only coincidence that brings them all back together again, not because Bethlehem was Jesus’ real hometown as they all assumed.

    Finally, you made this point:

    wouldn’t they be opening up the entire faith to what would be well-deserved criticism that the christian faith was based on nothing but fabricated stories?

    But isn’t that exactly what has happened? And if the Bible was divinely inspired at all, wouldn’t God have wanted to avoid such criticism even more? The fact is, there are many areas in the Bible that are just as problematic as this one. So if God is not the author of confusion, could he really be the author of the Bible?

    Thanks again for the comment. If you have any other thoughts on these passages, please feel free to share them. And I hope you’ll feel free to jump in on any of the other threads as well!

    — Nate

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  17. thanks for your quick and thoughtful response. a few quick responses back:

    1. if a story is ludicrous, then surely it should not be believed. but why is it ludicrous that a move would have been made from nazareth to bethlehem? nazareth was a small town, probably with little work for a carpenter like joseph. like day laborers of today, he simply may have been following the work – which likely would have led to a more populous area such as jerusalem (not far from bethlehem). i’m not saying this definitely was the reason, but it seems unfair to suggest that since something was left out, it could not have happened. if i say, “i moved from pennsylvania to texas when i was 10, and i graduated from high school in el paso” (which is true), and then later you come to find out that i lived in houston for a few years before moving to el paso (which is also true), did i lie? did i mislead? hopefully not. i simply gave fewer details at that time.

    2. i think matthew says “a city (or town) called nazareth” because up until that point, he himself had not mentioned nazareth. matthew was not assuming that people had his account side-by-side with the account of luke. in fact, matthew may not have been aware of luke’s account.

    3. God cannot avoid criticism. if there was one account of the nativity, or the exact same account told in two or three of the gospels, people would say, “we can’t trust that… it’s just one person’s story of what happened. why didn’t God have two or three different people tell it in their own way?”

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  18. Dave,

    I wanted to take the liberty to jump in an offer a short response if I may – I’m sure nate will provide a more detailed response when he finds time…

    1. A simple more from Nazareth to Bethlehem isn’t ludicrous in and of itself, but nothing in the bible says this. You’re forced to fill in the blanks with something (or anything) to make the 4 accounts jive – because as they are, they do not. We have to smooth out the rough edges for the bible.

    2. Very true, but it would have also been extremely easy to simply add ,”Mary’s home, Nazareth” or something similar to erase any resemblance to a problem. And while other people bacjk then wouldn’t have all the gospels to compare side by side, surely God would know what they’d look like side by side and surely he’d know people one day would have them all to compare side by side. It would have been such an easy fix.

    3. Say 3 people were being interrogated by the police for an alleged part in an alleged crime. One says we left Quebec, passed through Ottawa and made it to our final destination in Winnipeg. Another says that they were going to Winnipeg after leaving Ottawa. And the other says that they left Quebec, went to New York because they thought someone was going to kill them, and after staying there until it was safe, head on over to Winnipeg…

    We could make those stories mesh if WE filled in all the blank spots and ignored the fact that the details supposed being innocently left out weren’t tedious insignificant details like “we stopped for 5.5 minutes to use the rest room here…” or “we stopped for fuel there…” I think the differences are pretty clear. In fact, I wouldn’t doubt that the detectives would smell something pretty fishy about such wide variances in the stories. Either the men colluded on a few facts (forcing them to add their own details if they felt compelled to talk), or didn’t collude enough and some were hiding more than others.

    Diverting to New York, from Canada (like going to Egypt) because someone wants to kill you is such a significant detail that it is at the very least deceptive to omit. Think of anyone you know who would have done this, for those reasons, but didn’t tell you about that part of it. How would you feel?

    But, if the differences were in little things like one guy didn’t mention the types of clothing worn, but one guy did – yeah, that’s okay, no biggie. Yet those are not the sort of differences we’re talking about.

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  19. Hi Dave,

    To your first point, it’s true that a move from Nazareth to Bethlehem is not ludicrous. But that’s not really what I was referencing. I was talking about your original point that the people who assembled the Bible wouldn’t make such an obvious error as to include 2 conflicting stories; therefore, even though they seem to conflict, they must not. I don’t buy that argument.

    With your third point, I think you’re offering a false dichotomy. When two people tell the same story, they aren’t forced into only two options: either tell the exact same story as someone else, or tell a conflicting version. There’s a lot of room in between. As William said, if Matthew had just mentioned that Joseph and Mary had lived in Nazareth once before, then no real problem would exist between the two accounts. Or if Luke had told us of the extra move that you’re suggesting, then no problem would exist.

    Instead, we seem to have two different authors who both knew that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but raised in Nazareth. Here are the timelines they give us (you can click it for a larger view):

    Why were Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem? According to Matthew, it seems that they lived there. According to Luke, they were there for a census. Why did they go to Nazareth? According to Matthew, it’s because they were run out of Bethlehem and couldn’t go back, even after Herod died. According to Luke, it’s because they lived there. What happened in between those two points? According to Matthew, they’re visited by wise men, then flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s death sentence. According to Luke, they travel to Jerusalem for a ritual, then return home — end of story.

    The two accounts couldn’t be more different. Worse, the way they’re given, they actually contradict one another. If Luke’s account is correct, there’s no need for Joseph and his family to go to Egypt at all. Nor is there really time to, unless we invent a move from Nazareth to Bethlehem that no account references.

    Can someone find ways to patch up these problems enough to maintain their belief? Sure. But the most likely scenario is that Matthew and Luke are telling different stories, whether they got them from different sources or just made them up. Problems like this one rightly cause people to question the legitimacy of the Bible. And if God actually inspired it, and he wants people to believe it, I have a hard time seeing why he would have allowed these two accounts to go on in their present state.

    Thanks again.

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  20. hi nate, i suppose we’re at a bit of an impasse. what you call “contradiction,” i call “so-called contradiction” because i see how the stories can be meshed, really without much to add to what is already there (i.e., a move sometime between luke’s return to nazareth – what you rightly call “end of story” for luke – and the arrival of the wise men in matthew; there could have been a year or more in between these two events). if matthew insisted that in no way were either mary or joseph ever associated with nazareth prior to returning from egypt, while luke was clear that mary was from nazareth, that would be a contradiction. but the recording of different events at different times does not seem to meet the definition of “contradiction.”

    i do think it’s a good question about why luke and matthew each omit various events that are important (e.g., the flight to egypt, as william notes). but to me, that’s what it is – “a good question” – not a problem or a deception. i keep in mind that matthew and luke were historians trying to help people understand what has come to be known as the gospel – the good news of salvation. they put in some details, and left other details out. more than likely, there are other items left out by all four gospel writers, because essentially these are very short accounts.

    a question that seems relevant here is how God inspires the writings in the bible. just a wild guess :), but i’m beginning to think that you (and william) don’t believe it’s inspired at all. and, if by “inspired,” you mean that God took control of the minds of matthew, mark, luke and john, and forced them to write each word, each letter of their gospels – well, i don’t believe that either. but could God have inspired them to write truthfully about what they knew of Jesus – in matthew’s case, by following him around for three or so years; and in luke’s case, by the investigation he undertook? yes, i believe so. in any case, i’m guessing we have a difference of thought here.

    one last thing for this post – and again, a difference of thought – with all of the people who had their hand in writing the bible, and ultimately giving the bible its final form somewhere around the 4th century – i find it hard to believe that someone – anyone – would not have stood up at that time and said, “um, has anyone noticed the glaring contradictions we have in matthew and luke? we might want to eliminate one of those gospels. or maybe we could change one to overlap more with the other.” indeed, if there was deception intended (as william suggests), that could have been easily solved. it seems, rather, that the compilers of the bible saw in all four gospels a complementary set of accounts that made sense.

    enjoying the dialogue…

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  21. Dave, I respectfully disagree. I think it is much more than a good question. I’m sure nate could provide a picture or spreadsheet that illustrates the issue a little better, but when you pull your bible out and read them side by side, it seems contradictory.

    Both Mathew’s and Luke’s accounts give different reasons for going to Nazareth and to Bethlehem. Luke says that Mary didnt go anywhere until her time of purification, and then went to Jerusalem, while Mathew said that Joseph was instructed by an angel, after the wise men left, to flee to Egypt, where they stayed until Herod’s death – and that he was afraid to go to Judea, so he settled in Nazareth of Galilee.

    the only reason anyone can say these two stories go together is by adding (prohibited by the bible) their own theories as to how they can actually fit together.

    No, these are different stories with the same main characters.

    And I dont think that deception was intended. I DO think that if all the events took place as you assume, that someone was trying very hard to leave some important facts out. In this case, I just think that neither really knew what really happened, and that Mathew specifically wanted some prophetic backing to lend credibility with the jews.

    and again, if i may echo something nate has already said, your last paragraph seems to be more or less saying that this is such an obvious mistake that it must NOT be a mistake, because someone would have caught it. This doesn’t seem like a very solid defense.

    I will add, only because you touched on it, that I did use to believe the bible was inspired by god. I was a devout believer and active in my church until I began to see these sort of problems (and there are much more) and couldn’t ignore them any longer. I eventually realized that faith in the bible was not the same as faith in god, but more like faith in man since man had written, translated, copied and handed me the bible – not god.

    I’m also enjoying the discussion. Thanks for the willingness.

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  22. Hi Dave,

    I’m enjoying the discussion too — thanks again for your comments!

    And yes, William and I don’t believe the Bible was inspired at all. We used to, however. We were both fundamentalist Christians (though I think from different denominations), but we had similar journeys away from Christianity. I was very devout and dedicated for a long time, and I knew the Bible very well, but only from a devotional standpoint. Meaning, I didn’t take the time to rigorously examine its consistency; I was reading it for its doctrinal content. One day, I ran across some articles that claimed it had failed prophecies and contradictions (I believed in inerrancy), and after spending a great deal of time in study, I came to agree.

    Anyway, that’s one of the reasons that I’m not surprised one of these accounts wasn’t tossed out during the selection process. Many Christians view it the way I used to: “I may not understand exactly how these two things fit together, but they obviously must, because God inspired them.” It’s similar to the reason you’re giving for thinking both accounts must be legitimate; otherwise, why would they have been included? I can totally see the Bible’s compilers operating with the same line of thought.

    And in fact, there were people who were bothered by the differences. The Diatesseron, for example, was a second century attempt at combining the 4 gospels into one complete narrative, and Tatian (the author) harmonized several of the areas that seemed to conflict.

    The reason I think these conflicts are important is that the Bible is supposedly God’s one, true message to mankind. It’s supposed to be the difference in our eternal destinies. If God truly is fair, righteous, and merciful, then he would want to make sure his message to us is as clear and identifiable as possible. The myriad problems in the Bible subvert that goal. In other words, my opinion of God is high enough that I just can’t attribute the Bible to him.

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