Well, it’s that time of year again. Regular church attendees are going to have to share their pews with people who have finally decided to make it out for their second service of the year. Their belief that Jesus bled and died so they can gain eternal salvation might be unshakable, but it apparently isn’t all that motivating, considering how little these believers seem to do in response. Nevertheless, they can at least be counted on to show up for a retelling of Jesus’s miraculous birth.
But what version will they hear? More than likely, they’ll hear a “Hollywood” version of the tale that incorporates the most exciting elements of the two versions that we read about in Matthew and Luke. A quick Google search turned up this one, which illustrates my point perfectly. But what if someone tried to tell the full version? A version that included every detail that both Matthew and Luke provide?
Honestly, it just can’t be done. I had wanted to attempt it here, but there’s just no practical way to do it. For example, the version I linked to above goes like this:
The Standard Tale
- Mary’s visited by an angel who tells her about the pregnancy (Luke)
- She and Joseph live in Nazareth of Galilee, but are forced to travel to Bethlehem in Judea for a census commanded by the Roman authorities (Luke)
- They’re unable to find normal accommodations and are forced to room in an area intended for livestock. Mary gives birth there and is visited by local shepherds (Luke)
- Wise men far to the east see a star that somehow signifies the birth of the Jewish Messiah (Matthew)
- They travel for an unspecified period until they reach Jerusalem, where they inquire about the child (Matthew)
- These inquiries reach Herod, the ruler of the region, and he asks the wise men to send back word to him once they find the child, so Herod himself can also pay his respects (Matthew)
- The wise men make their way to Bethlehem, find the family, bestow their gifts, and return home via a different route (Matthew)
- An angel tells Joseph to hightail it out of Bethlehem, because Herod’s sending a posse to wipe out all the children 2 years old and under in an effort to stamp out Jesus (Matthew)
- Joseph and his family flee to Egypt and remain there until an angel tells him it’s safe to return, because Herod has died (Matthew)
- Joseph intends to go back toward Bethlehem, but after finding out that Herod’s son is in charge, he takes the family to Nazareth in Galilee (Matthew)
So what’s wrong with this story? I mean, it’s very cohesive, and it makes for a compelling tale. What’s not to like? Its only real problem is that the very books of the Bible that provide its details, contradict its overall narrative.
Two Very Different Stories
Let’s go back to Luke’s version. After Jesus’s birth and the visit from the shepherds, we don’t read about wise men or Herod’s animosity. Instead, Luke 2:22 says that after the days of Mary’s purification were over, the family went to Jerusalem. The “days of purification” are referring to Leviticus 12:1-4, where the Law of Moses stated that a woman was to be considered “unclean” for 40 days after giving birth to a male child. So when Jesus was about 40 days old, Luke claims that they all traveled to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices as thanks for his birth. While there, two elderly people see Jesus and begin proclaiming praise and prophecies concerning Jesus. And there’s no indication that an effort was made to keep any of this quiet, which is very different in tone to what we read in Matthew. Finally, in Luke 2:39, we read “And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” We’ll come back to this point in a moment.
The synopsis we looked at earlier incorporated most of Matthew’s version of the story. As we just read, his story ends very differently from Luke’s. However, it’s also significant to note that Matthew gives no indication that Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth. Matt 1:18 through the end of the chapter talks about Mary’s pregnancy, even though she and Joseph had never slept together, but it never specifies where they’re living. Chapter 2 begins with the sentence “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?'” Of course, it’s possible that Matthew still knew they were originally from Nazareth and just doesn’t bother to tell us that or divulge how they got to Bethlehem in the first place. But there are three context clues that point against such a possibility. First of all, regardless of how far the wise men had to journey, it likely took them quite a while to make the trip. When Matthew says “the east” he certainly doesn’t mean “east Jersualem,” and travel being what it was back then, any journey would have taken considerable time. The second clue is that Herod supposedly kills all the male children of Bethlehem who are 2 and under. So it’s unlikely that we’re supposed to still be thinking of Jesus as a newborn. Finally, Matthew says that when the family was able to leave Egypt, Joseph wanted to go back to Judea (where Bethlehem is). But after finding out Herod’s son was ruling, he became afraid and “went and lived in a city called Nazareth” (Matt 2:23). This is a very strange way to refer to Nazareth, if it’s where Joseph and Mary were already living.
So Matthew gives no indication that Joseph and Mary were just visiting Bethlehem. He never mentions a manger; instead, he references a house that they were staying in. He never talks about the shepherds from the fields, but has wise men who visit the child. He includes a story about Herod slaughtering a town’s children, though no other historical or biblical source ever mentions this. He claims that the family flees to Egypt until Herod’s death, that they want to return to Bethlehem, but finally settle in “a city called Nazareth.”
Luke, on the other hand, says that Nazareth is their home town, and they’re only visiting Bethlehem. He has no story about wise men, but does talk about shepherds from the fields that visit the newborn Jesus. Instead of Herod attempting to hunt them down and a subsequent flight to Egypt, the family travels straight to Jerusalem, where Herod lives. And there’s no effort to keep Jesus’s identity secret while they’re there, as two elderly prophets begin proclaiming who he is. And after making their sacrifices, the family simply goes back home to Nazareth, far from Herod’s reach (not that Luke indicates Herod’s even interested).
Can These Stories Be Put Together?
The main sticking points between the stories are the flight to Egypt and the trip to Jerusalem. On the one hand, Luke is very clear about his timeline: Jesus was only about 40 days old when they went to Jerusalem and then went home to Nazareth. Matthew doesn’t give specifics on how old Jesus was when the family was forced to flee to Egypt, except that it must have occurred before he was 2 years old.
Could the trip to Egypt have happened before the trip to Jerusalem?
No. First of all, considering all the details Luke provides, why would he have left out such an important event? Secondly, this means Herod would have needed to die within the 40 day purification period, but Matthew tells us that this still wouldn’t have been good enough, because Joseph was determined to avoid all of Judea while Herod’s son was reigning. There’s simply no way he would have felt safe enough to travel directly into Jerusalem. That just makes no sense.
Could the trip to Egypt have happened after the trip to Jerusalem?
No. Luke 2:39 is clear that the family went straight back to Nazareth after their trip to Jerusalem. And considering Luke claimed that Nazareth was already their home, why would they have needed to go back to Bethlehem anyway?
In fact, Luke’s claim that the family was from Nazareth creates a lot of problems for Matthew’s account. Nazareth was far outside of Herod’s reach. So if Herod really had hunted Jesus in Bethlehem, the family could have simply gone back to Nazareth rather than flee to Egypt. But this isn’t a consideration in Matthew’s account, because for him, the family has never been to Nazareth until they simply can’t go back to Bethlehem anymore, even after Herod’s death (Matt 2:23).
I don’t want to spend too much time here, but for completeness sake, I need to mention a couple of historical issues. Both Matthew and Luke say that Jesus is born during the reign of Herod the Great. Historians usually place his death in 4 BCE, which means Jesus would have been born sometime before that. However, Luke says that Mary and Joseph had traveled to Bethlehem, because Quirinius, the governor of Syria, had commanded a census. However, Quirinius didn’t become governor of Syria until 6 CE — 10 years after Herod’s death. You can find additional resources about these two issues here.
Finally, Luke’s claim is that this census required Joseph to travel back to his ancestral home of Bethlehem, since he was of King David’s lineage. But David would have lived some 1000 years before Joseph. It’s ludicrous to think that the Romans would have cared about such a thing, or that they would have wanted their empire to be so disrupted by having people move around like that for a census. It would have been an impossible feat and would have made for a highly inaccurate, and therefore useless, census.
What Do We Make of All This?
The easiest way to understand why these accounts have such major differences in detail is to understand why either writer bothered with a story about Jesus’s birth at all. You have to remember that the writers of Matthew and Luke didn’t know one another and didn’t know that they were both working on the same material. They certainly didn’t know that their books would one day show up in the same collection. Both of them were working with two basic facts: Micah 5:2 seemed to prophesy that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem; Jesus came from Nazareth (John 1:45-46).
Since those two facts were at odds with one another, it’s easy to see how both writers would have been compelled to explain how Jesus could be from Nazareth but still be from Bethlehem. Unfortunately for them, close comparison shows that both versions simply can’t be true.
How would people react if they showed up for church this weekend and were presented with the full details from both of these stories? I like to think it would spur many of them into deeper study. That it would possibly make them question some of the things they’ve been taking for granted. But 2016 has been pretty demoralizing when it comes to the number of people who seem concerned about what’s true, and I’m not sure how many of them would see this information as a call to action. I know there are people who can be changed by facts. Perhaps there aren’t as many of them as I once thought, but I know they’re out there. And with the way information spreads these days, I’m sure they’ll eventually find the facts they’re looking for.