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Do the narratives of Jesus’ birth contradict each other?

In the books of Matthew and Luke in the Bible, we'll find some small differences between the facts shared surrounding the birth of Jesus. Some believe that these differences mean the narratives contradict each other. But if we look a little closer, we'll find that actually complement each other very nicely.

The Unique Differences of Jesus' 2 Birth Narratives

We can look at the differences between Matthew's and Luke's narratives as providing their own unique special additions to Jesus' birth story. In Matthew, we are told about the magi who come to visit Jesus and present Him with gifts (Matthew 2:1-12), yet we find no mention of the magi in Luke. Matthew also records King Herod's plot to kill the prophesied king and how Joseph took his family and fled to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-18). While these are important events, Luke never mentions them.

Luke chose to focus on stories of individual people surrounding Jesus' birth story and what happened while Mary was newly pregnant. We witness the moment Mary found out she would conceive a child supernaturally, the miraculous pregnancy of her elderly relative Elizabeth, and the silencing of Zechariah (Luke 1-2). None of these are recorded in Matthew.

Luke also records some special visitations: the shepherds who followed the call of the angels (Luke 2:8-20), plus Mary and Joseph's visit to the temple, where they met some people who would later tell others about Jesus (Luke 2:25-38). None of these stories are documented by Matthew.

The Similarities of Jesus' 2 Birth Narratives

Even though Matthew and Luke contain different details about Jesus’ birth story, that does not mean they contradict each other. Matthew and Luke BOTH record that:

  1. Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, a town in Galilee (Matthew 2:23; Luke 1:26; 2:4).
  2. Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived and born (Matthew 1:18, 23, 25; Luke 1:27).
  3. Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4-7).
  4. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus returned to Nazareth sometime after Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:23; Luke 2:39).

Together, the books of Matthew and Luke present a rich narrative that describes the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Just because something is omitted from one narrative, that doesn't mean they contradict each other or that they didn't happen.

The Arguments

The most common argument that people use to claim Jesus’ birth narratives are contradictory is that Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt is only recorded in Matthew’s account. However, Luke never directly says that Mary and Joseph didn’t go to Egypt; he just never mentions it.

Since silence does not necessarily equate an argument against something, we can ascertain that Luke's omission of their flight to Egypt does not mean that it didn't happen. Likewise, when only Luke records the shepherds coming to visit Jesus, that doesn't mean Matthew is saying those shepherds never came.

Another argument is that Luke does not allow enough time for Mary and Joseph to go to Egypt. There were about 32 days between Jesus’ circumcision (Luke 2:21) and the visit to the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:22), so making the trek to Egypt and back again would be pretty tough to do in one month.

But what if the flight to Egypt happened after Mary and Joseph visited the temple? This would agree with Matthew 2:11, which implies they had an established home in Bethlehem. Luke 2:39 says, "And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth." A lot could have happened between the temple visit and returning to Nazareth—things that perhaps Luke did not find necessary for his audience. When we put their flight to Egypt in the middle of Luke 2:39, the alleged contradictions end.

Jesus' Birth Narratives: a Timeline

Let's put Matthew's and Luke's narratives together to illustrate how the arguments above actually agree completely. Ready for a little story time?

Mary and Joseph visited the temple in Jerusalem to present Jesus to the Lord and make sacrifices according to custom (Luke 2:22-24). There, they met a devout man named Simeon who had been told by God that he would see the Messiah before his death (Luke 2:25-35). They also met Anna, a prophetess who immediately recognized Jesus as the long-awaited Savior (Luke 2:36-38). After meeting Jesus, Simeon and Anna gave thanks to the Lord and spoke of Him around Jerusalem, spreading the news that the people's redemption had arrived (Luke 2:38).

The little family returned to Bethlehem, where they had established a home. Joseph may have thought it would be good for Jesus to be raised in the city of His royal line. It's also plausible that Joseph took a temporary job in Bethlehem while awaiting the birth of Jesus and the job had become permanent.

Meanwhile in the east, the rumors about the "king of the Jews" had reached the ears of some magi. They remembered spotting an unearthly light around two years earlier and made the connection between these events and a prophecy about a star foretelling the arrival a new ruler for Israel (Numbers 24:17). The magi journeyed to Jerusalem to ask King Herod where they could find this new king, as they wanted to worship Him (Matthew 2:2).

Herod, afraid this so-called "king" would overthrow him, gathered priests and scribes to figure out where to find the child. They determined the birthplace to be Bethlehem because of another prophecy (Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:6). Herod directed the magi and told them to come back to confirm that Bethlehem was indeed where the child could be found (Matthew 2:7-8), for he secretly wanted to eliminate this prophesied king (as we'll find out later).

When the magi arrived in Bethlehem, they saw Jesus at home and presented Him with gifts (Matthew 2:10-11). After they left, God warned the magi not to report to Herod, so they returned to their homeland by a different way (Matthew 2:12). That very night, Joseph had a dream instructing him to take his family and flee to Egypt, for "Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him" (Matthew 2:13).

Once Herod realized the magi weren't coming back, his true motives became evident. In a horrific fury, he ordered soldiers to murder all the male children under two years of age living in Bethlehem and the surrounding area (Matthew 2:16). Thankfully, Joseph had heeded the warning, and they were long gone by time the slaughter of innocents occurred (Matthew 2:14-15).

After Herod’s death in 4 B.C., Joseph had another dream, telling him it was safe to leave Egypt (Matthew 2:19-21). But as they got closer, Joseph learned that Herod's son was now reigning over Judea. Fearing the old king's son might have the same ideas as his father, Joseph changed direction and moved his family to Nazareth instead of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:22-23; Luke 2:39), which brings our timelines together.

Matthew and Luke were different people, each with unique writing styles, each writing with specific intentions and audiences in mind. As a tax collector, Matthew was very precise and sought to prove to the Jews that Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah. The author of Luke, traditionally believed to be a physician and friend of the apostle Paul, was a Gentile who set out to give a meticulous history (an “orderly account” according to Luke 1:3) of Jesus' life, emphasizing His ministry to and compassion for those considered outcasts in Israel.

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TL;DR

The books of Matthew and Luke in the Bible, we find small differences between the facts shared surrounding the birth of Jesus. The majority of Matthew's and Luke’s birth narratives are the same. We can look at the differences between Matthew's and Luke's narratives as providing their own unique special additions to Jesus' birth story that complement each other.

By: Vivian Bricker

Vivian loves learning, studying the Word of God, and helping others in their walk with Christ. She is dedicated to helping people learn more about Jesus and is ready to help in any way she can. Her favorite things to do are spending time with her family and friends, cooking, drawing, and spending time outside. When she is not writing, you can find her soaking up the sunshine or going on an adventure.

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