At this time of year, it’s common to see pictures of the Christmas story or to hear someone retell the story: Jesus in a manger, wise men visiting with gifts, angels and shepherds, etc. But all of these depictions are based on two quite different accounts of Jesus’ birth: one in the Gospel of Matthew and the other in the Gospel of Luke. The two accounts are not only different, but contradictory.
The popular retelling of the Christmas story usually involves a conflation (or mix-up) and harmonization (blurring of differences and contradictions) of elements from these two different stories.
But let’s examine each of them, to seek to understand the distinct stories they each tell:
Story One: Luke
The Gospel of Luke tells the story of how Joseph and Mary travel from their hometown in Nazareth in Galilee, to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. Luke situates Joseph and Mary’s home in Nazareth. Before the birth of Jesus (Luke 2.3-4), Joseph, Jesus’ legal father, has to travel from his “own town” (2.39) of Nazareth in Galilee, to his “own [ancestral] town” (2.3-4) Bethlehem in Judea. Why do Joseph and Mary have to travel to Bethlehem so close to the time of birth of Jesus? Luke’s answer is that Joseph and Mary had to travel there due to the census of Quirinius, the governor of Syria:
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David” (Luke 2.1-4)
The idea that Joseph would have had to have traveled to Bethlehem, because it was the town of his ancestors, is most probably a complete fiction. It is fabricated on the basis of the belief that the Messiah/Christ must be a descendant of David.
Then, according to Luke, after Joseph and Mary had travelled to Bethlehem, Jesus was born in Bethlehem:
“While they were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son …” (Luke 2.6-7)
Luke then describes the circumcision of Jesus, and the purification of Mary (from the legal so-called ‘impurities’ of childbirth). Circumcision was carried out on the eighth day after birth (Lev 12.3), and the mother was considered ceremonially unclean for the 7 days following childbirth, and 33 days following the circumcision (Lev 12.2, 4). After this 40-day period, the mother had to provide a sheep as a sacrifice to restore her purity. This sacrifice could be changed to two turtledoves or pigeons if she were too poor to afford a sheep (Lev 12.6-8). As Luke 2.24 shows, Mary offered two turtledoves or pigeons:
“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”” (Luke 2.21-24)
Leviticus 12 sets out the relevant “law of Moses”, the requirements of which took a period of 40 days following childbirth. Luke is then quite clear that Joseph and Mary returned to their “own town” of Nazareth “when they had finished” these 40 days of legal requirements:
“When they [Joseph and Mary] had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” (Luke 2.39)
The phrase “when they had finished … they returned to Galilee” translates the Greek kai hos etelesan … epestrepsan eis ten Galilaian, literally: “as they completed [all the requirements of the Law]… they returned to Galilee.” Luke is clearly narrating the return to Nazareth as something that occurred just after Mary had completed the 40 days of legal obligations. What’s more, they are returning eis polin heuton (“into their own town”) of Nazareth. So Luke envisages a round trip, from Joseph & Mary’s hometown of Nazareth, to the purported ancestral town of Joseph (Bethlehem), to the Temple in Jerusalem, and back to Joseph & Mary’s hometown.
Story Two: Matthew
But Matthew has Joseph and Mary take an entirely different route, from an entirely different hometown!
In Luke, Jesus is still little more than a newborn baby when he leaves Bethlehem, leaving for Jerusalem after 40 days, the term of Mary’s purification (Luke 2.21-24, 39). By contrast, in Matthew, the wise men who visit provide information to Herod about Jesus’ age that leads to him killing all boys up to two years old. The clear implication of the narrative is that the wise men had given Herod information about the date of Jesus’ birth that led Herod to assume that Jesus was older than a mere one-month-old baby:
“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” (Matt 2.16)
In Matthew, Joseph & Mary escape Bethlehem, with Jesus, and live in Egypt for a period. Moreover, in Matthew’s account, Joseph and Mary remain in Egypt for some time after this, awaiting the death of Herod. Yet, according to Luke, Jesus had travelled to Nazareth with his family only after 40 days:
“and [Joseph, the child and his mother] remained there [in Egypt] until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” … When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” ” (Matt 2.15, 19-21)
Often those who want to harmonize Luke with Matthew posit a trip to Egypt between the visit to Jerusalem and the return to Nazareth. But:
1. Such a harmonization abuses the straightforward statement in Luke that shows Joseph and Mary return home on completing the legal requirements of Leviticus 12. According to Luke, Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth “as they finished everything required by the law”;
2. Such a harmonization ignores the presentation of Nazareth as the hometown of Joseph and Mary in Luke, versus Bethlehem in Matthew; and
3. Such a harmonization fails to adequately explain why, on being warned to flee straightaway to Egypt by an angel of Yahweh (once the wise men who had visited them, in Bethlehem, had left the place: 2.1-15), Joseph first travelled to Jerusalem (Luke 2.22) the very place where Herod himself reigned!
In addition, for Matthew, Joseph and Mary’s home was in Bethlehem.
Following the birth of Jesus, Joseph is commanded to go to Egypt, from their house in Bethlehem. If this “house” (Matt 2.11) is Joseph and Mary’s own house, this is complete contradiction to Luke’s account, which places Joseph & Mary’s hometown in Nazareth, Galilee. The term oikia (“house”) in Matthew most naturally refers to a family’s abode. Therefore, Matthew should be interpreted as understanding that Joseph and Mary were living in Bethlehem immediately before the birth of Jesus! As Raymond Brown explains:
“Presumably this was the house which served as the home of Joseph and Mary who were inhabitants of Bethlehem. The view is quite different from that of Luke 2.1-7. There have been many attempts, often quite forced, to harmonize the information.” (Birth of the Messiah, p. 176)
1. Joseph’s first thought is to return to Judea (the province in which Bethlehem is located), not Nazareth (Matt 2.22). Naturally, Joseph and Mary wished to return to their hometown, which Matthew 2.22 reveals was in Judea. But Nazareth is in Galilee, not Judea!
2. Only after being warned in a dream not to return to Judea, Joseph goes instead to Galilee (Matthew 2.22).
3. On coming to Nazareth, Joseph is not described as returning to the home that Luke believes he has there. To the contrary, Joseph is described as “making his home” there. The phrase “made his home in a town called Nazareth” (Matt 2.23) reveals that Joseph is settling in a new place, which Matthew now introduces for the first time! Far from returning to his hometown, Joseph has arrived in a town that is altogether new to him.
4. What is more, it is only because of Joseph’s arrival in Nazareth at this time that Matthew sees fit to claim that Jesus will now fulfill the prophecy, “He will be called a Nazorean” (Matt 2.23).
So when we actually come to consider the logic of Matthew’s narrative itself, rather than leap to a forced harmonization with Luke, it is beyond reasonable doubt that Matthew must be interpreted as presenting Bethlehem, not Nazareth, as Joseph and Mary’s original hometown. As Raymond Brown summarises:
“Joseph’s first thought was to return to Judea, i.e., to “Bethlehem of Judea” (2.1), because he and Mary lived in a house there (2.11). Since Joseph and Mary were citizens of Bethlehem, Matthew takes pains to explain why they went to Nazareth. In Luke’s account, where they are citizens of Nazareth, the painstaking explanation is centered on why they went to Bethlehem (2.1-5).”
So, in contrast to Luke, Matthew has Joseph and Mary move from their house in Bethlehem, to Egypt, and then settle for the first time in Nazareth!
So, to summarize:
Luke places Joseph and Mary at home in Nazareth, Galilee, from before the birth of Jesus (Luke 1.26-27; 2.4). After a trip to Bethlehem, Judea (Luke 2.5), during which Mary gives birth to Jesus and has him circumcised (Luke 2.6-7, 21), they return home to Nazareth, Galilee. If he is presented to the temple in Jerusalem after 40 days as was the custom (Matt 2.21-38) – the return would be just following 40 days after Jesus’ birth (Luke 2.39).
Matthew places Joseph and Mary’s original home in Bethlehem, Judea. Matthew does not believe that their original home was in Nazareth, Galilee. This is clear from the fact that they begin in Bethlehem, as shown by the visit to their home in Bethlehem, Judea by the wise men in Matt 2.1-12, and Herod seeking to destroy all Bethlehem infants in Matt 2.16-18; and especially as shown by the angel of the Lord telling them to return home to Israel in Matt 2.19-21 and Joseph’s decision not to return to Judea but to settle in a new town, Nazareth, Galilee.
Therefore, if you hear the Christmas story this year, it will probably involve a forced harmonization of two quite different and contradictory stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.