The birth of Jesus Christ is one of the most important events in history. So important, in fact, that we celebrate it every year at Christmas. Out of the four Gospels, only two of them record the birth of Christ – Matthew and Luke. For centuries many have believed that the birth narratives of Jesus contain discrepancies. Is this true? Do the Gospels Contradict each other on the Birth of Jesus? Are they not reconcilable, or can they be harmonized? Let’s take a look.
The differences between Matthew and Luke
Matthew’s narrative is the shorter of the two. After recording Jesus’ genealogy, he gives the reader details about Joseph. Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant and he plans on divorcing her. However, an angel appears to him to tell him not to do so and to name the baby Jesus (1:18-23). Matthew then moves onto the Magi and the appearance of the Star, the escape to Egypt, Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus, and the family’s return to Judea (2:1-23).
Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth begins, not with Joseph or Mary, but how an angel appears to Zachariah, a priest who will become the father of John the Baptist (1:5-25). Luke then proceeds to tell his readers about the angel’s visit to Mary (to tell her about the birth of Christ), Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the birth of John, the birth of Jesus (during a census issued by Caesar Augustus), the shepherds worshipping the newborn Jesus, and Joseph and Mary bringing Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (1:26-2:40).
It is quite clear that Matthew and Luke present different events that occur around the birth of Christ. Matthew says nothing about the birth of John the Baptist or the angels’ appearance to Mary. He does not mention the census, the shepherds or the presentation of Jesus at the Temple (among other things). Luke tells us nothing about the Magi, the Star, Herod’s madness with the killing of the small children, or the stay in Egypt. If all of these events happened then why didn’t both of them include all of these details?
The alleged contradictions are easily resolved since the events in Matthew seem to have probably happened two years or so after Jesus’ birth (2:16). Luke records the events preceding and immediately after the birth, while Matthew focuses on events a couple years later (except for the scene with the angel telling Joseph to wed Mary).
For some, however, this is not acceptable. There is no way, according to them, that someone writing about Jesus, the very Son of God, would exclude things such as the angel’s visit to Mary, the shepherds, or the presentation at the temple (as Matthew excludes). There is no logical reason why Luke should exclude such things as the Magi, the Star that arose in the east, the escape to Egypt, or Herod’s murders. Surely a true and accurate historian would do no such thing!
First off, let me repeat here what I wrote in another article about the literary genre that the Gospels belong to: “Also, the Gospels do not fit into the modern way of ‘doing’ history. They are not very long and do not read like a typical history book. Skeptics believe because the Gospels are nothing like modern biographies or history books then they are unhistorical and cannot be trusted.
However, the Gospels do fit into the ancient literary genre of Greco-Roman biography. These books were generally shorter and it was common to skip over large parts of a person’s life (like how Mark and John say nothing about the birth of Jesus). It was common to actually limit the discussion to a person’s key speeches or events in their life, and these moments in a person’s life were usually chosen and organized for making a moral statement (and not about historical interest like modern biographies are). ‘The subject of the biography exemplified certain virtues. Emphasizing these encouraged readers to emulate the virtuous life of their biographical subject…They were written to teach, to exhort, and to improve their readers.’”
Matthew and Luke did not have to cover Jesus’ birth at all (as Mark and John decided not to). And there is nothing wrong with them covering only certain topics. It makes sense that Luke discusses the events more centered on Mary considering Luke gives more spotlight to the women in Jesus’ life than the other Gospel writers do.
We must also remember that writers in the ancient world had only so much room to record the things that they wanted to. Writing was an expensive and time consumer endeavor. Scrolls were only so long so a writer had to decide before hand what to present to his readers. If Luke was to include the Star in the east or the escape to Egypt then he would have had to include the Magi and Herod’s killing of the children. For some reason Luke decided not to include the Magi story. Maybe he knew his audience already had knowledge of it? Maybe he knew that they would have more interest in the events that he decided to include? The same goes with Matthew. We simply do not know for certain, but this does not mean that the accounts are contradictory and inaccurate.
Think of all the different World War II documentaries that have been made. All of them include details and events that the others do not. Since the makers have budget and time slot limitations, they have to decide what is more important for their viewers to see. Just because one documentary includes an event that others do not does not mean that event never happened, that it was unimportant, or that it is contradictory. These details complement each other. There is nothing in Matthew and Luke’s presentation of the birth of Christ that cannot be seen as complementing each other (except for the possibility of one).
The Nazareth Problem
Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary were originally from the town of Nazareth in Galilee (northern Israel) and that they travelled to Bethlehem for the census and that Jesus was born while there (2:1-7). Matthew simply says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (2:1) and that when Joseph and Mary returned to Judea after the death of Herod, they decided to stay away from that area and go and live in Nazareth (2:19-23). The implication here is that Joseph and Mary had never lived in Nazareth before and that this was their first time in the town (directly contradicting Luke).
However, Matthew never says that this was there first time ever there. Since he never mentioned where Joseph and Mary were from (he simply says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem – not that Bethlehem was there home town), Matthew now needs to tell his readers that Mary and Joseph decided to head straight to Nazareth. Perhaps the family was planning on going back to Bethlehem to stay with family, but when they heard that the son of Herod was ruling in his father’s place, Joseph decided to finally head back to their hometown.
There is simply no contradiction between Matthew and Luke here. It is not like Matthew says, “And Joseph went to live in Nazareth for the first time in his life (not like what that Luke guy tells you).”
One last issue
But why were Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem two years after Jesus was born when the Magi came to visit? Luke tells us that after Jesus was taken to the Temple, the family returned to Nazareth (2:39). I personally think the answer to this is rather easy. There is nothing wrong with them visiting family on occasion in Bethlehem. Also, Luke (2:41) tells us that the family would go to Jerusalem every year for the Passover (2:41). It is highly likely that they would sometimes use this time to go to Joseph’s ancestral hometown of Bethlehem.
Although many believe that the two accounts about the birth of Jesus are contradictory, a closer look shows that they are not. Many people, I believe, either do not fully understand how contradictions work, or they want to see problems in the Bible to justify their unbelief.
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 Mark D. Roberts. Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007). 85-86.