Do the Details of Jesus Birth Agree in Matthew & Luke?

This is another in a series of questions from critics about the Bible.

Question: Matthew’s account of Jesus birth seems to differ from Luke’s. They seem to start from different places and they travel to different places. Matthew has Jesus, Mary, and Joseph all going to Egypt, while Luke mentions nothing of Egypt but does mention Jerusalem. Luke seems to not even give any opportunity for them to go to Egypt.

The response is rather straightforward. As you mention, the accounts of Jesus’ birth do indeed mention different details. This is no surprise, for Matthew and Luke both have different audiences and write for different purposes. That they include different details does not indicate a contradiction. For example, Luke mentions the visiting shepherds and Matthew mentions the visiting Magi. These are in line with Luke writing to a Greek audience, identifying Jesus as a common man, while Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience, presenting Jesus as the rightful king. So we have no contradictions merely because there are details mentioned in one gospel that are not in the other.

The only possible area of confusion occurs when we try to align the timing of the trips that Jesus and his family take. Matthew picks up the story of Jesus’ birth when Mary was already in Bethlehem, then tells of the family going to Egypt, then settling in Nazareth. Luke begins with Mary in Nazareth, then  tells of them going to Bethlehem, then to Jerusalem to fulfill the rituals of the law of Moses, then back to Nazareth.

Most of these passages can align rather easily. From Bethlehem, Jerusalem was a short five mile walk, so the trip there was easily made. We also do not know how long after the birth the Magi arrived, so they could have come in a few days or a year or more. To fulfill the law of Moses, Mary would have waited several weeks before going to the temple, according to Leviticus 12, due to the time of ritual purification. So it is entirely possible that during the weeks of purification, Joseph and Mary moved into a house where the Magi visited (Matt. 2:11), they then went to the temple for sacrifice (Luke 2:22ff). During this time, king Herod realized he had been tricked (Matt. 2:16), causing the pending slaughter that Joseph fled to Egypt to avoid (Matt. 2:13, 16).

The one possible point of confusion occurs in Luke 2:39. Earlier in Chapter 2, Joseph and Mary bring the baby to the temple to perform rituals required by the law of Moses. Luke 2:21-38 tell details of what happened in the Temple. 2:39 then says “When they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth.” The phrasing here, especially following the context of the previous story, would seem to indicate an immediacy, as if the family went to the temple then directly back to Nazareth. If so, we would have difficulty reconciling the timeline with Matthew, for there would seem to be no opportunity for visiting Egypt.

However, the very next verse, Luke 2:40, says “The Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.” Luke 2:40 is clearly a compressed summary of a long period of time in the child’s life. In the context of a summary of Jesus’ childhood, and with the context of only including certain details to make a point in the story, there is no problem with Luke not mentioning the trip to Egypt in 2:39. All the gospel writers leave out some details, and none claim to include everything that Jesus said and did.

But in a larger sense, questions such as the original one in this post give us a clue about the nature of the critics’ intent. They make no mention of the areas where the gospel writers agree, which are numerous. In fact, the critics often put the Bible into a no-win paradox, for in places where the Bible aligns easily, the critic accuses the writers of copying and not being an original source. On the other hand, when the writers include different details, the Bible is accused of having contradictions. Regardless of whether Bible passages sound the same or different, the critic finds fault.

Further, even in areas where we do not have a full set of historical details so that we can align all details easily, the critic handles the Bible unfairly. A reasonable approach would be to claim that since we can easily align the vast majority of Bible passages, the few which we have some difficulty should be given at least a neutral benefit. Instead, the critic approaches the Bible assuming contradictions, then looking for instances to use as proof texts. Both Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph, then grew up in Nazareth. Such agreement is minimized or ignored by the critics, and they never seem to allow for circumstances that are not explained in the text. Very often critics are quick to jump to the conclusion of contradiction.

In the case of Jesus’ birth presented in Matthew and Luke, most of the many details line up well. In the one instance where we have some difficulty, there is a reasonable explanation.



About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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9 Responses to Do the Details of Jesus Birth Agree in Matthew & Luke?

  1. Nate says:

    As you know, I completely disagree with you on this issue, and I’ve written about it in detail here. I don’t find your point about Luke 2:40 to be persuasive, since it comes after Luke 2:39. We don’t usually read something like verse 40 that indicates a large passage of time and then apply it to whatever came before it. The preceding verse precedes it for a reason.

    Furthermore, Matthew 2:21-23 talks about what they did after finding out the danger was over and they could leave Egypt:

    21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 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. 23 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.

    This makes it clear that they wanted to settle in Judea. It also describes Nazareth in a weird way, considering that Luke’s account claims Mary and Joseph were originally from Nazareth already.

    • humblesmith says:

      I agree that Luke 2:39 is phrased in away that, on the surface, seems to indicate immediacy. Given the overall accuracy of the scripture, I just maintain we should give Luke the benefit of the doubt, and a compressing of a story is often done, as the very next verse indicates. At the very least, 2:39 is the only difficulty I find in the whole account.

      As to Matthew 2:31, I submit that you’re reading meaning into the text. This passage does not make it clear about their intent. It merely says there was concern about Judea. As I write this, I do not have a map available, but I seem to recall that if one was traveling from Egypt to Gallilee, one would have to travel through Judea. If there was an unfriendly leader there, it would be natural to be concerned.

      As to it being weird, it’s only weird if you you look at Matthew having already read Luke, which Matthew could not assume.

  2. How is the Bible criticized unfairly? It’s held to the same standards as other historical texts: are the events corroborated by writings outside of the Bible? Does the Bible contradict itself? If so, what can these contradictions mean? Contradictions don’t make something wrong. Sometimes they just mean that the writer saw things from a different perspective. Sometimes the author exaggerated or added something. Those are common problems with historical texts. The Bibles contradictions do suggest two things though: a) the Bible had multiple authors, and b) the Bible isn’t the infallible word of god. If two parts contradict each other, one telling must be wrong, so it’s not infallible.

    • humblesmith says:

      If you’re trying to say that Bible critics approach the Bible with calm, unemotional academic neutrality, forgive me if I disagree. Few other texts make moral demands upon us, and the rhetoric from the critics give away their emotions.

      • Those who do it academically do do it calmly. Those who do it for fun are likely to put more personal bias into it, but it’s the academics job to look critically at the texts they study and accept it based on its merit and not some presupposed notion of it’s accuracy or lack there of.

  3. dwwork says:

    Reblogged this on Reasons For The Hope Blog and commented:
    Another great post from my friend Glenn’s blog showing how what critics bring up as contradictions in the Bible are just different details the authors chose to include.

  4. Kevin Williamson says:

    Well presented explanations and answers to a common question/observation regarding the timeline of events mentioned in Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus Christ’s birth and early childhood.

  5. Clyde Herrin says:

    When Luke wrote his books Paul was awaiting trial by the Roman government. Luke probably omitted any reference to the visit by the Wise Men because knowing that Herod had considered Jesus a threat might have prejudiced the judges against Paul. Thus he also omitted any reference to the trip to Egypt in Luke 2:39. I have a post on this subject in my blog.

  6. asherblake says:

    Excellent explanation. When defending the Bible we cannot overestimate its perfection – we just need to make sure to acquire the best understanding we can! Thanks very much for your work here.

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