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.