Do the narratives of Jesus' birth contradict each other?

The narratives of Jesus birth can be found in Matthew 1—2 and Luke 1—2. These accounts give the details of various angelic announcements of Jesus' coming, His birth, and the early years of His earthly life from two different perspectives. While on the surface the two accounts may seem to contradict on certain points, the reality is that they are telling the same story from different perspectives and with a focus on different elements.

Matthew writes to a Jewish audience and seems to focus on Joseph's point of view. He starts with Joseph's genealogical descent from Abraham and King David, proving Jesus' legal position as an heir of King David. Matthew also includes the magi visiting Jesus and His family when Jesus was two years old or younger. He explains how an angel warned Joseph in a dream and the family's flight to Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod. Luke, on the other hand, tells the story from Mary's point of view. He begins with the account of John the Baptist's prophesied birth. He includes details on Mary's pregnancy, including her interactions with Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Luke also describes the actual birth of Christ, complete with the angels' announcement to the shepherds and their visit of the newly born Jesus. A little later, Luke gives Jesus' genealogy from Mary's line (Luke 3:23–38).

As stated, these accounts each have a different focus, and therefore include different details of the story. Matthew was a Jew and was writing primarily to a Jewish audience. Luke was a Gentile and was writing primarily to a Gentile audience. Both Gospels are inspired by God, but both also include the personality of the human author. Because of some of the differences, some people claim that the narratives contradict each other. However, the details of the two accounts are easily reconciled.

Matthew and Luke both affirm a few key points: Mary was a virgin (Matthew 1:18, 23, 25; Luke 1:27), Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4–7), and Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth after Jesus was born (Matthew 2:23; Luke 1:26; 2:39).

Matthew includes the genealogy of Joseph (Matthew 1:1–16). It records the angel coming to Joseph, telling him to take Mary as his wife because the child she is carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit to save people from their sins (Matthew 1:18–24). The pregnancy of Mary and the birth of Christ are not described in any depth in this account. In chapter two, there is a jump in time to up to two years later. There Matthew describes the journey of the wise men and their gifts to Jesus (Matthew 2:1–12). He also speaks of Herod's outrage at finding out about a baby who was to be king of the Jews had been born (Matthew 2:1–8, 13, 16) and his decree that all baby boys under two years old should be slaughtered (Matthew 2:16–18). Matthew records God directing Joseph to take his family to Egypt to flee from Herod (Matthew 2:13–15) and their journey back to Nazareth after Herod died (Matthew 2:19–23).

Luke begins with the foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist and the actions of his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5–25). The angel Gabriel had told Zechariah about John; he also announced the birth of Jesus to Mary (Luke 1:26–38). Luke includes Mary's visit to see Elizabeth (Luke 1:39–56) and Mary's hymn of praise (Luke 1:46–56). Luke tells of the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57–66) and Zechariah's prophecy (Luke 1:67–80). Then Luke tells about the census that drives Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, where Mary gives birth to Jesus (Luke 2:1–7). He records the angels appearing to the shepherds, announcing the birth of the Savior, and their visit to see Jesus (Luke 2:8–20). Luke speaks of Jesus' circumcision and of the family's visit to the temple after Mary finished her purification time according to the Law, where they see Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:21–38). After this, the family returns to Nazareth and Jesus "grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him" (Luke 2:39–40).

Just because some details included by Luke were omitted by Matthew, and vice versa, does not mean that those events did not happen. Most of these events fit together easily without tension. Where people question the validity of the Gospel accounts is with the flight to Egypt.

There would not have been enough time between Jesus' circumcision and dedication at the temple for a trip to Egypt. Jewish Law required that a male be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. When a male child was born the mother's time of purifying lasted an additional thirty-three days. Then she was to bring the son to the temple and present him to the priest (Leviticus 12:2–8). Thirty-three days would not have given Mary and Joseph enough time to go to Egypt and back. However, they could have very plausibly gone to Egypt after they'd seen Simeon and Anna at the temple. It says in Luke, "when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth" (Luke 2:39). But this does not require that they returned to Nazareth immediately after. They could easily have gone to Egypt before they returned to Nazareth. Luke is giving a summary statement whereas Matthew describes an interim event.

This would put the timeline of events following Jesus' birth as follows:

1. Jesus is born in Bethlehem.
2. The shepherds visit Jesus.
3. Mary and Joseph go to Jerusalem to dedicate Jesus, where Simeon and Anna rejoice over Him.
4. Mary and Joseph return to Bethlehem (for an unspecified amount of time) .
5. The magi seek Jesus out and give Him gifts, avoiding Herod on their return.
6. Joseph is warned to flee for Egypt.
7. Herod realized that he was tricked by the wise men and orders the death of all baby boys under the age of two.
8. Herod dies in 4 BC.
9. Joseph and Mary return to Nazareth.

The above chronology does not contradict any part of Matthew or Luke. Because the miraculous birth of Jesus requires us to respond in some way, anyone wanting to deny the reality of a loving God come to save them from their sins can find reason to disregard the birth of Jesus Christ (John 3:16–21). But when we are intellectually honest, we can understand that, while the different books of the Bible contain different details, they complement one another and harmonize with each other. The Bible is a book of truth. More than that, it is the living Word of God (Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:16–17). If you put in the effort to genuinely study Scripture, you will not be disappointed at the ways God will reveal Himself to you.

Related Truth:

What is the importance of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ?

Why do Matthew and Luke have different genealogies of Jesus?

Why did God send Jesus when He did? What is the fullness of time?

What do we know about the real, historical Jesus? Who is Jesus?

How can I know Jesus? What does it mean to know Him?

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