Almost everyone knows something about the birth of Jesus. Hey, that’s what Christmas is all about, right? The sweet baby Jesus in the manger. Mary and Joseph trekking toward Bethlehem. The three wise men with their treasures as gifts. What else is there?
The fact is, there is a lot more, and as some critics note, none of it makes real sense, starting with the two competing stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. But have they looked closely enough? If they had, I’d guess they would have seen confirmation of the veracity and reliability of the two narratives. And they might have discovered that the two nativity narratives are actually two parts of one story, a story that existed years before the gospel writers penned their gospels.The author of the website errancy.org makes this statement:
The first thing to say is that these are obviously different stories. There is just no overlap between them except for the fact that they feature the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and end up in Nazareth. Even if the two accounts had no explicit contradictions, it's decidedly odd that almost nothing that occurs in Matthew is mentioned in Luke, and vice versa.
But there are contradictions...
What are the contradictions?
The writer lists three. But none of the three are real contradictions at all. Let me take each of them in turn and suggest a simple means of putting the two stories together in a way that they agree perfectly.
The first contradiction is said to be the place of Joseph and Mary’s home. Luke clearly says they lived in Nazareth (2:4 and 39). Matthew does not identify their home town. (The writer admits that but doesn’t seem to care and builds his case against the reliability of the gospels anyway. Scratch your head.)
Matthew does not mention Nazareth until the end of chapter 2 where Joseph and Mary and the child are returning from Egypt and determine that it would be safer in Nazareth. The writer critic assumes, since there is no mention of Nazareth as their home town before Jesus’ birth, their home town must have been Bethlehem. Bethlehem is the first place mentioned by Matthew, after all. Why not?
The better question might be, why Nazareth at all. Why would Luke identify Nazareth as their home? Nazareth was a tiny place unmentioned in the Old Testament and unidentified by archaeologist until recently. Yet it is identified by both Matthew and Luke as the place where the holy family settled and where Jesus grew up. The most logical answer is to accept Luke’s statement in Luke 2:4 that it was where Joseph and Mary lived prior to the birth of Jesus; he was not simply pulling a name out of a hat. They knew the place, and they just decided it would be safer to go home.
The second contradiction is said to be how long Joseph and Mary remained in Bethlehem. Luke (Luke 2:22) implies that they lived there at least until they presented Jesus at the temple when they offered a sacrifice required by the law on the birth of a first male child and then Mary’s purification. That would have been some forty days after his birth.
It would be perfectly logical to assume that Joseph and Mary did not live those forty days in the stable where they first found refuge and where Jesus was born. If they remained in Bethlehem, they must have found a house. And that is where the two stories of Matthew and Luke intersect (second time). Matthew records that the Magi who had come seeking the infant king found him in a house (Matt. 2:11).
How long after Jesus’ birth before the Magi came? Matthew, who is the only gospel writer to mention the Magi, does not say. However, there is one possible clue. It is that Herod ordered the baby boys killed two years old and younger. He was probably making sure to cover all the possibilities, but those possibilities would have fit within that two year range. It is possible, using the clues in Matthew, that Joseph and the family remained in Bethlehem for as much as a year or more.
The presumed contradiction is that Luke seems to indicate that the family left for Nazareth shortly after the visit to the temple (Luke 2:39). If so Matthew and Luke would be in disagreement, for Matthew says they went from Bethlehem to Egypt. But that contradiction, as with the first, depends on reading something into the text of the Bible that is not there. Luke did not say they “immediately” left Bethlehem for Nazareth. He simply says “when” they had done all the law required, they went back to Nazareth.
It is possible that there were many days between the trip to the temple and their return to Nazareth. Luke as the historian/author is simply doing what every historian does. He ignores things which are not important to his narrative and bridges between the events he wants to highlight by a transition like “when.” That is called telescoping, and it is common in every historical narrative and biography. No biographer or historian can include every detail, so he skips those that are not important to his story. So this contradiction is imagined, as is the first.
The third contradiction is said to be the sojourn in Egypt that Matthew mentions but Luke does not. You would think that Luke would mention that if he was aware of it. He mentions Jesus’ visit to the temple at age twelve, after all. Why not Egypt, or for that matter the Magi and Herod’s attempt to kill the child Jesus? Did Matthew make all that about Egypt up so he could work in an obscure prophecy about God calling his son out of Egypt (Matt. 2:15).
This objection to the reliability of the birth narratives, however, is like the first two. It rests on the lack of evidence rather on a real contradiction.
The writer of errancy.com makes a huge mistake. He assumes that the accounts are questionable and then argues that they must be so because there is no evidence that they are not. Hopefully, readers can see the problem with that. It is the equivalent of presuming a man guilty until proven innocent.
However, Matthew and Luke can be proved innocent of contradiction. Their stories can be easily harmonized, and when they are it is reasonable to conclude that they really drew from one coherent story that was known by Matthew and the people Luke interviewed for his gospel long before either gospel writer wrote.
Here’s the story if we put Matthew and Luke together:
Mary and Joseph are in Nazareth of Galilee and are engaged when Luke’s story of them begins (Luke 1:26) Mary is not yet pregnant because the angel has only then announces to her that she will have a son (Luke 1:31). So this is nine months away from Joseph and Mary’s trek to Bethlehem. Matthew does not include this piece.
Matthew picks up the story with the fact that Joseph and Mary are engaged but not yet married and the angel’s announcement to Joseph that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18). Both gospels agree that Mary’s pregnancy is a miracle (Matt. 1:18 and Luke 1:30-35). This is the first intersection of the two accounts.
Matthew tells that Joseph did what the angel told him to do and married Mary (Matt. 1:24). Luke does not directly describe them marrying, but he clearly implies in 2:5 they were married but that the marriage had not been consummated (he uses the word “betrothed”). Matthew agrees (Matt. 1:25).
Shortly before the baby was due Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, and it is there that the birth occurs (Luke 2:6,7). Luke also records the visit by the shepherds. Matthew does not describe the place or circumstances of Jesus’ birth.
Luke then describes the circumcision of Jesus eight days after his birth and the purification sacrifice for Mary 40 days after. He also tells of Joseph and Mary meeting Anna and Simeon in the temple and their prophecies about the child Jesus (Luke 2:22-38). Matthew mentions neither.
Matthew then picks up the story with the Magi and their visit to Bethlehem looking for the Messiah. He also includes Herod’s reaction and attempt to kill the child (Matt. 2:1-12). Luke mentions neither of these. Matthew then concludes with the story of the family’s escape to Egypt and their eventual return and finally their settling in Nazareth (Matt. 2:13-15). Luke mentions neither but does agree with Matthew that the family eventually made their home in Nazareth. This is the final intersection.
The accounts of Matthew and Luke not only do not disagree but they complement each other, each filling in parts of the story to make the whole story a complete description of the events surrounding Jesus birth and early years.
That these two gospel writers could write accounts that were in agreement in the basic facts and complementary in the details argues for there being a single source. It argues for the integrity of the gospel accounts rather than their errancy.
Neither of these writers could have independently made up a fiction that would dovetail so beautifully. Each wrote in his gospel those details that were significant for his rhetorical purpose, Together they make the nativity story we are all acquainted with as the Christmas story.
Isn’t God terrific?