Why do Matthew and Luke seem to disagree about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth?

Q. The Gospel of Matthew says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and was in a home of some sort when the wise men visited Him. Jesus was soon afterwards taken to Egypt to flee from Herod and then brought to the city of Nazareth where he stayed.

The Gospel of Luke claims that Augustus Caesar took a worldwide census, and so Joseph and Mary left their original place of Nazareth and went to Bethlehem. Jesus was born in a manger, not a home, and afterwards was taken to Jerusalem. There is no mention of Egypt. And then he was taken back to Nazareth.

How can both stories be right? Matthew insinuates that Joseph and Mary had never lived in Nazareth before. Luke calls it “their own city.” Also, did such a census from Caesar ever occur as Luke describes?

It actually is possible to reconcile the accounts that Matthew and Luke give of Jesus’ birth, though once I have sketched out how that can be done, I will then explain why I think we should still find the differences between them the most significant thing, because they point to each author’s purposes in telling the story of Jesus.

You might be familiar with an English translation of Matthew that begins the story of his birth something like this: “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.'” This sounds very much as if the birth of Jesus is nearly contemporaneous with the wise men’s visit, and so we are surprised when they find him in a “house,” since according to Luke (and the traditional Christmas “manger scene” or crèche) he should be in a manger.

But Matthew actually uses a particular Greek construction to begin his account (the “genitive absolute”). It specifies what one subject was doing or had done before a different subject and their situation is introduced. We might translate more literally, “Jesus having been born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men came from the east.” (In light of this, many English translations read, “After Jesus was born . . .”)

So the birth of Jesus is not so much a contemporaneous event as a background event, a “given” for the narrative that follows. When we pay attention to the fact that the wise men first saw the star two years earlier, it’s less surprising that Jesus is no longer in the manger. For that matter, there’s no reason for him to be in Bethlehem any more, either. The census is actually long over and Mary and Joseph could even have returned to Nazareth. (Matthew says simply that the star went ahead of the wise men and led them to “the place where the child was.” He doesn’t identify that place.) They would still have been within the jurisdiction of Herod the Great even in Nazareth, however, and would have had to take Jesus to Egypt for his safety.

I say they could have gone there because Matthew seems to suggest that Joseph’s plan after Herod died was to come to Judea, and that he only went up to Galilee and settled in Nazareth instead when he learned that Herod’s son had succeeded him as the ruler of Judea. So it’s also possible that Joseph and Mary stayed somewhere in Judea for two years after Jesus was born.

Much of this is a matter of “filling in the blanks” to try to reconcile the accounts, and I think its chief value is to show that they are not inherently contradictory. But as I said earlier, I think it’s much more fruitful to ask why there are differences, as these point to Matthew and Luke’s purposes in writing and thus to the “take homes” they each have for their original audiences, and for us.

Matthew was an observant Jew who was writing for an audience of Jews who had come to believe in Jesus as their Messiah. But at the time he was writing, his community was locked in a contest with groups led by the Pharisees over what the future of Judaism would be after the destruction of the temple in the first Jewish-Roman War of AD 66-70. So Matthew wants to portray Jesus not only as the Son of David (and heir to the Messianic promises) but as a “new Moses,” whose teachings should be followed rather than the strict literal reading of the law that the Pharisees are promoting.

So even if Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth before the census, Matthew doesn’t mention this because he wants to highlight that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to fulfill Micah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be born there. Matthew describes Herod’s slaughter of the baby boys and the flight into Egypt to show how Jesus recapitulates events in the life of Moses: escaping from a murderous ruler and coming up out of Egypt. Matthew mentions Nazareth only at the end because he can then point out that Jesus being called a “Nazarene” is another in the chain of Scriptures that Jesus fulfilled.

Luke, on the other hand, is a Greek, and a Gentile, writing for his fellow Greeks and Gentiles. He wants to reassure them that the good news of Jesus is for them, too, not just for Jews (or for those who will convert to Judaism, or become culturally Jewish). There have been tensions about this question within the community of Jesus’ followers and Luke’s readers aren’t so sure any more that they are welcome. So he is interested in presenting things like the message of the angels to the shepherds that the birth of Jesus is “wonderful, joyous news for all people” and Simeon’s prayer in the temple in which he says that Jesus will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” as well asfor glory to your people Israel.” (However, Matthew’s report of the visit of the wise men shows that he, too, understood that while Jesus was the Messiah of the Jews, he was also the Messiah for Gentiles as well.)

I hope this is helpful. As for whether the so-called “census of Quirinius” actually happened, or happened around the time Luke says, there’s a good discussion here.

“The Holy Men” © Liz Lemon Swindle. In this contemporary painting the wise men are clearly visiting a two-year-old in a home, not an infant in a manger.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Why do Matthew and Luke seem to disagree about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth?”

  1. Whatever, BBC did the research and concluded that Jesus as boy was brought up in India due the missing years of his growing up. And there’s a tomb in Kashmir where it’s believed to be that of Jesus where he was laid facing East and another Muslim prophet facing North (which is how the Muslims bury their dead).
    It was also noted that it’s in the Buddhist scriptures to go look for the “Healer”(Jesus).
    Perhaps BBC is wrong?

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