Problem: Matthew and Luke's nativities are totally different
Verses: Matthew 1:18-2:23, Luke 2; Status: Serious

This is the nativity story according to Matthew 1:18-2:23:

This is the nativity story according to Luke 2:

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...

Where was the home of Joseph and Mary?

Before anything happened, where was the home of Joseph and Mary? Luke 2:4 and 2:39 are perfectly clear: it was in Nazareth, Galilee. On the other hand, Matthew doesn't explicitly say. But he seems to place it in Bethlehem, Judea. Firstly, he never describes any journey to Bethlehem (presumably because Joseph and Mary were there already). Secondly, when Herod dies and Joseph is taking his family back home, it seems he meant to go to Judea (where Bethlehem was), but was afraid to do so. This is Matthew 2:22-23:

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. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: "He shall be called a Nazarene." (ESV)

This is not quite conclusive. Just as a matter of geography, one would generally want to pass through Judea in order to get from Egypt to Nazareth, and so when Matthew tells us they avoided Judea, he might just be discussing the route they took on their journey, rather than their intended destination.

However, I find it very telling that Joseph "withdrew" to Galilee, as if that wasn't his original destination. The Greek word is anechoresen, which does indeed carry this meaning. And these verses definitely give the impression that Nazareth was a new home for Joseph and Mary - not the place where they started. This problem I consider Serious.

How long were they in Bethlehem?

Another problem is this. Matthew's gospel tells us that the family had to flee from Bethlehem and hide in Egypt for a while. In Luke, however, once the month-old Jesus had been presented at the temple, and all legal requirements had been fulfilled (see Leviticus 12), the family simply returned to Nazareth without incident. This is Luke 2:39:

And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. (ESV)

This is hard to reconcile with Matthew, who says they did nothing of the sort, but rather fled to Egypt. Also, Matthew 2:16 seems to imply that the family was in Bethlehem for about two years before they had to make their escape, whereas Luke has them stay in Bethlehem only a short while.

The Tektonics website tries to solve both problems at once, by suggesting that the family went to live in Nazareth (as Luke says), but just happened to be visiting Bethlehem for unrelated reasons when the wise men went there looking for them. Quite a coincidence! But, there's nothing in Matthew to indicate that Joseph and Mary left Bethlehem prior to the wise men finding them (which makes a lot of sense if Matthew thought their original home was there).

Looking Unto Jesus suggests that the family did indeed go to Nazareth after about forty days, and then fled from Nazareth (not Bethlehem) to Egypt some time later. This just about works, except that it's now hard to understand why the family had to flee at all: if Herod was looking for Jesus in Bethlehem, there would be little reason to flee from Nazareth, which is quite far from Bethlehem - about 70 miles or so. However, I suppose there would be a risk that word of Jesus' location would reach Herod, so this solution has some potential.

Still, it seems to me that Matthew intends the reader to understand that Jesus was found by the wise men in Bethlehem, and then the family had to flee from Bethlehem to avoid Herod's wrath. That's the overall impression given in Matthew 2. But this part of the problem is perhaps Minor.

The "house" (is not in itself a problem)

There is one more thing I would like to quickly dismiss. Luke says there was no room at the inn, whereas Matthew 2:11 puts Joseph and Mary in a house. This is often commented on, but I just don't see the problem. Matthew doesn't appear to be talking about the very same date as Luke. Presumably Joseph and Mary were only "sleeping rough" for a short period.

So what's going on?

What was actually going on in the minds of the authors of Luke and Matthew? It seems that everyone knew that Jesus came from Nazareth, a town not mentioned in the Old Testament. However, an important Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2) placed the birth of a great King of the Jews in Bethlehem. It seems that both Luke and Matthew wanted to resolve this little problem, but did so in very different ways.

Updated: 2009-12-26

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