Many skeptics and opposers of the Word of God insist on the idea that the two accounts of the Nativity in the Bible (specifically Matthew 2 and Luke 2:1-40) contradict each other. We shall see if this is so.
First thing’s first, though. Even if Matthew mentions events that Luke doesn’t mention (and vice versa), this doesn’t mean that Matthew and Luke contradict each other by not mentioning every single detail in their books. It’s not wrong if Luke did not write about the murder of boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity, and it’s also not wrong if Matthew did not write about the circumcision of Jesus. Each writer wrote according to what he was inspired by God to write, and this was done without them contradicting each other in any way.
Yet, many make claims that the two Nativity accounts contradict each other. What we should ask ourselves, however, is whether or not we can harmonize them together. If we can, there is no contradiction. If we can’t (and we, thus, conclude that it is impossible for them to be harmonized together), then we should have a reason to be worried. For the Word of God must not be in error by contradicting itself (as God does not commit errors and mistakes).
So let’s see if there is a harmony between the two Nativity accounts (specifically Matthew 2 and Luke 2:1-40).
In Matthew 2, we read that, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Magi from the east came to visit Him. After they left, Joseph was warned in a dream to take Mary and Jesus and escape with them to Egypt (since Herod’s intention was to kill the child Jesus). They stayed in Egypt for a time until Joseph was told in a dream to take his family back to Israel (since those who had tried to kill the child were dead). Instead of going back to Bethlehem (where Jesus was born), they ended up in Nazareth, a town in Galilee.
Now let’s see what Luke says.
In Luke 2:1-40, Joseph and Mary (expecting a child) went up from the town of Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem. There, Mary gave birth to the child. Angels appeared to a group of shepherds nearby, and the shepherds were told about a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. The shepherds went to Bethlehem and saw the truth of what the angels had told them. After seeing the child, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God. On the eighth day, the child was circumcised and given the name Jesus. And after some time, Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord. There, they encountered both Simeon and Anna. When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they went back to Nazareth. And the child, Jesus, grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and grace.
Upon first glance, they do appear to contradict each other. Matthew seems to say that Jesus was taken to Egypt a few days after His birth. Yet, Luke says that, days after Jesus’ birth, He was taken to Jerusalem and then back to Nazareth. Luke 2:39 makes it clear that Joseph and his family went back to Nazareth right after they had done everything required by the Law of God. Matthew, on the other hand, seems to have Jesus taken from Bethlehem right to Egypt and then, after a time, to Nazareth (back in Israel). So there does seem to be a contradiction. And to make it worse, Matthew 2 makes it sound like the first time Joseph and his family lived in Nazareth was after returning from Egypt, while Luke says they had been living in Nazareth before Jesus was born.
Are the skeptics right? Do the Nativity accounts contradict each other?
Here’s one erroneous assumption the skeptics make. They assume that the Magi came to visit Jesus only a few days after His birth. This is a big assumption because nowhere in Matthew does it say that this is so.
Matthew 2:1 says that the Magi came to visit Jesus after His birth, but it does not say when exactly. In fact, upon reading Matthew 2 carefully, we see that Herod gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi (Matthew 2:16).
Ask yourself this question. Why would Herod order the killing of boys who were, at most, two years old if only a short number of days had passed since Jesus’ birth?
The fact is that the events described in Matthew 2 happened after the events described in Luke 2:1-40 (or, for the sake of accuracy, Luke 2:1-39). That’s how both accounts fit together.
Therefore, contrary to what tradition says, the Magi did not visit Jesus around the same time that the shepherds did. There was a considerable amount of time between the visit of the shepherds and the visit of the Magi. It’s no surprise if the Magi paid Jesus a visit around a year after His birth.
In other words, there was more than enough time for the events in Luke 2:1-39 to occur before the eventual arrival of the Magi.
If that is so, why then does Luke 2:39 say that they went to Nazareth, not back to Bethlehem? How can you say that the events in Matthew 2 happened after the events in Luke 2:1-39 when Luke 2:39 says they never went back to Bethlehem?
Notice above how another assumption was forced into the text of Luke 2. Luke 2 doesn’t say that they never went back to live in Bethlehem. While it does say that they went back to Nazareth, it doesn’t say that they immediately went there right after the events in Jerusalem.
You see, Luke, inspired by God, skipped most of the events described in Matthew 2 and went straight to the moment when Joseph and his family went back to Nazareth. Luke 2:39 is important because it shows us how the prophecies were fulfilled concerning the Messiah being called a Nazarene. So, in short, Luke 2:39 does not say what skeptics think it says.
People who have a problem with this explanation ought to read Luke 7:1 for an idea of how unfamiliar they really are with the style of writing back then. In Luke 7:1, it says that when Jesus had finished saying all that He said in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum. Note that, in order to enter Capernaum, you first have to walk towards it. Once you reach Capernaum, then you can enter it. So there was a process Jesus had to do before He could enter Capernaum. Yet, Luke 7:1 skips this process and goes straight to the moment when Jesus entered Capernaum. Thus, Luke 7:1 doesn’t say that Jesus immediately entered Capernaum right after He finished saying what He said in the hearing of the people. After reading this, go back to Luke 2:39, and you’ll see how much sense the explanation in the paragraph above makes.
One more question, then.
Why does Matthew 2 make it sound like the first time Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth was after returning from Egypt?
The answer is that Matthew 2 doesn’t say such a thing. Matthew 2:23 doesn’t introduce us to Nazareth for the assumed reason that Joseph and Mary had never lived there before the escape to Egypt. It introduces us to Nazareth simply because it’s the first time it’s introduced in Matthew.
If you find this answer hard to believe, then let me show you something interesting from Luke 4.
In Luke 4:23, Jesus (while in Nazareth) mentions Capernaum, implying that He had been there before. Later on, in Luke 4:31, we see Capernaum being introduced as one of the towns in Galilee. This is after Jesus had already mentioned Capernaum in Luke 4:23.
Therefore, the introduction of a town in the Bible does not indicate that it is being visited for the first time.
And so, the Word of God (once again) answers all critics and skeptics and shows them how the Word of God does not contradict itself.