As a child, I pictured the birth of Jesus to have taken place in a stable where the shepherds, along with the magi visited the newborn baby. This is how virtually all Christmas plays and Nativity scenes depict it. Of course later I learned that the magi were not present at the stable, but visited Jesus in a house, presumably when he was a toddler. But further studying of the Matthew and Luke birth narratives reveal problems that are easily resolved.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while thy were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Luke 2: 22-24
And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turledoves, or two young pigeons.”
And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.
Notice that in order for the family to be in Bethlehem, the writer of Luke tells of a census that was ordered by Caesar Augustus. Joseph must go to the city of his ancestor David to register. Jesus is born in the stable, then eight days later is circumcised. Next, they must go through the purification process as written in the Torah. This was done in Jerusalem at the Temple. Finally, in verse 39, the family goes back to Nazareth, where they were originally from, and Jesus grows up.
Matthew’s story is quite different. Matthew seemingly indicates that the family was already living in Bethlehem. There is no census, no journey to Bethlehem, no inn, no stable, no manger, and no shepherds. But even more interesting is the family’s journey to Egypt, then Nazareth.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 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, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
If you remember, Luke says the family was originally from Nazareth and they returned there after the purification rights when Jesus would have been 41 days old.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying.
Matthew does not put the family in Nazareth until he is about 2 or 3 years old. His reasoning for their trek to Nazareth is for them to escape Archelaus, not because it was their hometown as Luke writes. According to Matthew, instead of the family returning to Bethlehem, as was their original plan, they flee to Nazareth.
My attempt to reconcile the two stories failed because the family cannot be in Jerusalem of Judea fulfilling the purification rights, then returning to Nazareth while simultaneously living in Egypt for 2-3 years. If Luke’s narrative is true, the family would have returned to their hometown of Nazareth when Jesus was just 41 days old and from there he grew up, leaving no room for a 2-3 year stay in Egypt. If Matthew’s version is true, then the family would not have returned to Nazareth after the purification, but fled to Egypt instead. They simply do not work together.
Below is a chart for easier comparison.