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How do we harmonize discrepancies surrounding Jesus’ birth?

The accounts in Matthew and Luke do have differences that need to be investigated. Mark and John do not describe Jesus’ birth. Matthew tells us that after the birth of Jesus an angel appeared to Joseph and told him to flee to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s plan to murder the children of Bethlehem. After Herod’s death, an angel appeared again to Joseph, instructing him to return to Israel. Upon his return he went to Nazareth. Jesus then grew up in Nazareth. When Mark and John describe Jesus being from Nazareth, they are simply saying he was raised there. So there is no conflict with the record of his birth in Bethlehem.

Luke states that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. People were then required to travel to the place of their birth to pay their tax. Since Joseph was born in Bethlehem he took Mary and went to pay the required tax. The fact that Matthew does not record this event does not mean it did not happen. In fact, in many apparent contradictions, an omission of a detail in one account means little. God provided multiple accounts to insure that the necessary details would be recorded.

Here are some of the differences between the Matthew and Luke accounts:

  • Matthew describes the wise men who came to Herod. Luke does mention the wise men.
  • Luke describes the angels that appeared to the shepherds. Matthew does not mention the shepherds.
  • Luke says that Joseph and Mary presented Jesus in the temple after the purification time of Mary. Matthew does not mention this.
  • Luke says Joseph, Mary and Jesus returned to Nazareth. Matthew says they left for Egypt.
  • Matthew describes the wise men following a star. Luke does not mention the wise men.
  • Remember that a missing detail from one account does not invalidate the detail. We simply need to piece the accounts together.

This is what we can conclude.

  • Jesus was born in Bethlehem since that is where Joseph took Mary to pay their tax.
  • After Jesus’ birth an angel appeared to the shepherds who then came to the stable to see Jesus.
  • When Jesus was eight days old he was circumcised according to the Law.
  • 40 days after the birth (the purification time for Mary) Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.
  • From Jerusalem they returned to Nazareth.

Some time later the wise men, following a star, came to Jerusalem to enquire after the new king of Israel. This was not at Jesus’ birth but may have been one or even two years later. The wise men were told that the prophecy in Micah indicated the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Note however, that the Matthew account does not say the wise men went to Bethlehem.

After leaving Herod it says, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” 

Why would they rejoice so much if they knew they had to go to Bethlehem? But on seeing the star (which may have stopped guiding  them once they were in Israel) they followed it again. This time it led them directly to Jesus. They found him in a house not a manger. The house was likely in Nazareth where Joseph and Mary had returned to after taking the baby Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem.

Herod however, believing that Jesus was in Bethlehem, ordered the killing of all children two years old and under. Warned in a dream, Joseph fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, until the death of Herod. After Herod’s death an angel instructed Joseph to return and he came back to Nazareth.

This simple sequence of events harmonizes the two accounts. We do not need to doubt the inspired word. When it seems to contradict, we need to study more diligently.  It is only interpretations that are wrong.

To learn more about the account of Jesus’ birth listen to, “How Do We Keep Christmas About Jesus?”

To learn more about how to deal with apparent Bible contradictions visit our resource page: Bible Contradictions Explained