Birth Narrative questions

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Puritan Board Sophomore
I have some questions about how to reconcile the birth narratives in Matthew 2 and Luke 2, so I thought I'd ask those (much) more knowledgeable than I on this board. :) My questions mostly revolve around the timing of what happens and when. Here's how I formulate each individual story (some personal thoughts/notes and then some questions too)...and then some final questions at the end of my post about determining the order of events mentioned in both accounts. I am using the ESV translation.

MATTHEW 2 - notes and questions
(1) "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea" (2:1). It appears that this chapter takes place while the family is still living in Bethlehem because, after Herod talks with the wise men, he not long after that orders that all male infants ages 2 and under should be killed in Bethlehem and the surrounding regions (2:16) there in Judea.

(2) How long did Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem after Jesus' birth? The chapter does say the magi visited the family by coming into "the house (and) saw the child with Mary his mother" (2:11). It must've been some time less than 2 years, since that was the maximum age of male children that Herod ordered to have murdered shortly after the magi visit (2:16). (I assume the word "child" is implying someone a bit older than an infant.)

(3) Why would the family have lived so long in Bethlehem after Jesus' birth? To give Mary some time to recover after the birth (and the long journey from Nazareth)?

(4) After the magi visit the child Jesus, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod (2:12). Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod's coming wrath on all the male children ages 2 and under (2:13). Joseph and Mary stay in Egypt until Herod dies. They then travel back to Israel after an angel appears to Joseph in a dream (2:19). When Joseph hears that Archelaus was reigning over Judea (where Bethlehem is), Joseph is afraid to go back to Judea...and being warned in a dream, they withdraw to the district of Galilee instead and live in Nazareth (2:22). Why would Joseph want to return to Bethlehem instead of just going back home to Nazareth? I guess it just depends on their reason why they wanted to continue living in Bethlehem after Jesus' birth (and the census).

LUKE 2 - notes
(1) Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea because of the census (2:4). Jesus is born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger (2:7). Shepherds come visit Jesus in the manger (2:16).

(2) After 8 days, Jesus is circumcised (2:21). After the time of purification (33 days), they travel to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord and to offer sacrifices (2:22). After they "had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth" (2:39).

OVERALL QUESTIONS (comparing both accounts)
Comparing these two stories, I am confused about the order of events. Luke says Jesus is born in Bethlehem (after the journey from Nazareth), then they go to Jerusalem after 41 days, and then they return to Nazareth. Matthew says Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the family lives in Bethlehem for no longer than approx. 2 years (the age of male children Herod has killed), then they travel to Egypt until Herod dies, and then they return to Nazareth (not Bethlehem). If the family had the circumcision and trip to Jerusalem...then wouldn't they need to return to Bethlehem for a while (instead of Nazareth) to be there for up to 2 years, then later travel to Egypt, and then later come back to Israel and go home to Nazareth? I'm curious why Luke might not mention the trip back to Bethlehem and flight to Egypt before saying the family returned to Nazareth.

Thank you so much!!


Puritan Board Sophomore
The gospels are not photographic 21st century journalism and don't bring up all details available, just the portion of the details for the purpose at hand and the different gospels are to different people and with different courses. Luke, drawing from the experience of Mary and written largely to Greeks may emphasis things differently than the others.

By the time the magi visited Jesus, it appears Mary, Joseph and Jesus were living in a house suggesting a longer term residence and, as you say, Herod inquired about the time of the child's birth so most people think they lived in Bethlehem a couple years. ( and If they did live there a few years, Bethlehem would be potentially on the way in between Egypt and Galilee and not a surprise to stop by acquaintances they got to know in those years but not that important to the purpose of a gospel )


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
I don't think the Magi came after two years, but two years would include time spent seeing and interpreting the heavenly sign, determining to go on the journey, provisioning for the journey, and making the journey. Plus some fudge-time thrown in there by Herod.

So the Holy family don't need to be in situ at Bethlehem for years. But regardless, if Joseph thought he might best stay in Bethlehem for the sake of this Child and the prophecies concerning him, then he was wise to wait on the Lord's direction.

It's probably safe to put the flight into Egypt outside the ceremonial law requirements, beyond the month-or-so that Mary was unclean. The visit by the Magi could easily fall within that month, or even just outside of it. After delivery of the Child, Mary would probably not wish to be traveling too far, too soon; given the dangers to her health. Finalizing all legal ties between Joseph and Mary might have been additional reason to use the time in Bethlehem.

Mary (probably the source for a number of Luke's details) was not a co-recipient of Joseph's dreams, by which he took his actions. She was unquestionably preoccupied with her Son. She was subjected to the trips, first to Bethlehem, a shorter visit to Jerusalem, and then a longer trek south toward Egypt--which probably did not last a long time, perhaps shorter than their overall stay in Bethlehem.

I know how my own wife's thoughts are focused on the babies she cares for, how little mental energies she has to devote to even all the places we may have traveled while she is thus preoccupied. Maybe she barely remembered the detour to Egypt. Or maybe it just wasn't important to her story later on, or to Luke's purpose.

Why must Mary, if she is recollecting for Luke's sake, recount still another leg of her whirling journey that lasted the better part of a year? Who dares to demand this of her? And who dares to demand that Luke must relate the fact, if he knows about it (and we might well assume that he does)? Why not accept, as the church has done for many ages, that we have two complementary accounts?

Luke includes the shepherds, says nothing about the Magi, but teaches that Jesus soon after his birth ended up back in his parent's "hometown" (not the place of his birth), which then was ever recognized as his "hometown" also. Luke alone includes a description concerning Jesus' proto-passover visit. These scenes all point to his mother's deepest recollections.

Luke has his own selective purposes in the details he needs for his Gospel. Consider how he leads off Jesus' public ministry with the famous rejection in his hometown synagogue, ch.4:16-30. This exact event didn't take place until he'd been training his disciples for a year, according to the best harmonization. But it serves the Gospel writer's purpose to describe it in detail here, near the beginning of the ministry narratives to set a tone for the rest of it.

Since there is no reason why the two witnesses (Mt. & Lk.) have to be at odds, we shouldn't take the skeptic's stance when we find different details in them.


Puritan Board Sophomore
Why must Mary, if she is recollecting for Luke's sake, recount still another leg of her whirling journey that lasted the better part of a year? Who dares to demand this of her? And who dares to demand that Luke must relate the fact, if he knows about it (and we might well assume that he does)?

Bruce, good point - Luke is free to share which part of the story is relevant to his purpose and the audience he is addressing with his book.

I think Matt 2:22-23 are the trickiest verses when reconciling the order of events laid out in both chapters: "But when (Joseph) 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."

Regarding Matt 2:22-23, why would Matthew NOW (in this order of events) bring up that the prophecy was fulfilled when they went to live in Nazareth (AFTER the initial trip to Bethlehem due to the census, birth, purification per Luke, trip to Jerusalem per Luke, travel back to Nazareth per Luke, magi visit while the family was living in Bethlehem again per Matthew, flight to Egypt to avoid Herod's murderous actions per Matthew, dream to not return to Bethlehem so they withdraw instead to Nazareth per Matthew)....VERSUS when the family originally returned to Nazareth earlier after the time of purification per Luke? Would Matthew's reason maybe be that when the family initially returned to Nazareth per Luke, they didn't stay long since they came back to Bethlehem sometime before Jesus was approximately 2 and lived there a while? So maybe from this point on when they returned to Nazareth the second time, per Matthew, they were staying there more for the long haul so Jesus would grow up there and be called a "Nazarene"? (I'll admit that I can see how the skeptic might read verse 23 as this being the family's move to Nazareth for the first time. But I think the chapters can be sufficiently reconciled, per our limited understanding in putting pieces together 2000 years after the fact.)

Furthermore, I still wonder why Joseph would've initially wanted to return to Bethlehem again after the flight to Egypt, but instead (after a dream) withdrew to Nazareth which was already the family's hometown. I don't know if there's any way to know for sure (maybe to be near family). But in terms of logistics and what may be considered as a person's "hometown"...maybe in this time, people essentially were taking all their (few) belongings with them and entirely settling-down wherever they were living at that time. (In contrast to today where people have lots of stuff...and may leave some things at their house in their hometown while they're away on a year-long trip.) So maybe it's not like the family would want to finally go back to their house and stuff in Nazareth, since maybe they had everything with them wherever they were...and maybe that's why they weren't planning on going back to Nazareth initially. (Just thinking out loud)

And while I'm asking questions about Matthew 2, what prophecy is Matthew referring to that the Messiah would be called a "Nazarene"?

Thank you for your thoughts, Bruce! This is helpful.

Jack K

Puritan Board Doctor
I've not seen it in a published commentary, but I've sometimes wondered if Mary and Joseph at first felt they ought to stay in Bethlehem because it was somehow in God's plan that the King should grow up there. Gabriel had told Mary that the baby would be the great King. The wise men presumably told them about how the prophesy from Micah had been cited in Jerusalem and how the star had led them to the house in Bethlehem. Given all this, is makes sense that as faith-filled people aware of their role in redemptive history they might be reluctant to leave. In fact, given all the dream communication Joseph had, it's also not strange to imagine that God might have actually instructed them to remain for a while in a dream that just wasn't recorded in Scripture.

what prophecy is Matthew referring to that the Messiah would be called a "Nazarene"?

It doesn't seem to be any specific prophecy, but rather a summary reference to the many places in Scripture that tell how the Savior would be of lowly human origins. This interpretation fits the fact that Matthew cites "prophets" in general rather than a particular prophet like he does earlier in the chapter with the other prophecies.


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Regarding Matt 2:22-23, why would Matthew NOW (in this order of events) bring up that the prophecy was fulfilled when they went to live in Nazareth

In the first place, you aren't letting Matthew speak for himself, as a solo voice. As you've presented things ("this order," apparently following in parenthesis is an historically reconstructed timeline as you presently understand it), you have Matthew's and Luke's accounts combined; but are expecting each witness to speak in such a way that he could have had your timeline in front of him--perhaps even considering how he's supposed to choose events A, B, D & G; while the other is supposed to include events C, E, F, and H. Plus, he has to make his own editorializing comments fit with the existentially non-existent combined report.

This is not history. This is not harmony. All we must do for a rational harmonization is reduce each narrative to a handful of events, and show that they do not contradict one another. What we can't and shouldn't do with these writers is make one literarily dependent on the other; or worse, interdependent. While it is possible that Luke is later and actually knows of Matthew's Gospel, even so I can see no cause for thinking he cares about being "complementary" to another work. Matthew and Luke are supposed by many to be dependent on Mark (which has no birth narrative anyway); but the ones who seek for discrepancies are typically folks who think the Bible is basically a work of fiction, and all three are making the story up, each improving and embellishing in his own way.

Second, there is the issue of forensic or historic correlation/consistency. If a lawyer is going to make a case, he needs to show that within a given time frame, there is reasonable time and opportunity to get a slate of events accomplished. If this cannot apparently be done, either the information is insufficient to show how it was done, or additional time/resources is needed. If all the relevant data is in, but one person cannot be two places at once, a contradiction results.

Third, reporters' commentary (in this case, Gospel writers) should not introduce discrepancies into the scenario. But, it is often the case that a simple solution to what some take as discrepancy is editorializing perfectly consistent with his own rendition; his comment has no reference across the board.


In both your scenarios, you have introduced Luke's "return to Nazareth" not in parallel with Matthew's, but in addition to it. Why? Is that a necessary reading? For instance, is it necessary that this return happened as the threesome left the gates of Jerusalem after the purification and meeting Anna & Simeon? That is, does Luke represent them as packing up for Nazareth and stopping for business in Jerusalem before continuing north?

Or would it make as much (or more) sense that they went up to Jerusalem for a busy day in the Temple, and headed back to Bethlehem afterward for a good night's rest (at least!); at some point thereafter ended up going back to live in Nazareth where Luke's narrative picks up twelve years later, and Jesus' going back to Jerusalem with his folks?

What the latter would mean is that Luke makes no mention of the fact that the trip to Nazareth took a detour to Egypt. Along with leaving out the Magi and the precipitating dream unto Joseph. Is it "misleading" for him to leave all that out? Did Mary tell him about those events? Could he know about them from other sources? Did he just decide to leave that part out, as well as everything else until Jesus was twelve?

We can't make Luke say what we want him to say. All we can do is fit what he does say into a set of historic parameters. Matthew says Jesus and his family went briefly into Egypt, prior to settling in Nazareth. Does anything Luke says rule out the possibility that happened? We aren't lawyers looking for reasons to suggest the jury ought to doubt the witnesses.


If Joseph picked up from Bethlehem, hightailing it for Egypt, he probably left never there thinking he would return anywhere else than from where he took off. As I wrote in the previous reply, Joseph was in Bethlehem (as far as he knew) for the long haul. He was there by divine appointment, and he would likely leave there only on divine appointment.

Luke doesn't mention a hurried departure from Bethlehem, southward. If we didn't have Matthew's account, we might well have supposed a leisurely remove from Bethlehem to Nazareth at a given time, probably not so long after that purification trip to Jerusalem. If Luke is talking to Mary for some of the detail of Jesus' infancy, she may well have had very little inputs or explanations of how, when, how fast, what direction, etc. the Holy family was moving. Especially when we consider how long ago it was, by the time Luke questions her. Thank God for how much data she did provide. Zechariah and Elizabeth were probably both dead for a quarter-century at least.

All I can say, anecdotally with regard to my own wife, is that when a baby is with her, she often feels like she is simply being trundled along through her daily life. Mary started out betrothed in Nazareth. Already pregnant, she was dragged down the road to Bethlehem, where she had her baby. She followed through on the standard Jewish rites with regard to her son and herself; she had all the standard visitors, and a few really strange ones. And suddenly she was back on the road, trying to nurse and juggle the diaper bag, and a suitcase with everything else they had in the world. But when all that was over, they were back there in Nazareth where she grew up. What a crazy year.


The reference to "Nazarene" per prophecy, is probably a typological reference, rather than to any particular text (no particular text is given). There is probably a play on words, with the name of the town correlated with a number of things, beginning with the hyper-devoted status of the OT Nazirite, Heb. NZYR, term for "separated;" note also related word NZR, for "crown." There's also the prophecy of the Branch, one of which words used in Is.11:1, is the Heb. NTsR (note the same concept, but the word at Jer.23:5 or Zech.3:8 is different).

Jesus doesn't have to be a "Nazirite" according to the OT directions, in order to be the antitype of the OT Nazirite. The OT Nazirite, no matter how consecrated, was a pale comparison to the Messiah's consecration. Jesus is the Branch of prophecy. Jesus is crowned by anointing (ala Lev.21:12; cf. Gen.49:6), among his numerous honors. Jesus is he Whom the Bible is about.
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