At first glance, the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew appears to conflict with the account given in the Gospel of Luke. The event, in Matthew’s account, is accompanied by violence against the young males in Bethlehem, danger for Jesus, and the flight of Jesus’ family into Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. Luke, on the other hand, presents a peaceful scenario surrounding Jesus’ birth.

 

The specific accounts will be reviewed in detail. According to Matthew 2:1-16:

 

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

And when they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet [Micah 5:2], And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the LORD appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet [Hosea 11:1], saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.”

 

The corresponding account of the event of Jesus’ birth from Luke’s perspective is presented in Chapter 2 of his gospel:

 

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;(As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”

 

In studying these two accounts of Jesus’ birth, we immediately see large differences between them. Matthew described a flight into Egypt to avoid the murderous Herod. Luke’s account, on the other hand, paints a peaceful scenario, one in which the family of Jesus makes an uneventful return from Bethlehem, one that includes the presentation of Jesus to the Lord at Jerusalem.

 

At this point we might be tempted, by the apparent inconsistency of Luke’s Gospel with Matthew’s, to speculate on the possibility that one of them was in error. If we make an effort to avoid the assumption that conflict means error, however, we are led to persist into a deeper investigation.

 

This difference does not, we note first, condemn the two accounts to incompatibility. In general, the gospels were written to supplement each other, not to corroborate. According to the very nature of faith, they were written to instruct rather than justify. On a more specific level, several alternative possibilities immediately suggest themselves. In Luke’s account, for example, Mary waited until her purification was completed before Jesus was presented at the temple in Jerusalem. The Mosaic law to which Luke referred that is prescribed for this purification is given in Leviticus chapter 12:

 

And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled. But if she bear a maid child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her separation: and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying threescore and six days. And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest: who shall offer it before the LORD, and make an atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the law for her that hath born a male or a female. And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles, or two young pigeons; the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering: and the priest shall make an atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”

 

According to this purification rite, Mary had to wait eight days for the circumcision of Jesus, and then an additional thirty three days, before she could present Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem. This forty-one day period is an absolute minimum time that Mary had to wait. But, as stated in Leviticus 15:25, the purification may take longer:

 

And if a woman have an issue of her blood many days out of the time of her separation, or if it run beyond the time of her separation; all the days of the issue of her uncleanness shall be as the days of her separation: she shall be unclean.”

 

We do not know how long Mary was burdened with post-birth complications after she brought forth Jesus. Could it have been of sufficient duration to complete a journey to Egypt and back? Or perhaps the presentation of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem might have involved another delay that related to the unique nature of Jesus. That delay may or may not have been forced by Mary’s continuing issue, but the day of His presentation may have been held off until it coincided with some event such as the Passover feast.

On the other hand, the journey into Egypt may have taken place well after Jesus was presented at the temple. This is the more likely situation, for as the assertion was made in Chapter 5, the major events in Jesus’ life were enacted by man before His coming. The precursor of Jesus’ Egyptian rescue at birth was enacted through Moses. This event is described in Chapter 2 of the book of Exodus, where we read:

 

And the woman conceived and bare a son: and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months. And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink. And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him. And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river’s side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it. And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews’ children. Then said his sister to Pharaoh’s daughter, Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee? And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, Go. And the maid went and called the child’s mother.”

 

In this case, it would be the Gospel of Matthew that would require a different interpretation than some have presumed. There is nothing that infers, from Matthew’s gospel, that the wise men saw and left Jesus immediately after His birth. To the contrary, there are several reasons why one might interpret the passage otherwise. One might well view the appearance of the star that led the wise men to Jesus’ house as different from and separated in time than its first appearance that initiated their journey into Israel. First, they had already seen the star before they spoke to Herod; then, after his command to search for Jesus, they were overjoyed at its appearance that led them to the house of Mary. Would their joy be as great if the star had continuously remained in their sight? Second, the description of Jesus as a young child does not constrain his age to be days or even weeks. Third, Herod had inquired of the wise men when the star first appeared. On the basis of that inquiry, he killed the children up to the age of two years old. That point alone strongly suggests that the first appearance of the star preceded by at least several months his command to the wise men to find Jesus. Alternatively, the wise men remained with Jesus for a period of months before they returned to their own country. Fourth, the destination of the wise men was a house rather than an inn or a barn. If, in fact, Jesus was several months old when the wise men left to return to their country, His peaceful return from Bethlehem and presentation at the temple in Jerusalem, as recorded by Luke, could have preceded His journey into Egypt by that same time factor. The differences between the accounts in Matthew and Luke would be entirely natural, as they would have described two entirely different events in Jesus’ life.