December 13, 2009

The Christmas Story: Luke vs. Matthew?

If we did not have Luke's Gospel, christian tradition would probably hold that both Mary & Joseph were from Bethlehem. In such a parallel universe, the most careful skeptic would rightly suggest doubts about that tradition. In other words, it may be true that someone reading only Matthew's Gospel could well assume the young couple was first betrothed at Bethlehem, but the most careful readers would note that Matthew says no such thing. The first Gospel's first chapter is completely silent as to location.

It is Luke's Gospel that says Mary & Joseph went from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a census. If we trust Luke, it is perfectly reasonable to reconcile Luke and Matthew's accounts of the period before Jesus' birth. This, from a historian's standpoint, is not a difficult problem. But Luke goes on to speak as if Mary & Joseph went back to Nazareth while Jesus was still a relative newborn. (Lk.2:39 - "When they had completed all that was according to the Law of the Lord, they returned... to Nazareth".) Now, this is the problem.

Does Luke's statement contradict Matthew's story about the massacre and flight to Egypt? James McGrath, Doug Chaplin, and others suggest that it does. Apologists, naturally, suggest that Luke's language is stretchy, that "when" ('ws') gives us enough wiggle room to squeeze in the rest of the story. Who's right? Who knows. I'll gladly stand with the apologists, but I don't care to defend them right now. This post has a different agenda.

Let's entertain skepticism for a few moments. If we take Luke and Matthew as contradictions, how much really has to be wrong? As I showed above, the hometown question is not a real problem. The difficult part comes after Jesus is born. Luke 2:39 seems to deny Matthew's entire second chapter. Any critical analyst now faces a choice. Should we doubt Luke or Matthew?

If we treated both writers with equal skepticism, it would seem more economical to doubt one verse of Luke instead of a whole chapter in Matthew. I know all the reasons why skeptical critics prefer doubting Matthew against Luke. I just think those critics aren't being skeptical enough. In theory, a true skeptic should suspend judgment on God, miracles, angels, dreams, and miraculous stars that stand still over houses. In theory, a true skeptic should point out that OT parallels (dreams, exodus) prove artfulness, but not outright fabrication. A true skeptic doubts their own criticism as much as they doubt the text itself.

Truly, Luke 2:39 does appear to preclude the events of Matthew 2:1-23. Therefore, if a skeptic choses to trust Matthew - for argument's sake - there are two options. Logically, it must be that Luke 2:39 is either incorrect or at least somewhat misleading. Those who wish to defend Luke on this point have got two separate battles to fight. Those who wish to reconstruct events only have this one hurdle to get over.

Skeptics can go on doubting Matthew and/or Luke while believers go on defending them, but I see no logical reason why all cannot agree on the following statement.

The events reported in Mt.2, if factual, must belong to the time spanned by Lk.2:39.

Update: You may also wish to read this later post - Mary Should Have Stayed Home.


Anonymous said...

I have pondered what appears to be inconsitent accounts, however when carefully thought is given there is nothing inconsistent about the accounts of Matheew 2 and Luke 2, concerning the story of Jesus birth and subsequent account of his dedication at the Temple at Jerusalem.

Luke (at vs 39)is very careful to state that after all the things contained in the Law of the Lord were observed they (Joseph, Mary and Jesus) departed for Gallilee and their own city of Nazareth.

It was not until the wise men who came from the east inquired the whereabouts of He who was born, King of the Jews that King Herod even became aware of the fact that HIS star had been observed by them in the east. Which was after the birth of Jesus, How long after? We are not told.
However we can safely assuming these men started their journey from the east shortly after seeing the HIS Star.

The question (the answer is not given to us in scripture) is, where or what nation did these men come from, they either saw His Star rise in the east, or saw His star from the east (where they were observing the heavens).

There are some scholars who becasue the greek word translated Magi, denote them to be astrolgers, when perhaps the better translated word should be closer to astriomers.

They saught out the Babe to give gifts and worship Him, according to their own words in Luke.

To accuse these men of being evil men because they are called Magi (Astrologers), is judge them whithout kniowning the full story, if they were Jews which had remained in Babylon after the return of many to rebuild the temple (at the end of 70 years) as it was revealed to Daniel, this may explain why they sought out the Mesiisah as foretold by the prophets.

I see these as wise men (the scriptures also give us this word to describe them) as having a interest in the fulfillment of scripture who also looked forward to the consolation of Israel, as Simeon (whom God had assured would not die until he had seeing the Lords annointed) and Anna (a prophetess) at the Temple
who blessed Jesus when his parents brought to be dedicated.

And the fact is that they did worship him, when presenting the gifts in Lukes account, furthermore they were obedient to the word of God and returned to their own country by a diferent routs, but did not return to Herod and report these things as instructed. They were the real thing worshippers of the living God.

In any event they were guided to the babe by that star, from the time they left their own cities until they found him in the HOUSE (note what Luke says) with HIS parents, where it stood where He was.

To assume that Joseph, Mary and Jesus returned back to Bethelehem after observing the law of the Lord (time of purification, according to the Law), expecially when Luke states clearly at vs 2:39 they returned to Gallilee and the city of Nazareth is to add to the scriptures, words which are simply not there..

My own understanding is that a womans purification would require 33 days after childbirth, and the male childs presentation (dedication) to the Lord would not require a longer stay in Bethlehem or Jerusalm, so if this is so, one would have to assume they returned to Bethelehem, instead of their own city.

Note also the Herod did not confine his searching for Jesus only in Bethelehem, but included the entire region unto the coast, he left no stone unturned in trying to find Jesus and he had every two year old killed, which for me is another clue that Jesus by the time the wise men found him would have been more than a few months old if a year or two.

At any rate, Joseph was obedient and took Jesus and his mother and went to Egypt, until he was called out of Egypt by the Lord.

Bill Heroman said...

Hey, nony. Thanks for the comment. Feel free to ID yourself any time, but here's my reply.

On the Magi: You can translate "astronomers" as long as you keep in mind that what they were doing was very much like astrology. No big deal. God uses a lot of things to get people's attention. My own suspicion is that they got their eyes opened wider than expected when the "star" LED THEM to a particular house. THAT could not have been anything but supernatural, whatever it was. Whoever they were, astrology brought them as far as Jerusalem. The beauty is that they left having witnessed a greater power.

On the timing and location of the massacre: Matthew says Herod slew babies in Bethlehem and its "vicinity", which would not have extended very far beyond Bethlehem itself. The two year old limit was probably overkill on King Herod's part, but that's way too much overkill for a one month old. Now, if you're suggesting the Magi found Jesus in Nazareth, but Herod didn't know it, I suppose that's conceivable, but I find it unlikely for several reasons.

On Luke 2:39 omitting the Egypt trip: It's not so unusual for Luke to do this. In Acts 9, for instance, he completely skips over Paul's three years in Arabia. There are other things Luke leaves out, also, but no historian or chronicler ever told every single detail. At some point, you have to sum up.

And so I have. ;-)

pamme said...

I think concerning the birth of Jesus that he was born in Bethlehem and then went back to Nazareth and then when they traveled yearly back to Bethlehem for the passover is when the wise men came to worship Jesus when he was in the house of probably his relative ( John the baptist who lived in Judah, close to Bethlehem)then they fled to Egypt)the clues are: that right after it says they returned to Nazareth, it mentioned they went yearly to the passover to Jerusalem which is also Bethlehem and so is Judah where Elizebeth lives.Also Jesus was not a new born but a child when the wise men visited him.( Matthew 2:11 says young child in the house) Also that Herod killed not new borns but children under 2. That the parents returned to Nazareth does not mean they never traveled back to that area, which they did yearly according to Luke 2;41 Mary went to visit Elizebeth there also when she found out she was pregnant with John and that is probably the house the wise men found the child in ( never said in the manger)so travel to that area was common and so the wise men came not at exact time of birth but later when they were in the area visiting relatives or the passover. Then they fled to Egypt after the wise men came to visit and Joseph had a dream/ warning.

Bill Heroman said...

Pamme, that's possible and *might* solve the problem of Luke 2:39, but it makes no sense for Mary to be in Bethlehem just to have the baby. Only Joseph had to register in Bethlehem. But the young couple left Nazareth under a cloud of scandal and found a new home in Judea. As Matthew says, they would have returned to Judea (after Egypt) except for [something they heard about] Archelaus.

In your scenario, Joseph & Mary leave Bethlehem after registering and giving birth. So their lifelong plan was always to remain residents of Nazareth. But if so, Mary should have stayed home to have the baby.

On the issue of Luke 2:39, there is more we could say. I find a nice parallel in Acts 9:25-26, where Luke skips over Paul's years in Arabia. In that case, there is not the word "when" (ὡς) as in L.2:39, but it shows that the writer had a tendency to skip over lengthy excursions.

I've no idea how to defend Luke 2:39, which absolutely sounds like they went straight from the Temple to Nazareth. If that "when" simply meant "after", we'd have less of a problem. But did Luke even know about Egypt? If so, maybe "when" was a fudge. If not, maybe "when" was just a convenience of narration.

Or maybe there's some other explanation that we'll never think of. Or maybe it's really a minor inaccuracy within scripture. I'll agree to suspend judgment if you will.

But my only real point in this post is that we shouldn't let that little "when" outweigh all the rest of our information.

It seems by far the most likely event that Joseph & Mary settled briefly in Bethlehem, before unexpectedly fleeing to Egypt.

Holmentzer said...

Hi Bill,

Long time no see/talk. Hope all is well. This is definitely an interesting topic & something I have also pondered/studied over the years.

However, for me, the "hometown" question doesnt go away so easily. Though Matthew 1 may not mention "Bethlehem", in Chapter 2, it is clearly implied that when the Magi arrive, Joseph & Mary have lived there for some time, settled down, as they are living in a "house". Also, one would imagine that it took some time for these Magi to travel to where this house was located. At least to me, Matthew definitely reads that they were already in Bethlehem and wouldnt have even thought to leave until word of Herod's intentions, etc, due to what he learned from the Magi.

The "Christmas Story" that we now see (nativity), & generally hear, is definitely an amalgamation of the two diff. stories.

Great post.

Bill Heroman said...

Great to hear your thoughts, HB. Thanks for the feedback.

Obviously, I come to this as a believer, but I'm not one to defend. That said, Historiography works by comparing hypotheses against the purported accounts we're examining. Thus, although I wouldn't make dogmatic assertions about the harmonized version, I do think it's historically reasonable to say "Well, IFF both accounts are reliable, then here's the scenario."

Thanks for enjoying. Love to 'see' you like this more often...

Holmentzer said...

Totally hear ya!!!!

I guess for me, as far as the hometown issue, in addition to what I mention, is Matt 2:16, i/o/w the "inside info" Herod receives from Magi confirms that baby J has been in Bethlehem for some time, tho to be safe he decides to go down as far as he can.

Nothing to mention the fact that Josephus, a well-known hater of Herod, never mentions the massacre... ;)

But I'm sure you are well read in all this stuff!

Talk later

Bill Heroman said...

Absolutely. The Magi came a good while after the birth. Doesn't it make perfect sense that M&J would resettle there? (A la my response to Pamme, above.)

On Josephus, if he did knew the massacre, there could be any number of reasons to not mention it. But if he wasn't aware, that could be because most of his info on HTG's era came from the writings of HTG's chief advisor, Nicolas of Damascus.

I'd definitely expect Nic to leave that part out. Wouldn't you? ;-)


In the end, we still wind up needing a new 'amalgam' of Mt & Lk. All those manger scenes are art, but folks take them as history.

Enjoying this chat. Thanks again.

Holmentzer said...

I guess for me, it just seems like too much outer wrangling to say that they resettled in Bethlehem. Reading Matthew, he just doesnt seem to be concerned w/ having them moving around @ that point. He seems to tell the story that Jesus was born in Bethlehem b/c that's where Joseph & Mary were living. Luke's community just tells it differently.

As for Josephus, I am no expert in his work, etc., but I do know he took any chance he could get to bad mouth Herod. I guess the greater question is, is it not interesting that nowhere else (outside of Matthew) is there mention of the Massacre of the Innocents? One would think that a massacre at this scale, so close to Jerusalem, would have been noted by someone else? Though, perhaps not.

Anyway, yeah, good stuff. I love talking about this kind of stuff, and have always kinda been lacking in a forum for it. Will try to check out yr posts more often.


Bill Heroman said...

If I understand your term, "outer wrangling", well, that's what historians do. But which is the bigger assumption: that they lived there for many years prior to the Magi's visit, or for many months? There's nothing in Matthew that supports either case over the other.

At that point, we either accept Luke's testimony - and include it into our reconstruction - or we don't.

The massacre's "scale" is a dubious point, however. IDK how large Bethlehem was, but someone suggested we could be talking about 20 children or fewer.

But again, sure the account is worth questioning. Like lots of uncorroborated accounts in our records, it may have happened. Maybe not.

I'm content to say I trust Matthew and accept that it happened.

But "historical proof" is a foolish man's game.

Holmentzer said...

I probably shouldnt have even mentioned the Slaughter of the Innocents as it is an entire subject of its own. So lets just kill that for now.

I will comment more on the Matthew/Luke issue @ hand when I get a lil time later...

Holmentzer said...

>>>>But which is the bigger assumption: that they lived there for many years prior to the Magi's visit, or for many months? There's nothing in Matthew that supports either case over the other.

Personally, I do think that Matthew's words support the longer time-line, and I also think Matthew's own words support the story that Joseph & Mary did not live in Nazareth previously.

For what it's worth, here's why:

Matt 2:1-3
J born in Bethlehem, Magi arrive in Jerusalem inquiring about King of Jews to pay homage

Matt 2:7
Herod, curious about this King of Jews meets w/ Magi & grills them about this "star" & learns from them "the exact time the star had appeared" (ie. when Jesus was born)

Matt 2:11
"on entering the house" - it is implied here that the Magi visit a home that is settled.

Matt 2:14
"off to Egypt in the night"

Matt 2:16
Herod sends out orders to "kill all children two years & younger" due to the info gleaned from Magi (info given before Magi had dream to stay away)

Matt 2:21-23
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PASSAGE OF ALL - When they leave Egypt, they first go to Israel. The reason they do not stay there is b/c they learn about Herod's son ruling there. It isnt until then that Joseph decides to go to Nazareth and "make a home" - in other words, in Matthew's story, it is almost explicitly stated that Joseph hasnt lived in Nazareth before. The family almost ends up there on a fluke. [they were definitely not resettling in Nazareth i/o/w]

So anyway, to me, that's Matthew's account & what it tells me.

As for Luke, regarding their hometown, their time in Bethlehem, etc, it is definitely a different story.

Luke 2:4
Joseph & Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem b/c of the census

Luke 2:7
No room in inn for babe so they use a manger (obviously didnt have their own house, were not settled, were living in an inn)

Luke 2:16
Shepherds visit "manger scene" on day of Jesus' birth

Luke 2:21
"After 8 days he was circumcised"

Luke 2:22
"When time came for their purification according to Law of Moses, they brought him to Jerusalem" - Luke's thrust (not settled, 8 days later circumcision, etc. leads one to believe this isnt much longer behind, moving their way back to home as we are told in a bit)

Luke 2:39
"When they had finished everything required by the law... they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth."


Bill Heroman said...

Hudson, I agree with almost all of that, but what's "almost explicitly stated" isn't stated. So, again, it boils down to historiography. And whether believing or skeptical, or anything in-between, the work of History is always making 2+2=5.

Even if we could know whether Matthew believed what you think he implies, it wouldn't negate Luke. If we're going to cast doubts on one of any two sources, it's more economical to doubt the dubious inference from one than several explicit paragraphs of the other.

But again, I didn't ask yet which Gospel you're doubting. I'm just trying to reconstruct the most likely scenario for what actually happened.

In my view, FWIW, Joseph & Mary moved to Bethlehem in advance of the census and preferred it to Nazareth both before and after Egypt. But God had other plans. The baby was less than a year old when the Magi arrived, which makes Herod's "two years" a case of extravagant overkill. (Perhaps a magic messiah baby would be larger than normal?)

It fits. It respects both the sources. And it's economical. But if we somehow knew that Matthew DID mean to give us the impression you're taking, then I'd say he was simply wrong.

Still enjoying this, I hope?

And what are your own conclusions on all this, if any?

Holmentzer said...


I guess it is simply a difference in approach. I/o/w you are approaching the question/post/problem w/ a slight demand on your own (that the two accounts eventually synch up).

Personally, my conclusion, is that they dont. I dont "doubt" one over the other, I dont think one is more historically factual (as we know history today) than the other. I have no way of knowing that. What I do know, is that when I read these two accounts on their own, respecting the story-telling abilities & obvious intelligence of both writers, these are the stories they tell me (my last comment).

I totally understand how many believers would have the need of "jiving" these two accounts for their own faith, esp. depending under what denomination they became a Christian... I guess for me, I gave up the harmonization a good while ago, once I began studying the NT w/ more depth. As much as I would like to be able to synch up a lot of the NT for my own belief purposes, for me, it just doesnt work out that way...

Anyway, yeah, still enjoying the convo. It's a fascinating topic. I guess for me, and possibly a discussion for another day, the first "problem" I struggled w/ was the John vs. Synoptics, most specifically the time of Jesus' crucifixion. I ultimately came away accepting that writers of the gospels had their own theological reasons for certain details, though they may not be actual "facts" as we know that word and demand to be in our modern world. That said, this made it all even more wonderous to me.

Merry Christmas,

Bill Heroman said...

Thanks for sharing that. I respect your position, and you're certainly in the majority.


I wish evangelical scholars wouldn't defend so much. And there's a very big difference between harmonization and historiography... but depending on what 'harmony' means, we could even find 'harmony' in what historians do with accounts of the reign of Augustus.

It's really not that unusual, to do what I'm doing. But things are changing in History.

The (very) old guard would pronounce judgment on whether facts were true or false. Then Christians got slick and it got more and more popular to say "historicity doesn't matter, it's the truth/meaning behind their words which is important".

If I'm reading the wind right, we're moving to a new phase where folks use the word "IF" a lot more. In other words, since we're all acknowledging that certainty is beyond us, why not have a set of conditional conclusions? I'm looking forward to more of that. I think.

Or let me put that another way.

Since it's now well established that we don't need to "jive" things for the sake of our faith... what I'm promoting is an attempt to "jive" them for the sake of History.

It's kind of a new approach, I'm afraid. Most historians are skeptical critics, and most times believers who get into history are defensive apologists. What I'm after is constructive historical analysis.

You're right that we must appreciate each story for its own sake.

On some other level, the events themselves (to whatever extent they are 'knowable') also deserve to be treated for *their* own sake.

I'm often mistaken as one who works history for the sake of my faith.

Rather, I'm trying to work faith for the sake of history.

Clear as mud?

Holmentzer said...

clear as sky actually.

Have you ever read Raymond Brown's book on the topic? Just curious (I have not) - was actually aout to start some Luke action, so it works our...

but anyway regarding the post at large my issue was the dispensing w the hometown when ( to me) when giving Matthew the floor, he definitely seems to insinuate that they werent "returning" to Nazareth.

clear as crystal!

Bill Heroman said...

"seems to insinuate"

So much, from silence.

Holmentzer said...

haha - ok, so we're probably not going to go anywhere w/ this, but what I mean by "insinuate" is that in Matthew, why would they even bother w/ first attempting to settle in Israel? They are planning on doing so when leaving Egypt, and it is only due to a dream that Joseph decides to instead suddenly go to Nazareth (which also happens to fulfill the prophecy we dont know where from) - in other words, why wouldnt they have had their sites on Nazareth in the first place, if that is where they had "come from"?

Bill Heroman said...

I'm resisting the urge to give that question a real answer. I think we've both made our points.

Peace, bro.

Holmentzer said...

o.k., fair enough.

Peace to you

Talk later.

Ton Majoor said...

Stumbling upon your last year post on the Christmas Story I’d like to comment on your explanation (’The events reported in Mt.2, if factual, must belong to the time spanned by Lk.2:39.’). In this ‘time spanned’, the 6 months older John the Baptist, living in ‘a town’ in Juda (Luke 1:39), would also have been jeopardized by Herod and forced to hide. Indeed, Luke tells us that John ‘lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel’ (Luke 1:80). But when Luke is speaking about John in this way, why is he urged to omit the fleeing and hiding of Jesus from his story?

A wholly factual, not textual, solution to the problem of the parallel birth stories by Matthew and Luke would be that two messiah’s named Jesus were born in Behlehem, but not exactly at the same time (Zohar, Pistis Sophia, Steiner). Between the birth of a royal and a priestly messiah the legendary child massacre in the region of Bethlehem would have taken place. The royal Solomonic messiah flees to Egypt and dies at the age of twelve (Jesus' visit to the temple in Jerusalem, Luke 2:40-52), the priestly Nathanic messiah is crucified and dies at 33.

This mystical Matthew-Luke harmonisation can be seen reflected in the older version of the Virgin of the Rocks painting by Leonardo da Vinci, now exhibited in the National Gallery in London next to the younger version with John the Baptist and Jesus. The two traditional twelve year old Jesus ‘brothers’ in the temple have been depicted for example by Borgognone and Rembrandt.

Bill Heroman said...

Ton, you're introducing fantastical answers to questions that don't really matter. John the Baptist was in the hill country of Judea. Whatever region that implies, it's surely not within Bethlehem.

Thanks for your interest, though. And as a matter of curiosity, if you could please cite the two-Jesus paintings, I'd be likely to go check that out. No idea what to Google for, though. If you find it, please post a link here.

By the way, I deeply appreciate your distinction between "factual, not textual". I think I shared some of that same view with ghostwriter, above. However, that distinction does not give us the right to invent fantastical "solutions".

History is 2+2=5, not 2+0=5. You've got to have more from the sources than you bring to the sources, and what you bring should re-enable first-level textual interpretation, not strain it.

Again, though, your interest is valuable. Keep at educating yourself. Thanks for the comment.

Katie said...

Thank you for posting on this topic. I recently read these accounts in Matthew and Luke side by side and was struck by the apparent incongruencies. When I decided to look further into this, it was difficult to find this topic addressed anywhere other than atheistic websites. I wish it was more readily addressed by the Christian community as well. And I would really like to see what historians have to say, who would hypothesize, not to make a religious/political point, but to find out the truth of the matter.

Perhaps this topic is addressed in these arenas, but well rounded information is not really available in the "google search" culture.

Oh, to have the time to do real research. :)

Bill Heroman said...

You're welcome, Katie. And I deeply appreciate everything you just said in that wonderful comment.

Merry Christmas!

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