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  • Brian Chilcote

Why Can't Luke and Matthew Just Get Along?

Updated: Apr 18

Jesus has two baby books. No pictures like ours might have, but two written accounts of what happened, when and where it happened, to whom and in some cases, why. There's only one problem. They don't quite agree on the main points of the story.


Just for fun, let's try to reconcile the two accounts. In order to do that, we need to make some assumptions that aren't in the texts we have. This is no problem for a hermeneutic that expects a modern level of journalistic accuracy from the entire Bible, although it does stretch the biblical account to fit this requirement. In order for the two accounts to agree, we must add a few elements to each story, and ignore some basic arithmetic.


Here goes our attempt to harmonize the two stories:


The gospel of Luke begins with much more background detail before we get to the exciting parts. Luke starts with a detailed story of the conception of John the Baptist featuring Elizabeth and her husband, the priest Zechariah.


Six months later, the same angel that dealt with Elizabeth and Zechariah appears to Mary and announces a miraculous pregnancy. So far we don't have any markers indicating when or where things are taking place.


After Mary hears the announcement, she rushes to a Judean town in the hill country where Elizabeth and Zechariah have their home. Mary stays there for three months, Elizabeth has her baby and Mary returns home (we still don't know where this is).


(Side note: is Mary traveling alone though territory that is infested with bandits? Also, this would be absolutely taboo for her culture- venturing outside the home with no male authority to protect her.)


Matthew: At first we don't know where Mary and Joseph are. Mary is found to be pregnant "from the Holy Spirit." A dream convinces Joseph to stick it out.  Matthew's story then jumps ahead to the scene in Bethlehem in which the Magi arrive at "the house" where baby Jesus was staying with his parents. We aren't told if they had moved to Bethlehem or were just visiting at the time the baby was born. To coordinate with Luke who insists on Nazareth as their hometown, that must have been a move that Matthew skips.


Luke includes what Matthew neglected to describe: Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem because of a census enforced on a non-Roman province (Galilee) that compelled them to travel to an ancestral home in Judea. The census in question did in fact occur in 6 CE, but Luke is vague about the political realities at the time. He merely refers to "…the days of King Herod of Judea…" He might be confused about the timeline here, but we're trying to stick with an interpretation that assumes an inerrant Bible.


For agreement's sake we must assume that we're in 6 CE: Herod Archelaus' last year as "ethnarch" (not technically a king, but Luke insists on this, unless he's confusing Herod the Great with his son Herod Archelaus) of Judea, Samaria and Idumea. This is the same year that Archelaus was deposed and administrative responsibilities fell to Quirinius, governor of the province of Syria. Herod Archelaus' realm consisting of Samaria, Judea, and Idumea then transitioned  to direct Roman rule. Syria was the nearest official seat of Roman authority.


We now find our story in mid to late 5 CE- just prior to Quirinius' census in 6 CE. Elizabeth is miraculously pregnant somewhere in Judea. Mary and Joseph encounter the Angel Gabriel in Nazareth in Galilee, whereupon Mary travels to Elizabeth's town to help with the birth and returns home to Nazareth. As the year turns to 6 CE, Herod Archelaus is deposed. Judea is now a Roman province. Quirinius immediately orders a census as standard procedure for new Roman provinces.


For some obscure and unknown reason, Mary and Joseph, who reside in a territory still administrated by Herod Antipas, travel to Bethlehem to register in their ancestral town. Maybe they knew that Jesus the Messiah needed to be born in Bethlehem in accordance with ancient prophecy? Again, Matthew is silent about the Nazareth-to-Bethlehem movement.

 Matthew skips ahead to the visit of the Magi, while Luke fills in some additional details.


Mary and Joseph and the new baby were situated among the animals of the house in which they took shelter. A typical first century three-room house had space for the family's livestock on the ground floor with living and sleeping spaces on the second floor.


Local shepherds are inspired by a terrifying spectacle of angels announcing the birth to them, after which they hastily trekked into town to see the baby.


Eight days later (still in 6 CE?) Jesus is circumcised by a priest. 25 days after that, Mary would finish her stint as "unclean" and wade into a mikveh pool to cleanse herself. After that, Mary and Joseph would qualify to enter the temple precincts to undergo the redemption ceremony.


Redeeming a firstborn son required the substitution of a blood sacrifice in the baby's place. The process involved slaughtering a sheep, with a poverty allowance for using two doves or pigeons, which is what Luke specifies for the couple. See Leviticus 12 for Luke's source material.


According to Luke's details about the temple, with prophetic words from Simeon and Anna (residents of Jerusalem who meet Jesus), we're in Judea for at least a month, unless the family is commuting between Nazareth and Jerusalem during Mary's unclean period.


This is where it gets extremely fuzzy. Luke goes on to recount how the family returned to Nazareth in Galilee, while Matthew puts the family on the road to Egypt. Luke says in chapter 2 verse 39:


"When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him."


So Luke has the three back in Nazareth with no hint of emigration to Egypt, and he points out their yearly attendance at Passover in Jerusalem. This is tough to reconcile with Matthew's road trip south.  


Luke 2:41 assures us that "…every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover." This seems to assume a residence in Nazareth during Jesus' childhood. Or maybe they traveled up from Egypt every year? This would have been something like a 300 mile journey on foot, and taken up to two weeks each way.


Luke jumps forward to describe Jesus at age twelve. There's no mention of any sojourn in Egypt, but that could be because Luke leaves out some of Jesus' formative years between age 2 and 12. Maybe they went to Egypt for a few years, only to return sometime before 18 CE?


Somehow we have to incorporate Matthew's part about Egypt! Unfortunately, we run headfirst into a major chronological problem if we do. 


Picking up on what Luke skips, we find in Matthew chapter 2 a visit by magi from the east who show up in Jerusalem looking for the "king of the Jews." We are given a glimpse into "King Herod's" court where the appearance of these dignitaries and their entourage scares the daylights out of the royals and "all Jerusalem."


If we are correct about the timeline required by blending the two gospel accounts we should find our story now progressing well past 6 CE (Jesus' birth year) into 8 CE (when he's age 2). We can check this in Matthew 2:16 which specifies that Herod ordered the murder of all children around  Bethlehem  "…who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the magi."


The problem we run into is that Judea is ruled by neither Herod the Great nor his incompetent son Herod Archelaus in 8 CE. By then Judea was a "satellite of Syria," under a prefect named Coponius. Matthew's story makes much more historical sense if is was set before 4 BCE when Herod the Great was still on the throne, but we're trying our best to combine the two stories and make them tell exactly what happened and when.


Matthew does mention Herod Archelaus' reign in Jerusalem. We'll get to that in just a minute.


Next on the timeline is Matthew's narration of the holy family's flight into Egypt. Triggered by a dream, Joseph heads south- perhaps bankrolled by the small fortune they receive from the magi. Strangely, we don't hear about the possible equivalent of millions of dollars the family took with them, or how it affected Jesus' ethic of poverty and severe criticism of the rich and powerful.


We aren't told by Matthew how long Jesus was In Egypt. The next thing we discover is another dream for Joseph informing him that "those who were seeking the child’s life are dead." We must continue to assume that the story is now well past 8 CE, however, the stated event that prompted Joseph's dream is that "Herod" has died. Herod the Great died in 4 BCE. Herod Archelaus died in 18 CE, well after he was deposed as ethnarch in 6 CE and banished to Vienna in Gaul. It certainly looks like Matthew really meant Herod the Great, murderer of the Bethlehemite children (for which there is no historical mention from Josephus or anyone else).


Anyway, Joseph again packs up the family and moves north. We're coordinating this story with Luke's so we can safely assume that Jesus is under 12 years old when they return to Nazareth because he shows up in the temple at Passover at age 12, one of many yearly visits to Jerusalem according to Luke 2:41.


Now we find our heroes in Nazareth sometime between 8 and 16 CE. The implication of Luke 2:41 leads the reader to assume that there's an "every year" tradition of visiting Jerusalem, so if Jesus is 12 in the year 18 CE (born in the year 6), a reasonable conclusion is that they returned from Egypt a few years before that in order to establish Luke's "every year" Passover tradition. Unless they spent a few weeks each spring hoofing it to Jerusalem and back from somewhere in Egypt. There is that pesky verse in Luke that places the family in Nazareth, though.


Another possibility, if one supposes that almost anything is possible even if unlikely, is that the magi arrived in Bethlehem during one of the holy family's annual visits from Nazareth for Passover. So perhaps Jesus is between ages 2 and 12, a young boy staying with his parents in "the house" in nearby Bethlehem. The visit is noticed by everyone in Jerusalem, especially Herod. Problems?


Herod specifies that children two and under should be killed. If Matthew was certain that the magi arrived when Jesus was around two years old, that restricts Luke's annual Passover visits to a grand total of two at the most.


To recap: Jesus was born in 6 CE in Bethlehem, his parents having traveled there from Nazareth. As Luke says, the family returns to Nazareth after a month or so. Next, we pick up with Matthew's story-  while Jesus is two years old in 8 CE The magi appear in Bethlehem during the family's second Passover trip. Joseph is warned in another dream and they flee to Egypt just as Herod (?) orders the deaths of all the Bethlehem children two and under.


Hang on now. Remember that Herod Archelaus was the last "Herod" to do any ordering in Judea? He was ushered out of office back in 6 CE. There should be no Herods in Jerusalem, only the lowly Roman bureaucrat Coponius who certainly had no authority to murder any citizens.


This also stretches the natural sense of Luke's account that depicts the family returning to live in "their own town of" Nazareth and making their every-year pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It's possible that he knew about the flight to Egypt and chose not to include it, or maybe he didn't know about Matthew's account and mistakenly assumed that they went off to live quietly in Nazareth.


Switching back to Matthew, we find Joseph, Mary and Jesus headed back to the land of Israel. Does Matthew indicate when this happened? Actually, yes! Joseph hears that "Archelaus was ruling Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there." Returning to Bethlehem is out. Luke has already assured us that the family is originally from Nazareth, way back in chapter 2 verse 4, but Matthew seems unaware of this. Matthew 2:22 and 23:


"And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He will be called a Nazarene.'"


Matthew is not quoting a direct Old Testament prophecy, but making an inference about passages like Isaiah 11:1 which discusses and "shoot" or "branch" from the stump of Jesse (king David's father) and this "branch" will bear fruit. The word Matthew picks up on is in Hebrew "NZR" or "Netzer" which is a close approximation of "Nazareth." So it was believed that the Messiah could possibly be considered a resident of "Branchtown."


So here we have a very difficult chronological puzzle to solve. Joseph hears that Archelaus was reigning in Judea and is rightly concerned that he might carry out his father's murderous plans once again. So Matthew has him heading past Judea into Galilee which would have been ruled by Herod Antipas, Archelaus' brother. Why that didn't also frighten Joseph is not shared.


But hold on: according to the known historical timeline, Archelaus should have been long gone by then. The Egypt trip plus time to establish an every-year Passover pilgrimage from Nazareth to Jerusalem puts us back in Nazareth sometime between 8 and 18 CE. We figured out that if Jesus was two years old in 8 CE the family fled to Egypt at about that time, and Luke tells us he is twelve at the time of the child-genius-in-the-temple incident. (see Luke 2:41-51)


Matthew's account works if we were to start the timeline in 6 BCE when Herod the Great is two years away from his demise in 4 BCE, but that does not mesh with Luke's later setting. 


According to Matthew, Archelaus has not yet been kicked out of Judea, which occurred in 6 CE (the same series of events that gave rise to Quirinius' census that moved them to Nazareth in the first place). Joseph's "go back to Israel" dream had to have occurred before 6 CE, but we've already seen that this is impossible without time travel.


Both gospels end their accounts here. Luke relates the scene in which Jesus is found in the temple debating with the priests at age 12 and returns to Nazareth with his annoyed parents. Matthew leaves us with Jesus the Nazarene living in Galilee and picks up with John the Baptizer in chapter 3.




Whew! After all the comparing and contrasting is done, with what are we left? And what are modern readers of the Christmas stories to think? Some observations…


This style of analysis is completely foreign to ancient ways of hearing or reading texts. Before the enlightenment era, truth could appear in many forms, not the least of which were legends, fables and mythologies. A group of early Christians with access to a written copy of Matthew's gospel would not necessarily have Luke's or vice versa. As they heard it read (most were likely unable to read for themselves), they may have simply taken the story at face value with no need or desire to compare it with other versions. In addition, these early believers needed to anchor their faith in a story that made sense to them and supported their previously-established ideas about Jesus.


It seems obvious that these are not raw eyewitness accounts, but rhetorically crafted works of literature, cultivated over time by people motivated by a prior commitment to a specific interpretation of the events in question. The goals of the writers and compilers of the two gospels did not include recording an unbiased and factually accurate account of Jesus' origins. This aligns with the rhetorical standards of their time period; it was perfectly acceptable to add, subtract or change details in order to achieve a greater effect on one's audience. From Homer to Herodotus to Plutarch, the boundary between storyteller and historian remained fuzzy.


Contemporary with the New Testament, Plutarch and Josephus both claimed to strive for strict accuracy in their historical accounts, but they were far more comfortable with incorporating certain biases than most modern writers are. For example, Josephus writes in reference to the causes of the Jewish War with Rome: "In truth, the Romans afforded us no pretext for our revolt; we were the first aggressors; and against such adversaries, who offered us no injury, we took up arms." One of Josephus' aims was to stay on Vespasian's good side.


First century writers had not heard of "confirmation bias" when they composed their works. Since "we all know" that Jesus was a divine person of great importance, his birth must have displayed the usual miraculous elements as those of other ancient VIP's. Caesar Augustus, Alexander the Great, and many Seleucid and Ptolemaic kings claimed virgin births on their resumes. Astronomical signs were thought to accompany major political or social changes, not the least of which augured the birth or ascension of a Great Man.


Modern historians are quite sure of the sequence of Herodian / Roman rule adjacent to the approximate time of Jesus' birth. After doing our best to harmonize all three by mapping this known timeline to Matthew's and Luke's, we must admit failure. What does that mean for an approach that assumes the Bible is univocal and inerrant?


A traditionally conservative approach is left with a tough choice. It looks like Matthew's gospel works with the known historical timeline if we start the story in 6 BCE or possibly a little earlier. Luke, not so much. He gets his Herods and census dates mixed up, and it's impossible to reconcile his timeline markers with either Matthew or the known political facts of that time period. So it looks like the gospels are neither univocal (saying the same thing about everything) nor inerrant (contains no mistakes of any kind, historical or otherwise).


So how is a modern respecter of the Bible to keep these stories in a category that remains faithful to a traditional approach? Can the Bible still be authoritative? If one gospel gets so many details wrong, can we trust any of them to tell us something true about other matters? How can Luke's words carry truths about Jesus when Matthew's contradict?


A careful reading of Matthew reveals his agenda of rooting this new not-yet-Christian-but-no-longer-Jewish sect in ancient Jewish traditions and national story. Naturally he would make Jesus a second Moses emerging from Egypt, and a descendant of King David to whom all nations will soon pay homage- depicted in the visit of the magi. It was a normal interpretive exercise to create a story of bereavement in Bethlehem that echoed the first part of Jeremiah's encouragement to cease mourning the children of Ramah because of the eventual return of the exiles to their homes.


Did Matthew invent some of his material? Or did the writer absorb various theories and etiologies that persuaded the early church to believe? All four gospels are combinations of material original to a their author plus compiled vignettes, remembered speeches and events, explanations and interpretations of what the Jesus event was all about. What we read in the gospels is a snapshot of a religion in the process of chaotic change. In them we see the beginnings of the painful emergence of Christianity from Judaism.


The Hydra is a microscopic aquatic creature that reproduces asexually by growing a "bud" on the outside of its tiny body. When the genetically identical bud matures, it pinches off and swims away, leaving the parent behind. This is what we see in much of the New Testament. Hopeful believers trying to make sense of the disruption brought about by a messianic prophet who made such a deep impact on his world that those who followed him had no choice but to believe that there was something supernatural about him. This belief eventually brought them into conflict with Judaism and a future parting of ways.


See the gospels as experimental. The communities behind the writings of the New Testament had undeniable experiences together and their work is their way of "thinking out loud" about those experiences. Dead ends, mistakes, biases, interpretations based on unconscious cultural attitudes, operating on varieties of diverse givens and assumptions; all these and more can be detected in the pages of both New and Old Testaments. They were in a sense "trying it out" on their own society. Allow Matthew and Luke to propose something as true. Allow them to tell their story to their own people while we listen in. We don't have to blindly agree. By now, we've seen that we can't- there are just too many discrepancies.


Perhaps the real question centers on finding what's meaningful. Fiction can be as deeply meaningful as nonfiction; maybe even more so!  Legends and myths are there to caution against bad behavior and to inspire and teach us to live well.



For more on this theme:




Where we get much of the imagery for our Nativity scenes: The Protoevangelium of James



From "There is nothing in the…chronology that contradicts either Matthew or Luke. The only way to find a contradiction between Matthew 2:21–23 and Luke 2:39 is to make assumptions based on a preconceived bias against the veracity of Scripture."  From:  Do the narratives of Jesus’ birth contradict each other?



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