How the accounts of Jesus’ childhood fit together: 6 things to know and share

How do Matthew and Luke's accounts of Jesus' childhood fit together?
How do Matthew and Luke's accounts of Jesus' childhood fit together? (photo: Register Files)

Both Matthew and Luke contain accounts of Jesus’ infancy.

But they don’t describe all the same events.

As a result, some have even accused Matthew and Luke of contradicting each other.

What’s the true story? Why did they record different events? And can the two be fit together?

Here are 6 things to know and share . . .


1) Why don’t the Gospels all record the same events as each other?

Because there was too much information to fit into a single book about Jesus.

John notes this specifically, and humorously, at the end of his Gospel (John 21:25).

In the ancient world, they didn’t have the printing technology needed to make large books, and so there was pressure to keep each single book short by modern standards.

This meant each Evangelist had to leave many things out.

There was also more than one way to approach telling the story of Jesus, to benefit different audiences, and so each Evangelist takes a somewhat different approach, and that affects his selection of which stories and sayings to include in his Gospel.


2) What approaches do Matthew and Luke take in their accounts of Jesus’ childhood?

The accounts of Jesus’ childhood are known as “infancy narratives.”

Although both have many points in common (e.g., Jesus was born of a Virgin named Mary, his foster father was Joseph, he was born in Bethlehem, the family later moved to Nazareth, etc.), it’s clear that Matthew and Luke are emphasizing different aspects of Jesus and the people around him.

Matthew keeps his account short, he focuses on Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, and he emphasizes Jesus kingly role (descent through Solomon in the genealogy, seen as a threat by King Herod, visited by foreign dignitaries, etc.).

Luke devotes much more space to the events, he focuses on Jesus mother, Mary, and he does not emphasize Jesus’ kingship as much (e.g., he records him being visited by humble shepherds).


3) Can we track the movements of the Holy Family (and the others in the narratives) by bringing together Matthew and Luke’s accounts?

Yes. The texts give us enough indications of time and sequence to do this, as follows:

1. Gabriel appears to Zecharaiah in Jerusalem to announce the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-22).

2. At the end of his term of service, Zechariah returns to his home in the hill country of Judea and his wife, Elizabeth, becomes pregnant (Luke 1:23-25; cf. 39).

3. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (i.e., after the end of the fifth month but before the end of the sixth month), Gabriel appears to Mary in Nazareth to announce the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38).

4. Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and stays for three months before returning to Nazareth (Luke 1:39-56). This appears to happen in the ninth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (i.e., after the end of the eighth month but before the end of the ninth month).

5. In the tenth month of her pregnancy (i.e., after the end of the ninth month but before the end of a tenth month), Elizabeth gives birth to John the Baptist and, eight days later, John is circumcised and named (Luke 1:57-80; note that the ancient Israelites reckoned pregnancy as lasting ten months, not nine; cf. Wisdom 7:2; technically, a pregnancy lasted 9.6 months on the Jewish calendar, but the ancients rounded all fractions up; by comparison, a pregnancy is typically 9.3 months on a modern calendar, but we round this fraction down instead of up).

6. Some time between event 3 and event 7, Joseph is informed that Mary is pregnant and he plans to divorce her quietly. However, an angel appears to him in a dream and tells him to go ahead and continue the marriage (Matthew 1:18-23). Most likely, this event occurred after Mary returned from her visit to Elizabeth. Joseph likely would have waited to deal with the divorce question until Mary's pregnancy was confirmed, either by it beginning to show or by Mary reaching the point of "quickening" (when the unborn child was large and strong enough for the mother to feel it kicking in the womb). In the absence of pregnancy tests, the ancients used these as proof that a woman was pregnant. These points would have been reached around or shortly after the time Mary remained with Elizabeth. In fact, they may have motivated her return home so that she, also, could go into seclusion for the remainder of her pregnancy.

7. Joseph and Mary then begin cohabiting (Matthew 1:24). This would have been in Nazareth, per Luke’s account.

8. Because of the enrollment announced by Caesar Augustus, the Holy Family is forced to travel to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-5), despite Mary's pregnancy (which was at this point in the second or third trimester). If this was a tax enrollment, the journey was likely required because Joseph owned property there (cf. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth 3:62-63). While there, they likely stayed with relatives, but there were so many that there was no room in the main part of the house, and so they stayed in the part (likely a grotto) where the animals were kept. Animals were often kept in the homes of the people who owned them at this time.

9. Jesus is born in Bethlehem (Luke 2:7, Matthew 1:24a).

10. That same night, shepherds visited them (Luke 2:8-20).

11. About this time, an unusual star is observed by the magi in their eastern homeland (cf. Matthew 2:2, 16).

12. Eight days after the birth, Jesus was circumcised and named (Luke 2:21, Matthew 1:24b).

13. Forty days after the birth, Jesus was presented at the temple in Jerusalem, and the Holy Family encountered Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-38; more here; cf. Leviticus 12:1-8).

13. It is possible that, shortly after this, the Holy Family returned to Nazareth (cf. Luke 2:39-40). If so, they later returned to Bethlehem for reasons we will see in a moment. If they did return to Nazareth at this point, they likely returned to Bethlehem multiple times in the next 1-2 years, because they observed the three annual pilgrimage feasts that Jews were required to make each year (cf. Luke 2:41; Exodus 23:14-17). These required to go to Jerusalem, and they likely stayed with relatives in Bethlehem on these occasions, since Bethlehem is just 6 miles from Jerusalem.

It is also possible that they did not return to Nazareth at this time but stayed in Bethlehem for a period of as much as two years (cf. Matthew 2:16). The likely seems the more probable, for reasons we shall see. If they did stay in Bethlehem instead of returning to Nazareth, they probably continued to live with relatives. It is possible that they acquired their own house, but it was much more common in ancient Israel than it is today to have an extended family living under the same roof, especially among the poor (cf. Luke 2:24 with Leviticus 12:8).

14. Between one and two years after the birth (cf. Matthew 2:16), the magi appear in Jerusalem and ask Herod the Great where the newborn king of the Jews is to be found. They are directed to Bethlehem, and they travel there by night. They note that the star is now in the southern sky (the direction of Bethlehem from Jerusalem), and when they arrive they note that, from their perspective, the same star is above the house in a providential coincidence. They then enter the house, see the child Jesus with Mary, pay him homage, and offer gifts (Matthew 2:1-11).

This encounter could have occurred anywhere between one and two years after Jesus’ birth, given the tendency of the ancients to round up all fractions and the desire on Herod’s part to make sure he would eliminate Jesus (he would not want to have cut it close and missed the baby by a few days or months, so he would have at least rounded up and may have even padded the amount of time the magi told him).

15. The magi are warned in a dream (that night or very quickly after) to return to their country by a different route, which they then do (Matthew 2:12).

16. After they leave, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt, which the Holy Family then does (Matthew. 2:13-15).

17. Some time shortly afterward, Herod realizes that the magi are not coming back and flies into a rage. He orders all the boys two years old and under who are in Bethlehem to be killed (Matthew 2:16-18). This is entirely in keeping with what we know about Herod, particularly in the latter portion of his reign. He had several of his own sons killed when he perceived them as threats, and Caesar Augustus reportedly quipped that it would be better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son (the joke being that, as a Jew, Herod couldn’t eat pork, so his pig would be safe; more here).

18. Herod the Great dies (this likely happened in 1 B.C. not 4 B.C.), and his sons assume full authority over the different parts of his kingdom (they likely had partial authority as co-rulers for a few years prior, as was common in the ancient world). This leaves Herod Archelaus in control of Judea.

19. In Egypt, Joseph is informed in a dream that Herod the Great is dead, and he is told to return to Israel. He and the Holy Family do so (Matthew 2:19-21).

20. Once back in Israel, Joseph is informed that Herod Archelaus is ruling in Judea in place of his father. Knowing Archelaus’s reputation, Joseph is afraid to settle in Judea (Matthew 2:22a). Joseph’s impression is confirmed by the historical record. Archelaus was a terrible ruler who was eventually removed from power by the Romans, who replaced him with a governor in A.D. 6. This is why Judea is ruled by a governor (Pontius Pilate) during Jesus’ adult ministry, rather than by one of Herod’s sons.

21. Being warned in a dream, Joseph relocates the family to its previous home in Nazareth, which, being in Galilee, is outside of Archelaus’s territory (Matthew 2:22b-23; this is likely the same relocation referred to in Luke 2:39).

22. The family continues to make the annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and when Jesus is twelve, at Passover, Jesus remains behind and his parents find him in the temple three days later (Luke 2:41-52).

So there you have it: an integration of Matthew and Luke’s infancy narratives.


4) Why is it likely that the move from Bethlehem to Nazareth that mentioned in Luke 2:39 the same as the one mentioned in Matthew 2:22?

There are a few reasons. Before looking at them, we should set aside an impression that we—as modern readers—are likely to be misled by.

In modern biographies, we expect much more complete accounts than the ancients did. This is because of the longer lengths of books today. Our books are simply able to contain more information, and so modern authors are expected to include it.

This wasn’t nearly as easy for ancient authors, and so ancient audiences expected them to omit more and to focus more on the highlights.

Both Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and the family later went to Nazareth, where he was raised. Those were the most important points about his infancy.

Whether they went directly from Bethlehem to Nazareth or whether they had a detour somewhere else was a matter of lesser importance that one Evangelist might choose to include where another might not.

Biblical authors were allowed to proceed from one event that they chose to incorporate to another, with or without mentioning how much time elapsed between them.

Indeed, they were allowed to arrange material in sequences other than chronology (e.g., they were allowed to arrange it by topic, since this was in an age before chronology was anywhere near as strict as it is today).

All Luke says is that the Holy Family moved to Nazareth “when [i.e., after] they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord.”

That’s true, regardless of how long after these actions they remained in Bethlehem or whether they went anywhere else before going to Nazareth.


5) Why, specifically, isn’t it likely that they were in Bethlehem for a pilgrimage when the magi appeared?

One reason is that the odds of the magi appearing while the Holy Family happened to be on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is quite low.

The Old Testament laws regarding pilgrimage did not require people to be there for extended periods of time, and it would be unlikely for foreign visitors to show up during one of these periods.

Another reason is that the text may envision Joseph contemplating the idea relocating the family from Egypt to Bethlehem (or, at any rate, into Judea) until he learns that Archelaus is ruling over Judea.

This is more explainable if the Holy Family had been living in Bethlehem of Judea on an extended basis than if it had only been visiting Bethlehem for a few days.


6) How did the Holy Family’s moves likely proceed?

Initially, the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in Nazareth, after which she visited the hill country of Judea for a time, before returning to Nazareth.

After an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, the two began cohabiting in Nazareth.

Then, both travelled to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.

They then remained in Bethlehem for between one and two years. Why is not discussed. It may have been initially motivated by a number of factors:

  • A desire to avoid a long trip so soon after the birth
  • A desire to stay in the area so that Jesus could be presented at the temple at forty days (otherwise three long trips would be needed; one to Nazareth, one back for the presentation, and then back to Nazareth again)
  • The availability of help in caring for the baby by kinfolk in Bethlehem

While staying there, business opportunities then likely arose for Joseph in the area, and they either fell into or consciously decided on a longer-term relocation to Bethlehem.

They may have even decided to stay in Bethlehem precisely because of the prophesy that the Messiah would be from there. They may initially have planned to give Jesus an upbringing in Bethlehem in fulfillment of this prophecy.

Such was not necessary, however, and after the appearance of the magi, they fled to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod the Great.

Upon returning to Israel, they learned that Archelaus was ruling over Judea. Understanding the danger this posed, and Joseph being warned in a dream, the Holy Family decided to relocate to their prior home in Nazareth.

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