Stephen E. Jones

Projects: A Harmony of the Nativity Accounts in the Gospels of Matthew & Luke

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A harmony of the nativity accounts in the gospels of Matthew and Luke (Matthew 2 and Luke 2), showing how they complement each other. It has the added bonus of answering the question: "how did Jesus have a normal childhood if he was known to be the Messiah?"


  1. Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary (Lk 2:5), went from Nazareth to Bethlehem (Lk 2:4), his ancestral town (Lk 2:3-4), in order to register for a Roman census (Lk 2:1-3).
  2. A son, later named Jesus (Lk 2:21; Mt 1:25), was born to Mary in Bethlehem (Lk 2:4-7; Mt 2:1), in a stable: "she... placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn" (Lk 2:7).
  3. Magi (i.e. astrologers), "from the east" (probably Babylon), see "his star in the east" (lit. "at its rising") and after observing it for some time (up to "two years" - Mt 2:16) set out for Jerusalem (Mt 2:1).
  4. Jesus' birth announced by angels to shepherds in fields outside Bethlehem (Lk 2:8-14). The shepherds go into Bethlehem and find Mary, Joseph and the baby lying in the manger (Lk 2:15-16). The shepherds then "spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child" (Lk 2:17-18) and "all who heard it were amazed said to them" (Lk 2:19). Note that the account does not say that anyone else went to the stable in Bethlehem to see for themselves. Or if they did, what did they see but just a poor Galilean man and his wife with a baby in a stable? Jesus' anonymity was protected by his poor Galilean background, the humble circumstances of His birth, the disappearance of the Magi and the low social standing of shepherds. But this was all remembered by Mary (Lk 2:20,51), Joseph having seemingly died some time after Jesus' twelfth birthday (Lk 2:42-51), and presumably related by her to Luke (Lk 1:1-4).
  5. The baby was circumcised on the eighth day and named Jesus (Lk 2:21; Mt 1:25), as directed by the angel who announced His conception (Lk 2:21; Mt 1:21).
  6. After forty days (Lev 12:4), Joseph and Mary take Jesus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to consecrate Him (Ex 13:2) to God (Lk 2:22), and offer a poor man's (Lev 12:8), sacrifice of a "a pair of doves or two young pigeons" (Lk 2:24). Note that if Jesus had already been given the Magi's valuable gifts of "gold and of incense and of myrrh" (Mt 2:11), the family would not have been poor.
  7. The prophets Simeon (Lk 2:25-35) and Anna (Lk 2:36-38) prophesied concerning Jesus.
  8. Joseph and Mary then returned to Nazareth (Lk 2:39).
  9. Up to "two years" (Mt 2:16) pass. Joseph and Mary acquire a "house" in Bethlehem (Mt 2:11) and move there (see below where from Egypt Joseph wanted to return with his family to "Judea" but upon being warned that Herod's son Archelaus was reigning there, he decides instead to return to "Nazareth" in Galilee).
  10. The Magi arrive in Jerusalem (Mt 2:1) and make inquiries as to the whereabouts of "the one who has been born king of the Jews" (Mt 2:2), explaining they "saw his star in the east" (lit. at its rising) and "have come to worship him". Note the past tense "[w]e saw his star". No mention is made of the star still being there in the sky that anyone can go outside at night and see.
  11. Both the people of Jerusalem and King Herod (37-4 BC) are disturbed (probably for different reasons!) when they heard this (Mt 2:3).
  12. Herod calls together all the "chief priests and teachers of the law" and asks them where the Messiah was to be born (Mt 2:4).
  13. They answer him: "In Bethlehem in Judea" citing the prophecy of Micah 5:2 (Mt 2:5-6). Herod himself was not a Jew so he either did not know the prophecy, or just wanted confirmation of this.
  14. Herod secretly meets with the Magi and "found out from them the exact time the star had appeared" (Mt 2:7). They evidently answered within the last "two years" (Mt 2:16). It seems they had not volunteered that information to anyone else?
  15. Herod sends the Magi to Bethlehem to "make a careful search for the child" (Mt 2:8), and as soon as they find him, to report to him, claiming he wanted to worship him. "(Mt 2:8). Note that it is a "child" not a "baby" (Lk 2:25). Also, if "a careful search" had to be made "for the child" then no one knew where He was. Further that Herod does not tell the Magi that the child is in Bethlehem but gives them official permission to go there.
  16. The Magi set off towards Bethlehem .(Mt 2:9) which is only five miles (8 kilometres) south of Jerusalem, on the side of a hill.
  17. The Magi again see "the star they had seen in the east", i.e. at its rising (Mt 2:9), and they are "overjoyed" (Mt 2:10). How they know it is the same star is not clear. Perhaps it started from the same position the Magi had last seen it? Or maybe there was something distinctive about it?
  18. The star "went ahead of them" (Mt 2:9). This seems to mean that the star itself moved in front of them (see "until it stopped" next), in which case it would not be a natural star. But it could also be a popular way of speaking of appearances, like "the sun rose".
  19. The star then "stopped over the place where the child was "Mt 2:9). It is not clear if this was the exact "house" in (Mt 2:11) or the immediate neighbourhood, in which case further door-to-door inquiries would in short order reveal the exact house.
  20. The Magi come to the house, and on entering (presumably accompanied by Joseph?) they see "the child" (not baby) "with his mother Mary" (Mt 2:11).
  21. The Magi then "bowed down and worshiped him" (Mt 2:11), which need imply no more than a recognition of Jesus' as a human king.
  22. The Magi then present Jesus with "treasures" being "gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh" (Mt 2:11). These gifts may have been used to finance their flight to, and living in, Egypt (Mt 2:13), from that very night?
  23. The Magi are "warned in a dream not to go back to Herod" and they return "to their country by another route" (Mt 2:12).
  24. When the Magi had gone, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him to "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt" and "[s]tay there" until he was told it was safe to return, because Herod was "going to search for the child to kill him." (Mt 2:13).
  25. Joseph immediately "got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt" (Mt 2:14).
  26. Joseph and his family stayed in Egypt (in which there was a large Jewish population, including no doubt other refugees from Herod) "until the death of Herod" (Mt 2:15).
  27. When the Magi don't return, Herod "realized that he had been outwitted" and in a rage "gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi." (Mt 2:16). Note that because Bethlehem was very small, the actual number of children may not have been many, even assuming the soldiers actually carried out their orders to the letter, which is itself unlikely. Although the atrocity has not yet been discovered recorded in extrabiblical history, it is in keeping with what is known about Herod, who, in fits of insane jealousy and paranoia, murdered even his own wife, and several sons and close relatives.
  28. After Joseph and family had been living in Egypt for only short time, Herod having died (in 4BC), an angel again appeared in a dream to Joseph (Mt 2:19), telling him to "take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead." (Mt 2:20).
  29. Joseph then "took the child and his mother and went" back "to the land of Israel" (Mt 2:21), presumably on his way back to his house in Bethlehem (see on Mt 2:11 above and "in Judea" next).
  30. However, inside Israel's borders, Joseph hears that Herod's equally brutal son "Archelaus (22 BC - AD 18) was reigning in Judea in place of his father" and Joseph "was afraid to go there" (Mt 2:22).
  31. Joseph's fears are confirmed in another dream, and he "withdrew to the district of Galilee" (Mt 2:22), and returned back to "Nazareth."

This harmony of the nativity accounts in the gospels of Matthew and Luke has that "truth is stranger than fiction" complex quality of real life that would be unlikely to have been concocted. It also answers the important question:



Lk 2:51-52 tells us that Jesus grew up in Nazareth as an obedient son to His parents and "grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men." and Jn 7:5 says "For even his own brothers did not believe in him."

The above complex but complementary accounts of Matthew and Luke, the obscurity of Nazareth, the humble manner if His birth, together with the social prejudice of Judeans against Galileans, the separate political jurisdictions of Judea and Galilee, all combine to answer that question perfectly.

  1. Joseph and Mary were originally living in Nazareth, an obscure small town in northern Israel, which is not even mentioned in the Old Testament.
  2. The humble nature of Jesus' birth in a stable and witnessed only by shepherds who were, as a class, of low social standing in Judea of that day, would have ruled out Jesus being thought of as a candidate Messiah.
  3. Herod's murder of the boys two and under in Bethlehem would have made many think that the Magi had got it wrong, there being no candidate Messiah left who fitted the time-frame of their alleged star, which only they had seen.
  4. The flight to Egypt and the return back to Nazareth after as many as eleven years (up to two years before Herod's death in 4 BC until before Archelaus' removal in 6 AD, i.e. 6 BC - 6 AD = 11 years, there being no year zero BC), would have effectively erased anyone's lingering memories.
  5. While Joseph and Mary probably were not the only citizens of Nazareth required to return to Bethlehem to register for the census, Nazareth being probably settled by the clan of David in the second century BC (Barnett, P.W., "Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times," InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove IL, 1999, pp.92-94), which explains how blind Bartimaeus knew that "Jesus of Nazareth" was "Jesus, Son of David" (Mk 10:46-47) and why "there was no room for them in the inn" at Bethlehem (Lk 2:7). But the embarrassing circumstances of Mary's unmarried pregnancy, Joseph and Mary's return to Bethlehem, Herod's murder of boys two years and under, and them not returning to Nazareth for up to 11 years later would make it unlikely that Nazareth's citizens would have remembered or seen it as significant that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem.
  6. Lk 2:19 indicates Jesus' parents kept Jesus Messiahship a secret:

    "But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart"

    even from his own younger siblings:

    "For even his own brothers did not believe in him" (Jn 7:5)

    and indeed Joseph and Mary probably did not, and indeed could not, fully understand who Jesus really was - God (Mt 1:23; Jn 1:1,14; 8:58-59; 10:32-33; 20:27-28; Acts 20:28; Rom 9:5; Php 2:5-6, Col 2:9; 1 Tim 3:16; Tit 2:13; Jn 12:39-41 = Isa 6:1-10; Dt 10:17; Ps 136:3; 1 Tim 6:15 = Rev 17:14; 19:16; etc).

  7. Even if anyone in Nazareth did remember that Joseph and Mary had left to go to Bethlehem and returned with a son, it would be psychologically unlikely they would have thought one of their own could have been the Messiah. In fact Mk 6:3 actually shows this: with the people of Nazareth reacting to Jesus' teaching in the synagogue with:
  8. "`Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?'" And they took offense at him."

  9. Jn 7:42 makes it clear that no one from Jerusalem had any idea that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem:
  10. "Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David's family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?"

  11. And the prejudice would also work in reverse. The idea that the Messiah could come from somewhere as lowly as Nazareth was probably almost unthinkable to a Judean, as this contemptuous comment in Jn 1:46 indicates:
"Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?"

by the future Apostle Nathanael, to his brother Philip, who had just excitedly told him about "Jesus of Nazareth" being "the one Moses ... and ... the prophets ... wrote" (Jn 1:45)

So, the answer to the question: "how did Jesus have a normal childhood if he was known to be the Messiah?" is simple. Apart from His parents, and Himself (and maybe not even that until He was older), no one else on Earth knew (or probably even suspected) that Jesus was the Messiah until after He began His public ministry when He was "about thirty years old" (Lk 3:23).

Therefore, far from being a problem, the two nativity accounts of Matthew 2 and Luke 2 present a composite picture that has a `three-dimensional' quality of real, historical truth.


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Created: 3 December, 2001. Updated: 26 September, 2013.

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