“Ask a Priest: Do Matthew and Luke contradict each other on Jesus’ early life?”

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Q: In Matthew 2, it says Mary, Joseph and Jesus were in Bethlehem, and (verse 13) after the wise men left, the angel told them to flee to Egypt. So they went to Egypt and stayed there till Herod died. But in Luke 2, Mary, Joseph and Jesus go to Jerusalem for their purification when Jesus is a baby, and verse 39 says then they returned to Nazareth where the child grew and became strong, etc. This seems like a contradiction. Can you explain? -T.D.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: There really isn’t a contradiction here. Rather, each Gospel writer is selectively using facts in order to convey a certain message.

The real sequence of events was probably this: Jesus was born, and then some weeks later he was presented in the Temple. Sometime later — possibly months or a year or more later — the magi visited. After the magi left, the Holy Family fled to Egypt. Then, after the death of Herod, the Holy Family returned to Palestine and settled in Nazareth. The Gospel texts seem to support this version of the sequence of events. I’ll explain why.

It is highly probable that the magi visited the Baby Jesus a significant amount of time after his birth. Two texts indicate this. Matthew 2:11 says of the magi, “on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.” The mention of a house indicates that the Holy Family by this time was more established in Bethlehem; Mary and Joseph no longer had to rely on a manger (a feeding trough for animals) for the Baby Jesus. They obviously had found better accommodations by then.

Matthew 2:16 goes on to say that Herod “ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.” That passage indicates that Herod perceived a lapse of time of up to two years between the appearance of the star, the birth of Our Lord and the arrival of the magi.

The Gospel according to Matthew would have been keen to mention the flight into Egypt and the subsequent return since these events help show how Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures — in this case, Hosea 11:1. “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

The Gospel according to Luke, on the other hand, chose to emphasize (in quick succession) the Presentation in the Temple, the Holy Family’s return to Galilee, and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple at age 12. The writer, by choosing a simpler story line, could shift the scene from the Temple to Nazareth and back to the Temple again. That each Gospel writer was selective about details in the life of Jesus is obvious since the Matthew account doesn’t mention the Presentation or the Finding in the Temple.

Hence, we could say there is no contradiction in the Gospel accounts. I hope this helps. God bless.

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One Comment
  1. It hard to imagine Luke not bothering to mention the flight to Egypt or the Kings if he knew about it so should I assume he did not know?
    Why dies it say they went to Bethlehem for the census and not to live there. ?
    Why would people be required to travel to places their ancestors lived in for a census. That would defeat the purpose and didn’t happen in other Roman census?
    Why would Mary travel 100 klm on a donkey while so late in pregnancy?? Thanks

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