Author Tim Barnett
Published on 12/04/2023

How Can We Reconcile Differences Between the Accounts of Jesus’ Birth?

New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman offers an example of what he believes to be an irreconcilable contradiction in the Christmas account. But, while Matthew and Luke give some different details, it’s not clear that this amounts to a genuine contradiction. Tim Barnett explains why.


Bart Ehrman: One of the things I do with my students—they know the Christmas story, the wise men. You get the shepherds. I have them read Matthew and just make a list of what happens in Matthew—this, this, this, this. Then I have them read Luke and make the same list for Luke. And is there anything that cannot be reconciled? It blows their mind. You realize, whoa, after Jesus is born, Mary has to make an offering in the temple, and then they go straight back to Nazareth, which is about 100 miles to the north up in Galilee, in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is born, and Joseph is warned that Herod is now going to try and kill the child. And so, Joseph takes the family and goes down to Egypt, and they stay there till Herod dies. When they hear that Herod died, they come back. They can’t resettle in Bethlehem like they want. They resettle in Nazareth. If Matthew is right that they went down to Egypt for months or years or however long, how can Luke be right that they immediately return to Nazareth?

Alex O’Connor: And what is the answer to that question?

Bart Ehrman: I don’t know! I mean, you have to make something up.

Tim Barnett: In this video, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman offers Alex O’Connor an example of what he believes to be an irreconcilable contradiction in the Christmas accounts. Now, before we look at this specific supposed contradiction, let me make a general observation. Many alleged Bible contradictions arise from applying unnecessary assumptions or false expectations to the Bible. In many cases, the alleged contradiction stems from the reader misunderstanding or even misrepresenting the author’s original intent.

Let me show you what I mean. Ehrman challenges his students to read the Christmas accounts in Matthew and Luke and make a list of events for each. What you’ll find is some similarity, like Jesus being born in Bethlehem of a virgin and, after his birth, returning to Nazareth, but you will also find differences, like the Magi and the trip to Egypt in Matthew and the shepherds and the trip to the temple in Luke.

While Matthew and Luke give some different details, it’s not clear that this amounts to a genuine contradiction. Here’s why. For this to be a genuine contradiction, the reader must assume two things. First, they assume that silence about an event is denial of an event, but this is a textbook example of an argument from silence—trying to reason from what a source does not say to the conclusion that something did not happen. Since Luke is silent on Jesus going to Egypt, the argument goes, therefore Luke denies Jesus went to Egypt. True, Luke doesn’t mention the trip to Egypt, but what follows from that? The answer is simple: nothing. Luke’s silence is not a denial.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: But, Tim, Luke says when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. There it is. Bethlehem. Jerusalem. Nazareth. This leads to the second assumption.

Second, the reader assumes Luke’s describing immediate, consecutive events. Luke does say that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus returned to Nazareth, and it says that it was after making sacrifices for ritual purification in Jerusalem. The question is, was it immediately after or eventually after? Well, Matthew seems to hint that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus had a longer stay in Bethlehem—possibly even two years. This might explain why Herod ordered the killing of all the male children in Bethlehem two years and under.

So, can these two accounts be reconciled? Yes. And I don’t think it’s terribly hard to see how. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem. Jesus is born, and the shepherds visit. Forty days after Jesus’ birth, they go to the temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the law. Then they return to their home in Bethlehem. They meet the Magi. Then, after being warned in a dream about Herod’s plot, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus flee to Egypt to escape. Finally, when Herod is dead, they begin to travel back to Judea to Bethlehem, but after being warned in another dream, they go to Nazareth instead. This series of events is totally consistent with both accounts.