Question: "Do the narratives of Jesus' birth contradict each other?"
Answer: Only two of the gospels give an account of the happenings surrounding Jesus’ birth. Matthew 1–2 gives information about Joseph and includes the story of the magi from the East. Luke 1–2 does not mention the magi but focuses on Mary and various others (Elizabeth, Zacharias, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna) who praised God for the Incarnation.
Various people have claimed that the books of Matthew and Luke contradict each other and that the narratives of Jesus’ birth are in opposition. The claim is specious, and the details provided by Matthew and Luke are easily reconciled into a comprehensive whole.
First, here are the details that Matthew and Luke unquestionably agree on:
Jesus was born of a virgin (Matthew 1:18, 23, 25; Luke 1:27).
Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, a town in Galilee (Matthew 2:23; Luke 1:26; 2:4).
Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4–7).
After Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth (Matthew 2:23; Luke 2:39).
Second, here are the details that are unique to each writer:
The magi visit Jesus (Matthew 2:1–12).
Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s cruelty (Matthew 2:13–18).
A group of shepherds visit Jesus in the manger (Luke 2:8–20).
Joseph and Mary make a trip to the temple in Jerusalem in fulfillment of the Law (Luke 2:22–39).
Those who claim to see a contradiction in the narratives of Christ’s birth usually point to Luke 2:39, which says, “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth,” and Matthew 2:21–23, which says that Joseph and his family went to Nazareth on their return from Egypt. According to the critics, Luke, who says nothing about the flight to Egypt, indicates that Jesus was taken to Nazareth directly from the temple; and Matthew, who does not mention the temple observances, says that Jesus was taken to Nazareth directly from Egypt.
It’s important to acknowledge that silence does not equal denial. Luke’s omission in his narrative of the flight to Egypt cannot be construed as evidence that it never happened. Luke never says that Joseph and Mary did not go to Egypt; he simply doesn’t comment on the event. Matthew never mentions the shepherds of the nativity—are we to assume because of Matthew’s omission that no shepherds came? Also important is the fact that neither Matthew nor Luke claim that he is penning an exhaustive account of every detail surrounding the birth of Christ.
The question then is, does Luke’s narrative allow for enough time for a trip to Egypt? Between the circumcision of Jesus and the trip to the temple was 32 days—about a month. Trying to fit a trip to Egypt and back in that time frame is problematic. A better way to reconcile Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives is to place the flight to Egypt after Jesus’ appearance in the temple. This assumes that Joseph and Mary remained in Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth and that they had a place to stay—the “house” of Matthew 2:11.
Luke 2:39 says, “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.” Note that Luke does not say that they immediately returned to Galilee, and there is no reason to insert that word into the verse. (One could just as easily insert the word eventually.) The fact is that Luke doesn’t specify how much time elapsed. He simply says that, after their visit to the temple, Joseph and Mary settled in Nazareth. It could have been days later. It could have been months. If we place the flight to Egypt in the middle of Luke 2:39, we have a workable chronology:
1) After visiting the temple, Joseph and Mary return to Bethlehem. (In the month since Jesus’ birth, Joseph had probably sought temporary work there, and that work had become more permanent, perhaps. It’s also quite possible that Joseph was planning to resettle his new family in Bethlehem, thinking it would be good for the Son of David to be reared in the City of David).
2) Simeon and Anna begin spreading the news that they have seen the Messiah in Jerusalem (Luke 2:25–38).
3) Sometime later, the magi arrive at Jerusalem and confirm the news on the street that the Messiah has been born (Matthew 2:1–2). Herod sends the magi on to Bethlehem, where they find young Jesus (Matthew 2:3–11).
4) The magi return home a different way, and Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:12–13).
5) After a while, Herod figures out that the magi have disregarded his wishes, and he orders the slaughter of all males two years old and younger near Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16). The “two-year” computation indicates that Jesus could have already been that old.
6) Herod dies in 4 BC.
7) Joseph brings his family back from Egypt (Matthew 2:19–21). Out of fear of Herod’s son, Joseph changes his plan to settle in Bethlehem and instead moves back to Galilee (Matthew 2:22–23).
There is nothing in the above 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.
Some critics find another supposed contradiction in the genealogies associated with the narratives of Jesus’ birth. Matthew 1:16 says that Joseph’s father was Jacob; Luke 3:23 says that Joseph’s father was Heli. There are several theories, but the best answer to this seeming discrepancy is that Luke is recording Mary’s genealogy and Matthew is recording Joseph’s. There was no Koine Greek word with the exclusive meaning of “son-in-law,” and so Joseph is called the “son of Heli” due to his marriage to Heli’s daughter, Mary. Joseph was a “son” by marriage.
The gospels were written by four different men to four unique audiences, so it is natural that they would include different details concerning the life of Christ. But their writing was superintended by the Holy Spirit, who guaranteed that what each wrote was the absolute truth. There are differences, but they can all be harmonized. The narratives of Jesus’ birth found in Matthew and Luke are not contradictory but complementary.