Thoughts on Matthew 2:1-23
This account of Jesus’ birth is an abridged version of Luke’s account. While Luke includes details about the location, what Jesus was wearing, what He was laid in, who was there and the proclamation of the angels, Matthew simply states that Jesus was born. Luke writes an “orderly account” and a narrative that includes more details for more than just Jesus’ birth. Matthew, while not as brief as Mark, is writing to a specific audience (the Jews) who were going to be more persuaded by fulfilled prophecy and the “so what” rather than the granularity of the details.
Matthew doesn’t say where the parents were from, nor does he discuss any locations until the mention of Bethlehem in 2:1 and 2:5-6, which he does probably include just to mention the fulfilled prophecy (like he does in 1:23, 2:15, 18 and 23). Something that occurred to me in reading this passage is that my belief about the timing of the arrival of the Magi might be incorrect. I still reject the idea they were there on the night Jesus was born, as depicted by typical nativity scenes. I have thought for a while now that two years or so was a reasonable amount of time, but I think now I am wrong. In this passage, the Magi come to Bethlehem to see Jesus while they were in a house. Regardless of how many days or weeks it actually was between Jesus’ birth and the visit from the Magi, enough time had elapsed that the inns were no longer full and they were able to find accommodations in a house. To me, this would indicate the census was completed and the crush of people who were in Bethlehem to register were gone. Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth (Luke 2:4), which is at least 60 miles from Bethlehem. Why would they have stayed in Bethlehem for two years? How could they have stayed there for two years? Luke offers no insight on this as he doesn’t even mention the Magi. In summary, I think it was probably within the first few months, but at least a week or more. Luke offers some insight here in that he tells us the young family went up to the temple in Jerusalem (which was only a few miles from Bethlehem, versus many miles from Nazareth) for purification according to the Law, which was 40 days after the birth. So, this presents a valid reason why they would have lingered in Bethlehem and why the Magi would have found them there.
However, the two birth narratives present a challenge in that Matthew says an angel warned Joseph in dream to flee to Egypt, which they do, and then Matthew has them return to Nazareth. Luke has them go to the temple for purification and then heading to Nazareth with no mention of a trip to Egypt. This isn’t necessarily a problem though, since most scholars agree that Jesus was born in 4 B.C., the same year Herod died. It’s quite possible that Jesus was born, was circumcised (Luke 2:21), moved into a house to wait for purification, was visited by the Magi, was taken to Egypt, returned, was presented at the temple (Mary was purified at the 40-day mark), and then they all returned to Nazareth. It would have been a busy 40 days and they would not have been in Egypt long, but they only needed to be there long enough to avoid Herod’s murdering of the baby boys in Bethlehem (which could have easily happened while they were in transit) and fulfill prophecy.
Most commentators agree that the details of what happened immediately following Jesus’ birth as narrated by Matthew and Luke don’t synch up well. Each passage, if read in isolation, presents no real issues. It’s Luke 2:39 that’s the sticking point. It says, “And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” This is difficult because in Matthew the family returns to Galilee after returning from Egypt, during which time Herod died and Archelaus was ruling in Judea. The transition of kings is not troublesome, but the fact that it’s implied Joseph wanted to return to Bethlehem but didn’t because of the change. In an attempt to smooth over this issue, some have suggested that Jesus and His family traveled back and forth between Bethlehem and Nazareth multiple times. That seems unlikely though due to the distance and difficulty of travel, especially with a newborn. There’s also the issue of the star, particularly if you believe the Magi came sometime closer to two years after Jesus’ birth. What happened to the star? Did it follow Jesus back and forth from town to town? Why was Jesus’ family back in Bethlehem, living in a house if they had returned to Nazareth? Doesn’t the prophecy in Matthew 2:23 about Jesus being called a Nazarene become jeopardized if He was actually living in Bethlehem?
Regardless of how everything all actually took place, it’s clear that Matthew, who was a disciple and likely heard this story first-hand from Mary, focuses on the dramatic details and on the fulfillment of prophecy. Luke, on the other hand, a Gentile who never met Jesus, though it’s possible he met Mary in Ephesus, focuses on the happier more positive details. While it is somewhat problematic to overlay the two stories based on the implied timelines, it not impossible (as mentioned above). At the end of the day, the point is that Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth as a baby, born of a virgin, and that many prophecies were fulfilled to the letter. Additionally, we need the Bible to help interpret the Bible; but we can also use historical accounts to help us understand what at first glance may seem to be a contradiction.