The Nativity Stories Harmonized
[Introduction] [Clues for Understanding] [Events Prior to the Birth of Jesus] [Events at the Birth of Jesus] [The Nazareth/Bethlehem Problem] [Concluding Remarks]

As the calendar turns towards Christmas, we inevitably immerse ourselves in that famous scene: The manger, the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the magi - all in one neat package, with maybe an ox and a sheep or two standing by. It's one of our favorites, and also a source of great critical derision - and I'm not just talking here about the jugheads of the ACLU.

To some extent, however, this is done rightly as a critical reading of the narratives tell us that the traditional Nativity is an anachronism...as we shall see shortly.

Can the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke be harmonized? Can they be supposed to be historical? In this essay we will attempt to answer these questions, providing links where others have already done the work. Issues we do not cover are covered by links at the bottom.

Clues for Understanding

One of the biggest hurdles to accepting the birth narratives as real history has been not necessarily that they could not be harmonized - it seems fairly possible, with one glaring exception that we will note at the end - but that there seems to be no way that we could picture them coming about as differently as they have in the first place. To this end, critical scholars have at most (as with Raymond Brown) noted that there are various root similarities between the narratives that probably or perhaps go back to a historical core (like the virgin birth, for example) while supposing also that the rest of the narratives were invented by either Matt or Luke, or both, based on all manner of creative activity (using OT prophecy, for example).

Is there some way that it might be supposed that the major differences in the narratives came about as legitimate history? To the end of answering this, here are a few clues we shall consider:

The events recounted by Matthew in chapter 2 [in Bethlehem] occurred some 2 years after the time of the events that took place in the entirety of Luke's narrative. This particular clue is determined from Matthew 2:16:

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he 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.

This is a standard idea in most attempts at harmonization, and we are suggesting nothing new at this point. It is in these next two suggestions that I am proposing what is, as far as I know, a novel idea for resolving the problem of the birth narratives. The first suggestion is not very controversial and is really not novel at all:

The Gospel of Matthew was authored in Antioch, Syria. This idea is well-accepted among conservative and liberal scholars alike. But I feel that this idea has not been given enough attention in regards to the birth narratives.

A key question for resolution of our issue is to find a source for Matthew's story that would somehow have not been aware of the Lucan story and its elements. (The opposite matter of Luke being aware of Matthew is not as much of a problem, for reasons we will discuss) Typically, it is proposed that Luke had Mary as a main source, whereas Matthew had Joseph as a main source.

This, I think, hits close to an aspect of the truth, but is very much incomplete. Luke, I will argue, did indeed have relatives of Jesus (and/or John the Baptist) as sources. But Joseph, I daresay, was not exactly Matthew's source for his birth narrative. Matt's source would, on the one hand, know nothing about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus; would assume (for lack of knowledge) that Jesus and his family spent those 2 years or so in Bethlehem; would know what went on in Herod's court; would not, on the other hand, know a thing about John the Baptist or a Roman census...and would be very likely to be close at hand to the place where Matthew wrote his Gospel.

Who fits this bill? The most ideal candidates for this scenario are literally under our noses every Christmas when we set up a Nativity scene. I am suggesting nothing less than that Matthew's major sources for his birth narrative were none other than the magi themselves.

Or I should say, the descendants of the magi, perhaps within their own professional order. The magi who visited Jesus would probably have been dead by the time of Matthew's Gospel (though one or more may have been available to the Antiochene church when Matthew first collected his data), but if we suppose (not too hazardously) that their order, or their families, were preserved and did not stray far from their point of origin (which is quite often identified as Syria or Arabia - in or close to where Matthew authored his Gospel), then we have a plausible suggestion for understanding why there is a tension between the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, and why (along with other reasons we will discuss) they wrote the way they did.

Pre-Birth Events

Let us now study, in pieces, the two narratives arranged in chronological order as we suppose. We begin with what will amount to a non-controversial assertion of what assuredly came first, beginning with Luke's first chapter, verses 5-25:

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years. Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years." The angel answered, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time." Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. "The Lord has done this for me," she said. "In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people."

Thus far, we have little to discuss. The above could easily be supposed to have been obtained by Luke from family members of either Jesus or John, and we have no matter of conflict with Matthew at all. And of course, Matthew's sources would have no awareness of any of this data.

Our discussion begins, however, where Luke picks up in verses 26-56:

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end." "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month for nothing is impossible with God." "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her. **At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" And Mary said: "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me-- holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers." Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.

It is here where we run into our first question; namely, how does this fit in with Matthew's account (Mt. 2:18-24):

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" -- which means, "God with us." When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

Harmonization here is relatively easy, and it is not hard to fit in the events of Matthew into Luke's narrative where I have placed the double stars (**). Matthew's reference to Mary having been "found to be with child through the Holy Spirit" might qualify as an allusion to her own visitation recounted in Luke.

But why the difference in the focus of the accounts? Here is our first practical attempt to implement the source-theory. To begin, we should note that it makes no material difference whether or not Luke had Matthew's gospel available as a source. Luke had the family of Jesus or John as a source, so one might suppose that Luke ought to also have had access to such information as Matthew.

Matthew's magi probably derived their story from talking to Joseph himself. Would they have been aware of Mary's angelic visitation? Possibly, in fact probably because Joseph would have shared it with them, but it is not too hard to imagine that they relegated it to a secondary position and excluded it from later retellings - - reflecting the typical negative view of the testimony of women at the time and the cultural expectation that Joseph would be the one to receive communication (see Malina and Rohrbaugh, 28 Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels).

On the other hand there was probably no reason for the material about Elizabeth to come up and no reason for Matthew's sources to be aware of it.

A reader offered this excellent note offering another reason why perhaps Luke didn't include much of Joseph's part of the story: The last we hear of Joseph is when the family gets back from Egypt and settles in Nazareth. Based on that, I've always figured that Joseph had passed on somewhere between that time and the wedding in Cana. Since Luke was writing some years after Jesus' resurrection and using the memories of Jesus' and John's families and Joseph just wasn't around to fill in his details any more. That and the fact that the character's order of importance was: Jesus, John the Baptist, Mary and finally Joseph. Like you're always saying, a scroll was only just so long. On the other hand, (per your next paragraph) what the Magi came away with was primarily Joseph's story. They and theirs probably wrote it down and that's where Matthew got it.

Luke, deriving his material from family sources, probably had some knowledge of Joseph's visitation, but it is commonly recognized that Luke has a special focus on women. Indeed, that he takes the time to record the personal poetic reminisces of these women tells us as much. (You don't suppose Joseph wrote a little poem for the occasion, do you?)

Therefore, even if he knew about it, it is likely that Luke would not record Joseph's angelic visit. On the other hand, the fact that Luke records no major objections by Joseph suggests that there was something in the background that convinced him that there was nothing illicit in the entire affair.

Following the above, Luke records the birth of John the Baptist. We will not recount those verses here as it’s enough to observe that this is obviously the sort of thing that Luke's family sources would give him but that would be unlikely to be related, even if known, to the magi.

Census Issues

We pick up with those passages in Luke 2:1-20:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Matthew, of course, knows of none of this; any overlap at all comes from this single verse, Matt. 1:25:

But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

We see very little possibility that the magi would have been aware of what Luke has recorded. The census would have had no meaning for them, for they lived outside the bounds of the Roman Empire.

The recounting of the visit of the shepherds may have been related to them, but would not have been considered important, if brought up at all, that is, aside from the considerable pressure of the visit for the magi which would have made the exchange of trivia superfluous. They were, after all, foreigners from a place that was an enemy of Rome and we can imagine easily that their visit looking for a "new king", at Herod's palace (the natural first place to look), wouldn’t have been looked upon happily either by Herod or by the Romans and caused them some distress. This is especially so once they realized that no one else was celebrating the birth of this new king. The disdain for shepherds typical of this period (think in modern terms of relying on the testimony of a ditch-digger or a garbage collector) would have made their story unappealing to the educated magi.

And of course, the magi would have been out of the circle of local gossip started by the shepherds themselves, being around two years too late to get in on the news.

Luke continues with the accounting of events in the Temple (2:21-39) with Simeon and Anna. As with the story of John, this is personal data that would have been unlikely to have been related in the urgent circumstances surrounding the visit of the magi.

The Nazareth Question

One of the biggest harmonizing problems we have in these two accounts takes place right here. Luke records in 2:39:

When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.

Luke seems to know something that Matthew does not - that Nazareth was Joe and Mary's hometown. Why is this so? We will discuss that shortly. For now, let’s pick up Matthew where Luke has left off:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: "'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'" Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

We would argue that the information offered up here pretty well supports the traditional Nativity scene that puts shepherds and magi together and is the most likely of all to have come from the magi. They would have preserved their own accounts: of reading and following the stars; of their being present in Herod's court; of having seen or heard of his conferences with the priests and teachers; of their having been there to offer the gifts.

A question yet to investigate is: What of the historicity of this "star" episode? Ranke-Heinemann [Rank.PAC, 23-5] objects mightily about the supposed absurdity of a star "going ahead" or "resting" (as above, stopping over the place of) where the house was.

Clearly, though, ancient people had no problem with this concept. Although it never gets as specific as being over a single house, there are accounts of people following stars that "rest" over a city as in: Josephus, who records such of a star over Jerusalem [Brow.BirM, 170].

Perhaps it is worth asking what exactly is meant when it is said that a star did something like that. The word in verse 9 that is used is proago, defined as "to lead forward" or "go before." Two answers are possible; namely, either this was some sort of miraculous optical effect (perhaps visible only to the magi?) that was made to imitate a stationary celestial object; or else this is a miracle of providence in which the subjective "movement" of the object from the viewer on earth happened to lead them in the right direction.

What sort of celestial object was this, assuming that it was in some respect natural? Brown [Brow.BirM, 171] lists these options and the indications:

But why does Luke not record this scenario? Would not the family of Jesus have been aware of these events?

In all likelihood, yes, but one of Luke's specific orientations makes it unlikely that he would record these events. It has been noted that Luke's letter is a "Roman-friendly" gospel, where one of his central aims is to convince Roman and Gentile readers that Christianity is no threat to the Roman order.

This being the case, the last thing that Luke needs is to record an incident in which the Christ of the Christians received gifts from magi who probably came from outside of the Roman Empire and were associated with the lands of the Parthians - a chief nemesis of Rome.

He also does not need an account of a Roman client-king being stirred up by these enemy foreigners as the crucifixion will be enough of a political hot potato to deal with. Much better to select the account he knew, which shows the family participating in a Roman census and not causing the Romans any trouble at all (they were probably not pleased to participate, but Luke's readers didn't need to know that).

Matthew continues:

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."

Were the magi Matthew's source for this data? Probably not, unless the magi kept up with the family later on. The fact that this, as well as what follows, is less detailed than what we have read before indicates, perhaps, a different and less detailed source than the magi would be.

So, first question - who is Matthew's source here? There's no easy way to tell, but I would suggest that it was Jesus himself who told his disciples of his childhood time in Egypt, as part of his own regular paradigm-practice of pointing out how he fulfilled, and was otherwise purposely fulfilling, OT prophecy.

Second question, though is - why does Luke say nothing of this? This isn't too difficult, either because Luke also did not need to encourage any associations with Egypt - a land not held in much greater esteem by the Romans than Judaea, for it too was regarded as filled with superstition. It is no surprise that Luke chose instead to highlight an incident later in Jesus' childhood that stressed Jesus' wisdom within the paradigms of Judaism - which thereby avoided any associations of learning things like magic in Egypt.

It is Matthew's record of the trip to Egypt that became fodder for Celsus many years later, and continues to be fodder for some critics even now.

Matt goes on:

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he 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. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."

We have previously discussed the historicity of this incident in a link below. Matthew could easily have obtained this information from general knowledge. Luke of course could not include it because it made no sense unless the trip to Egypt was revealed, and Luke, as we have suggested, had his own motives for not covering that.

We come now, however, to the thickest harmonizing-hornet's-nest in the entire collection. Matthew closes:

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, 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." So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."

Although not explicitly stated, the implication here is: This is the first time the family has ever been to Nazareth. Therefore, they did not live there before; therefore, Matthew and Luke disagree. But do they?

In fact, we see tension, but not outright contradiction, and this is easily explainable in terms of the evangelists' respective sources. Luke and the family sources would of course have all of the records straight.

But Matthew's magi? They would find the child in Bethlehem and they would inquire of the family, "Was he born here in Bethlehem?", and they of course would answer yes. Enough said - and the fact that the family actually lived in Nazareth, under normal circumstances, would go by the wayside (or, if nothing else, avoided as a topic of conversation to keep from spilling the beans to a jealous Herod).

So, Matthew had this before him: His source told him that Jesus was born in Bethlehem; but he knew Jesus and his family were from Nazareth. How did they happen to get to Nazareth, then?

From here, the answer depends on where you stand. Inerrantists of course may maintain that Matthew was inspirationally informed of Joseph's dreams to stay away from Judea and get back home; it is also possible that this was another case where Jesus informed the disciples for the sake of the prophecy-fulfillment paradigm. Those more skeptical may say that Matt simply used a typical OT dream motif.

Perhaps both are true. The bottom line is that since Matt does not explicitly say that the family did not come from Nazareth, we do not have a case of contradiction at all - but a quite understandable tension that is easily resolved critically.

The last question we might ask is, what were Joseph and Mary doing in Bethlehem at all two years later? In the first edition of this essay I suggested briefly that the events recorded took place at the time of one of the Jewish pilgrimage feasts, and that the family and the magi were both in the right place at the right time. Let's now develop that thought further, for it helps resolve certain problems. Ranke-Heinemann [Rank.PAC, 12-13] throw out a few objections that we can address:

Concluding Remarks

Although critical, while history and the NT record prove that the traditional Nativity and the birth of Jesus being on Dec. 25 are anachronisms, the basic data remains as solid as ever.

Addendum: Is it a problem that we do not know Jesus' exact birth date or year? A reader has inquired lately whether lack of specific knowledge of Jesus' year of birth (and of course death) offers any sort of support for the idea of Christ-myth. Reference works typically offer a range of dates for Jesus' birth between 6 and 4 BC. Is this lack of precision a problem?

Not at all. As I noted to the reader, the ability of ancient persons to track precise dates, down to day and month and sometimes even years, was severely limited. A person born on a festival date, or on an eclipse, would be the only sorts who could have any objective marker for their birth date or death among the peasantry.

But to make this more relevant, we may ask the question, What about other comparable figures whose historicity no one questions?

We do not know specific birth or death dates for a variety of persons -- Pilate, Tacitus, Livy and Pliny the Younger, for examples. We might not have known when Pliny the Elder died had he not perished in the eruption of Vesuvius. Here is what we have on just the birth years (not even months or days) of religious leaders comparable to Jesus, per the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions:

So, it seems clear that lack of precise knowledge about dates of birth and death is not considered a pointer to a-historicity, or even unusually problematic.

-JPH

On the matter of the genealogies of Jesus, see here.

For a study of the use of Isaiah 7:14, please see this by Glenn Miller:essay

For a defense of the historicity of the census, see this item by Glenn Miller, and see also here. For a critique of the idea that Mary would be in no condition to travel, see this response by Robert Price.

Our take on the Bethlehem slaughter.

For the issue of the "Nazarene" and Egypt prophecies, as well as an item on the Slaughter of the Innocents, see this item by Glenn Miller.

Sources

  1. Brow.BirM - Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Image Books, 1977.
  2. Keen.CGM -- Keener, Craig S. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.
  3. Rank.PAC - Ranke-Heinemann, Uta. Putting Away Childish Things. San Francisco: Harper, 1992.