The two versions of the birth of Jesus provided by Matthew and Luke could scarcely be more different! Each is agreed that Jesus’ mother was Mary, he was conceived through the agency of the Holy Spirit, her husband was Joseph, the birth took place in Bethlehem, and the eventual family home was Nazareth. But this agreement is expressed in a very few words: the bulk of each account is taken up with significantly different features.
Matthew focuses on Joseph, barely mentions Mary, recounts several dreams of Joseph in which God gives vital direction, tells us in great detail of the wise men visiting Herod the Great and then the Holy Family, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, and finally their return to Israel to settle in Nazareth. Absent from Matthew’s account is any mention of the conception and birth of John the Baptist, the angelic visitation to the shepherds, the shepherds’ visit to the Holy Family, the circumcision and presentation of Jesus. We will never know if Matthew actually interviewed Joseph, but if his report were published for the first time in the Boxing Day newspapers of 2008 we would presume that he had talked to Joseph but not to his wife!
If Luke interviewed anyone it was Mary, not Joseph. On several occasions he conveys insight into the inner workings of Mary’s mind. Joseph barely figures in the story. There are no wise men, no references to Herod, and no flight to Egypt. There is an extensive story of the conception and birth of John the Baptist, with many parallels to the way the story of Jesus’ conception and birth are told. The first visitors to the crib are shepherds and not wise men. Luke provides details of the Holy Family fulfilling requirements of the Law (circumcision, purification), introducing us to the only two named characters, Anna and Simeon, who meet the Holy Family in the course of the infancy of Jesus.
From these differences some investigators make a great deal of carnage, arguing there is so much difference some of it amounts to contradiction (see below) so pretty much everything was made up, apart from the core common elements, and even then there are some doubts (was Bethlehem as the site of the birth made up to suit Micah 5:2?). Further wrecking trust in the historical accuracy of either account is a big question surrounding Luke’s reference to a census in the time of Quirinius governor of Syria (Luke 2:2): if Jesus was born in the time of Herod the Great (Matthew) then Quirinius was not governor at that time (Luke), and vice versa. On the face of it, the historical evidence for Quirinius being ‘the governor’ of Syria is that it was ten or so years after Herod’s death. But there is no need for destruction of trust in the reliability of the gospels in respect of the Christmas story.
My reason for making the last point involves the following way of accounting for the differences, and an explanation given below of the issue arising from Luke’s mention of Quirinius. Others would describe things differently. None of us can “prove” that our account is correct and the others wrong. What I am attempting here is to explain the plausibility of Matthew and Luke writing different factual accounts of the birth of Jesus.
First, for a number of reasons, including Luke’s introduction to his gospel (1:1-4), I believe Luke was familiar with both Mark and Matthew’s gospels. From this starting point I suppose that Luke’s interest in the origin of John the Baptist is fuelled by its absence from both Matthew and Mark’s gospel, and its parallels with Jesus’ conception and birth narrative is inspired by the parallels Mark draws between the death of John the Baptist and the death of Jesus (see especially Mark 6:17-29). Then the points of agreement between Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth (noted above) are accounted for by Luke’s familiarity with Matthew. Incidentally it is entirely reasonable to suppose that Luke agrees with Matthew on these details because he knows them to be true from other sources and not just because Matthew is his only source for these details.
Luke completely discards Matthew’s stories of the wise men, Herod’s execution of Bethlehem’s children, and the flight to Egypt. Just why he does this we will never know but we could imagine Luke, normally keen to paint the early Christian movement in terms of posing little or no threat to the Roman empire, found it congenial to drop reference to Jesus being associated with Egypt and with royal figures from the East (i.e. two areas Rome had trouble with). Positively, Luke takes the opportunity when writing another gospel to inform readers of other recognition of Jesus (shepherds, Anna, Simeon) and to fill out key ‘religious’ details of Jesus’ childhood, absent in Matthew’s account.
By saying nothing about the flight to Egypt, Luke runs a risk that readers of both gospels will bring the charge that there is a contradiction between the two accounts. On the face of it, Matthew tells a story in which Joseph and Mary not only never went to Jerusalem but would have been terrified of doing so. But Matthew’s story is chronologically vague. When Herod sends the soldiers to kill the children, their task is to kill those aged two and under. This implies that his initial interview of the wise men, combined with the time taken to realise they had not returned to report back to him, meant he understood the birth to have happened some time beforehand. We only need to presume that Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple (as per Luke 2:22-38) and returned to Bethlehem (just a dozen miles or so apart) prior to the visit of the wise men for Luke and Matthew’s account to cohere chronologically.
On this account some details remain difficult! Matthew gives a clear impression that Nazareth is a brand new family home, following the return from Egypt. Luke gives a clear impression that the Holy Family go directly from Jerusalem to Nazareth. But I do not see these impressions as necessarily implying that Matthew and Luke’s accounts are contradictory. Providing we have some disposition to trust Matthew and Luke’s reliability as historians we can view the two accounts as complementary rather than contradictory.
But this does not deal with the difficulty posed by Luke 2:2. The evidence for Quirinius being governor of Syria is strongest for a governorship after the time of Herod the Great, and the likely census during such a period was one in 6 AD, well after the death of Herod in 4 BC. Has Luke made basic mistakes over a date and a name? Is Luke correct, and Matthew quite wrong about Jesus being born before Herod died? Or, some would go further: did Luke not make a mistake but deliberately manipulate certain facts in order to place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem? That is, to explain how a Nazareth-based family ended in Bethlehem for the birth of their child, Luke took liberty with some well-known facts about a census in AD 6 during the governorship of Quirinius in order to explain why Joseph and Mary had to move from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
If Luke has either manipulated or invented facts to fit the needs of his narrative some sharp questions remain: why play round with public facts, readily challengeable by knowledgeable readers? Far simpler, for example, to invent some family crisis which took the family to Bethlehem! We do well to accept that Luke knew something about what he was talking about: there was a census before Herod the Great died, the census required Joseph to head to his home town, and Quirinius was governor of Syria at the time. As I understand research into these matters we can have some confidence that Caesar Augustus called a census around 8 BC, which may then not have made its way to Palestine till a few years later; some censuses did require return to home town; and Quirinius may not have been ‘the governor’ of Syria, but it is conceivable that he was in a position of power, perhaps working alongside the governor. (Good recent commentaries will have details which expand on these points). In other words Luke is not necessarily guilty of basic mistakes in historical accuracy nor of self-serving manipulation of historical facts in order to make his version of events plausible.
Matthew and Luke each tell the story of the conception and birth of Jesus in terms of some agreed common facts – the most important ones, incidentally, such as the names of Jesus’ parents and the place of birth. They also tell the story with significant differences. Matthew’s version connects the events he describes to Old Testament prophecies about the messiah to come. He tells things from Joseph’s perspective, and he underscores the repeated intervention of God in order to keep the baby Jesus safe. Yet Matthew’s version also has an eye on the world Jesus came to save: the wise men come from the world outside Israel and her social, religious and political leadership. Luke’s version also has a connection to the Old Testament (particularly in the songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon) but he particularly connects the events he describes to the political situation in the Roman Empire and in Israel as a subordinate kingdom within the Empire. Thus Luke also has an eye on the world Jesus came to save, but his vision is oriented towards where his narrative of Jesus and his disciples will finally end in Acts 28: in Rome.
By carefully reflecting on the possible contradictions in the two accounts, and doing some research into possible solutions to notable puzzles raised by comparing the two gospels, it is plausible to draw the conclusion that Luke and Matthew’s accounts are complementary not contradictory!