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Answering The Atheist
August 18, 2002 / Volume 2, Issue 33

THE ATHEIST'S COMPLAINT:
The infancy narratives regarding Jesus contradict. According to Luke 2:21-39, Jesus was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem eight days after his birth, and then the family go up to Nazareth. In Matthew 2:14-23, after being born the family flee into Egypt and stay there until Herod dies, even on returning, they avoid Judea and go up to Nazareth.

RESPONSE:
Let us look at the passages in question:

Luke 2:21-24, 39
And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called JESUS, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the LORD"), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, "A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.".... So when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth.

Matthew 2:14-15, 19-23
When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, "Out of Egypt I called My Son.".... But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead." Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, "He shall be called a Nazarene."

Let me first deal with an incorrect statement made by the questioner. Jesus was not taken to the Temple eight days after His birth. He was circumcised eight days after His birth (Lk 2:21). He was not taken to the Temple until the days of purification were complete for Mary (see Lev 12:1-4), which was forty days after His birth. When Joseph and Mary "...had performed all things according to the law of the Lord", they returned to Nazareth. In addition to this incorrect statement, it appears the questioner has made a false assumption, commonly made on Matthew 2, which I believe has in part contributed to the thought that there is a contradiction. Consider the following explanation of the events from the birth of Christ until His return to Nazareth from Egypt. It should clear up the supposed contradiction, and other misconceptions about these events.

Jesus was born in a manger (Luke 2:6-7), for there was nowhere else for them to stay. That same night, shepherds were told of the miraculous birth, and made haste to go see the Child (Luke 2:8-17). On the eighth day, Jesus was circumcised (Lk 2:21), and after forty days, he was brought to the Temple (Lk 2:22; Lev 12:1-4). After the sacrifices were completed, they returned to Nazareth (Lk 2:39).

After Jesus had been born (notice, Matthew doesn't specify how long after), the wise men came to Jerusalem following a star which they had seen in the East (Mt 2:1-2). Herod was curious about the time of the star's appearing (Mt 2:7). The wise men were sent to Bethlehem, which was the birthplace of the Child. It is assumed by many that they found Jesus there, but the text does not indicate such. We again read of the star, that it directed them to where He was. One should not think they needed the star to guide them on the five mile walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Taking into account what Luke reveals about the brief time Joseph and Mary spent in Bethlehem, I suspect that the star guided the wise men to Nazareth, where Jesus was found in a house (Mt 2:11). Recall, while in Bethlehem, they were not at a house, but rather at an inn, and even in the barn of the inn.

Having worshipped Jesus, the wise men departed, but were instructed not to return to Herod (Mt 2:12). Likewise, Joseph was instructed to flee to Egypt with Mary and the Child, for Herod would seek His life (Mt 2:13). Herod, realizing he had been deceived by the wise men, decreed that all male children, age 2 and under in Bethlehem and its districts should be put to death (Mt 2:16). Herod used the timing of the star spoken of by the wise men to determine the age of the Child. It was possible that He was up to two years of age at the time of this evil decree. Furthermore, Herod understood that the Child was perhaps not in Bethlehem any longer, extending the scope of the decree to include regions around Bethlehem also.

Having left Nazareth (not Bethlehem), Joseph, Mary and Jesus remained in Egypt until word came from an angel of the Lord that Herod was dead (Mt 2:19-20). It appears that Joseph had originally thought they might settle in Judea, but knowing that Archelaus, Herod's son was reigning, and receiving a warning in a dream, he turned aside and returned to Nazareth, in Galilee. Thus, Jesus would be known as a Nazarene, for Nazareth would be His home town (Mt 2:23).

Forty days after His birth, Luke says Jesus was taken home to Nazareth. Perhaps as much as two years after His birth, Joseph was commanded to flee with the Child to Egypt. When the common errors that have been assumed by many are maintained (ie. that the shepherds and wise men were all at the manger scene on the night Jesus was born; that the wise men found Jesus in Bethlehem; etc.), then there appears to be contradiction. However, the two accounts provide different information about different parts of Jesus' infancy. When understood correctly, the accounts agree and compliment one another.

There is no contradiction.

This article is a response to Skeptic's Annotated Bible