Reconciling Matthew’s and Luke’s Birth Narratives

Different Events Covered

Luke and Matthew clearly have different emphases and themes in their birth narratives (and gospels), and thus cover different events.  For instance, Luke mentions:

  • the Roman census,
  • the events of John the Baptist’s birth,
  • Joseph and Mary residing in Nazareth before Jesus was born,
  • and other things that Matthew ignores. 

On the other hand, Matthew gives describes:

  • the visit of the wise men,
  • the slaughter of the infants,
  • the journey to Egypt,
  • and other events bypassed by Luke. 

On the surface, it may seem difficult to understand and reconcile these differences, but closer inspection will show the differences to complement each other and enlighten our understanding of the Lord and His word.

Luke’s Themes & Emphases

First, it is important to recognize the emphases of each writer. 

Luke seems to want to promote Christianity as a religion that produces obedient citizens faithful to true Judaism, and favorable to the Roman government[1].  An example of this is seen when he says that John’s parents, “were…walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless,” (Luke 1:6), even though he later writes that John’s father was disobedient to the angel’s words (Luke 1:20).  This shows that Luke wrote with generalizations and theological emphases (e.g. Zacharias was obedient) while still maintaining truthfulness (e.g. Zacharias sinned).

Furthermore, Luke emphasizes:

  • Joseph and Mary as dutiful to fulfill the king’s census (Luke 2:4),
  • dutiful to follow the law (Luke 2:39a), and
  • dutiful to return to their hometown (Luke 2:39b).

While he ignores:

  • men worshiping Jesus and disobeying the king (Matt. 2:12),
  • Herod’s cruel massacre of infants (which is decidedly unfavorable to the Roman government, and thus strays from Luke’s emphasis, see Matt. 2:16), and
  • Mary and Joseph secretly escaping to Egypt in defiance of King Herod (Matt. 2:13). 

Luke also highlights Jesus as being born in Galilee and returning to begin his ministry there. Later on, however, Luke writes, “He [Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem,” (9:51). From that point, so thoroughly does Luke focus on Jerusalem that he (alone) ignores the Galilee episodes of Jesus’ resurrection. It seems that Luke has in mind a focus on Jesus bringing His movement to the center of Judaism (Jerusalem herself), where, he later writes, the church began (Acts 1-2). All of this continues to emphasize Luke’s theme of the Jesus movement encouraging obedient and faithful Judaism (see Resurrection Harmonization for more on how this relates to Jesus’ resurrection).

This selective storytelling merely reflects emphasis—not deception or contradiction—in the same way that any person who recounts a story focuses on certain details with certain audiences, while bypassing other details.  

On top of this, Luke writes Jesus’ birth account with an interesting focus on other certain patterns (Fitzmyer 1970, 28A:313–14).  One of these patterns is the departure and return of characters after Luke introduces them.

For instance:

  • Zacharias returned (1:23),
  • the angel returned (1:38),
  • Mary returned (1:56),
  • the shepherds returned (2:20), and
  • Joseph, Mary, and Jesus “returned to Galilee,” (2:39),
  • etc. 

Thus, Luke writes: “So when they [Joseph and Mary] had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee,” (2:39), while ignoring the visit of the wise men, and Joseph and Mary’s exodus to Egypt (both of which seemingly happened before their return to Galilee in Matthew’s gospel). This matches Luke’s departure-return motif, and does not contradict these events recorded in Matthew. For instance, as I propose, it would be completely consistent for Joseph and Mary to be visited by the wise men and flee to Egypt after they fulfilled the law, but before they went to Galilee, without Luke mentioning it. 

In fact, a similar phenomenon takes place when Luke recounts Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, and explains that Paul went to Damascus after he saw the Lord (v. 19), and then went to Jerusalem (v. 26), while ignoring the fact that Paul went to Arabia in between his visit to Damascus and Jerusalem (cf. Gal. 1:17).  Luke would have known this detail as Paul’s traveling companion[2], and Paul would have known this detail when he endorsed Luke’s writing as the words of Scripture[3].  However, it simply did not fit the emphasis of his writing through the Holy Spirit to include Paul’s fleeing to Arabia, just as it did not fit the theme of his writing to include Joseph and Mary’s fleeing to Egypt in Luke 2:38.  

Matthew’s Themes & Emphases

In contrast, Matthew emphasizes Jesus as the Messiah spoken of in the O.T. Scriptures who saves the Jews (first), and the Gentiles (later)[4]. Thus:

  • The visit of the wise men showed that Jesus fulfilled Micah 5:2 (see Matt. 2:6), Numbers 24:17-19 (Morris n.d.), and Psalm 72:10-15 (McDowell 1999, 174).
  • The slaughter of the infants fulfilled Jeremiah 31:15 (see Matt. 2:18).
  • The journey to Egypt fulfilled Hosea 11:1 (see Matt. 2:15).
  • Their return to Nazareth fulfilled O.T. prophecy (see Matt. 2:23).
  • And Jesus beginning in Jerusalem (the “capital” of Judaism) and moving to Galilee (“of the Gentiles” – Matt. 4:15) by divine decree showed that God ordained Jesus’ ministry to be for the Jews (first) and Gentiles (later)[5]

In contrast, the Roman census, John the Baptist’s birth, and Joseph and Mary living in Nazareth before the birth of Jesus do not show O.T. fulfillment or help establish the Jew-then-Gentile salvation themes of Matthew, and thus are not included.

Therefore, it should be apparent that the writers had different agendas and different styles in their narratives, which explains their seeming discordance.  However, comparing the two accounts reveals a fuller picture of the events of Jesus’ birth, and shows no contradiction.

Matthew, Luke, and Isaiah

Now, in harmonizing the two accounts by themselves, there are a few details we simply cannot know for sure.  However, there is one more witness to the birth narrative that can help us more precisely match Matthew with Luke.  That witness is Isaiah the prophet who amazingly prophesied of God coming in a virgin birth 700 years before Jesus was ever born, as seen in Isaiah 7-9.  Though some elements in the prophecy address immediate events of Isaiah’s time, it is clear that he ultimately spoke of events that could only be fulfilled in Christ’s birth.  For instance, he writes: “Unto us a child is born…His name will be called…Mighty God, Everlasting Father,” (Isaiah 9:6).  No one except God Incarnate can fit this description.  Further, even the people living in Isaiah’s time who fulfilled the events were, “for signs and wonders,” (Is. 8:18) that speak to Christ, so that the writer of Hebrews could quote events clearly written about Isaiah and his companions in Isaiah 8:18 as applying directly to Christ (see Heb. 2:13). 

When these facts are understood of Isaiah 7-9, it is even more stunning to realize that details of Isaiah’s prophecy accurately show successive events recorded in Christ’s birth, and, even more, the events described would not make sense without having both Matthew and Luke’s accounts to provide all the details.  In this way, Isaiah truly serves as a third witness in bridging the accounts together (albeit in a more veiled form that requires care and sensitivity to understand). 

Here is what Isaiah lays out in chronological order, as well as the fulfillment recorded in Matthew and/or Luke (let the reader notice that if you removed either Matthew or Luke’s birth narrative, you would have an incomplete witness to Isaiah’s prophecy):

Isaiah’s Prophecy Matthew and/or Luke’s Narrative
God will initiate a virgin birth (7:12-14). The Holy Spirit came on Mary; God brought Jesus into the world (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1:35).
The child’s name would be revealed by the Lord, and confirmed by two separate witnesses (8:1-2). Mary was the first witness to Jesus’ name (Luke 1:31). Joseph was the second witness (Matt. 1:21).
God is prophesied as a salvation to some, but a stumbling block to others within Israel, who will break many (8:14-15). Anna prophesied that Jesus will bring the rise and fall of many in Israel (Luke 2:34).
“Mediums and wizards,” will bring shame on Israel, while Israel curses God their king (8:19-21). By contrast, God sends wise men through a star (like sorcerers and mediums) to be the ones who recognize Jesus as King and worship Him—the very thing Israel should have been doing with God all along (Matt. 2:1-12)!
The earth will be troubled and dark for rejecting God as king (8:21). Herod brought great slaughter on infants (Matt. 2:16-18).
After the boy is born, but before he can say, “Mother,” and, “Father,” a pompous king will wreak havoc over Israel (8:4-8). Herod slaughtered the infants while Christ was under 2 years old (Matt. 2:16-18).
The child, who is a, “light,” and “God,” will enter Galilee (9:1-7). After fleeing to Egypt, Joseph and Mary introduce Jesus to Galilee for the first time, and thus, God the “light” entered Galilee (Matt. 2:22; Luke 2:38b).

As you can see, the prophecies lay out in great detail elements surrounding Jesus’ birth, so that Matthew and Luke’s testimonies are needed together to show how Isaiah prophetically spoke of these events 700 years before they happened.  

Sequence of Birth Events

Finally, now that we have considered all 3 sources (Isaiah, Matthew, and Luke), here is the general flow of the birth narrative as I understand it, shown in the subject headings of the harmony:

  1. John the Baptist’s Birth Foretold; John is Conceived – Luke 1:5-25
  2. Jesus’ Birth Foretold to Mary; Jesus is Conceived – Matt. 1:18; Luke 1:26-38
  3. Unborn Jesus and John Are “Introduced” – Luke 1:39-56
  4. John the Baptist is Born – Luke 1:57-80
  5. Jesus’ Birth Foretold to Joseph – Matt. 1:19-25
  6. Joseph and Mary Journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem – Luke 2:1-5
  7. Jesus’ Birth – Luke 2:6-20
  8. Jesus’ Circumcision and Naming – Matt. 1:25; Luke 2:21
  9. Jesus Presented to the Lord in Jerusalem – Luke 2:22-39
  10. Wise Men Seek Jesus – Matt. 2:1-12
  11. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus Flee to Egypt – Matt. 2:13-15
  12. Herod Slaughters the Infants – Matt. 2:16-18
  13. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus Return to Nazareth of Galilee – Matt. 2:19-23; Luke 2:39  

Further Reading

References

  • Fitzmyer, Joseph A. 1970. The Gospel According to Luke I-IX. Vol. 28A. Anchor Bible. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.
  • McDowell, Josh. 1999. The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict: Evidence I & II Fully Updated in One Volume To Answer The Questions Challenging Christians in the 21st Century. Revised, Updated edition. Nashville, Tenn: Thomas Nelson Inc.
  • Morris, Henry M. n.d. “When They Saw the Star.” Institute for Creation Research. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://www.icr.org/home/resources/resources_tracts_whentheysawthestar/.

[1] This especially fits the backdrop of Luke writing Luke-Acts while Paul (his leader and companion) awaits sentence in Rome (Acts 28:16ff.). Paul’s alleged crimes were: (1) encouraging disobedience to the Jewish law (cf. Acts 21:28; 25:8), and (2) encouraging civil unrest and rebellion to Caesar (cf. Acts 24:5; 25:8). Thus, in part, Luke seems to be writing his gospel and Acts to help clear the name of Paul and the Christian movement taking place. See further confirmation of Luke’s emphasis in Resurrection Harmonization.

[2] See the, “we,” passages of Acts that begin with Acts 16:16. The author (Luke) shows that he was Paul’s traveling companion, at least for these particular journeys. Further, Paul quotes gospel sayings in his letters that match Luke’s gospel better than the others (1 Cor. 11:23-26 = Luke 22:19-22 // 1 Tim. 5:18 = Luke 10:7), which again shows special familiarity between Paul and Luke.

[3] In 1 Tim. 5:18, Paul says that the statement, “A laborer is worthy of his wages,” is part of Scripture.  This phrase can only be found in 1 place in the entire Bible: Luke 10:7.  Thus, Paul recognizes Luke’s writings of the Gospel of Luke and (by extension) Acts as Scripture.

[4] See more on Matthew’s theme of Gentile salvation inResurrection Harmonization.

[5] See more on this theme of Matthew’s inResurrection Harmonization .

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