Contradictory Christmases

Contradictory Christmases December 11, 2009

Having linked to some class notes of mine about the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke, I realized that they do not focus on one of the key contradictions between the two, namely the divergent geographical and temporal movements in the two stories. Sure, there is the problem of the date (Quirinius’ census vs. before the death of Herod the Great), but there is more to the issue than that.

Let’s begin with Matthew’s Gospel. The first location specified where we find the family of Jesus is Bethlehem in Judea (Matthew 2:1). They are in a house (2:11). The impression given by the reference to Herod’s order that all male children two years old and under, based on the time the star appeared, is that Jesus is likely to have been more than a year old at this point, or at least not a newborn (2:16).

The family then flees to Egypt, and it is after that when things get really interesting. After Herod’s death they want to return to their home. Where is that home? Clearly Judea, because we are told that it is only because they fear Herod’s son Archelaus that they go away to Galilee and make their home in Nazareth (2:22-23).

And so a reader of Matthew’s Gospel on its own understands that Bethlehem is the home town of Jesus’ family, and they went to Galilee only because of unusual circumstances.

Now let’s turn to Luke’s Gospel. In Luke we first encounter the family of Jesus in Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 1:26; 2:4). They go to Bethlehem for a census (2:1-5), the problematic aspects of which we can bracket out for the present. Jesus is born presumably in a private home and is placed in a manger (2:6-7,16).

How long do they stay there? We actually know the answer to that question. Luke 2:22 says that when the time came for the purification required by the Torah they went to Jerusalem. The relevant law is found in Leviticus 12, and so it was not much more than a month after Jesus was born that they went to Jerusalem. And to round off Luke’s account, we’re told in 2:39 that when they did what the Torah required, they returned to their own home town of Nazareth in Galilee.

And so a reader of Luke’s Gospel on its own understands that Nazareth is the home town of Jesus’ family, and they went to Bethlehem only because of unusual circumstances.

It seems clear to me that these two stories are not written with a view to their being reconciled (and the lack of any obvious way to fit them together is one of the things that continues to persuade me that they were composed independently of one another). While Matthew has Jesus’ family living in Bethlehem when he is no longer a newborn, Luke has Jesus in his second month being taken to Jerusalem and then home to Nazareth. In Luke the family makes a visit to Jerusalem, which being Herod’s capitol we’d expect the family to avoid if we were in Matthew’s version. The overall impression of the movements of the family differ. But if nothing else, both accounts give a clear indication of where the family considers “home” and on this point it seems particularly clear to me that they disagree.

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