Question: Luke 2:7 says that Jesus was born in a manger, but Matthew 2:11 has baby Jesus in a house. Why the difference?
These two accounts actually refer to two different periods in Jesus’ early childhood. Luke chapter 2:1-7 specifically records the events surrounding Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem:
Luke 2:6-7 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.
Joseph and Mary were in a crisis upon their arrival in Bethlehem. They were not the only ones visiting the small village in order to register for the census (Lk. 2:1-3). The limited inns were overcrowded with visitors. The owner of one of these inns allowed the couple to spend the night in a stall where other guests kept the donkeys they used for travel. The manger was a feeding trough for the animals, where fresh hay would become the newborn’s bed.
Obviously, the family of three would not be able to take up permanent residence in the stall…nor would they want to. They would need to find a place to call home. That’s where the account in Matthew picks up.
The Gospel of Matthew, which is primarily concerned with establishing the fulfillment of specific Old Testament prophecies regarding the coming of the Messiah, does not record the actual birth of Jesus. In fact, Matthew picks up the account “after” Jesus birth:
Matt. 2:1-2 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.
Throughout this chapter we discover just how much later these Magi visit Joseph, Mary and Jesus in their home. According to verse 1, the Magi knew when they left Persia that the Jewish messiah had already been born. Upon their arrival in Jerusalem they asked, “Where is the one who has been born…?”
King Herod had already figured out where Jesus had been born (Matt. 2:5-6). He was more concerned about when. He wanted to learn how old the baby was at this point. So he squeezed that information out of the Magi:
Matt. 2:7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.
Based upon that information, Herod dispatched troops to Bethlehem to murder all male children ages two years or under (Matt. 2:16). Jesus was spared because the Lord warned Joseph in a dream to leave Bethlehem and take his family to safety.
Matthew’s Gospel places Joseph, Mary and Jesus in a “house” in Bethlehem at time when Jesus was nearly two years old. This is not the manger scene we all grew up with—Jesus in a manger surrounded by shepherds and the Magi at the same time—but it does demonstrate how fortunate we are to have four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry.