Question: The Gospel of Luke says that Mary and Joseph took baby Jesus to Nazareth shortly after his birth, but Matthew’s Gospel says that the family fled to Egypt. How can both be true?
Here are the references in question:
Luke 2:39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.
Matt. 2:13-15 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Actually, the two Gospel accounts refer to separate events. The confusion is a simple matter of timing.
Luke’s Gospel gives the account of Jesus’ birth, describing several details such as the inn that was full, the manger scene and the visit of the shepherds. Matthew’s Gospel does not describe the nativity itself, but focuses on events leading up to Jesus’ birth, and the fact of his virgin birth (Matt. 1); and then events after his birth, including the visit of the Magi (Matt. 2: 1-16).[i]
It is in Matthew’s Gospel that we learn some details of Jesus’ very early childhood and the family’s escape to Egypt when Jesus was a toddler. The other two Gospel accounts do not shed any further light on Jesus nativity or on his childhood because none of the Gospels were intended to give a moment-by-moment biography of Jesus.
The Gospel of Matthew demonstrates Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament messianic prophecies. The Gospel of Mark reflects a summary of Peter’s preaching and teaching about Jesus for new Christians who had not known Jesus personally. Luke’s Gospel introduced new Gentile believers to the life and ministry of Jesus. Finally, John’s Gospel was written as an eyewitness account to convince a predominantly non-Jewish audience that Jesus is the Son of God:
John 20:31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
The timeline from Matthew and Luke regarding where Jesus’ family lived during his early years is as follows: Joseph and Mary travelled from their hometown in Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth (Luke 2:1-20). Eight days later the parents named their baby Jesus and had him circumcised and dedicated to the Lord (Luke 2:20-24). Shortly after that, Joseph brought his wife and child back home to Nazareth (Luke 2:39).
The visit of the Magi could have taken place either 1) shortly after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, once Joseph and Mary found temporary lodging in a house (Matt. 2:11) before returning to Nazareth, or 2) approximately two years after Jesus’ birth while Jesus’ family was visiting Bethlehem once again (Matt. 2:1, 16).
What a treasure we have in these two Gospel accounts that show us the birth of the Savior from different angles, each revealing God’s careful planning of the Advent of His Son into the world.