When you read about the birth of Christ in the Bible, one thing becomes immediately clear: The story isn’t the same from gospel to gospel. In fact, two of the four gospels (Mark and John) don’t even mention it. And the accounts in Matthew in Luke differ greatly. So what gives? Can either writer be trusted, or is the story of a Savior born of a virgin simply a myth?
The gospel of Matthew (written by a Jew to a Jewish audience) starts by listing the ancestry of Jesus from Abraham through David and to Joseph, the earthly (though not biological) father of Jesus. Luke, on the other hand, (writing to a Gentile audience) traces Jesus’ ancestry all the way back to Adam but going to Mary, not Joseph. (Luke 3:23 says that Joseph was the son of Heli, but that was actually Mary’s father. Heli was Joseph’s father-in-law.) Matthew mentions an angel visiting Joseph, while Luke mentions the same angel visiting Mary. Luke also exclusively includes the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah (the parents of John the Baptist), Jesus being born in a manger in Bethlehem, the shepherds visiting the newborn, and Mary and Joseph dedicating Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. Matthew mentions none of those but instead includes the visit from the Magi, Mary and Joseph’s escape to Egypt, and their eventual return to Nazareth.
So what exactly are we to make of these discrepancies? Either they’re flat-out inaccurate and therefore can’t be trusted or they’re merely incomplete. And if they’re incomplete, the next question becomes why?
Why was it important for Matthew to include the stories of the Magi and the escape to Egypt but not for Luke? In fact, if you read Luke 2:39, it says that after Mary and Joseph had fulfilled the requirements of the law (in Jerusalem), they returned home to Nazareth; there’s absolutely no inclusion of their time in Bethlehem (where the Magi visited them when Jesus was probably 2-3 years old) or in Egypt (where they lived for at least a year or two). How could Luke, who himself stated that he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” and was determined to write a “careful account” of the life of Jesus, miss such significant events which spanned several years of Jesus’ life?
And why would Luke include a detailed account of Jesus’ dedication at the temple in Jerusalem and subsequent encounters with the prophets Simeon and Anna but not Matthew? Such accounts would’ve actually bolstered Matthew’s argument to the Jews that Jesus was the promised Messiah, so it’s odd that Matthew would leave them out.
Why the differences? I don’t really know. Maybe Matthew didn’t know about Simeon and Anna and therefore couldn’t have included them. Maybe Matthew saw the visit from the Magi as being more of a significant event than Luke did; after all, kings coming to worship Jesus would enforce the Messianic argument, and there were both practical and symbolic meanings behind their gifts. And even if they both knew about all of the events, which ones were included may have depended on the audience and the narrative each writer was trying to create. Matthew, for example, wouldn’t have mentioned the angel visiting Mary or her ancestry since the Jews were a patriarchal society, while Luke, writing to Gentiles, wasn’t bound to such limitations.
But then there’s the possibility that the gospels are just inaccurate. With little supporting historical documentation, all we have to go on is these two accounts; we don’t even have the other two gospels to back us up. Is it possible that Matthew and/or Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth was fabricated or at least twisted into some kind of legend? Both gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death after all. Personally, I don’t think so, and here’s why. Matthew and Luke, while each taking different approaches in their retelling of Christ’s birth, don’t specifically contradict each other. It’s very possible to piece them together into a single chronological narrative without contradicting the two gospels’ timelines. Yes, Luke 2:39 said that Mary and Joseph returned home to Nazareth after their stop in Jerusalem, but that could’ve been years after the Magi visit and the escape to Egypt. No, Matthew doesn’t mention the dedication in Jerusalem, but that may have just been understood implicitly by his Jewish readers. Yes, an angel visited both Mary and Joseph, but the exact timing of those visits doesn’t really matter.
But beyond that, it’s important to point out how similar both Matthew and Luke’s accounts are. Both agree that Jesus’ earthly parents were Mary and Joseph and that they were engaged when Mary became pregnant (Matt 1:18, Luke 1:27). Both agree that Jesus was a descendant of David (through both Joseph and Mary), an important argument for the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Matt 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-38). Both writers agree that Mary became pregnant while she was still a virgin and that the Holy Spirit was the cause of her conception (Matt 1:18, Luke 1:27, 34-35). Both agree that the news of Mary’s pregnancy was initially unexpected and troublesome but that Mary and Joseph stayed together anyway (Matt 1:24-25, Luke 2:1-5). Both Matthew and Luke agree that the name “Jesus” was given to the parents by an angel and that the angel identified him as Savior (Matt 1:21, Luke 2:11,21). Both agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great (Matt 2:1, Luke 1:5, 2:11). Both agree that Jesus was both the king of the Jews and the promised Messiah (Matt 2:2-4, Luke 1:32-33, 2:11). And both agree that Jesus was raised in Nazareth (also an important Old Testament prophecy) (Matt 2:23, Luke 2:39). Furthermore, while the two gospels were both written about the same time (around 60 AD), most scholars agree that neither writer knew about the other’s account. Therefore, we have what amounts to two separate independent accounts of the birth of Christ that while differing slightly in some places, support each other when it comes to the most significant details.
But what about Mark and John, who don’t even mention the birth of Christ? For Mark (the first of the gospel writers), he may not have thought it was necessary to include it. And for John, it was more important to show the deity of Jesus; His earthly birth was simply summed up with the statement that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Do either of those choices discredit Matthew and Luke’s accounts? No.
But why is it important to reconcile the two stories anyway? Because if they’re wrong, then we can’t trust anything that comes afterward. But personally, I don’t think they are. There are just too many similarities between them to discount them entirely. Yes, the two accounts are different in some aspects, but different doesn’t equal inaccurate.