The Birth Stories of Jesus


Reason 18

‘Matthew and Luke’s birth and infancy accounts are contradictory.’

Asher Norman alleges the birth and infancy accounts in Matthew and Luke contradict each other.  He says that Matthew and Luke are the only Gospels that contain birth and infancy accounts of Jesus’ life, which is correct.  He claims that ‘Mark’s Gospel was obviously written before the Gospels of Matthew and Luke because they copied much of Mark’s Gospel.’  This is a questionable statement. He is basing his understanding of the authorship of the Gospels on the conclusions of liberal theology he admires when applied to Christianity, but not when applied to the Torah.  For further information on this see our article When were the Gospels written?’

The Gospel writers were selective in what they included and what they left out.  In fact there is a very interesting point to be made about the starting point of Matthew, Luke and John which relates to the substance of their Gospels.   Matthew goes back to Jesus as the son of Abraham and his Gospel brings out the Jewishness of Jesus.  Luke goes back to Jesus as the son of Adam and his Gospel says most about Jesus as the Son of Man, stressing His ministry to Jews and Gentiles.  John goes back to Jesus’ origins in eternity and stresses His divine nature.  

The issue of which Gospel was the first to be written is not provable, but the early church tradition is that they were written in the order of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Modern liberal Christian theology (much beloved of critics of Christianity like Asher Norman) may cast doubt on the authorship of the Gospels.  As I have written in the article ‘When were the Gospels written?’ there is good reason to be believe the Gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who were either apostles of Jesus or familiar with those who were apostles.   It is likely that Luke had access to Mary who was able to give him details of the birth of Jesus.

Some of his alleged contradictions are really laughable.  He claims that Luke says Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth before the birth of Jesus (Luke 1.26, 2.4), whereas Matthew says they were in Bethlehem (Matthew 2.1, 2.16).  He describes this as ‘a monumental and irreconcilable contradiction’!

Doesn’t he know there is a period of nine months between conception and birth amongst humans?

Matthew 1.18-25 actually does not tell us where Joseph and Mary were when the annunciation of the birth of Jesus took place, but that they were in Bethlehem when the birth took place (Matthew 2.1-16).  Luke tells us that Mary was in Nazareth when the annunciation took place (Luke 1.26), but that they went from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the birth (Luke 2.1-7).  In other words before the nine months Mary’s of pregnancy the angel came to announce the nature of the child Mary was carrying.  At some point towards the end of that nine-month period Joseph and Mary made the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem where the baby was born.

He also alleges that an angel appeared with the news of Jesus’ birth to ‘shepherds in the field’ (Luke 2.15) and ‘Joseph in a dream’ (Matthew 2.13).  One has to wonder from this objection if he has actually read the text.  In the quote from Matthew the event is after the birth of Jesus.  It does not announce the birth at all, but warns him to ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’  This is a totally different event from the angels (not ‘an angel’ but ‘a great company of the heavenly host’) appearing to the shepherds announcing the news of the birth.  

Asher is entitled to disbelieve in angels and in Jesus if he chooses to, but not to say the Gospels contradict each other on this point.

He also says that Matthew and Luke contradict each other about the marital state of Joseph and Mary at the time of the annunciation of the birth of Jesus.  Luke says Mary was betrothed to Joseph (Luke 1.27), while Matthew says Joseph was her husband who ‘had in mind to divorce her quietly’ (Matthew 1.19).

This problem can actually be explained by looking at the Torah, where the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ are used during the betrothal period.  A betrothal was considered to be as binding as a wedding agreement.  Between betrothal and marriage the man and the woman were bound to each other, but did not yet consummate the marriage in sexual intercourse.  This comes out in the following passage in Deuteronomy.

“If a young woman who is a virgin is betrothed to a husband, and a man finds her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry out in the city, and the man because he humbled his neighbour’s wife; so you shall put away the evil from among you.’  Deuteronomy 22: 23

Interestingly the Deuteronomy passage refers to her both as a ‘virgin’ and as a ‘wife.’  The problem here is that we are not accustomed to the nature of the betrothed state as understood in biblical times. We have engagement, which is a commitment, but not one which is legally binding, and a ceremony (which we call the wedding) which is legally binding. This is followed by the consummation of the marriage in sexual union.  (Obviously this pattern is not followed by the majority in today’s loose morality, but that is not relevant to the point here).  The biblical pattern then is that there are two events: the betrothal, which creates a new covenantal unit, and the ‘taking home’ or consummation; which consummates that unit physically. So while it is perfectly proper to refer to someone as a ‘betrothed wife’, or ‘betrothed husband’, it is also proper to refer to them as ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. The act of betrothal constitutes a permanent, binding covenant, which makes one ‘man and wife’.

This explains the fact that Matthew 1 refers to Joseph as the husband of Mary.  The chapter goes on to say that he had no sexual union with her until after the birth of Jesus.  

Asher Norman also claims that Matthew and Luke contradict each other concerning what happened after the birth of Jesus.  According to Matthew they fled King Herod to Egypt and then returned to Bethlehem and finally moved to Nazareth.  According to Luke they returned to Nazareth after sacrificing in the Temple.  (page 150).  Asher Norman once again gets his facts wrong here because Matthew does not say they returned to Bethlehem from Egypt and then moved to Nazareth:  ‘But when he (Joseph) heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod he was afraid to go there.  And being warned by God in a dream he turned aside into the region of Galilee.  And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth.’  Matthew 2.22-3.

Now in reality there is no contradiction here.  Luke does not say the family did not go to Egypt.  He leaves out this event. He does not include everything that happened in his account, not do any of the Gospel writers.  The facts as recorded in the two gospels are these:


  • Joseph and Mary are introduced without reference to Bethlehem or Nazareth.  Matthew 1.18
  • News of the pregnancy causes a crisis in which Joseph is minded to divorce Mary.  This is resolved by the intervention of the angel explaining to Joseph that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit.  Matthew 1.19-25
  • Jesus is born in Bethlehem.  Matthew 2.1
  • (No mention of Shepherds)
  • (No mention of family trip to Jerusalem for obligatory Jewish rituals)
  • Visit of Magi.  Matthew 2.1-12
  • Flight to Egypt.  Matthew 2.13-15
  • Family settles in Nazareth.  Matthew 2.18-23


  • Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth.  Luke 1.26.
  • The Angel Gabriel announces Mary will conceive supernaturally by the Holy Spirit.  Luke 1.27-28.
  • There is no mention of this causing a crisis with Joseph
  • They travel to Bethlehem.  Luke 2.1-5.
  • Jesus is born in Bethlehem.  Luke 2.6
  • Shepherds visit Jesus in Bethlehem.  Luke 2.7-20
  • Joseph/Mary/Jesus make a trip to Jerusalem for various Jewish rituals.  Luke 2.21-38
  • No mention of the Magi or the Flight into Egypt.
  • Sometime after the various rituals, they return to their own city of Nazareth.   Luke 2.39.

Both authors are only reporting some of the events.  They share the key elements of the story: 

  • The conception of Jesus is by the Holy Spirit.
  • Mary is a virgin at the time of Jesus’ birth.
  • Jesus was born in royal city of Bethlehem
  • Jesus ends up in Nazareth

They each select details which help to reinforce the particular point they wish to make.  Luke emphasises the law abiding character of the family and the acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah by godly Jews.   Matthew has the flight and secret return of Jesus from Egypt to make a prophetic point and to emphasise the early rejection of Jesus.

The fact that Luke omits the journey to Egypt does not mean he is conflicting with Matthew.  If I look at my own life and imagine (highly unlikely!) two people writing my biography, one might find two versions:

1.  Tony Pearce went to Bedford School and after passing his A levels continued his education at Cambridge University.

2.  After he left school Tony Pearce worked in Germany for a while before hitch hiking round southern Europe and reaching Istanbul.  On his return he went to Cambridge.

Do these two contradict each other?  No, it is just that biographer one has chosen to leave out my adventures in Europe. So it is with Matthew and Luke in the much more important account of the birth of Jesus and following events.

For further information on this subject go to:  Most of the rest of the chapter in Asher Norman’s book surrounds the issue of the alleged discrepancy between Matthew and Luke as to the time of Jesus’ birth and the mention of Herod in Matthew and Quirinius in Luke.  We have dealt with this issue in the article ‘When was Jesus born?’