The Synoptic Nativity Stories of Matthew and Luke

The nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke are often presented as contradictory accounts describing quite different stories. In fact though, they simply describe different aspects of the same event.

Matthew wrote to the Jews, making many references to the Hebrew scriptures and to specific prophecies. As a publican (think accountant), he gave the facts in an organized fashion (like the Torah, his Gospel is in 5 sections), presenting Jesus as a Ruler. Since the prophesied Messiah was to be inherited through the male line of David, Matthew gave Jesus's genealogy through his step-father Joseph. Matthew's gospel ends with the disciples being given a specific commission: Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen..

But Luke wrote to the Greeks, including more characters, dialogue, and non-doctrinal details that made it a much more intimate and interesting history. As a physician, Luke gave the facts in a personal fashion, presenting Jesus as a Human. Luke gave Jesus's genealogy through his birth-mother Mary and her father. Luke's gospel ends with emotion: And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen..

Matthew and Luke were writing for completely different audiences, stressing the ideas that would appeal most to them. It's not surprising that their stories contain different events.

The confusion about their having apparently conflicting stories arises mainly because of where most translators placed the division between Matthew's first two chapters, giving the impression that the wise men visited Jesus at his birthplace in Bethlehem. Matthew 2 begins with: Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.

If the chapter division is placed in the middle of what is now regarded as this first verse of the second chapter, the two accounts properly interleave together in complementary harmony, with Luke's account fitting chronologically in the middle of the verse commonly called Matthew 2:1.
Chapter 1 ends with a summary: So Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king..
Chapter 2 starts two years later, with a different event: Behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.

Verse KJV Notes
Matthew's summary leading up to the birth.
1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.  
1:19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. A public example could have meant being stoned to death.
1:20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.  
1:21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.  
1:22 ¶ Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Isaiah 7:14 — Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel..
1:23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
1:24 Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:  
1:25 And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS. firstborn implies that Mary later had other children.
2:1 Now when [So] Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king … The first part of the first verse of Chapter 2 fits best as the conclusion to Chapter 1, which describes the ancestry, conception, and birth of Jesus. It also nicely matches the beginning of the section, Now the birth of Jesus Christ was ….
  • The word when doesn't appear in the original Greek, and doesn't belong here.
  • The word translated as now is a Greek word that relates what follows it to what came before, and is usually inappropriate at the beginning of a chapter.
  • That word is translated as now only about 5% of the time; it also means moreover, and, so, etc. When it is translated as now it a discourse marker and not a reference to the present time, just as in verses 18 and 22.
Luke's detailed account of the birth and the immediately following events up to the return to Nazareth.
2:1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.  
2:2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)  
2:3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. This could also have been part of the Feast of Tabernacles, when traditionally everyone stayed away from their own homes for eight days.
2:4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) Nazareth was Joseph's home.
2:5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.  
2:6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.  
2:7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. inn is a bad translation. The Greek word used here is translated elsewhere as guest-chamber, and a different word is used elsewhere to mean inn.
They were almost certainly in a house belonging to one of their relatives. The guest-chamber wasn't large enough to accommodate the birthing process, so they used the main room, which had a manger for feeding the animals that were kept indoors overnight.
See: Why was there no room at the inn?
2:8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Shepherds did not keep their flocks in the field in cold and wet December.
2:9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  
2:10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  
2:11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  
2:12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  
2:13 ¶ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,  
2:14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.  
2:15 ¶ And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.  
2:16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.  
2:17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.  
2:18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.  
2:19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.  
2:20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.  
2:21 ¶ And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. If Jesus was born on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the eighth day would correspond to the Last Great Day.
2:22 ¶ And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; The days is 40 days after the birth of a son.
Leviticus 12:2–4 — Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled..
2:23 (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) Exodus 13:2 — Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine..
Numbers 18:15 — Every thing that openeth the matrix in all flesh, which they bring unto the LORD, whether it be of men or beasts, shall be thine: nevertheless the firstborn of man shalt thou surely redeem, and the firstling of unclean beasts shalt thou redeem..
2:24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. Leviticus 12:2–4 — And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest: Who shall offer it before the LORD, and make an atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the law for her that hath born a male or a female. And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles, or two young pigeons; the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering: and the priest shall make an atonement for her, and she shall be clean..
2:25 ¶ And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.  
2:26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ.  
2:27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,  
2:28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,  
2:29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:  
2:30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,  
2:31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;  
2:32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.  
2:33 ¶ And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.  
2:34 And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;  
2:35 (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.  
2:36 ¶ And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;  
2:37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.  
2:38 And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.  
2:39 ¶ And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth. Joseph, Mary, and the newborn Jesus returned to their house in Nazareth.
Matthew's account of the wise men's visit to Nazareth and the consequent stay in Egypt.
2:1 … behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, The second part of this verse fits best as the introduction to Chapter 2, the beginning of a new event, the arrival of the wise men.
2:2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.  
2:3 ¶ When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  
2:4And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.  
2:5 ¶ And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, Jesus was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem, he wasn't necessarily there now.
2:6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Micah 5:2–4 — But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel. And he shall stand and feed in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God; and they shall abide: for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth..
2:7 ¶ Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.  
2:8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. The Greek word here literally means young child; it doesn't mean newborn baby.
2:9 ¶ When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. Herod had sent them to Bethlehem, where Jesus had been born two years earlier, but the star instead led them to Nazareth, where Jesus and his family were now living.
It was a child, not a baby, that was living in Joseph's house in Nazareth.
2:10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
2:11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. Again, it is a young child in the house.
2:12 ¶ And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.  
2:13 ¶ And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.  
2:14 ¶ When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:  
2:15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son. Hosea 11:1 — When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt..
2:16 ¶ Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. The wise men had arrived two years after Jesus's birth.
2:17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, Jeremiah 31:15 — Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not..
2:18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
2:19 ¶ But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,  
2:20 Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life.  
2:21 And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.  
2:22 ¶ But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:  
2:23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.  
Luke's account of Jesus's early life.  
2:40 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.  
2:41 ¶ Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover.  
2:42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast.  
2:43 And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it.  
2:44 But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day's journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance.  
2:45 And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him.  
2:46 And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.  
2:47 And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.  
2:48 And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.  
2:49 ¶ And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?  
2:50 And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them.  
2:51 ¶ And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.  
2:52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.  
Matthew's account of John the Baptist, nearly 30 years later.
3:1 In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,  
Luke's account of John the Baptist, nearly 30 years later.
3:1 ¶ Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene,