Conflict or Confused Timeline


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Encountered an interesting dilemma between the Matthew and Luke accounts of Jesus early years. Here’s what I struggled with. To put it simply, how could Jesus parents take him to Egypt from Bethlehem and yet also take him to Nazareth from Jerusalem? How were they in two seemingly different places?

As I started looking into the details a little more, I think I figured out what I can comfortably live with but decided to list what I found in case there are others who wonder about this as well. If you want the answer up front, I’m thinking Jesus was in Nazareth after He was in Jerusalem at 40 days old. Later His family traveled to Jerusalem and Bethlehem and were visited by the wise men. After that visit Mary, Joseph and Jesus went to Egypt instead of going home to Nazareth. Here’s some details that may help explain this.

First, Luke describe that Jesus and His parents were in Jerusalem at 8 days after His birth and again after the ‘days of her purification’ (Luke 2:22).

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; - KJV

This purification probably didn’t have to happen because Mary did nothing wrong in bearing Jesus, the Holy Spirit made the pregnancy happen. However, they were diligent to observe all the requirements and this was no exception. I wondered just how long was this ‘days of purification’ in the law because that seemed important to the timing of all this.

I found that Leviticus 12:1-6 goes into details that the sex of the child determines the length of time. Seven days after having a baby, the mother is ceremonially unclean. Then if she had a baby girl, the mother’s purification is 36 days and if a boy, 33 days. This means Mary would traditionally be unclean until 40 days after the delivery and because of this the mother had to offer a sacrifice to purify herself. Luke’s account continues with what happens in Jerusalem followed by where they went after that – Nazareth. (Luke 2:39)

39 And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.- KJV

Next we are told the child (Jesus) grew and that his parents went to Jerusalem every year. (Luke 2:41)

41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover.- KJV

For at least the feast of Passover we know there was a trip to Jerusalem. Bethlehem is very close to Jerusalem (only 5 ½ miles. We know Joseph’s family is there (that’s why pregnant Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem – see Luke 2:4) so it is more than likely that the family stayed not in Jerusalem but in Bethlehem. Now we turn to Matthew’s account. (Matthew 2:11-15)

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. 12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. 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. 14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: 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.- KJV
11 They came into the house and saw the young child with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Opening their treasures, they offered to him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Being warned in a dream that they shouldn’t return to Herod, they went back to their own country another way. 13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.” 14 He arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt,15 and was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, "Out of Egypt did I call my son." - WEB

Matthew’s account tells us the wise men (Magi) came ‘into the house’. They did not come to the stable where an infant was lying in a manger. Also Matthew tells us Jesus is a ‘young child’ and not an infant less than 40 days old. Our nativity scenes always include shepherds and wise men bringing gifts – the reason we celebrate with gifts ourselves at Christmas is in honor of that. Yet the gospel accounts never mention wise men being seen by shepherds, and the wise men do not seem to notice angels in the heavens when they followed the star.

Late the night that the wise men came to the house with expensive gifts, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt and they stayed there. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh surely funding that trip. Once Herod was dead (possibly less than a year later) in 4 B.C., the family returned to Nazareth. On the next feast of Passover the family again travel to Jerusalem and continue that trip each year.

My assumption is Matthew was writing about a time that was after Jesus birth and trip home to Nazareth. I guess our traditions caused this confusion for me. Both events happened, but if put into a sequence of events, it make more sense these were separate times in Jesus life rather than both tied to his birth.

A wonderfully blessed, self-critical person who loves to learn new things, delights in the little victories and gifts, and deeply respects wisdom. I enjoy writing and telling stories. I love outdoor activities and my career, coworkers, family, and the wonderful folks in my church family who teach me so much about how to walk confidently when you can't see where you're going.

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Posted in Analysis, Based on New Testament

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