Mark is silent about the birth of Jesus, and John, writing what Clement called a “more spiritual gospel” many years later has nothing to say about it, either. What we know of the nativity story comes from either Matthew or Luke, though I wonder how many people realize what a difference there is between Matthew’s and Luke’s account of the event.
Suffice it to say that both the traditional Christmas story we tell our kids each year and all those lovely nativity displays still on stock at your local Christian bookstore are in need of a major overhaul if they ever hope to be truly biblical!
First we have the foretelling of the births of John and Jesus given to us in Luke 1:5-56. It is also in this passage that Mary visits Elizabeth during their mutual pregnancy. All this probably occurs sometime in the general neighborhood of 7 B.C.
Next Luke tells us about the birth of the Baptizer in verses 57-80. This is about six months before the birth of Jesus, probably in early 6 B.C. Here is where the harmonization kicks in. Luke 2:1-20 and Matthew 1:18-25 both record the journey to Bethlehem (Matthew actually begins the story there) and some of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Matthew’s account is very general, while Luke mentions the reason for going to Bethlehem in the first place and the shepherds who saw the angels and came to see the Lord. Again, for now I am placing this event in 6 B.C.
Then Luke gives us some more detail which Matthew leaves out, namely that of Jesus’ circumcision at eight days old and the family’s trip to Jerusalem for his ritual purification at forty days (2:21-38).
This brings us to Matthew 2:1-12 and the visit of the wise men. Luke says nothing about this. In all actuality the event probably occurred many months if not a whole two years after Jesus’ birth. We know that Mary gave birth in the stable of an inn because there was no room for them in the actual dwelling (Luke 2:7). But when the wise men show up they find the family in a “house” (Matt. 2:11). Obviously it took some time to travel what was probably a great distance, and who knows how long it was after their initial sighting of the heavenly sign that they actually departed for Jerusalem with gifts in tow. Matthew 2:7 gives us somewhat of a clue on this, since Herod asked the men specifically at what point in time they first saw the star. Later, when Herod figured out they weren’t coming back like he’d asked them to, he ordered the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem two years old and under, “according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” (Matt. 2:16). Now, perhaps he rounded up for good measure just to make sure the boy Jesus didn’t slip through the cracks, but we basically know that at whatever point in time these men arrived from the east, according to their own testimony they had first seen the sign of the Messiah’s birth about two years prior.
Does this mean the wise men didn’t show up in Bethlehem until two whole years after Jesus was born? Maybe, maybe not. Either way our Christmas nativity displays are a bit off; the shepherds might have been there when the babe was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, but the wise men were not (nowhere do the gospels say that there were three wise men, either-in fact, a number is never given-but that is beside the point). Whatever amount of time elapsed between Jesus’ birth and their visit, we have to assume that Mary and Joseph decided to stick around town for a while, and that they found a house to live in, perhaps that of a family member. If we do go to the extreme of saying that the time of the wise men’s visit was up to two years after Jesus’ birth then we must realize that Herod himself died in the year 4 B.C., so all this needs to have taken place in sufficient time to allow for his order and its carrying out in the slaughter of the children. Again, nobody knows exactly, but these are things that need to be taken into account when attempting to reconstruct the story with any degree of historical accuracy.
Finally, Matthew tells us about the flight of Joseph with his family into Egypt. Luke very (in)conveniently glosses over this monumental detail. Matthew 2:19-23 says that they were there for a time-precisely how long of a time we do not know-then returned to Israel upon hearing of Herod’s death. But when Joseph got wind that Herod’s son Archelaus was reigning over Judea in his father’s place he got scared and resorted to Nazareth in Galilee. Again, Luke mentions none of this, but simply goes straight from the family’s initial trip to Jerusalem for Jesus’ purification to their coming again into Galilee (Luke 2:39). Apparently all the events of Matthew 2:1-22 are included in this one little verse. This is somewhat frustrating from Luke but not hard to believe, since he does the same thing at other points in his writing as well.
So there you have it, my own reconstruction of the nativity story. What did I leave out? Where have I gone wrong? I would appreciate any feedback you might have. Otherwise it’s all going on the timeline! 🙂