It is often claimed that the birth narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are full of contradictions and so cannot be taken seriously. For example, in the 2011 Christmas issue of the New Statesman, Bart Ehrman claims that ‘these two versions of the events cannot be reconciled’.[i] Richard Dawkins likewise states that the ‘contradictions are glaring, but consistently overlooked by the faithful’,[ii] while the late Christopher Hitchens asserted that Matthew and Luke ‘flatly contradict each other on the Flight into Egypt’.[iii] The idea of a contradiction should be clear enough (you’d think). If Matthew claimed Jesus was born in Bethlehem and Luke said that it was Nazareth, we’d have a very obvious and major contradiction. Of course, we need to be careful with contradictions – it’s often the case that apparent contradictions can be resolved by taking into account context or use of metaphor (see Peter’s articles here and here). With that in mind let’s consider the ‘Flight into Egypt’.
Matthew tells us that after the visit of the Magi, Joseph is told in a dream to go to Egypt. What does Luke have to say about this? Nothing. He tells us that they return to Nazareth. And, of course, Nazareth is where they end up in Matthew’s account too. According to Ehrman, ‘if Matthew is right that the holy family fled to Egypt, Luke can scarcely be right that they returned home just a month after the birth’. This reference to a ‘month’ is based on an immediate return to Nazareth after Jesus’ presentation in the Temple. What the text says is, ‘When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned …’ (Luke 2:39). Granted, if we didn’t have Matthew’s account we would probably just assume that they returned straightaway. But is Ehrman seriously suggesting that the word ‘when’ must be understood as ‘immediately after’, that no flexibility is permitted and hence that Luke’s account could not be reconciled with additional information from another source? Even the most extreme biblical literalist would find this a ridiculous interpretation. It seems that a naïve approach to biblical interpretation is almost de rigueur in some brands of modern atheism.
So there really is no contradiction here at all. Luke simply doesn’t tell us about a flight to Egypt. Why? Who knows? Perhaps he didn’t know about it. Or perhaps he deliberately left it out because he didn’t think it was relevant for his intended readers. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter; a story included in one Gospel and not in another doesn’t amount to a contradiction. This happens frequently in the Gospels since the authors were selective in their accounts as any good biographer must be.
Let’s consider another case. Ehrman tells us that in Matthew, ‘Joseph and Mary live in Bethlehem before, during and after the birth’. Dawkins also claims that Matthew has ‘Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem all along’ whereas Luke ‘acknowledges that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth before Jesus was born’. Now, of course, if Matthew really did say that they lived in Bethlehem all along (i.e. not in Nazareth) that would be a contradiction. What does the text actually say? Matthew’s first mention of Bethlehem is, ‘After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea …’(Matt. 2:1). Far from being a contradiction, this is in complete agreement with Luke: ‘While they were there [Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son’ (Luke 2:6-7). If this is a contradiction, the laws of logic need to be re-written! As in the previous case there is a difference – Matthew doesn’t tell us about Mary and Joseph travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem – but a difference doesn’t amount to a contradiction.
There are other differences in the narratives too. For example, Luke doesn’t mention the Magi and the Star while Matthew doesn’t mention the shepherds. Differences? Yes. Contradictions? No. As in the earlier cases, there’s not even a hint of a contradiction. And it’s worth reminding ourselves that the accounts agree on such essential information as the place of birth, the virgin birth and that Jesus grows up in Nazareth. Interestingly, one difference that is rarely mentioned is that Luke interweaves the birth narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus, whereas Matthew doesn’t discuss John’s birth at all. Of course, it’s not at all unreasonable that Matthew should leave this story out, but given John’s importance in the Gospels and nature of his birth, isn’t it also reasonable that Luke should include it while leaving out other things?
Objections to the birth narratives based on contradictions between Matthew and Luke don’t even get off the ground. That many prominent atheists think otherwise is a source of great puzzlement. Perhaps some haven’t read the texts clearly enough, while others have done too much reading between the lines to generate contradictions and still others just don’t understand what the word ‘contradiction’ means. Whatever the reasons, Ehrman and Dawkins have great confidence in their ability to go beyond the text to describe the motives of the authors – basically, they made up stories to show that Jesus fulfilled prophecies. C.S. Lewis’s remark seems very apt:
These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.[iv]
[i] New Statesman, 19 December 2011 – 1 January 2012, pp. 13-14.
[ii] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p. 94.
[iii] Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion (London: Atlantic, 2007), p. 111.
[iv] From his essay ‘Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism’ in Christian Reflections (Fount, 1998).