Are The Gospel Accounts of the Nativity Contradictory?

Open BibleSkeptics of religion — and of Christianity in particular — always like to pick apart the Bible, claiming that this or that is inaccurate or could never have happened or has been “proven wrong”, or some such thing. I have yet to hear/read any “contradictions” that don’t have some plausible explanation, particularly when one does not assume a purely naturalistic philosophy from the get go. But, much of the time, all one needs to do to resolve any paradoxes or textual difficulties is to approach the Biblical text with fairness and an open mind, as (hopefully) with any ancient document. Then read it in the context of the culture and times in which it was written; realize that the Bible’s writers (as many other ancient historians & biographers) sometimes gave compressed accounts, so it’s not always immediately apparent when or how much time has elapsed between events; recognize that different accounts can give different details from the authors’ or eyewitnesses’ perspectives and according to their individual purposes, but this does not necessarily equal contradiction; be careful not to read in modern assumptions, preferences, or sensibilities. (There are other considerations, but that’s enough for now.)

A few years ago, I was being challenged on a number of points by someone on a marketing forum, of all places. One of the points he wanted me to explain was:

“Jesus Birth – what we all know as the nativity scene. Not all four Gospels have Jesus in a barn in a food trof [sic].”

Not exactly a significant point (in my mind, at least). But, what he seemed to be getting hung up on was that the Gospel of Luke talks about a barn/stable with a manger, whereas the Gospel of Matthew mentions a house. Here is how I responded, with a bit of expansion from just the barn/trof challenge (and a few subsequent emendations):

“Let’s step thru the events and the data given & not given:

Mark & John don’t speak of the time around this event at all. In Luke 2, we have Joseph & the expectant Mary trekking from Nazareth down to Bethlehem for the census. The town is overcrowded, so they have to stay in the stable at an inn. Mary went into labor at some point while they were there and gave birth. She wrapped the baby in cloths & laid Him in a manger (aka a food trough). That night some local shepherds stopped in, after having been informed of the Blessed Event and told (roughly) where to find them by an angel.”

I didn’t know this when I originally researched my response, but I have since discovered that the word usually translated ‘inn’ in Luke 2:7 can (should?) be translated ‘guest room’, as opposed to an actual roadside inn with innkeeper, such as in the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10:34). The ‘guest room’ would have been a furnished, extra room, such as where the Last Supper was eaten. Furthermore, the ‘stable’ was likely the main living room or an attached room/stall, where the animals were brought in at night. The manger was customarily built right into the floor of the raised terrace within the main living room.

So,… rather than being out in an open stable or barn behind a local inn, the original Nativity scene was probably in a house with many of Joseph’s relatives (i.e., that traveled with them and/or that lived in Jerusalem); the guest room was already full, so Joseph & Mary slept in the main room or attached room. Having animals inside with them would not have been unusual.

“On the eighth day, they circumcised the baby & named Him Jesus. According to Levitical law, Mary had to wait 33 ‘days of purification’ (not sure if the first 8 days were included) before she could enter the sanctuary and perform the customary sacrifice. (They were poor, so it was probably a couple of pigeons.) They may have still been in the ‘stable,’ or not — it doesn’t say. Verse 22 says that after this time was up, they went up to Jerusalem (roughly 3 or 4 miles) to consecrate the baby and offer another sacrifice (i.e., a couple more pigeons). When they were done there (probably not more than a couple days), they returned to Nazareth (v.39).

Bible open to Matthew 2 - ChristmasOkay, Matthew 2 starts out saying, ‘After Jesus was born in Bethlehem… Magi from the east came to Jerusalem…’ It doesn’t say how long after Jesus was born that they arrived in Jerusalem. Also, they knew the prophecy said He would come from Bethlehem, so either the stop in Jerusalem was a ‘courtesy call’ to King Herod, or they thought the baby was part of Herod’s family and would have been taken to Jerusalem by then. Verses 9-11 say they followed the star to a house, where they found the child & mother; they worshiped Him and presented their gifts. Although Herod had ‘sent them to Bethlehem,’ it isn’t explicit in the text that that’s where the house was located. It probably was, but it might have been in Jerusalem, or even Nazareth.

God warned the Magi in a dream to avoid Herod on their return trip (after how long?), and an angel told Joseph in a dream that Herod was looking to kill the child and they should flee to Egypt, which they did that night. (The family would re-settle in Nazareth after Herod died.) Eventually, Herod realized the Magi weren’t going to bring him the child. ‘…[H]e was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.'” (v.16)

Notice that what I’ve done is try to integrate both texts, along with some extra info I obtained elsewhere about purification rites, distance between Bethlehem & Jerusalem, etc. I’ve also skipped over some things in my summary of what are themselves summaries of events. There is still much ambiguity about certain details, but no outright contradictions. An example of an actual contradiction would be if Luke said Jesus was born in Bethlehem and Matthew said He was born in Nazareth.

“So, I think there is enough info there to conclude that an accurate translation could mention either the attached ‘stable’ or the house. Further, despite what the kids books and Christmas cartoons and Nativity scenes & creches usually portray, the Magi probably did not visit the newborn Jesus at the manger, or possibly even in Bethlehem. The child was probably at least several days, if not weeks or months, old by the time the Magi arrived, and the family may have already moved out of the place where they initially stayed during those first few days or weeks of the census. Furthermore, based on the scope of Herod’s order in verse 16, it is very likely that the natal star appeared as an announcement of a completed event rather than a forewarning, and that the Magi took many months to organize and travel on their ‘road trip’ from the East. This could make Jesus between 1 & 2 years old (and possibly in his hometown of Nazareth by then, though prior to the time spent in Egypt) when the Magi finally found him.”

I hope that’s helpful to someone….


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3 Responses to "Are The Gospel Accounts of the Nativity Contradictory?"

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