The pop-culture version of the Christmas story is that Jesus was born one night under a star and three wise men (the Magi) showed up and gave him a bunch of gifts. Then immediately that same night they fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s infanticide. This is an over-simplification that is filled with contradictions.
First, it’s important to understand the difference between Matthew’s account and Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth. Matthew’s account is all about Jesus as the new Moses and at the beginning of the Gospel, he references old testament prophecies being fulfilled like Jesus’ birth and conception by a virgin, being born in Bethlehem, growing up in Nazareth, etc. Luke’s gospel is more detailed because he gets eyewitness testimony from Mary herself and others and he focuses on telling the in-depth linear story of Jesus.
Luke is writing to an audience of one. In Luke 1:1, Luke greets a man named Theophilus. That means the Gospel of Luke, as well as the book of Acts which also mentions Theophilus in the beginning, is written to help Theophilus understand the gospel story. Luke addresses the fact that there are other gospels already written so he is writing his account to fill in details that the other ones don’t have. This is why the Gospel of Luke includes a lot of parables and stories that Matthew and Mark do not. John’s gospel is a whole separate beast and is not meant to be a chronological story but is more categorical and focuses on very specific deep insight about Jesus and his teachings. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are distinguished as the synoptic gospels because they are all harmonized together.
It seems some Jews had arguments against Matthew’s account saying he made up these stories in order to make it look like Jesus fulfilled prophecies. Theophilus may have heard these objections and thought they were pretty sound, so he asked Luke how to deal with this. Therefore Luke chapters 1-3 is an apologetic answer to the critics.
Four things that non-believing Jews would have objected to from Matthew’s account of the Christmas story:
1) How did a virgin give birth to Jesus? Remember Matthew just states that Mary his mother became pregnant by the holy spirit (Matt 1:18). It does not say how that was initiated nor does it mention the angel Gabriel. The only mention of an angel in Matthew’s Christmas story is in Joseph’s dream. That unnamed angel simply confirms that Mary’s son is legitimate and that Joseph doesn’t have to divorce her (Matt 2:19-25).
The Answer: The actual immaculate conception is only written about in Luke chapter 1. It’s in Luke that the angel is named Gabriel. This angel speaks to Zechariah about the conception of a son, despite Zechariah and his wife’s old age, and that son is John the Baptist. Then 5 months later Gabriel visits Mary, a relative of Zechariah’s wife, and speaks to her about the conception of her son in her current status as a virgin. Gabriel explains that the holy spirit will come upon her and cause the child to manifest in her womb (Luke 1:1-38).
2) How can Jesus be the son of a virgin if he’s related to David and Abraham through Joseph’s lineage? This is a reference to the first 16 verses of Matthew ch. 1 which give the lineage from Abraham to Jesus through Joseph’s ancestry. This is a legitimate question because he can’t be biologically related to Joseph if he was born of a virgin woman. And if he is not Joseph’s biological son then how is he related to David? If he is not related to David then he cannot be the Messiah because David’s lineage is where the Messiah comes from according to the Davidic Covenant promise in 2nd Samuel ch. 7.
The Answer: Luke ch. 3 presents a second genealogy that lists Nathan rather than Solomon as the son after David. Since this genealogy is different from Matthew’s, it must be the genealogy of the other parent. The question is which one is Mary’s and which one is Joseph’s. Luke talked to Mary to get all these details about her life and the birth of Jesus. We can tell because of phrases like, “and she stored these things in her heart” in Luke 2:19, and Luke 2:51. So it seems Mary is related to David through his son Nathan according to Luke’s genealogy and not Solomon like in Matthew’s genealogy. Joseph is related to David through all the kings of Judah but because the kings after David the Davidic Covenant (1 Kings 9:1-9), so the Messiah could not be connected to them. However, he can still be connected to David through another son that wasn’t a king, like Solomon’s younger brother Nathan. Nathan is most likely named after the prophet Nathan who condemned David oh his sin of murder and adultery against Uriah and Bathsheba (2 Sam ch. 12). Joseph is Jesus’ father in terms of legality but not his biological father. This is very similar to the concept of levirate marriage in the Bible. In a levirate marriage, a man dies and his wife marries a male relative. Then the firstborn son of that second marriage belongs to the dead husband and will legally inherit his things even though he is biologically the male relative’s son. Similarly, Joseph is the levirate father who is related to David and theoretically inherits the throne, therefore Jesus inherits the kingdom through Joseph as an adopted son. However, since he is not biologically related to the kings, it avoids the issue of the breaking of the Davidic Covenant by Solomon and his descendants.
3) The first mention of Nazareth in the gospels according to Matthew is in Matt 2:23. This is after the end of the Magi story, when Joseph and Mary go to Galilee, instead of returning to Bethlehem in Judah. Prophetically the messiah is born in Bethlehem, and this was fulfilled according to Matt 2:6. Matt 2:6 quotes Micah 5:2, which is the prophecy of the virgin giving birth in Bethlehem. However, the objectors could argue that Matthew made this up because if he was born in Bethlehem then why didn’t his parents go back to Bethlehem after their return from Egypt? Someone unfamiliar with Jesus who only read the first few chapters of Matthew’s account may conclude his family is from Bethlehem. However, the rest of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life shows us that Jesus’s family was known to be from Nazarene. If he’s not from Bethlehem then what were his parents doing in Bethlehem? Now it looks like Matthew just made this up to fulfill the prophecy about the birth city. Matthew gives no explanation for why they were in Bethlehem so it just sounds like a convenient plot device to deceive people into believing the narrative of the Jesus movement.
The Answer: It is Luke 1:26 that reveals that Mary and Joseph are originally from Nazareth. Luke chapter 2 opens with a decree from Roman emperor Augustus Caesar calling for a census. This required that the Jews had to return to their ancestral homelands, and since Joseph and Mary were of the tribe of Judah they returned to Bethlehem (the city of David their ancestor). At this time Mary was 9 months pregnant with Jesus, so it aligned with the time for her to give birth. The family was from Nazareth but they were in Bethlehem for the census. Again, Matthew does not even mention where Mary and Joseph are actually from nor why they were in Bethlehem.
4) Lastly, Leviticus 12 says baby boys are to be brought to the temple 40 days after they are born for the purification offering. For girls, it’s 80 days after they are born. In Matthew’s gospel after fleeing to Egypt, they’re on their way back to Judah (where Bethlehem is), but then God warns Joseph in a dream to go to Nazareth in Galilee instead because Herod’s son, Archelaus now rules Judah. If Joseph went straight from Egypt to Galilee then he never had time to go to the Temple in Judah to fulfill the Leviticus 12 requirements. Therefore Jesus did not fulfill all the laws.
The Answer: In Luke 2:21-24 it shows that Mary and Joseph actually did do the purification offering 40 days after Jesus’ birth, this would have been before they fled to Egypt. Matthew doesn’t mention this, because it is not relevant to the purpose of his account.
This brings us to how the Christmas story actually plays out. Luke’s gospel reveals that first, Gabriel visits Zechariah and prophesies the birth of his son John the Baptist. 6 months later Gabriel visits Mary and she conceives Jesus. She goes and visits Elizabeth (Zechariah’s wife) a few days after that and stays with her for 3 months. Mary leaves at that point and is three months pregnant, while Elizabeth is nine months pregnant and gives birth to John the Baptist. This ends Luke chapter 1.
Meanwhile, at some point in this time frame, Mary tells Joseph that she is pregnant and he thinks she cheated and wants to divorce her quietly. However, Joseph is warned in the dream by an unnamed angel not to divorce her because the baby is legitimate (Matt 1:19-25). This is where Matthew and Luke start to merge.
Luke ch. 2 begins six months later (Mary is 9 months pregnant). They have to go to Bethlehem for the Roman census because it is their ancestral homeland, as they are descendants of David. The Inns are all full because of the census crowds and Mary started giving birth so they stayed in a manger that night. This manger was not a wooden barn but a cave (possibly human-cut) since stone architecture was common in that region. As Mary gives birth, some local rabbinical shepherds are visited by angels who tell them that the Messiah has just been born and to go see him in the manger. The shepherd’s come and visit baby Jesus in the manger, and then celebrate his birth by praising God. All of this happens in Luke 2:1-20. This is where people get things mixed up between the shepherds and the Magi. The Magi visit Jesus much later while he and his family are in a house. The star that the Magi are following leads them to a house, not a manger (Matt 2:9-12).
Luke 2 continues with Jesus’ circumcision eight days later and then the purification sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. Then while there a man named Simon praised God for Jesus, and a prophetess named Anna praise God for Jesus’s birth and told everyone about him (Luke 2:21-38).
According to Leviticus 12, this has to happen 40 days after a boy’s birth. It’s very unlikely they went to Egypt and came back in that time since it would have been a two-week round trip not including the time they stayed in Egypt. In addition, even if they could they didn’t actually go back to Judah, remember because Herod’s son Archelaus was in charge, they went back to Nazareth in Galilee (Matt 2:19-23).
Luke 2:39 says that Mary and Joseph went back to Nazareth. The rest of the chapter flashes forward to when Jesus was 12 years old. So when does the Magi story from Matthew chapter 2 happen? Two theories, 1) that Luke 2:39 wasn’t an immediate action, and they went back to Bethlehem, then Egypt, then Nazareth, or 2) they immediately went home to Nazareth but eventually came back to Bethlehem at a later time, no later than when Jesus was 2 years old.
If the first theory is true then after the purification offering on the 40th day after Jesus’ birth, they went back to Bethlehem to stay in the house for a little while but eventually planned to go home to Nazareth. At some point during the 40 days, they found lodging at a house (maybe one of the shepherds gave them a place to stay). They were staying in a house and not a manger at this point. Then on the 41st day after Jesus’ birth or later, the Magi come to Jerusalem following a star (Bethlehem and Jerusalem are right next to each other so it makes sense that the star seems like it was over Jerusalem from an earthly perspective). While there, they visit King Herod looking to inquire about the Messiah, and Herod has the Jewish leaders read from Micah 5:2 which points to Bethlehem as the Messiah’s birthplace. Herod told them to report back to him the messiah’s location. They go and meet Jesus in a house, bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh as gifts. Then they left on a different route because God warned them of Herod’s plans to kill Jesus. Herod realize the Magi played him and ordered all children under age two in Bethlehem to be killed. Meanwhile, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt and does so. Then after an unspecified period of time, Herod dies and Joseph heads back to Judah, but on the way, he is warned about Archelaus and goes straight home to Nazareth. Thus Luke is not saying they literally went back home at the moment but rather they eventually go back home because he flashes forward to when Jesus was 12 and they were living in Nazareth by then.
If the second theory is true then they go back to Nazareth at that moment after the purification offering and came back to Bethlehem at a later time (2 years later at the max). Why would they go back to Bethlehem? Later on in Luke 2:39-52, it tells us that when Jesus was 12 they were in Jerusalem for Passover, and they did this every year. Remember, Bethlehem is right next to Jerusalem so it’s likely Mary and Joseph came back to Jerusalem for a holiday like Passover, and they stayed in Bethlehem either because Jerusalem was too crowded or Bethlehem was a cheaper place to stay. Leviticus 12 says to give a lamb and a bird as offerings but two birds are allowed if a family is poor. Luke 2:24 says they gave two birds, so this has led some to speculate that Joseph and Mary were poor at that time so staying in Bethlehem makes fiscal sense. The gifts of the Magi would help them survive in Egypt since they were refugees with no legal rights. While in Egypt, they could live on the gold to start and sell frankincense and myrrh for survival until Herod dies.
So why did the Magi visit have to be no more than 2 years later? This is because Matthew’s account implied the star was in the sky for 2 years. In Matt 2:7 Herod asks the Magi how long the star was in the sky, and in Matt 2:16 Herod decrees to kill every male age two and under based on the Magi’s answer. That means the star either appeared 2 years before Jesus was born or the night he was born. If it appeared 2 years before he was born, then Magi came the year Jesus was born, but 41 days later since the Leviticus 12 purification offering has to happen beforehand. Otherwise, they came 2 years (at the most) after he was born. Either way, when they left Egypt in Matt 2:19-23, Joseph did not return to Judah. As stated earlier, the journey to Egypt would have taken around a week, which means around two weeks round trip, not including the time they actually stayed in Egypt so there was barely time for them to go to Nazareth and come back to Judah after everything happened and do the purification offering within 40 days of the birth. And again Joseph didn’t go to Jerusalem, he was warned to go straight back to Nazareth in Galilee (Matt 2:22-23).
Therefore the Magi showed up between 41 days and 2 years after Jesus’ birth and visited him in a house, not the manger. They did not come on the day he was born, those were shepherds that visited him in the manger. We also don’t know how many Magi there were, there were three gifts but scripture doesn’t say how many men there were. In addition, we don’t how long Jesus stayed in Egypt, all we know is they left when Herod died and then they avoided Judah and went straight back to Nazareth to avoid Archelaus.
The Christmas story is split between two accounts of the Gospels and they have to fit together in just the right way. In addition, there are still things we don’t actually know about the Christmas story like what year or month Jesus was born, when the Magi came exactly, and if Mary and Joseph left for Galilee immediately after the purification offering in Luke 2:38-39 or much later, etc. Some of the non-biblical historical elements of the Christmas story are debated and that is where things can get complicated.
Some question Luke’s account of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem because it seemingly conflicts with history. Luke says Jesus was born in Bethlehem because of the census of Quirinius (Luke 2:1-5). However, it is a known fact that Quirinius called for a census in 6 AD which lead to a revolt, which is mentioned in Luke’s other writing the book of Acts (Acts 5:37). This is a problem because Matthew says Jesus’ birth was within the reign of Herod the Great, who died about a decade earlier. The Greek word “prote” (πρώτη) used in Luke 2:2 can be translated as “before”, which means it could be translated that this census simply took place “before” the reign of Quirinus over Syria in 6 AD, so it is the census of his predecessor Quintilius Varus. Some say Luke’s account has a typo and it is actually referring to Quirinius’ predecessor Quintilius Varus this idea is not very popular. Another option is that Quirinus had two censuses about a decade apart so one census was around 6 BC to 4 BC, and another was in 6 AD. So the Greek word “prote” in this case means it was the first census by Quirinius. This is based on the idea that Quintilius Varus has some military failures and Quirinius was more competent as a leader and stepped in to help. A census in ancient Rome can take quite a few years (one census lasting as long as 40 years) and the Romans typically did one every 14 years (based on Egyptian records) so the census Luke is referring to, may have started 14 years before 6 AD, (around 8-7 BC) and lasted until 4 BC or later.
Modern scholars say Jesus was born between 6 and 4 BCE. Herod died in 4 BCE according to German theologian Emil Schürer (1844-1910), previously it was believed he died in 1 BCE (some still hold onto this date). So Herod the Great died in either 4 BCE or 3 years later. It was when he died Joseph returned to Nazareth. The Bible doesn’t say how long they were in Egypt, so this is something that is still speculated on.
On the issue of what month Jesus was born, there is a lot of debate and theories about winter solstice and pagan traditions like pine trees, etc. Also, some question if the shepherds would have been working during the winter since it’s too cold to sheer sheep. There is a clue in the bible but it needs historical context to tell us what it means. Luke 1:5 says that the visitation of Gabriel to Zechariah announcing the conception of John the Baptist happened during the course (or shift) of Abijah. Since Zechariah worked in the order of Abijah he must be a descendant of Abijah. Abijah is one of 24 Levites (16 from Eleazar and 8 from Ithamar) that were assigned shifts throughout the year in 1 Chronicles 23:1-19. After the exile, many of the lines died off and Abijah was one of the few that survived. There are many scholarly debates on when the shift of Abijah’s line is within the year. Some say around mid-summer and others say around mid-winter. There may have even been two shifts so both can be true, but we don’t know which one applies to Luke at the time of Gabriel’s visit. Whichever month it was, John the Baptist was conceived that month and Jesus was born 15 months after that. Those who want to preserve December 25th will say Gabriel’s visit was around mid-autumn. History is still unfolding and new discoveries are made every day, so who knows when the answer will be revealed? All we can do is wait, and go by what we do know in the meantime.
Timeline of the Christmas events
Article on when Mary & Joseph went back to Galilee in Luke 2:38-39
4 Misconceptions about Christmas
This article on the Herod’s death & the Quirinus Census Controversy