Yes, I know it’s a lot of Scripture. It’s good for you—better even than spinach. Reading these passages back-to-back will help you better understand the events after Jesus’ birth.
In seminary we were warned not to “harmonize” the gospels—that is, to ty to fit them together to make one composite account. People do this in order to—they hope—get a better picture of the life of Jesus Christ. The gospels are not like a court trial, where different witnesses describe the same series of events from different viewpoints. The gospels were written at different times, using different sources, for widely different audiences, and by people who had not witnessed the events—evidence that wouldn’t be admitted in any courtroom in this country.
We must accept the gospels for what they are: different accounts of the life of Jesus Christ, recounted orally for years and finally written down by people who decided they would be better preserved if there was a hard copy. That’s why it’s important to read all four gospels, and to read them not for comparison, or a composite account, but to view—from four different sources—a complete picture of who Jesus was and how he lived.
Today’s passages are a good case in point. What happened after Jesus was born? Matthew mentions wise men and a flight into Egypt to avoid Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. Luke says nothing about either. Luke, on the other hand, recounts a visit to the temple in Jerusalem, which Matthew omits. Is it possible to piece together an accurate picture from these two widely different accounts?
As a matter of fact, it is. This is one place where it is possible to blend the two stories into one harmonious whole. Let’s see how that might work. Understanding Mosaic law helps.
Firstborn males, whether human or animal, were to be consecrated to God (Exodus 13:2, 12). Male children were to be redeemed with the sacrifice of a lamb, if possible, or with two turtledoves or pigeons if the family couldn’t afford a lamb.
Thirty-three days after the firstborn male child was born he was to be presented at the Temple. This was for his consecration and his mother’s purification. When Luke says, “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses…,” this is what he was talking about. Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus traveled to Jerusalem.
Is that possible? Yes, it is. Bethlehem is approximately 5.5 miles from Jerusalem. Even traveling as they would have (Joseph walking and Mary and the baby riding a donkey) it would have been an easy journey. At the most they would have spent one night in the road.
The wise men would have arrived in Bethlehem no less than a year after the birth. We know this from two places in Matthew’s account. First, the family had moved from the stable to a house (Matthew 2:11). Matthew is quite clear on this point. Second, Herod’s orders were to kill all male children in the region around Bethlehem two years and younger according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men! (Matthew 2:16). By the time he realized he had been tricked, somewhere between one and two years had passed.
So it’s entirely possible that, approximately a month after Jesus’ birth, the family traveled to Jerusalem and back, and then moved into a house. This is where the wise men visited them, making our usual pictures of the manger scene incorrect. By the time Herod found out he had been fooled, the wise men were on their way back home by an alternate route, and Jesus and his family were safely out of Herod’s reach, either in Egypt or on their way. The pieces fit.
Just don’t try to do this with the rest of the gospel stories.