I recently attended the debate between Jimmy Akin and Bart Ehrman on the reliability of the Gospels. What jumped out to me—and what I wish had gotten more play in the debate—was Ehrman’s claim that Matthew and Luke disagree as to where Joseph and Mary began their married life. In Luke, they are from Nazareth, and in Matthew, they are from Judea.
Ehrman was right to point out that Luke believes that Joseph’s and Mary’s original home was in Nazareth. Luke writes, “Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem” (2:4).
The conflict, at least for Ehrman, comes into play when this is contrasted with Matthew’s account. In 2:18, Matthew begins, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” Rather than starting with a scene in Nazareth, Matthew explains the miraculous conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit (vv. 19-24) and then immediately says Jesus was born “in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king” (2:1).
So Matthew begins the story of the holy family with Bethlehem, and he says nothing about Joseph and Mary traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem. That’s enough for Ehrman to conclude that Matthew thinks Joseph and Mary started their married life together in Bethlehem, not Nazareth—thus the contradiction with Luke.
For further support, Ehrman referenced Matthew 2:21. In this passage, Matthew informs us that upon leaving Egypt Joseph and Mary intended to head to “the land of Israel” and redirected their journey to Nazareth only after Joseph was informed in a dream about Archelaus reigning over Judea in the place of his father, Herod (2:22-23). Why would Joseph and Mary be heading back to Judea from Egypt if they were originally from Nazareth? Shouldn’t their original intention have been to head back to Nazareth, since that’s where their original home was, at least according to Luke?
The first thing we can say in response is that Matthew never says Joseph and Mary started out their life as a married couple in Bethlehem. Ehrman reads that into the text.
In the verses leading up to the statement that begins “now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem” (2:1), Matthew explains only how Jesus was conceived—virginally, without the cooperation of Joseph—and that Joseph took Mary into his home (2:18-25). He doesn’t tell us the town where this took place. His interest was not where this happened—only that it happened.
So, at least here in these verses, Matthew doesn’t contradict Luke. For Matthew to contradict Luke, he would have say Mary became pregnant and started living with Joseph in Bethlehem.
But what about Matthew’s apparent seamless transition to “now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem” (2:1)? Doesn’t that show that Matthew thought Joseph and Mary started out in Bethlehem? No, it doesn’t!
The phrase, “now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem,” can be easily read as Matthew skipping over or omitting the Lukan material about Joseph and Mary leaving Nazareth for Bethlehem (on account of the census) and just picking up the story with Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Omitting material doesn’t constitute an error, nor does it make for a contradiction. Moreover, it was common practice for ancient authors to select material they wished to include and not include. Compare Mark 10:46-52 and Matthew 20:29-34, for example: Mark omits the other blind man who was with Bartimaeus on the roadside. But that doesn’t mean there’s a contradiction between Mark and Matthew.
Now, what about Ehrman’s appeal to Matthew 2:21?
One plausible reason why Joseph and Mary wanted to head back to Bethlehem after Egypt, or at least “the land of Israel” or “Judea” (2:21, 22), is because they had been living there for an extended time before they were told to flee to Egypt. This is supported by a few subtle details in Matthew’s account.
Recall, Matthew tells us in 2:7 that Herod secretly inquired from the wise men “the time the star appeared.” Then, in verse 16, we’re told Herod ordered the killing of all male children in Bethlehem and the region “who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the Wise Men.”
Why would Herod order the murder of male children up to two years? Probably because the time span between the wise men seeing the star and finding Jesus in a “house” (2:11) in Bethlehem was about two years.
That the holy family is in a “house” in Bethlehem roughly at this two-year mark suggests that they were living there. As Akin points out, it’s unlikely that Joseph and Mary would have just happened to be there on pilgrimage.
So Joseph and Mary probably desired to settle in “Judea” because that’s where they were living for an extended period of time after they had left Nazareth and before they fled to Egypt. Therefore, Joseph’s intention to settle back in “Judea” doesn’t contradict Luke’s report that Joseph and Mary originally began their life as a married couple in Nazareth.
There’s one last thing we need to consider. In the debate with Akin, Ehrman objected that if Joseph had wanted to return to Judea because that’s where he lived prior to their flight to Egypt, that would mean he would have been paying for two houses at the same time. Since Joseph’s profession as a tektōn (Matt. 13:55) wouldn’t have brought in a lot of money, it’s unreasonable to think Joseph would have had two homes.
How might we respond to this?
Let’s grant for argument’s sake that Joseph wasn’t able to afford two homes. The question becomes: why must we think Joseph and Mary had two homes?
There’s no internal evidence that suggests they kept their home in Nazareth. Matthew doesn’t tell us Joseph and Mary went back to their home in Nazareth. He only tells us that they “withdrew to the district of Galilee . . . and dwelt in a city called Nazareth” (2:22-23). Matthew’s account allows for the view that Joseph and Mary no longer owned their home in Nazareth, and they would have had to purchase a new one upon their return.
Moreover, Ehrman’s objection assumes that Joseph and Mary would have owned a house during their stay in Bethlehem. That Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem for up to two years doesn’t necessitate that they owned a house—although they could have. It’s plausible that they lived with relatives, something common in ancient Israel.
Also, when Matthew reports that Joseph intended to go back to Judea, he never says Joseph intended to go back to his house. As we mentioned above, Matthew says only that Joseph wanted to go back “to the land of Israel” or “Judea” (2:20, 21).
Finally, even if Joseph and Mary did acquire a house in Bethlehem, there’s nothing that requires us to think they would have it to go back to, especially since they would not have been able to continue paying for it while they were hiding out in Egypt.
Bart Ehrman looks at the Gospels and sees a lot of things that don’t fit. But when we pay attention to what’s said and what’s not said in the Bible—and this lesson can serve us well in life generally, too—it’ll become clear that certain things that initially appear not to fit actually go together just fine.