Q. Luke 2:39 says of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph: “When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” In Matthew 2:13, however, an angel of the Lord appears in a dream to Joseph, who is clearly in Bethlehem. The angel says: “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.” Joseph did so immediately. After Herod died, Joseph was told in another dream to go back to the land of Israel. In fact, they went to Nazareth because Joseph was afraid of going to Judea where Archelaus ruled (v. 22).
According to Luke, the Holy Family went to Nazareth a little more than 40 days after Jesus was born. Matthew’s Gospel suggests it may have been several years later. Which was it?
A. The Gospel of Luke presents Mary and Joseph as residents of Nazareth who went to Bethlehem to pay the Roman census tax (1:26—2:7). In the Gospel of Matthew, however, Mary and Joseph could have grown up in Bethlehem. Matthew’s pre-history about the birth of Jesus (1:18–25) makes no mention of Nazareth. Matthew makes no reference to the Roman census, and Luke doesn’t seem to know about the flight into Egypt.
The apparent contradiction you have identified arises from the understandable—but misguided—attempt to harmonize these two Gospels regarding Jesus’ infancy. According to Luke’s Gospel, the Holy Family would have returned to Nazareth about 45 days after Jesus was born. For Matthew, however, it took several years. If our calendar were perfect, Jesus would have been born in 1 AD. In fact, he was probably born between 4 and 6 BC.
From other records, we are certain that King Herod the Great died in 4 BC. We also know that his son, Archelaus, ruled Judea until 6 AD, when the Romans exiled him to modern-day France. According to Matthew’s Gospel, therefore, Jesus could have been almost 12 years old when the Holy Family first came to Nazareth.
These and other issues are explored in an excellent book by Raymond Brown, SS, called The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke do not present the written version of what a video camera might have captured when Jesus was born.
They have different audiences (Jewish Christians or gentile Christians) and unique points to emphasize. None of the facts as I have stated them should threaten anyone’s belief that the Bible is inspired. It conveys what God wanted to reveal through the writings of each biblical author. In a very real sense, the Bible has a single author: God.