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A Harmony of the Birth Narratives

  There isn't really much of a difficulty in seeing the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke (chapters 1 and 2) as complimentary and in harmony. There are really only about two or three places where one can think they disagree.

However, there are still some other questions and objections others raise. Therefore, let's first connect the two birth narratives the way that seems best in my opinion:
  1. The Genealogies
  2. Harmony of the Birth Narratives
  3. Why do Matthew and Luke have such different content?
  4. Are the two stories supposed to be harmonized at all?

The Genealogies

Matthew 1:1-17 // Luke 3:23-38

We first need to address the genealogies of the two Evangelists. Much has been made over the differences in the names (starting with Joseph's father it seems!). However, we need to point something out. Matthew is clearly skipping generations so that his three sets can have 14 generations each. This is obvious because from Jesus' birth in 5 BC until the proximate birth of Abihud around 525 BC, should he be Zerubbabel's son, we have 10 generations (the life of each man until his son's birth). So we have about 520 years being covered by 10 generations. This gives us an average of 52 years for the age of every father when his son is born, starting with Abihud. While this is not impossible, especially if a few were in their 60's (and don't forget not all would be firstborn sons), Luke's 19 generations for the same period is more convincing (average age of 27 years per father). Thus we can see that Matthew skipped generations and thus skipped the names of some of Jesus' and Joseph's (or Mary's) ancestors.

From this observation we can suppose that Matthew's omissions explain why some names between Luke and Matthew don't match, such as the father of Joseph and son of Zerubbabel. However, the problem is that none of the names in Matthew and Luke from Joseph to Zerubbabel match. We can't explain this on the basis of a name change because it would be incredible for all 10 of Matthew's names to be beyond recognition if any of them are in Luke. This has often led to suggesting that Luke traces the genealogy of Mary, whereas Matthew that of Joseph. This is probably the case, despite the fact that Jewish genealogies were traced through the father - one would only need to find out the father of Mary and it wouldn't be too hard to give Jesus' biological line through Mary as Jews kept genealogies for many generations (see for example Ezra 2, specifically 2:55-58 which trace descendants from Solomon's time).

From here we note two further problems - Rhesa and Abihud as sons of Zerubbabel are unmentioned in 1 Chronicles 3:19-20, and the father of Shealtiel given in Luke 3:27, Neri, is contrary to every other biblical reference to Shealtiel's father, who is given as Jeconiah.

Regarding the first point, we can easily note that names often changed spelling to a very wide degree, especially after a translation (such as from Hebrew to Greek - the Septuagint), and also names changed within Hebrew itself, especially after some time, such as the letter "R" becoming an "N" and vice versa. Furthermore, Rhesa and Abihud may not have been included in the list of sons (perhaps out of unimportance), the same way the five sons of Zerubbabel listed in 1 Chronicles 3:20 are separated from the more prominent mention of the two in 3:19. It is also possible they were illegitimate.

As for Neri vs. Jeconiah as Shealtiel's father, we do not need to suppose anything different from Shealtiel vs. Pedaiah being the father of Zerubbabel - Jeconiah could easily have been the brother of Shealtiel's biological father. Instead of brother, however, Shealtiel's father Neri could have been a distant relative of Jeconiah (through king David's son Nathan), and in that sense Neri's son Shealtiel could succeed Jeconiah office-wise, being a relative of his and serving as governor. This is one possibility, though I personally can't say how likely this is. On the other hand, the genealogy of Shealtiel might have been traced in one of Zerubbabel's descendants through his mother's line, for whatever reason perhaps prominence or some dispute that made the family want to separate their genealogical tracing. Many women whose father was noteworthy were remembered as "daughter of X person" and it would not have been impossible to find the genealogy of her father if the time she lived was close enough to obtain the records. The bottom line is, whether Luke traced the genealogy of Shealtiel's mother or Shealtiel was not the biological son of Jeconiah, it is not impossible for Neri to be an ancestor of Shealtiel. Furthermore, the fact that Luke isn't following the Old Testament the way Matthew understandably does, shows that he had an independent tradition for Shealtiel's ancestry.

Harmony of the Birth Narratives

We now come to the harmony of the general birth narratives, excluding the genealogies. It's fairly easy to see which part comes first - the story of John the Baptist's conception, namely Luke 1:5-25. After this, we have the Annunciation in Luke 1:26-38, and Mary's visit to Elizabeth in Luke 1:39-45. Everything after Luke 1:45 (1:46-80) follows this before Matthew 1:18.

Now, after Luke 1 comes Matthew 1:18-25, where Joseph considers putting away his bride-to-be. This is because Mary leaves shortly after the Annunciation to visit Elizabeth and stays for about 3 months - we can only imagine Joseph's horror when she comes back 3 months pregnant! Six months later, Mary and Joseph leave for Bethlehem for the census. I think that all of Luke 2:1-40 happened before Matthew 2:1. I base this on the fact that the magi come more than a year after Jesus' birth (Matt. 2:16).

Before we proceed however, we need to discuss exactly what the two years mentioned in Matthew 2:16 (and 2:7) would have encompassed - whether Jesus really would have been over a year or so old or not. With that we need to understand whether the star signified Jesus' conception or birth. We don't have enough specific information in Matthew to indisputably tell us whether the star signified specifically Jesus' birth or conception. However, Jesus' birth is strongly implied in Matt. 2:1-2. True, implications are only implications, but a star rising to signify birth is much more likely than one rising to signify conception - how would the wise men know when to come if the star signified conception? Some babies are born 6-8 months after conception, some a little bit more than 9 months.

The question then becomes, why would it take the wise men more than a year to arrive to Jerusalem. Since Herod orders the killing of children two years and younger in accordance with the time of the star learned from the wise men (Matt. 2:16), Jesus would have been perhaps a year and a couple of months old at the time of their arrival, with Herod rounding up to two years. The journey and preparations for the journey would not need more than a few months. However, we can't really second guess to such a degree why it could or couldn't have taken the wise men over a year to come to Jerusalem from the east. For one, perhaps their gifts (Matt. 2:11) took some time to collect. True, Matt. 2:1-2 implies that the magi arrive very soon after Jesus' birth, but as Matt. 2:16 shows, this is merely a literary mirage that Matthew created for the main point of his narrative, never intending to imply a strict chronology of arrival for the magi.

So from the above considerations, we can conclude that Luke 2:1-40 all happened before Matthew 2:1 (except of course for the brief notice in Matt. 2:1a of Jesus' birth). But how is it that Matthew has Mary and Joseph seemingly live in Bethlehem and then escape to Egypt and go to Nazareth out of fear whereas Luke has the visit to Bethlehem for a short month or so (for all the requirements of a newborn in the Temple to be completed), and then return to their native Nazareth?

At this point we have to consider the possibility that Mary and Joseph moved to Bethlehem some time within a year or so after their initial stay there during Jesus' birth. It is really not that difficult to suppose that they liked Bethlehem and its proximity to Jerusalem better than Nazareth.

So after Luke 2:40, chronologically comes Matthew 2:1-23 (all of chapter 2). Initially, Jesus and his parents do everything according to Moses' Law (Luke 2:21-24), after which Simeon and Anna see the child. They obviously prefer Bethlehem and its proximity to both Jerusalem and Mary's relatives, so they move there. This is how the magi find them in Bethlehem over a year later, instead of bumping into them by coincidence. They now have a house, but no other children. Later they escape to Egypt. Upon return Joseph justifiably prefers to avoid Archelaus was ruling Judea and instead goes to Nazareth in Galilee.

Matthew doesn't need to be interpreted to say that Joseph and Mary had always lived in Bethlehem. It's hard to explain why Joseph decided to relocate himself to Nazareth of all places if he didn't have some kind of family there or perhaps, as Luke says, lived there. Would Joseph have really settled there out of nowhere? Galilee was already bad enough, seen as a semi-heathen Grecized area of less respect than Judea, being called Galilee of the nations (Isaiah 9:1), and Matthew would've known this. He tries to offer explanations where he sees needed (e.g. why Jesus was baptized - 3:15). Clearly he skips around: for example, he seems to be saying the Magi came immediately after Jesus' birth (2:1-2, 19-23), whereas from Matthew 2:16 we see that's not the case. Nazareth was seen as a bad place by the Galileans themselves (John 1:46). Simply, Matthew wrote in such a way most likely for his narrative to "flow" better, but does not in any way need to say that Jesus' parents lived in Bethlehem prior to Jesus' birth and not Nazareth.