Matthew 2:21, When was Jesus Born?

So [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.

//Have you ever tried to harmonize the two stories of Joseph and Mary? You may feel such an exercise entirely misses the point of either birth parable, but humor me for a few moments. The story seems to run something like this, starting first with what Matthew narrates:

  • Joseph and Mary are living in Bethlehem when persecution by King Herod forces them to flee to Egypt.
  • King Herod dies in 4 BC, and the two of them decide to return.
  • Arriving in Judea, they find Herod’s replacement, his son Archelaus, to be no improvement. They forego Bethlehem and continue on to Galilee, settling in Nazareth.

Now we come to Luke’s history:

  • Perhaps ten years later, on or after 6 CE, while Cyrenius is governor of Syria, Caesar Augustus mandates a tax census.
  • Being registered in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary travel there to fulfill the required census.
  • While in Judea, they visit Jerusalem for a few days, offering sacrifice.
  • Joseph and Mary then return to Nazareth.

Amazingly, the two stories not only fit nicely side-by-side, but actually complement one another! Luke’s story of a census suddenly makes sense, in light of Matthew’s explanation that Joseph and Mary hailed from that town.

Just one little detail remains: When was Jesus born?

Luke, too, mentions King Herod in his birth story. But Herod died before Cyrenius arrived. Luke then tells how, twelve years after Jesus is born, his parents bring him to Jerusalem. One naturally wonders: Did Luke confuse two stories, and the taxation occurred when Jesus was twelve?

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