compared with Luke chapters 1-2

I have tried here to compile a chronology of the early years of Jesus’ life upto the time at which He began His earthly ministry when He was approximately thirty years of age (Luke 3:23). This is mostly straightforward and needs little explanation but points 6 and 9 are often taken as referring to one and the same incident, our ‘Christmas’, when it would appear, from the facts presented to us in both these narratives, that they were two separate incidents which took place with around a year between them.

I have tried to show why the dissimilarities indicate this after the chronological list of events here.


1. Genealogy
Mtw 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-28

I have extensively dealt with the Genealogy of Jesus here and discussed the apparent discrepancies which occur in both lists. I have also attempted to say something relevant for some of the more ‘important’ patriarchs as they occur in the list.

2. John the Baptist’s conception
Luke 1:5-25

3. Jesus Christ’s conception
Luke 1:26-56

4. The angel appears to Joseph
Mtw 1:18-25

5. Elizabeth gives birth to John
Luke 1:57-80

6. Mary gives birth to Jesus/the shepherds visit
Luke 2:1-20

7. Circumcision (8 days old)
Luke 2:21

Circumcision on the eighth day after the birth day was laid upon each and every descendent of Abraham (Gen 17:9-14) and any male child who was not circumcised could not be considered to belong to the nation (Gen 17:14). Significantly, Moses seems to have ignored the commandment to Abraham for his own children for a while (Ex 4:24-26) and an entire generation of Israelites neglected to perform the rite on their own children throughout the wilderness wanderings (Josh 5:2-7) even though they were still considered to be a special nation before God.

The Mosaic Law made mention of the rite in Lev 12:3 but it was not laid upon the nation for it to take place at the Tabernacle entrance or in its courts and, therefore, it would be unlikely that it was only to be performed within the Temple in Jerusalem - indeed, this is the only reference to the rite throughout the Law as a commandment to be observed which may account for the fact that it was neglected in the forty year wandering through the wilderness, the fathers seeing no real reason for continuing with the practise.

What is especially significant is that God still regarded the nation as His special possession even though the youngsters who grew to be entirety of the nation were all uncircumcised.

8. Purification (40 days old)
Luke 2:22-38 Cp Lev chapter 12

The commandment in the Mosaic Law was that, for a male child, a woman was to remain ceremonially unclean for a period of forty days from the birth of the baby (Lev 12:1-5) and, on the fortieth day, she needed to be purified by offering certain animals at ‘the door of the tent of meeting’ (Lev 12:6-8) which would subsequently have been interpreted as being incorporated into the service of the established Temple as Luke’s Gospel records for us (2:22-24).

Significantly, we can see that the family couldn’t have been too well off at this point in time judging by their choice of offering (Luke 2:24, Lev 12:8) which was laid upon women who found it impossible to afford a lamb. This doesn’t, however, mean that they remained in this sort of state, but a family that had been uprooted from their home in Nazereth (Luke 2:1-5) and whose head, Joseph, had had to leave behind his livelihood and, perhaps, his business as a carpenter (Mtw 13:55) could not have had much money saved up to live on - Joseph may even have been hoping that they would have made it back to Nazareth before the baby was delivered.

Interestingly, tradition holds that Nazareth was a small village, a backwater, that lacked any real prosperity at this time in its history but the place was situated only around 5 miles as the crow flies from Sepphoris which was being extensively rebuilt and which would have needed skilled craftsmen to take part in their rebuilding program (see ‘Sepphoris - An Urban Portrait of Jesus’, Bibilical Archaeology Review, May/June 1992, pages 50-62).

Both Joseph and Jesus (who is also called ‘the carpenter’ - Mark 6:3) may well have actively participated in the rebuilding of this city and Jesus would have seen first hand the culture of the Greeks of His day as well as the prosperity of many of the more fortunate Jews.

9. The Magi/Star Diviners visit
Mtw 2:1-2,16-18

10. Flight to Egypt
Mtw 2:13-15

11. Return from Egypt
Mtw 2:19-22

12. Journey to Nazareth
Mtw 2:23, Luke 2:39-40

13. Passover (12 years old)
Luke 2:41-51

14. Aged 12-30 years
Luke 2:52

Luke gives us the age of Jesus at the start of his ministry as ‘about thirty years of age’ (Luke 3:23) and it seems probable that His ministry continued for the following three years (Luke 13:7). I have discussed the possible date of the visitation of the Magi in my notes on Matthew chapter 2 here and noted that the incident, which took place around a year after Jesus’ birth, had to have occurred during the reign of king Herod who died in 4BC.

The facts thus presented, it seems likely that Jesus was born no later than 5BC and more likely not after 6BC, making the date of the start of his ministry as c.24AD (there being no 0BC or AD) with His crucifixion c.27. Just how many years either side of Luke’s ‘about thirty years’ can be accepted is difficult to be certain about but, if +/- 3 years is the intention as it would be in modern usage, the date of the crucifixion would have to be between 24-30AD.

The earlier Jesus’ birth is pushed into the reign of Herod, the earlier the crucifixion date would have to be - even a date of 18AD is not impossible.

Notes on the Chronology

There are numerous dissimilarities between the two incidents cited at points 6 and 9, so much so that they would appear to be detailing two totally different events in the early life of Jesus. The reader will already have noticed that I divided the two Scripture references by a further two incidents which would have taken place in Jerusalem, and to which both Mary and Joseph could have travelled both to and from within a single day’s journey from the small village of Bethlehem which was only a short distance away - seven miles as the crow flies.

Although the former of these two events - the circumcision commanded to occur on the eighth day after birth (Gen 17:9-14) - did not have to have taken place within the Holy City (Lev 12:3), the second - the Purification of Mary (Lev chapter 12) - had to have taken place within the confines of the Temple and it places the family still within the land of Israel which is incompatible with the statement in Matthew’s Gospel (2:14-15) that they

‘...departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod’

Even with a fortuitous journey into Egypt, it is unlikely - even impossible - that the family could have travelled to the neighbouring land, heard news of Herod’s death (the Scripture infers that he heard of the death of Herod from divine rather than natural sources - Mtw 2:19) and then returned to the Temple for the purification rites all in the space of forty days.

Both stories - the flight into Egypt recorded in Matthew and the Purification in the Temple - end with the statement that the family returned to Nazereth but, in the latter’s case, there was first a return to Bethlehem where the events of Matthew chapter 2 took place, the flight to Egypt and then the return into Israel before the settling in the town of Nazareth.

The Scriptural account in Matthew chapter 2 seems also to place the occurence of the incident as being well after the birth of Jesus Christ. If we are to take the magi’s pronouncement in 2:2 that the child’s ‘star’ had been seen at the time of Jesus’ birth, then it would naturally have taken them many days to have traversed the distance from where they resided, so making it impossible for them to have been there at the same time as the events of Luke 2:1-20. This is all the more apparent when Matthew’s passage is read for Herod enquires of them to determine precisely at what time this star had first been seen (2:7) which indicates that the magi did indeed tie in its appearance with His birth.

Therefore, Herod goes on to command that every child who was ‘two years old or under’ (Mtw 2:16) should be put to death in the village of Bethlehem and then the entire region. If Jesus had just been born a few days - or, at the most, a month - before Herod’s command was issued, there would have been little point in putting the ceiling of the age as two years when a new-born baby could have easily been determined. It only makes sense if Herod thought the child to have been around a year old.

However, while their statements and Herod’s questioning is accepted as an accurate account of the events which were transpiring in Jerusalem, it does not have to follow that Jesus’ birth was marked by the emergence of a (new) star witnessed by astrologers. They may have understood this star as representing the birth even though it could have represented some other distinct time in Jesus’ early life of which they were ignorant.

But there is more to seeing these two events in Luke and Matthew as being separate incidents, separated by at least 40 days. The facts of the two passages indicate to us that they are differing incidents and the situations in which the family find themselves are quite different from one another.

For example, Mary and Joseph are spoken of as being in ‘the house’ (Mtw 2:11 - Strongs Greek number 3614) whereas Luke 2:7 records for us that the guest house in the village was full so that Mary was obliged to give birth to Jesus in some sort of stable building, wrapping him in cloths and laying Him in a manger (Strongs Greek number 5336), a feeding trough of one of the animals.

As Edersheim (updated edition) notes

‘It appears that the temporary shelter of the stable had been exchanged by the Holy Family for the more permanent abode of a house’

Incidentally, the inn-keeper who is often an anti-hero in this story, needs to have his imputed reputation reconsidered. If it was he who had actually suggested to them that they take refuge in the stable (and the Bible is silent on this even though we have dreamed up the story for him), then he should be commended for coming up with a suggestion as to how they may find shelter - it hardly seems fair to place blame upon him because he refused to throw onto the streets his residents - hardly a just move and commendable by the Lord!

However, in the days of those times, the ‘stable’ (which doesn’t appear in the Gospel accounts) was often attached to the house. Even more than this, it was an integral part of the house. In our present day Western society, we keep our livestock away from the house in separate outbuildings, but archaelogical excavations would suggest that there was just the one building that doubled for the night shelter of both animals and humans.

If the innkeeper, then, was the person who persuaded them to take shelter in the ‘stable’, he was actually suggesting to them that they take up residence in the dwelling place for his own family rather than in some outhouse where only the livestock dwelt.

However, having said all this, the ‘house’ of Matthew could be envisaged as being the same structure as the ‘stable’ of Luke as Matmor says in a footnote and previously discussed above that

‘...the house may have been that of poor people with the animals living under the same roof as the family’

Matthew also speaks of the ‘child’ in Mtw 2:9,11 (Strongs Greek number 3813) whereas Luke speaks of the ‘babe’ in Luke 2:12,16 (Strongs Greek number 1025) though he goes on to describe Jesus as a ‘child’ forty days after the birth (Luke 2:22,27). This may sound fairly significant, but John 16:21 shows us that the word for ‘child’ may also be used of one who has just that moment been born and II Tim 3:15 employs the word for ‘babe’ when a new born child could not possibly be meant - so the use of the differing words is not overly significant.

But there are other hints that our Christmas postcards which show both the magi (Mtw 2:1-23) and the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20) present at the same time at the birth of Christ are incorrect. Matthew says nothing about the new birth of Jesus in the context of the Magi’s visit to the house in Bethlehem whereas Luke makes sure the reader understands that this was the event which had just taken place and to which the shepherds came to rejoice over (2:7,11,16-17).

Matthew also speaks of the departure of the magi with the urgency laid upon Joseph to flee Bethlehem for Egypt (2:13-15) whereas Luke notes that both the circumcision and the Purification of Mary took place a further forty days in the future before they travelled into Egypt (2:21-39).

All in all, these are two very dissimilar passages and are best separated from each other by a considerable period of time for the ceremonies to have taken place in the Temple at Jerusalem before the flight into Egypt.