Defending the Gospels of Matthew and Luke: A Response to Richard Dawkins

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When the gospels were written, many years after Jesus’ death, nobody knew where he was born. But an Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2) had led Jews to expect that the long-awaited Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. In the light of this prophecy, John’s gospel specifically remarks that his followers were surprised that he was not born in Bethlehem: ‘Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?’

Matthew and Luke handle the problem differently, by deciding that Jesus must have been born in Bethlehem after all. But they get him there by different routes. Matthew has Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem all along, moving to Nazareth only long after the birth of Jesus, on their return from Egypt where they fled from King Herod and the massacre of the innocents. Luke, by contrast, acknowledges that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth before Jesus was born. So how to get them to Bethlehem at the crucial moment, in order to fulfil the prophecy? Luke says that, in the time when Cyrenius (Quirinius) was governor of Syria, Caesar Augustus decreed a census for taxation purposes, and everybody had to go ‘to his own city’. Joseph was ‘of the house and lineage of David’ and therefore he had to go to ‘the city of David, which is called Bethlehem’. That must have seemed like a good solution. Except that historically it is complete nonsense, as A. N. Wilson in Jesus and Robin Lane Fox in The Unauthorized Version (among others) have pointed out” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Boston and New York: First Mariner Books, 2008, Kindle Edition, pp. 118-119).

I’ve been making my way through Richard Dawkins’s best-selling work, The God Delusion, a book which has received 4.5 stars at Amazon and continues to sell to this day (the price of the Kindle Edition book has risen $3 since I purchased it for $7.97 back in 2013).

Today’s post concerns Richard Dawkins’s own thoughts regarding his view of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) in Scripture. Dawkins focuses on Matthew and Luke, since both of these detail the accounts of the early days of the life of Jesus. What Dawkins wants to say here is that Matthew and Luke provided “contradictory” accounts of the life of Christ, or that Matthew and Luke give two different accounts of how Jesus gets to Bethlehem.

Reconciling Matthew 2 and Luke 2: the events of Jesus’ birth and early days

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The birth of Jesus. Image Credit: St Paul Center

In the Gospel of Matthew, we see that the events of Matthew 2 take place “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king” (Matthew 2:1, NKJV). Between Matthew chapters 1 and 2, Jesus is born. Matthew doesn’t cover Jesus’ birth, but rather focuses on Joseph and his angelic visitation in his dream, then the magi (wise men) who come from the East bearing gifts and worshipping Him. Luke, on the other hand, covers the night that Jesus was born in Luke 2, with the shepherds being the first to tell of Christ’s birth. As one can see here, Matthew and Luke have different emphases with their biographical accounts of the birth of Christ. This doesn’t mean the two accounts are contradictory.

Their different emphases are the equivalent of what news reporters do when covering a big story: one may cover the injured party in the accident and the witnesses who saw the accident unfold (for example), while another news reporter from another media outlet may cover the account from the drunk driver himself or a passenger on the car who witnessed the accident but was in no shape to control any of the events in question.

Dawkins says in the quote above that Matthew has Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, though they don’t move to Nazareth until coming from Egypt due to Herod’s plot to kill all Jewish males and put down “the king of the Jews.” However, we shouldn’t read this to think that Mary and Joseph couldn’t have lived in Nazareth before relocating to Bethlehem. After all, Matthew isn’t concerned with where Mary and Joseph lived prior to Jesus’ birth — which is why he simply doesn’t mention it. Failing to mention where they lived pre-Christ isn’t a contradiction with Luke’s mentioning it; it simply means that Luke wanted to provide more detailed info on the subject whereas Matthew did not.

Another thing to notice about Matthew 2 and Luke 2 is that both show us Jesus at different times within His early childhood: while Jesus could’ve been as old as 2 years of age in Matthew 2 when Herod goes on his slaughtering rampage (see Matthew 2:16), Jesus is only days old in Luke 2 (see Luke 2:21); after all, He is only eight days old and had to be circumcised according to Jewish law in Luke’s Gospel. The Jesus of Matthew 2 is older than the Jesus of Luke 2, meaning that these accounts could have different times as their focus. Again, it’s difficult to see how these accounts could be contradictory.

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Image Credit: MCA Online

Then, there’s the issue of Jesus being some days old when Mary and Joseph take Him to Nazareth in Luke 2, whereas Jesus is likely a year or older when Mary and Joseph leave Egypt and bring Him to Nazareth (to avoid Herod’s descendant, Archelaus, ruling in Judea) in Matthew 2. And yet, Matthew mentions Herod and the flee to Egypt while Luke does not. How can these two accounts be reconciled? I think it has something to do with Matthew’s account. We read these words at the end of Matthew 2:

Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:19-23)

At the end of Luke 2, Mary and Joseph return to Nazareth; they were only in Bethlehem to register for the census (see Luke 2:1-3), so Luke says they returned to Nazareth — their home at the time. By the time the events of Matthew 2 take place, Jesus could be a year old, which means that Mary and Joseph could’ve relocated to Bethlehem again after staying in Nazareth for some time. Why would they have returned to Bethlehem? Work (Joseph possibly found better work opportunities and standard of living in Bethlehem), better clientele and thus, more income for his carpentry business,  or just personal reasons (they liked Bethlehem better, Mary’s family lived there and they could be closer to Jesus, etc.).

We can see this because we read in Matthew 2 that the Magi, upon visiting Jesus, “when they had come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary His mother” (Matthew 2:11). Whereas Jesus had been born in a manger (according to Luke 2), we now see that Mary and Jesus are in a “house,” a sign that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus perhaps settled there in Bethlehem as residents. Unlike the first time they were in Bethlehem, to register for the census and to give birth to Jesus, they reside in Bethlehem now as residents, people who live in the area. Settling in a house implies their desire to stay for some time. When Matthew picks up on the Jesus birth story in Matthew 2, we can presume this was a second visit to Bethlehem — albeit, something more long-term this time than at the point of His birth.

What we see here is that Luke gives more background on Mary and Joseph, telling us they live in Nazareth before relocating to Bethlehem, the City of David, for the census registration. Jesus is born while they’re in Bethlehem, and after circumcising Him and follow all the rituals of Scripture with regard to a newborn, they return to Nazareth. Later on, they relocate to Bethlehem as residents with the desire to live there, and the Magi come to see Jesus because of “His Star” (Matthew 2:2; we don’t know how long the Star of Jesus had been in the sky).

After the Magi, Herod seeks to kill Jesus, at which point Joseph is warned by God in a dream to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt because “Herod seeks to kill the Child” (Matthew 2:13). Mary and Joseph stay until Herod dies, then they return to Nazareth for the third time. Of course, Jesus resides in Nazareth as a young boy, but His return to Nazareth fulfills the Scripture “He shall be called a Nazarene” (for it tells us that He was not only living there for a while but grew up there).

Jesus is born in Bethlehem, but nowhere in the Old Testament was it ever said that Jesus would be raised in Bethlehem; with that said, Joseph and Mary could’ve likely moved around a few times, relocating for personal and financial reasons until they decided to settle in Bethlehem. The rise of Archelaus after the death of his evil relative, Herod, and a second dream of warning from God to Joseph, explains why Joseph decides (against his personal desire) to go back to Nazareth.

Conclusion

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The Magi follow the Star of Jesus. Image Credit: Evangelical Lutheran Church of Mt. Horeb

It’s a good time to recap what we’ve investigated here. The purpose of this post was to look at Richard Dawkins’s claim about Matthew 2 and Luke 2 and their “seemingly contradictory” accounts regarding the early days of Jesus. We’ve seen that Luke’s focus is on the early days of Jesus (immediately post-birth, up to a few weeks old perhaps) while Matthew’s focus is on an older Jesus, who was likely as old as 2 years of age when the Magi come to see Him in a manger. Eight days old versus 2 days old — it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that two different time frames are at play here, not contradiction.

With a look at the events of Matthew 2 and Luke 2, we don’t see contradiction; instead, we see two types of insight from two different time circumstances (one in which Jesus is days old, one in which some months or years have passed). We also see two different emphases of their Gospels: Matthew focuses on the Jewishness of Jesus in his Gospel, which is why he mentions the Gentile Magi coming to visit “the King of the Jews,” why it is that Herod is intimidated by Him and seeks to eliminate any political threats to his throne (hence, the slaughter of the innocents), and why it is that Jesus must come out of Egypt (a reference from Hosea 11:1, “out of Egypt I have called My Son”) and His subsequent settling in Nazareth (“He shall be called a Nazarene,” Matthew 2:23).

Luke’s Gospel, in contrast, is all about Jesus coming for all mankind including the Gentiles. It explains why Luke writes to a Roman by the name of Theophilus (Luke 1:3), why Luke details Jesus’ birth and how the angels proclaim that these “good tidings of great joy…shall be to all people” (including the Gentiles), and so on. Matthew and Luke have two different aspects of focus in the life of Jesus, and this refutes the idea that their accounts are contradictory. We may not know all that happens in-between Jesus’ birth and the visit from the Magi, but the absence of information doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that the accounts are contradictory or disagree with each other.

Christians out there who want to defend the Gospels of Matthew and Luke can do so with joy because, as the Gospels themselves detail, Jesus was at a different age in Luke 2 than He was in Matthew 2. Richard Dawkins wants to make these accounts disagree to make his case, but once again, he sheds light on what lengths atheists and skeptics will go to demolish the faith of Christians. His claim hasn’t depleted our faith, and we pray this post will be used to discuss Matthew and Luke intelligently with those who disbelieve the account of the birth of Jesus Christ. God bless.