Saturday, November 24, 2007

Nazareth or Egypt?

How well do you know the Christmas story? I thought I knew it pretty well, until I started research for our latest set of Bible pictures based on the Nativity story. I've illustrated the Nativity at least three times before, so I wasn't expecting to find anything new in it. (sound familiar?)

For some reason, I hadn't noticed before that the accounts of the Nativity given in Matthew and Luke don't quite match up. Matthew says that Mary, Joseph and baby fled south to Egypt following the birth of Jesus, (Matt 2:13), while Luke says they went north to Nazareth! (Lk 2:39). Whenever you come across what appears to be a contradiction in the Bible, you've usually discovered something that, not only isn't a contradiction, but actually ties up a lot of those loose ends that once puzzled you. At least that's been my experience, and as we will see, this case is no exception!

Luke clearly gives us the details of the first few weeks in the life of the Lord Jesus. The events of the Nativity as recorded by Luke in chapter 2 are as follows:

1). Jesus born in the stable at Bethlehem.
2). Angel appears to shepherds.
3). Shepherds visit baby Jesus in the stable, "after searching". (Amplified Bible).
4). Eight days later, Jesus is circumcised.
5). 32 days later, the family travel the 5 miles to Jerusalem for the Dedication of Jesus. According to
Lev: 12, 40 days are needed for the purification of the mother following the birth of a male child.
This includes the 8 days leading up to the circumcision. (8+32=40).
6). Dedication of Jesus at Jerusalem.
7). The family travels to Nazareth. This is a journey of 65 miles. (approximately 6 days, allowing for the difficult terrain, heat etc).

So roughly 46 days or so after the birth of Jesus, the family are back at home in Nazareth.

But, didn't the wise men visit the baby Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem? It would appear not, Matthew 2:11 clearly says "And when they had come into the house..." (not a stable). But, wasn't the house in Bethlehem? Before we try to answer that, let's take another look at the events of the Nativity as recorded this time by Matthew in chapter two.

Firstly, we don't read that the wise men followed the star all the way from the east. It seems that the star that initially appeared to the Magi in the East, didn't reappear again until the wise men left Herod's palace, (possibly up to two years later). This would explain their great joy and surprise at seeing the star in v9. The question is, why did the star appear again? The wise men were already on their way to Bethlehem, and when they got there, all they had to do was ask! The shepherds had already told everyone in Bethlehem what had happened in that now famous stable, (Lk 2:17).
Or, did the star appear because the baby Jesus was no longer in the stable, in fact, no longer in Bethlehem? Was the star now guiding them to Nazareth? Notice also that the wise men in v7 presumably told King Herod that the star first appeared two years earlier! This was the reason Herod ordered the slaughter of 14,000 male infants up to two years old.

If the star appeared at the time of the birth, according to experts it would have taken the Magi nine months to travel from Persia to Judea. Add to that the time it must have taken to interpret the meaning of the star from their ancient writings, and the time to gather the supplies and make arrangements for such an epic journey, and two years starts to sound about right!

There is another reason also why it's doubtful that the Magi arrived at the time of the actual birth:
The news of any male babies being brought into the Temple in Jerusalem for dedication, following the visit of the wise men would have aroused so much attention, Herod was sure to have been informed. Especially babies that had been born in Bethlehem! Remember that Herod was in the process of funding the building of a beautiful new Temple for the nation of Israel at this time. The chief priests and scribes had already showed themselves to be more than happy to lead Herod to the Messiah, so that he could worship Him also, (v8). The dedication of Jesus as recorded by Luke must have happened earlier for this reason alone!

There are two problems with this scenario though. Firstly, why would Joseph and his family flee from Nazareth, (which is 65 miles away), following the warning given by the angel? Well, Galilee was still in the northern part of Herod's kingdom, so Herod did have the authority to slay children there also. Could it also be possible that the chief priests and scribes made the same Messianic connection that Matthew made with Nazareth in Matt 2:23? Whatever your view is of that verse, the fact is that Matthew chose to record his interpretation in scripture, so it is possible that others came to the same conclusion regarding it. This would have been reason enough for Herod to send his soldiers north to Nazareth.

But, there's still another problem. The other question that arises is, why they would flee south to Egypt from Nazareth? A journey of over 100 miles that would take them dangerously close to Jerusalem! They would have probably taken the trade route which followed the coast, but it still went through Judea.

There is another scenario however, that does tick all the boxes.
Luke 2:41 records for us the fact that Joseph and his family returned from Nazareth to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Feast of the Passover. Luke chooses to mention this because, on this occasion, Mary & Joseph lose the twelve year old Jesus! What Luke doesn't record though is the fact that, according to Jewish law, Joseph was required to return to Jerusalem not once, but three times a year, because there were three pilgrim festivals that required the male member of the family to bring his tithes and offerings to Jerusalem. Passover (Pesach), Pentecost (Shavuot), and the Feast of Booths (Sukkot).
The population of Jerusalem at these festival times swelled from around 600,000 to 2-3 million! which made accommodation hard to find. It makes sense that Joseph and his family would return to Bethlehem each time, as It is very likely that following the 'press release' given out by the shepherds, following their heavenly visitation, there would have been numerous offers of accommodation in Bethlehem for this special family. So, there would have been up to six visits made by the family to Bethlehem during the two years following the birth of Jesus. It's possible that the family made good friends in Bethlehem and stayed in the same house on each visit.

Was it during one of these visits to Bethlehem that the Magi came bearing gifts? This would explain why they came to see a 'young child' in a 'house', (Matt 2:11), opposed to a 'Babe' in a 'manger', (Luke 2:16). It also makes more sense that Joseph and family fled south to Egypt from Bethlehem which already lies south of Jerusalem. The star would almost certainly be needed too, to guide the Magi to the house where they were lodging.

So, how should all the details mentioned above effect how Bible artists illustrate the Nativity story? Well, there are a number of points worth taking note of;
1). The wise men didn't visit the stable. Matt 2:11. (This is correctly shown in one of the paintings by Bible artist William Hole).
2). The star didn't appear over the stable. Which makes just about every Christmas card ever made incorrect!
3). The wise men probably didn't follow the star from the East, despite what the carols say!
4). The shepherds were not directed to the stable by a star.
5). There were probably up to 1,000 Persian soldiers accompanying the Magi, as well as those carrying supplies. This was a huge caravan of travelers, correctly shown above by Bible artist James McConnell. (© Look & 2007). Incidentally, if you are interested in purchasing this original piece of Bible art by James McConnell shown above, you can! click here for details.

Those who produce sequential Bible art, (cartoon strip), are less likely to make mistakes like those mentioned above because they move frame by frame through the story, although I did notice, in Paolo Eleuteri-Serpieri's masterpiece on the Nativity, that he shows Joseph and his family returning from Jerusalem to the stable in Bethlehem! This is more likely the mistake of the writer Etienne Dahler though.
As always, I look forward to your thoughts on the above subject. I hope you enjoyed reading this 'Christmas conundrum'!

Update 4 December 2010: One person left an interesting link in the comments which suggests that the birth took place, not in a stable, but in the lower level of a two story house. There was still a manger there as the animals were kept on the ground floor. Have a read at:

Related posts:
Pictures of the Nativity
Drawing Angels!


Paul Green said...

Excellent research Graham. Your blog inspired me to read Matthew and Luke again. And it is true that the magi visited Jesus some time after his birth when he was a young child rather than an infant. Otherwise why would Herod want to kill any child two years or younger?
Interesting to see that even though Jesus was presented with three gifts, the number of the magi is never mentioned. It is my experience that if a gospel account doesn't mention specific facts it is because they serve no purpose in furthering the story of Jesus. It doesn't matter is Jesus was 9 months old, one year old or two years old when the magi presented their gifts. The only point of interest for Matthew was the fact of the giving of the gifts in homage. The analytical mindset of today where film footage is replayed in a loop to "confirm" the truth of the event wasn't a factor in the minds of the gospel authors. We often have to read between the lines and actually THINK instead of reading the gospels with the mind of a couch potato. If something isn't presented to us in black and white don't assume it's a mistake.

Bible artist said...

I think that years of watching Nativity plays where 3 kings arrive at the stable with the shepherds, have had the effect of dulling our minds to the actual events!

Apparently this is one of the so called contradictions that atheists like to jump on.
But, as you rightly say, the different gospel writers only recorded those things that seemed relevant to them. Luke doesn't mention the wise men, and Matthew doesn't mention the shepherds! We would prefer it if they all mentioned everything, and in the right order!

It's also important to remember that the Gospel of Matthew reveals Christ as King, while Luke reveals Christ as Man. These things also have a bearing on what the different writers recorded, although they may not have been aware of it.

Ruth said...

This is probably the best explanation I have seen of this question. My mother, now 85, refused to allow the magi in the nativity we displayed at Christmas, a tradition I have maintained. I will share your research and explanation with others.

The Bearded Belgian said...

Thank you so very much for this!

I had heard of this before, but this is the first actual study I've read about this.

Horseman said...

Well done. I will have to read this several times to digest it all. Sometimes people wonder, “why did they go to Egypt”? I have learned from my research that it was likely Alexandria where they went. There was a huge and successful population of Jews living in Alexandria (one source indicated that more Jews were there than in the holy land). I have read that Alexandria was the New York of that time period. It has been suggested that one reason Herod was building the temple was an effort to lure these Jews (and their wealth) to Judea. Perhaps that is a matter of opinion. Anyway, the city of Alexandria would have been the perfect place to hide a Jewish child. The Jews there seem to have had no allegiance to Herod and was out of his reach. Further, Joseph would have found work as a carpenter there in such a city. If memory serves me correctly, they remained in Egypt until Herod died. I wonder how long that was?

Bible artist said...

Thanks Ruth, It sounds like your mother knows her Bible!
Come to think of it, I don't think that I've ever seen a nativity play where the wise men don't visit the stable! Keep up the good work.

My pleasure. I have some Cherubim artwork that I think you might like to see. I will upload it soon.

Horseman, thanks for that, I haven't read about the Alexandria theory. It is interesting. I haven't looked into how long Mary, Joseph and Jesus were in Egypt for. Some scholars believe that Jesus was born around 5 BC. History tells us that King Herod died in 4 BC, so I would guess that it was around 12 months.

The Bearded Belgian said...

looking forward to it!

Adam Lane said...

The wise men, familiar with the prophecies that foretold the birth of Christ, and recognizing the signs that had been given, came into Jerusalem saying: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1, 2.) Herod, thinking that the promised Messiah would be a threat to his kingdom, sent soldiers to destroy every child two years old and under in Bethlehem. But an angel had warned Joseph and he had taken Mary and the child Jesus to Egypt.

The wise men arrived in Jerusalem when Jesus was a young child. They were directed by Herod’s court to Bethlehem. “And when they were come into the house [Jesus was no longer in a stable], they saw the young child [no longer a babe] . . . and fell down, and worshipped him.” (Matthew 2:11.) Then the wise men, because an angel warned them not to return to Herod, departed into their own country by another way. When Herod saw that the wise men did not return, he sent his soldiers to kill every child “two years old and under.” (Matthew 2:7, 16.)

Christian said...

Dear Mr. Kennedy,

I was perusing(and continue to do so) you great site here and stumbled or wandered would be more correct, upon this discussion. Might I offer another scenario in one simple question? How often did Ceasar take tax roll?

It is wonderful to note that the "differences" found in the story still co-incide. I also, like Nikolaj have heard of this and indeed am a firm believer in it. It would be reasonable (and might indeed be provable from extra-Biblical writings) that Ceasar would not only take census/tax-roll once during his reign but every few years. As Adam pointed out, the Scriptures prophesy of the mourning of the mothers of Bethleham in Jeremiah 31:15, therefore the slaughter would have occured there according to the Word of the Lord. How do we make the connection that Bethlemhem was the location mentioned in Jeremiah? Because Rachael was burried there at Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19). Why Egypt? Allow me to suggest that there was/is a certain fulfillment in Jesus coming out of Egypt. Hosea 11:1 is the prophecy that Matthew refers to here. Think of it as Moses bringing Israel out of Egypt then giving the law is the shadow, Christ coming out of Egypt and bringing the new will is the real (Hebrews 8-10).

One other point on the subject. As the wisemen's caravan was in all likelyhood huge, it would have been easy for Herod, by various means, to follow the wisemen's trail and then the slaughter would have happened in Nazareth a village far to the north (65 miles was it not?).

Just adding my 2 cents worth.


Bible artist said...

Hi Christian
Thanks for your 2 cents worth!
There would have had to have been another census take place two years after the first one did to justify it being a valid reason for Joseph returning to Bethlehem. I'm not sure that they would have been that frequent. We do know though that the family did return to Jerusalem at least once a year for the various feast days.

The point you make about Herod tracking the huge caravan is a good point.

Unknown said...

Just want to point out that the Bible doesn't say that Jesus was born in a stable. It only says that he was laid in a manger. Feeding troughs now days can be outside, maybe in a field or something. It seems that Mary could have delivered Jesus outside. I'm not up on how Jewish people took care of animals, but I would think that this is a possibility.

Renju Philip said...

Dear Graham,

Thank you for the answer, its beautifully explained. I was in the process of creating a simple story in a chronological order about the nativity and i was stuck here on "Did they ever went to Nazareth before going to Egypt or was they stayed in Jerusalem till the wise men came" but now its clear.

They went back to Nazareth and the family of Jesus followed all the Jewish rituals properly so they should have visited Jerusalem three times a year and on one such visit they met wise men.

Also the fact that Herod could have given a watch at the temple of all the children is very true

God bless your work, Wish you a blessed Christmas

Love and Prayers
Renju Philip
From Trivandrum, Kerala India

Bible artist said...

Many thanks for the feedback Ren. God bless you and have a blessed christmas!

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm in the process of writing a Christmas Album and wanted to remain true to what the bible teaches us - without all the rubbish thrown in. So it was good to read the article which helps us all to rethink the actual events recorded. As has already been commented, I too noticed your frequent use of the word stable but this is also a mere assumption. I read an interesting theory on answers in genesis ( which I believe is more than likely, particularly regarding the upper and lower rooms. Thanks for sharing!

Bible artist said...

Thanks for the link Anonymous, I will add it to the post.

Unknown said...

Enjoyable reading been doing a comparrison study of Luke and Matthew discovered some time ago The wise men could have been any number and without doubt did not visit our Lord as a Baby asleep in the manger.
I felt it was in Nazareth but who knows really.We only try to work it out from reading the Word carefully and prayerfully.
I always wondered how Mary Joseph and child managed to go all that way to Egypt how long would it have taken.

Unknown said...

Enjoyable reading been doing a comparrison study of Luke and Matthew discovered some time ago The wise men could have been any number and without doubt did not visit our Lord as a Baby asleep in the manger.
I felt it was in Nazareth but who knows really.We only try to work it out from reading the Word carefully and prayerfully.
I always wondered how Mary Joseph and child managed to go all that way to Egypt how long would it have taken.