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Allow me to explain (Christmas Edition)

January 3, 2011

Back-story is here. Past explanations are here. You can subscribe there >>>

I’m sure this one is on the poster somewhere, but I didn’t bother to look for it. I’ve heard this “contention” come up several times in the past few weeks – for obvious reasons – so I decided to skip ahead for a special, Christmas Edition, of “Allow me to explain.”

What happened to Joseph, Mary and Jesus after Jesus’ birth?

It seems the gospels don’t agree. Let’s see.

Matthew 2:13-15//
Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” 14 So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. 15 He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

Luke 2:21-22, 39-40//
And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. 22 Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord

So when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. 40 And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.

It seems that Matthew records the family travelling to Egypt after the magi left, and Luke records them going to the temple in Jerusalem and then back to Nazareth. Which is it?

Short answer: Both. 

Luke tells us that Jesus was circumcised and named after eight days, according to the law. The next verse mentions their trip to the temple, but Jesus was probably circumcised at home. Luke 2:22 says that when Mary’s purification time was over, they went to the temple. According to Leviticus 12, that was 33 days. So there is a delay of at least a month between verses 21 and 22. Point for now: Jesus was circumcised after eight days, but not in the temple in Jerusalem.

Matthew, in his second chapter, records the magi ending their visit, deciding not to go back by way of Herod, and,”when they had gone,” Joseph being obedient to take the family to Egypt. This probably happened in quick succession.

We’ve no reason to believe the magi stayed very long in Bethlehem – Joseph and Mary may have started putting together a home in Bethlehem by then, but surely didn’t have room to take in a small company of magi and their servants. Further, Bethlehem isn’t far from Jerusalem. It would not have taken Herod a few days to realize that the magi weren’t coming back to him. With the infant slaughter imminent, Joseph packed Mary and the (circumcised) child and headed to Egypt.

We’re told, by Matthew, that they stayed there until the death of Herod. So how long was that? Probably not as long as you think.

There’s some disagreement about the date of Herod’s death, and the general consensus is that we don’t really know the exact date of Jesus’ birth. The best research I’ve found on the topic is by Professor Fredrick A. Larson, who has a great presentation and a lot of info on his website. He put’s Christ’s birth at the end of 2 BC, and Herod’s death in 1 BC. Which ever date you like best for Herod’s death, scholars agree that it was one – maybe two – years after Jesus was born. Point: They weren’t in Egypt very long.

What happened next? This is where the skeptics need to just keep reading (again).

Matthew 2:19-23 tell us that after Herod’s death, an angel showed up to bring Joseph and the family back to Israel. They headed for Judah, but because Herod’s son was reigning there in his place, were sent to Galilee instead … to a city called Nazareth.

Here, Matthew jumps to John the baptist, but Luke gives us more of the early story.

Mary’s days of purification would have been completed while they were in Egypt, but when God says, “Stay here until I call you,” you stay. After He called them back to Israel – the days of Mary’s purification being completed, and then some – they fulfilled the law by taking Jesus to the temple to dedicate the “child.”

We don’t really know how long they waited to dedicate Jesus in the temple. Most families, and Luke confirms their family did the same in 2:41, travelled to Jerusalem every year for the Passover. It’s not far-fetched to assume that a young couple with their first child – having travelled to Bethlehem in a pinch, and then made a quick escape to Egypt for a year, and then been brought back and changed course on their return – would not be in a hurry to make an extra trip to Jerusalem. They may have waited until the Passover trip, and dedicated Him while they were there.

The first time we get a pronoun for Jesus in Luke’s account of them in the temple is in verse 27, when Simon sees the “child.” The Greek word there is “paidion” (Strongs #3813) which means a young child, general implying a child up to seven years old. Jesus probably wasn’t as old as seven, but the point is He wasn’t an infant either.

Luke finishes his account of this part of the story, in verse 39, by telling us that after all the action in the temple, they returned to their own city: Nazareth. Luke can call it “their” city, because they’d been living there already – not since Jesus was born, but since they returned from their about-one-year exile in Egypt.

Got the time-line?

  1. Born in Bethlehem
  2. Visited by magi in Bethlehem
  3. Moved to Egypt to avoid slaughter
  4. Stayed in Egypt for – probably – about a year
  5. Moved back to Nazareth
  6. Visited Jerusalem for dedication (and probably the Passover)
  7. Back to Nazareth for growing-up

Merry Christmas. God is with us. The Word made flesh – equally infalible, or all is lost.

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