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In Matthew 2:14, we are told that Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt:
“When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt.”
Yet in Luke 2:39, they went to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth:
“And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.”
It does not need a rocket scientist to inform us that these verses are contradictory and hence irreconcilable.
In their alleged reply to this irreconcilable error, the missionaries made the claim that:
Joseph and Mary went to Jerusalem to present the new born infant in the temple. From there, they went back to their home in Nazareth. A short time later, the holy family decided to return to Joseph’s ancestral hometown and Jesus’ birthplace, namely Bethlehem in Judea. This is where Matthew picks up. When the Magi found the child Jesus, he was already up to two years old. Being told in a dream about Herod’s desire to kill the child, Joseph left his home and took his family to Egypt until the death of Herod. Fearing that Herod’s son Archelaus would search them out if they returned to Bethlehem, the holy family once again returned to Nazareth and settled there.
We do not accept this explanation, simply because the two narratives in Matthew and Luke are vastly different in a number of details. As Brown himself notes:
…the two narratives are not only different – they are contrary to each other in a number of details. According to Luke 1:26 and 2:39 Mary lives in Nazareth , and so the census of Augustus is invoked to explain how the child was born in Bethlehelm, away from home. In Matthew there is no hint of a coming to Bethlehem, for Joseph and Mary are in a house at Bethlehem were seemingly Jesus was born (2:11). The only journey that Matthew has to explain is why the family went to Nazareth when they came from Egypt instead of returning to their native Bethlehem (2:22-39); this is irreconcilable with Matthew’s implication (2:16) that the child was almost two years old when the family fled from Bethlehem to Egypt and even older when the family came back from Egypt and moved to Nazareth…one must be ruled out, i.e., that both accounts are completely historical.1
In other words, only one of these narratives can be accepted as factual, and not both at the same time. Do note that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (2:6), the family’s flight to Egypt (2:14), Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem (2:18), and the family’s decision to relocate in Nazareth (2:23) occur only in Matthew. Therefore, the more important question is if the missionary is bothered to know the fact that Luke, Mark and John do not mention these significant events. How could they miss mentioning these if they really did happen? Since the gospels circulated independently for quite some time, that means that many of the earliest Christians never got the oppurtunity to know of these stories. Those reading Luke, Mark and John, while they were independently circulating, certainly would not know of them.
Also, commenting upon the story in Matthew, Brown noted the following:
[t]here is no remembrance in the accounts of the ministry of Jesus of such an extraordinary event in this background [the flight to Egypt and massacre at Bethlehem – ed.], and a journey to Egypt is quite irreconcilable with Luke’s account of an orderly and uneventful return from Bethehem to Nazareth shortly after the birth of the child. An attempt has been made to detect independent support for an Egyptian sojourn in the Jewish stories of the second century which have Jesus going to Egypt…However, these stories introduce Egypt as a place where Jesus or his mother sought refuge because of the scandalous (adulterous) character of his birth and as a place where he became adept in black magic which he then used to decieve people. Most likely this is a Jewish polemic against the Gospel picture of Jesus (including the Matthean infancy narrative) and can scarcely be invoked as independent support for the historicity of that picture.2
It also needs to be noted that concerning Raymond Brown, his work on the infancy is the single most authoritative book on the subject, and he himself is a believing Christian scholar of immense repute. Now, if believing Christians cannot agree among themselves if certain passages are contradictory or not, then the missionary should first attempt to convince his own Christian scholars before worrying too much about the Muslims. The fact that Christians scholars themself hotly disagree on this matter indicates the problematic nature of the two accounts.
McDonald and Porter, two believing Christian scholars, also noted the differences in the narratives:
When we compare the birth stories in Matthew and Luke, we see that Matthew focuses on royalty (birth in a house, not a stable: the special gifts of the Magi from the east), while Luke focuses on the lowliness of the birth (the poor shepherds coming to the manger scene to witness the new birth: no room for Jesus in the inn). According to Matthew, evidently Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth, and only after the threat to the life of the newborn child did they consider leaving Bethlehem, going first of all to Egypt and then to Nazareth. Luke tells nothing of the threat to Jesus’ life and indicates that Joseph and Mary originally came from Nazareth and returned there only after all that was necessary regarding purification and dedication of the child in the temple had taken place. Why does Matthew have Jesus taken down to Egypt while Luke simply says that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth with their child? In Matt 2:22. Joseph was warned in a dream to go to Nazareth to avoid dealing with Herod Archelaus. Nothing of this kind of threat is found in Luke, Luke says nothing of the massacre of children in Matt 2. Why are these birth and infancy narratives so different? These questions are not easily answered, but it is probable that the construction of each of these accounts was based on a different theological agenda. Meier says that the point of these widely differing stories is that the church, not Mary or Jesus, wished to make the major theological point that “what Jesus Christ was fully revealed to be at the resurrection (Son of David, Son of God by the Power of the Holy Spirit) he really was from his conception onward.” Because of the considerable differences in these narratives and because they appear to serve early church apologetics. Many, if not most, critical scholars do not see much historical evidence for the life of Jesus in the birth stories of Matthew and Luke. But if the criterion of multiple attestation is taken seriously in light of the fact that the birth stories of Matthew and Luke appear to represent independent traditions, much more credibility should be given to various dimensions of the account. There are basic facts, such as the agreement that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and that Jesus’ birth took place during the reign of Herod the Great (Matt 2:1; Luke 1:50), who died ca. 5/4 B.C. There are also more significant factors-angelic visitations, the special circumstances of conception and visitors attesting to the special qualities of this child that should not be neglected. These point to the significance of Jesus for both Matthew and Luke.3
Again we note that Christians scholars have admitted the fact that there are significant and considerable differences in the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. McDonald and Porter argue that the points where Matthew and Luke agree are historical, yet they do not deny that their stories nonetheless have many differences. If Matthew and Luke were using independent traditions, and if the reports and stories were true and historical, then how do we explain the presence of significant differences in their story of the birth of Jesus? As Raymond Brown mentions, Matthew and Luke had their theological agenda and views to sell, and so they coloured/tainted the reports and traditions to “prove” their theology. Obviously both reports cannot be true, one of them is fiction, or both are fictitious containing an element of historical truth in them.
In light of these evidence, we thus conclude that the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are undoubtedly contradictory to one another, and this is hence a irreconcilable error. And only God knows best.
Addendum: Responding To A Missionary Obfuscation
Naturally, the missionaries, as per their tradition of welling hatred towards the noble Qur’an, attempt to erect this straw-man in order to avoid the embarrassment of the irreconcilable error in the birth narratives of Jesus. Our answer to the provocative Christian missionary questioning follows.
- How do you explain that in the Quran the person of Mary’s husband Joseph as well as the towns of Nazareth, Bethlehem and the journey to Egypt all disappeared?
According to the various scholars of the Bible, the above are fiction invented by the anonymous author of the Gospel according to Matthew. Therefore there is no point blaming the Qur’an for rightfully excluding these fiction. Therefore, what the Qur’an is “lacking” is fictitious stories concocted by the authors of the Gospels.
So the question that should be asked now is that did the journey ever take place or was it an invention of the anonymous gospel author to “prove” and make his theological point? It is important to note how the author of Matthew made use of the Jewish Bible and molded some of its contents to “prove” his theology. A male child is born to Jewish parents, a tyrant ruler (Herod) learns of this and sets out to destroy him. The child is supernaturally protected from harm and is taken to Egypt. He then leaves Egypt to pass through the waters (of baptism) and goes into wilderness to be tested for a long time. Later he goes up on a mountain and delivers God’s law to those who have been following him. We see that Matthew shaped the stories pertaining to Jesus(P) to “show” that Jesus'(P) life was a fulfillment of the stories of Moses(P) (cf. Exodus 1-20). Matthew’s target market were the Jewish readers. No one can ignore these parellels. Herod is made into a Pharoah-like ruler, Jesus’ baptism is like Moses crossing the Red Sea, the forty days of temptation are like the forty years the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, and the sermon on the mount is like the law of Moses delievered on Mount Sinai. Jesus(P) is therefore portrayed by Matthew as the “new” Moses, come to set his people free from their bondage and give them new law and teachings. In order to present this picture of Jesus(P), the author of Matthew had to colour the traditions he used. Therefore not everything within his gospel is historical.
- but has it ever bothered him that the Quran is lacking so much information?
No, it has never bothered us to know that the Qur’an lacks the fictitious information of the gospels. We hope that this answer satisfies the missionary.
A more important question is if it has ever bothered the missionary that Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem is not mentioned in Luke? How could something so significant escaped the notice of Luke, who is supposed to be a “reliable” historian, and even Mark? What about the visit of the Magi, why is that only mentioned in Matthew and not in the other gospels? Why did the other gospels fail to mention such an important story in their writings if it did take place? Matthew even states that the King and all Jerusalem was upset over the birth of the Messiah in Jerusalem! If this is historical, then why has it not left any traces in Jewish records and elsewhere in the New Testament?
- This is all the more striking in this case, since the vast majority of all verses in the Quran speaking about Jesus deal with his miraculous birth.
The verses of the Qur’an dealing with the birth of the Messiah, Jesus(P) are collected here. The Qur’an mentions the miraculous birth of Jesus(P), that he was born to a virgin, and mentions that he was not the divine son of God or God, that he asked people to worship God whom he worshipped and accept him as His messenger. The Qur’an stays to the point, does not mention the fictions within the gospels, states who Jesus(P) was and rejects the lies attributed to him by the Christians, unlike the gospels whose anonymous authors had to distort traditions to “prove” and “support” their theology.