Luke and Matthew don't contradict each other but they may contradict the way you remember the Christmas story.
How well do you really know the Christmas story? Not that I want to wreck your nativity scene or your children's Christmas pageant, but the angels, the shepherds, and the wise men were never in one place at the same time. When we try to remember the Christmas story we usually have ideas jumbled together from songs and shows rather than from a careful study of Scripture. And, even when we try to study Scripture it can be difficult to figure out how Luke and Matthew fit together.
The narratives of Christ's birth in Luke and Matthew are complementary to each other. They don't contradict each other but they each provide unique elements of the whole story. If you want the full picture, you need to read both accounts together. This is my attempt to put all of the passages together for you in chronological order.
A Harmony of Jesus' Birth Narratives:
- Luke 1:5-25 – The angel Gabriel promises the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah and Elizabeth, despite their old age. Zechariah is stuck mute.
- Luke 1:26-38 - “The Annunciation” – At least six months later, Gabriel appears to Mary in Nazareth and announces to her that she will conceive a son as a virgin by the Holy Spirit. He will be called Son of the Most High and will reign on David’s throne forever.
- Luke 1:39-56 - Mary visits Elizabeth in Judea. “The Magnificat” is Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55. Mary stays with Elizabeth about three months and then returns home. Although Mary may have stayed until John was born, I think that it makes more sense that she left shortly before the birth and the onslaught of visitors.
- Matthew 1:18-25 - Joseph learns that Mary, who is betrothed to him, is with child. She would have returned from Elizabeth's home three-months pregnant. An angel tells Joseph in a dream that Mary’s child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph takes Mary as his wife.
- Luke 1:57-80 - John the Baptist’s is born and Zechariah gives a prophecy sometimes called “The Benedictus.” (John's birth may have happened before Mary arrived back in Nazareth and the events of Matthew 1:18-25.)
- Luke 2:1-7 - Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea for the census. Mary gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem.
- Luke 2:8-20 - Angels visit the shepherds and then the shepherds visit Mary and Joseph and the baby.
- Luke 2:21-24 - At the end of eight days Jesus is circumcised and named.
- Luke 2:22-24 – After forty days from birth, Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to present and dedicate him to the Lord.
- Luke 2:25-38 - At the temple, the family is visited by the prophets Simeon and Anna. Simeon’s words are sometimes called “The Nunc Dimittis.”
- Matthew 2:1-8 - Wise men from the East come to Jerusalem searching for the newly born king. Jealous, King Herod secretly asks the wise men to tell him exactly where they find this child.
- Matthew 2:9-12 – The wise men visit Jesus at a house in Bethlehem. The wise men are warned about Herod in a dream and depart another way. This may have taken place several months after Jesus was born. We assume Mary and Joseph were staying in Bethlehem with relatives.
- Mathew 2:13-18 - Enraged, Herod orders the slaughter of all boys two-years and younger in the Bethlehem area. Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt, which they do.
- Matthew 2:19-21 - After Herod’s death (4 BC) the family returns to Israel, possibly to Bethlehem briefly.
- Matthew 2:22-23 & Luke 2:39-40 – The family moves back to Nazareth in Galilee where Jesus is raised.