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Nazareth - where Joseph and Mary are from

Biblical Contradiction About Where Joseph and Mary Are From?

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It takes minimal effort to find hundreds of alleged contradictions scattered across the vastness of the internet. How credible are these challenges to the Bible? Spoiler alert - most charges of contradiction made by skeptics are fallacious; they are either the result of a misreading, a failure of proper exegesis or lack of philosophical nuance, or a combination of those. Among the countless claims that the writers of the Bible contradict each other, is the claim that Luke and Matthew contradict each other about where Joseph and Mary are from.

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What is a Contradiction?

Before we actually look at the specific charge of a contradiction, first a little primer on “contradiction” because if we can’t get the definition straight, we are moving in the wrong direction right out of the gate. From my experience dealing with other “contradictions,” this has been the crux of fallacious reasoning by many. So we need to level set. Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary definition:

A combination of statements, ideas, or features which are opposed to one another.

This means that we can’t accurately say omissions can ever be explicit contradictions. Omissions might be weak or implicit contradictions if, and only if, the terminology is so explicit as to create contradictory tension in a timeline. In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, omissions are no problem at all. In fact, they actually do the opposite - strengthen the case for authenticity and trustworthiness of narratives. Authors, earnestly writing the same story, will always leave certain aspects out that others include and include other things that the other writers leave out; this is a very natural thing. People simply have different vantage points, different backgrounds, upbringings, leanings, focus, emphasis, etc. If you study the Gospels carefully, you can actually see quite a bit of this emphasis on certain aspects based on the author’s background. If all the authors wrote the same exact story, that would be far more problematic as we could charge them with collusion. The bottom line is that omissions are not usually a sign of weakness, but of strength and authenticity.

Where Does Luke Tell Us Joseph and Mary Are From?

Luke makes it clear that Joseph and Mary's hometown was Nazareth in the land of Galilee (Luke 1:26-27),

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. (emphasis on places added)

And again, Luke refers to Nazareth in Luke 2:4-5,

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem... (emphasis on places added)

 This is very clear and direct. Luke leaves no room for uncertainty. 

Where Does Matthew Tell Us Joseph and Mary Are From?

Ok, now comes the fun part. Matthew actually doesn't say anything about where Joseph and Mary are from. Wait, what? How can someone claim this to be a contradiction if one of the authors doesn't even say anything contrary? The first thing that must be pointed out is that, except for very specific and rare situations, omissions are not typically contradictions; and even in those rare cases, they are weak or implicit contradictions at best. Here's what Matthew does say (Matthew 2:19-23):

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, “Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.” So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (emphasis on places added)

So how can someone claim that Matthew contradicts Luke? With a fancy two-step maneuver of injecting words into the Bible and instead of trying to understand what Matthew is trying to say, pouring one's own interpretation into the text. Here's how it works out: people making this challenge typically insert the word 'home' in Matthew 2:22 and impetuously claim that Joseph and Mary were returning home instead of simply reading Matthew to be telling us they were merely going to Judea (Bethlehem),

But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go *home there. (emphasis on places added) (* 'home' injected for demonstration purposes only)

What Matthew makes clear is that Joseph and Mary were not actually heading straight to Nazareth, but were going to Judea (Bethlehem) instead - something that Luke does not mention for whatever reason. Here's how Luke chronicles Joseph and Mary's return to Nazareth (Luke 2:39):

When they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth. (emphasis on places added)

Let's recall that omissions are not contradictions. Luke says that after they had performed everything according to the law, they returned home to Nazareth. He makes no mention of where else they went. For all we know, Joseph and Mary could have gone to a few cities before returning home. It's entirely possible they had tried to go to Bethlehem for any number of reasons. If Luke had stated that Joseph and Mary went from Egypt immediately to Nazareth without making any other trips, that could have been considered a contradiction. But the fact that Luke tell us the eventual destination, which is corroborated by Matthew, says nothing about any supposed contradiction between the two writers. Silence does not give readers the right to conjure up their own set of possibilities and inject them into the material.

Summarizing What Luke and Matthew Wrote

Luke

  • lightbulb-o
    Joseph and Mary lived in a town called Nazareth.
  • lightbulb-o
    Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem.
  • lightbulb-o
    Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
  • lightbulb-o
    Joseph and Mary went to Nazareth.

Matthew

  • lightbulb-o
    Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
  • lightbulb-o
    Joseph and Mary went to Egypt.
  • lightbulb-o
    Joseph and Mary tried to go to Judea but because of Archelaus they decided not to
  • lightbulb-o
    Joseph and Mary went to Nazareth.

But Why Would Matthew Put So Little Emphasis on Nazareth?

The second prong of the charge of contradiction seeks to cast doubt on Matthews narrative by claiming that if Joseph and Mary were indeed from Nazareth, Matthew would have and should have mentioned Nazareth more prominently in his narrative, especially at the beginning of the whole narrative. This specific charge is wrongheaded as well. Writers have different personalities, inclinations, and emphasis. We don't know why Matthew didn't mention Nazareth before Joseph and Mary's return from Egypt. The fact that he doesn't mention it prior to the end of their return says nothing. The only way anyone can claim this to be a contradiction is by injecting their own pretext into the biblical text.

And yet another charge - 'why would Matthew say that Joseph and Mary simply withdrew to Nazareth' if they were actually going back home to Nazareth. Well, the verse preceding it may help answer the question (Matthew 2:22),

But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he withdrew  for the regions of Galilee (emphasis added)

So they were heading to Judea. Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea and was afraid to go there, and God also warned him in a dream. The word "withdrew" in this passage is interpreted differently based on which translation you read (the NIV is one of the few that uses "withdrew"), but the literal translation from the Greek is "he left" (ἀναχωρέω anachōreō). As is evident, this charge falls flat as well as there is nothing of significance about Joseph and Mary simply "leaving" for Nazareth. They were simply in fear of imminent danger and went to Nazareth instead of trying to initially go to Bethlehem.

The Truth is Slow But Unwavering

So Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth. They went to Bethlehem. Jesus as born in Bethlehem. They went to Egypt to escape Herod. They were trying to go back to Bethlehem but decided not to because of Archelaus. They went back home to Nazareth. End of story. There's nothing in here to make a big fuss about. Given the facts, how could anyone who takes their time to work their way through the parallel accounts find any strong tension about where Joseph and Mary are from? As it is often said,

Lies fly halfway around the world before the truth has had a chance to put its boots on.

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This rings true for many propounded claims, not the least of which are these supposed contradictions. But the truth isn't predicated on who screams the loudest or the quickest. It often takes some work to examine the details of a matter. Proper discernment takes time and effort. Unfortunately, in our fast-paced sound-byte culture, people don't like to wait, and they uncritically believe the first thing they hear, also without examination. The problem is not just that people make false claims about a number of topics. The problem is far worse - people are wrong about many issues, yet they speak with such conviction that others tend to believe their claims based on that conviction alone. The challenging work of sifting out the truth is sadly too often ignored, and sensationalism is always ready to pounce at the slightest hint of possible corruption.

About the Author Arthur Khachatryan

Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.

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