Luke does not speak about the travel of Joseph, Mary and the Child to Egypt, before they returned to Nazareth. Why?
Sometimes this question has been taken as a Bible contradiction, among others by Barth D. Ehrman. He wrote:
“Or when Luke indicates in this account of Jesus’s birth that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth just over a month after they had come to Bethlehem, (and performed the rites of purification; Luke 2:39), whereas Matthew indicates they instead fled to Egypt (Matth 2:19-22).”
Misquoting Jesus, Barth D. Ehrman, p. 10
Reading and comparing the infancy stories of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, it becomes clear that the reports – apart from the birth story – don’t overlap in any way.
Luke: Annunciation, Magnificat, the Census, Birth of Jesus, the angels and shepherds and their visit, Circumcision, Jesus presented in the Temple, Prophecy of Simeon, Prophecy of Anna.
Matthew: Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph intended to divorce, An angel appeared to him to stay with Mary, Birth of Jesus Christ, Arrival of the Magi at Jerusalem, Worshipping of the Magi, Magi took a different way home, Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt, Killing in Bethlehem, Return to Israel and Nazareth.
Only one thing they have in common: the mentioning of the birth of Jesus (Matthew) and a short description of his birth (Luke). The conclusion is inevitable: these books are to be read complementarily.
To the Point
Now what is Ehrman actually saying? “That Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth just over a month after they had come to Bethlehem … whereas Matthew indicates they instead fled to Egypt.” Ehrman suggests a contradiction here. However is it? Or is it a masterly example of framing and indoctrination? Yes, it was possible for Joseph and Mary to leave Bethlehem and return to Nazareth in 33 days via a very short stay in Egypt, as the death of Herod was near.
We are told in Luke 2:21 that Jesus was circumcised at the eighth day (Luke 2:21). It was 33 days after the birth that the mother of a first born son had to bring her offering for purification (Exodus 12:4). So 33-8=25 days left for Joseph and Mary to escape the anger of Herod, to wait in Egypt for his death and to return to Israel and present Jesus in the temple. They could certainly hire a vehicle for mother and child. The distance to Egypt was about two times the distance Nazareth-Bethlehem and in 12 days it could be done. Only after a few days in Egypt they departed from there to went back to Israel.
It was the commandment that mother and first born son living in Israel had to go to the temple (Exodus 13:11) and it is not to expect that this was also practiced by the Jews living outside Israel. So it is also possible to take some more time for the 25 days of Joseph and Mary’s travel to Egypt and return.
It is clear that two gospel books are closely connected regarding the Christmas story. That was only possible as the authors Matthew and Luke had contact and had made agreements in the arrangements of their books. This is fully understandable in a context of Documentation and gospel writing shortly after Pentecost. And that is precisely what we try to show.
Take Note 1
Herod died in Jericho, in the year 4 BC. Shortly earlier he was indeed in Jerusalem. See: Flavius Josephus Antiquities of the Jews xvii, 6, 4 (158/160).
Take Note 2
In 525 AD the monk Dionysius Exiguus came with a new method to define the counting of years. Unfortunately he made some mistakes which came to light through historical studies in the last ages. Jesus’ birth was at least 4 BC, the year of Herod’s death.