The basic story in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew is that Joseph and Mary were on their way to Bethlehem where they stopped, and Mary gave birth in a livestock stall. She wraps the child in swaddling cloth and lays him in a feeding trough. Then come the embellishments.
Luke accounts the reason for the trip to the Census of Quirinius which did happen but happened in AD 6 and is therefore impossible to reconcile with Matthew’s narrative about the actions of Herod the Great who died in 4 BCE. Since Luke goes on to discuss the redemption of the child and the temple sacrifices for Mary at the end of the period of ritual uncleanliness, I think it’s safe to attribute the trip to being near Jerusalem and the temple at the time of birth. I also think that the forthcoming ritual uncleanliness resulting from childbirth is a possible reason why there was no place for them in the in.
Matthew brings our focus onto the wise men and Herod the Great. The New Revised Standard Version (NRS) and many other versions, in making the text easy to read and interpreting it for us, change “Magi” into “Wise men”. I object because the Greek has Magi, and a Magi is a specific ethnicity of person, a member of the Persian (Zoroastrian) Priestly class from what we’d now call Iran. Zoroastrians are also awaiting a messiah, you see, and the Magi were famous for their knowledge of all things including astronomy and astrology. It makes a big difference in understanding what Matthew has to say. It is also true that Persia had close contact with Judea from the time of Cyrus the Great (who freed the Jews in Babylon and funded the rebuilding of the temple) and that the Zoroastrians were likely quite familiar with Jewish Scripture, at least older books of scripture. All of that from one little word.
So Matthew adds that the Zoroastrian Priests had read the stars but did not know the specific location of the birth. They went to Herod, king of the Jews, to find the location and they found Jesus after he was born. They found and adored Jesus, but did not reveal the exact location to Herod.
The family is warned by God of the impending slaughter of innocents by Herod who is frustrated that the Magi do not return to reveal the exact location and identity of the child opting to protect his kingdom and dynasty by murdering all possible candidates for the kingly throne. The family flees to Egypt until Herod is dead and even then is cautious about their return because his successor is none to keen on possible claimants to the throne.
Now let’s see if we can’t merge the two accounts. In so doing, we tend to think of all of these events has rapidly unfolding on the night of the birth of Christ Jesus. This is not so, travel took quite some time, and the Herod narrative could certainly involved months to unfold, that’s why Herod would have killed children two years and under. Indeed, in church tradition, the Magi arrive after the twelve days of Christmas at the feast of the Epiphany. In my reading, since Matthew has them adoring Christ Jesus in a “House” (Matthew 2:11), sufficient time has passed for Mary to no longer be ritually unclean.
Ready? Here we go!
Mary was pregnant with Jesus and she and her future husband wanted to be close to Jerusalem to offer the required sacrifices after childbirth in accordance with tradition and Jewish law. They traveled closer to Jerusalem and stayed in Bethlehem but were not permitted to stay in the inn because the childbirth would render Mary, and everything she touched, ritually unclean for more than a month. Instead, they stayed in a stall for animals proximate to the inn and used a feeding trough for a crib for the newborn child. Shepherds see the angels of Heaven and visit this newborn child. They broadly proclaim his birth.
Eight days after the birth, Jesus was circumcised in accordance with Jewish Law.
After Mary’s period of ritual uncleanliness ended, and Joseph and Mary went to the temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice and pay the redemption tax for this firstborn child. They were poor, as we learn from the offering of Pigeons and Turtledoves. After that, they moved to a house.
The Magi arrived having been to Herod and having followed his directions as well as a guiding star to their location. Bethlehem was not a very big place, so finding the couple and the child was not an enormous undertaking. They adored the child and the holy family and offered gifts of gold and incense.
Joseph has a premonition of the slaughter of the innocents that has been planned by Herod the Great, and the family flees to Egypt before the slaughter occurs, using the gifts of the Magi to secure passage and lodging until Herod passes away and they return to their native land.
That’s my take. Now for the details in scripture.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.
Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:1-24 NRS)
Luke Reference 1: Holy to the Lord, Redemption
The first issue of the womb of all creatures, human and animal, which is offered to the LORD, shall be yours; but the firstborn of human beings you shall redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem. Their redemption price, reckoned from one month of age, you shall fix at five shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary (that is, twenty gerahs).
But the firstborn of a cow, or the firstborn of a sheep, or the firstborn of a goat, you shall not redeem; they are holy. You shall dash their blood on the altar, and shall turn their fat into smoke as an offering by fire for a pleasing odor to the LORD; but their flesh shall be yours, just as the breast that is elevated and as the right thigh are yours. (Numbers 18:15-18 NRS)
Luke Reference 2: Two doves or pigeons
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean.
On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed. if she bears a female child, she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be sixty-six days.
When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female.
If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean. (Leviticus 12:1-8 NRS)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Now after they had left, 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 about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and 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 have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.
But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” (Matthew 2:1-23 NRS)
Matthew Reference 1: Bethlehem
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2 NRS)
Matthew Reference 2: Out of Egypt
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (Hosea 11:1 NRS)
Matthew Reference 3: Rachel Weeping
Thus says the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. Thus says the LORD: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the LORD: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the LORD: your children shall come back to their own country. (Jeremiah 31:15-17 NRS)
Matthew Reference 4: Will be called.
This is tenuous, being based on my research indicating that the etymology for Nazareth includes “branch” hence “he will be called a branch of the stump of Jesse” to wit:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:1-10 NRS)