The simple answer is, of course they are different, they are describing actions that happened on two separate occasions. One narrates from His birth until 40 days later; while the other tells of events that happened around the age of two. First you have to remember that there were no chapter and verse markers in the original Greek; you can’t always assume the books were divided at the correct places. Look at one of the most well-known passages in the Bible: Isaiah 53, almost every Bible teacher starts his study by saying, “Open your Bibles to Isaiah 52 verse 13,” because that is where the train-of-thought starts and continues on until the end of chapter 53. If you just start at the beginning of chapter 53, you will miss some very important prophecy and wisdom. One of the main things that throws people’s timing off in Jesus’ birth and early years is that in Matthew chapter 2 where the translators have rendered verse 1 as “Now when Jesus was born … etc.” it makes it sound like that which is stated next is happening at the same time. But when you look the verse up in the Greek, the word, “when” is not there.
Gr. transliteration: de Iēsous gennaō en Bēthleem Ioudaia
en hēmera Hērōdēs basileus
Word-for-word trans: Now Jesus born in Bethlehem Judaea
in days Herod king
Translators inserted two words, where there is only one in the Greek. If Matthew had intended to say “when,” he would have used the Greek – epan, such as where he uses it a few verses later:
And he sent them to Bethlehem,
and said, Go and search diligently for the young child;
and when++ ye have found him,
bring me word again,
that I may come and worship him also.
[Matthew 2:8 KJV] ++(Greek – epan)
Verse one should be the statement:
Now Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea
in the days of Herod the king. (period)
Actually this should be the last verse of chapter one! The Greek – de translated as “now” is a conjunction (connecting word) that is elsewhere translated as “and”, “then”, “moreover”, etc. which ties it to the previous verse, Matthew 1:25:
Then Joseph being raised from sleep
did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him,
and took unto him his wife:
And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son:
and he called his name JESUS.
Now, Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea
in the days of Herod the king.
[Matthew 1:24-25 & 2:1a]
The Greek – de is used almost 3000 times in the New Testament, translated as over a dozen different words: but (1,237x), and (934x), now (166x), then (132x), also (18x), yet (16x), yea (13x), so (13x), moreover (13x), nevertheless (11x), for (4x), even (3x), misc (10x), not trans. (300x). The meaning selected seems rather arbitrary; just to connect two thoughts together. The emphasis is on the thoughts, not on the conjunction. Not the kind of word you want to base your whole belief system on. Context is extremely important; when a word has more than one meaning, a translator must make sure that the word he picks does not conflict with the rest of the passage. The New King James version, and several others, read: “Now after Jesus was born…etc.,” apparently trying to fix the previous mistranslation, but they are still adding an extra word where there is not one in the original.
Chapter two should begin the narrative of the wise men’s visit, which occurred two years later:
Behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews?
for we have seen his star in the east,
and are come to worship him.
[Matthew 2:1b, 2]
How do we know that this was two years later? One big hint is that in his gospel, Luke uses the Greek – brephos which means, “babe” or “infant”:
And this shall be a sign unto you;
Ye shall find the babe (Greek – brephos)
wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
[Luke 2:12 KJV]
…while Matthew uses the Greek – paidion which means, “young child,” in his narrative,
And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said,
Go and search diligently for the young child; (Greek – paidion)
and when ye have found him, bring me word again,
that I may come and worship him also.
[Matthew 2:8 KJV]
And, as we will see, Herod came right out and asked the wise men, “How long ago did the star appear?” The answer to this question would establish the age of the new king:
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men,
enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
[Matthew 2:7 KJV]
So you can see from the verse below that Herod knew that he was to looking for a two year-old in Bethlehem. But, then Herod used that knowledge to determine that if he wanted to get rid of the new king, he would have to kill all the children, that were two years old in Bethlehem, and just to make sure, he killed all of those that were younger also:
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men,
was exceeding wroth, and sent forth,
and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem,
and in all the coasts thereof,
from two years old and under,
according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. [Matthew 2:16 KJV]
Once you understand the fact that the wise men visited Jesus two years after His birth, and not in the manger, all the alleged “irreconcilable contradictions” disappear.
Here is a more complete timeline, some of this is from a Messianic-Jewish perspective, and includes a few Jewish celebrations and memorials, that in no way detract from the Christian message; we both use the same bible, and worship the same Messiah Jesus. The dates listed are from the Biblical-Hebrew calendar. The calendar year starts on the Passover month. Tishri is the seventh month. That coincides with our common September-October time of year.
Day 1 - Tishri 14 Daytime
Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem from their home in Nazareth to register.
All went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee,
out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David,
called Bethlehem; (as he was of the house and lineage of David:)
Day 1 - Tishri 15 Evening
(a new day starts at 6:00 in the evening for the Jews)
Jesus is born in the manger in a booth (tabernacle) that Joseph has built, fulfilling the Feast of Tabernacles.
And so it was, that, while they were there,
the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn son,
and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger;
because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now, ++ Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea
in the days of Herod the king.
(++ The word “when” is not in the Greek)
Day 2 - Tishri 15 Night to Early morn.
Shepherds see angels and come and find Jesus.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field,
keeping watch over their flock by night . . .
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven,
the shepherds said one to another,
Let us now go even unto Bethlehem,
and see this thing which is come to pass,
which the Lord hath made known unto us.
[Luke 2:13, 15]
Day 8 - Tishri 22
Jewish celebration of Simchath Torah - Rejoicing over the Law - Family goes to a local Bethlehem Rabbi for Jesus' circumcision (A symbol of obedience to the Law).
And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child,
his name was called Yehu’shua (Jesus),
which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
Day 40 – Heshvan 25
On the 40th day (7 days plus 33 days = 40 days) they are in Jerusalem for Jesus’ presentation in the temple:
Speak unto the children of Israel, saying,
If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child:
then she shall be unclean seven days;
according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing,
nor come into the sanctuary,
until the days of her purifying be fulfilled.
[Leviticus 12:2-4 KJV]
They offer "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons" which is an alternate offering which can only be made by a poor family that cannot afford to offer a lamb:
And if she be not able to bring a lamb,
then she shall bring two turtledoves, or two young pigeons;
the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering:
and the priest shall make an atonement for her,
and she shall be clean.
[Leviticus 12:8 KJV]
And when the days of her purification
according to the law of Moses were accomplished,
they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;
(As it is written in the law of the Lord,
every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;)
And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.
[Luke 2:22,23,24] [Leviticus 12:1-8]
If they had already received the gold from the wise men, they could have easily afforded a lamb. But they do not have it yet.
After day 40
Later, back home to Nazareth.
When they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord,
they returned to Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.
Sometime before the second year of Jesus life, they move to Bethlehem. After all, it is the city of their ancestors; there are probably relatives there. Or they could be feeling guilty for not living on the land that would be their portion (inheritance) as descendants of King David. Or maybe because all the prophecies at the temple made them think that, maybe, they were supposed to stay in Bethlehem, since that is where the Scriptures say that the Messiah was to be born. For whatever the reason, here they are in Bethlehem two years later, it is a perfectly logical occurrence. Joseph and Mary didn’t know that the wise men were coming; but God did! He made sure that they were there in Bethlehem with Jesus when the Magi arrived. God is the One who makes sure that all prophecies are fulfilled. In the same way that God compelled Caesar to require a census, which drew Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the first time; God drew them back to Bethlehem to receive the wise men.
Wise men (not 3 kings) came to Jerusalem from the East (possibly Babylon, 900 miles away, that could be why it took two years to get there). The wise men follow star to Jerusalem and then to a house in Bethlehem (not a stable). They worship the young child++, Jesus, offer their gifts and then leave. Family flees to Egypt after a warning by an angel in a dream. Herod kills all babies in Bethlehem, 2 years old and under, according to the time determined from the wise men. [Matthew 2:7,11,13,16]
(++Matthew uses the Greek Paidion = young child vs. Luke’s brephos = babe, infant)
Shortly after Jesus' family journeys to Egypt, Herod dies, and his three sons take over the kingdom. The gold from the wise men probably came in very handy, so that this poor family could live in a foreign country for several years. Some time before 6 a.d. the family returns to Israel. They go back to Nazareth of Galilee because they are afraid to go back to their new house in Bethlehem because Herod's son, Archelaus, is reigning in Judea. (The Roman government deposed Archelaus in 6 a.d. because he was too oppressive even by Roman standards.)
But when Herod was dead, behold,
an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,
Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother,
and go into the land of Israel:
for they are dead which sought the young child's life.
And he arose, and took the young child and his mother,
and came into the land of Israel.
But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea
in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither:
notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream,
he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:
And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth:
that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets,
He shall be called a Nazarene.
[Matthew 2:19-23 KJV]
They are still in Nazareth when Jesus is 12. [Luke 2:41-52] There is no reliable record of the time between ages 12 and about thirty, when He began His ministry.
In order for the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing to convince his unsuspecting listeners that there is a contradiction, they have to make many assumptions that are nowhere stated nor implied in the Bible:
The passage in Matthew above:
…Does not say that they always lived in Bethlehem;
…Does not say that they had never lived in Nazareth before.
…Does not say that the wise men visited Jesus in a manger or a stable.
…Does not say that the wise men visited Jesus while He was an infant.
(Matthew specifically used the Greek word Paidion which means young child, not baby.)
When you study your Bible carefully and prayerfully, the Holy Spirit leads you to connect-the-dots, so to speak, to learn more of the truth of God’s Word. I’ve met many people who told me that they read the Bible from cover to cover and just don’t understand it. I have read the Bible about 30 times, in different versions, and am still learning new things.
Read your Bible daily; the truth is there. Pray for wisdom, for discernment and for Jesus to open your spiritual eyes. Beware, there are people out there, some even claiming to be Christians (wolves–in-sheep’s-clothing), that will try to come between you and the belief that the Bible is the Word of God. Don’t let them. I used to think that people, who claimed that there is a contradiction between the two gospel narratives of Jesus birth and early years, were just ignorant. Well, there may be a few that are naïve, but most of the ones that I have met have an ulterior motive. I’ve had many discussions, on this subject, with some very intelligent gentlemen, who seemed to agree, to my face, that the timetable makes sense, and thank me for setting them straight. But the very next time I see them, they are holding up this, or some other contrived contradiction, to an unsuspecting audience, trying to shame them into doubting their Bibles because of “all” the so-called contradictions. There is none so blind as the one who refuses to see! I am sure that most of you have heard of C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel; they all used to be atheists or agnostics, who set out, independently, to find all the errors and contradictions that they could find in the Bible, to prove to those “unsophisticated Christians” how unreliable it is. They ended up becoming some of the Bible’s strongest defenders. There is power in the Word of God; don’t let it just sit on the shelf! It is your most powerful spiritual weapon; don’t leave home without it – don’t even get out of bed without it!
If you are not reading your Bible daily; you are reading it weakly!
There is nothing the devil fears more than a faithful man who reads his Bible; believes it, and prays to God Almighty in the Name of Jesus Christ – Be That Man!
God bless you all!