Here is the long answer. To some, the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke contain what seem like contradictory accounts of Jesus’ birth. But like all so-called Biblical contradictions, the accounts are easily reconciled. I have placed the Bible passages in a likely chronological order.
“In those days Caesar Augustus [who reigned between 15 B.C. and 14 A.D.] issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria). And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praying God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.”
Matthew 2: 1-23
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod [who reigned between 37 B.C. and 4 B.C.], Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’
When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem, in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ (Micah 5:2, 4)
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me so that I too may go and worship him.’
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet. ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
After Herod died [in 4 B.C.], 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 to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.’
So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reining in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.”
Luke 2: 22-40
“When the time came for the purification rights required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord (Exodus 13:2,12), “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.’
The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother. ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child for all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
When Mary and Joseph had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.”
As is demonstrated in the two accounts, each of the Gospel authors has highlighted different parts of Jesus’ young life. The accounts fit together like a glove.
Some have argued that Luke’s census must have been taken in 6 A.D., because Quirinius was the governor at that time when a census was taken. Yet researchers have also determined that Quirinius was the proconsul of Syria and Cilicia between 11 B.C. and 4 B.C., when Herod died. Quirinius’ name has been discovered on a coin (McRay, 2008) and on the base of a statue erected in Pisidian Antioch (Ramsay, 1914; Wallace, 2017). In other words, the reason Luke noted the census taken by Quirinius was the first census is because it is likely he took a first census during his governorship between 11 and 4 B.C. and a second census in 6 A.D., as recorded by Josephus and in Acts 5:37. Researchers have also estimated that Jesus was born between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C.
McRay, J. (2008) Archaeology and the New Testament. Baker Academic.
Ramsay, W.M. (1914). The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament. Hodder and Stoughton.
Ramsay, W.M. (unknown). Luke’s Narrative of the Birth of Christ. Accessed December 15, 2018 at https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/expositor/series8/04-385.pdf
Wallace, J.W. (2017). Unbelievable? Is Luke’s Description of Quirinius Historically Inaccurate. Cold Case Christianity. Accessed December 15, 2018 at http://coldcasechristianity.com/2017/unbelievable-is-lukes-description-of-quirinius-historically-inaccurate/