Danger! Sceptics Naively Asserting Contradictions Ahead!
by David Glass
It is often claimed that the birth narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are full of contradictions and so cannot be taken seriously. For example, in the 2011 Christmas issue of the New Statesman, Bart Ehrman claims that ‘these two versions of the events cannot be reconciled’.[i] Richard Dawkins likewise states that the ‘contradictions are glaring, but consistently overlooked by the faithful’,[ii] while the late Christopher Hitchens asserted that Matthew and Luke ‘flatly contradict each other on the Flight into Egypt’.[iii] The idea of a contradiction should be clear enough (you’d think). If Matthew claimed Jesus was born in Bethlehem and Luke said that it was Nazareth, we’d have a very obvious and major contradiction. Of course, we need to be careful with contradictions – it’s often the case that apparent contradictions can be resolved by taking into account context or use of metaphor (see Peter’s articles here and here). With that in mind let’s consider the ‘Flight into Egypt’.
Matthew tells us that after the visit of the Magi, Joseph is told in a dream to go to Egypt. What does Luke have to say about this? Nothing. He tells us that they return to Nazareth. And, of course, Nazareth is where they end up in Matthew’s account too. According to Ehrman, ‘if Matthew is right that the holy family fled to Egypt, Luke can scarcely be right that they returned home just a month after the birth’. This reference to a ‘month’ is based on an immediate return to Nazareth after Jesus’ presentation in the Temple. What the text says is, ‘When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned …’ (Luke 2:39). Granted, if we didn’t have Matthew’s account we would probably just assume that they returned straightaway. But is Ehrman seriously suggesting that the word ‘when’ must be understood as ‘immediately after’, that no flexibility is permitted and hence that Luke’s account could not be reconciled with additional information from another source? Even the most extreme biblical literalist would find this a ridiculous interpretation. It seems that a naïve approach to biblical interpretation is almost de rigueur in some brands of modern atheism…
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