How long was baby Jesus in Bethlehem? A Most Important Chapter

There is some question (in my mind, at least!) about how long Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus stayed in Bethlehem. We can assume that, had the young bride not given birth while present in the city of her husband’s family (the family of David, of course), they would have turned around and returned to Galilee relatively immediately. As it was, well….

1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

I’ve always wondered why the young carpenter was living so far away from his childhood home. We’re told by those who study the culture of turn-of-the-millennium Hebrews that (like others who live then) this was unusual – the vast majority stay close to the city or town they were born in their entire life. But for some reason this brave young man was far from home, living in a crossroads town with all the amenities of that sort of place (i.e., not-wholesome activities). We also know he would take his about-to-present betrothed on a 70-mile journey, probably on camel or donkey; he would have to take her as a new mother all the way to Egypt for the child’s safety, and bring them back once Herod died, Sadly, we also know he would be dead before Christ reached his thirtieth birthday, and died sometime in the 18-year period between Jesus’ 12th Passover and his baptism by John at the start of his ministry, but we have no clue how that death occurred.

But we also know these verses, and their implications. <knock, knock> Hello? My name is Joseph, and … yes. Yes, that’s precisely why I’m aski… Are you saying there’s nowhere we can stay? Yes, yes, I understand all about the census – that’s why we’re here, too. But my betrothed Mary is literally about to give birth, any hour now… no, … no, I heard you the first time. I’m sorry to have troubled you, sir…Next house: <knock, knock> Hello?…

Regardless, we’re looking at the timeline from Jesus’ birth forward. It seems like the step-father would have searched until close to dark, at which point he would have concluded (probably at Mary’s urging) that it was now too late to search any more. Dang it… He would have taken them back to the inn and sneaked the two of them into the manger – which apparently many think now was a cave where the animals were corralled and cared for. Shelter, and it provided warmth for the new baby when He arrived. (They were told He would be a “He”, remember?)

And now, the kids’ favorite part of the Nativity scene:

8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

…with all the talking animals and all that. But I want to note one thing, noted in red in verse 11. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord.” The fact that they were told “THIS day” is key – the shepherds would have therefore been the first ones to visit the newborn King.

But it’s certain that they stayed there longer than that one night. In fact, logic dictates that they were there for that magic number of the Lord’s: forty days. Read on, dear reader:

21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Eight days, and probably that would have been on site still (though not necessarily – they could have made it back to Galilee in that time. But in v. 22, below, we read about the “time of purification”, which in Jewish law was 40 days from the birth of the child, they went to the Temple in Jerusalem, very near to Bethlehem, where they met Simeon and Anna, two prophets of the Lord who had been awaiting the Messiah’s arrival there. It seems reasonable that the Holy Family would have stayed close, rather than gone home in between birth and Templeespecially when you read verse 39…

22 And 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 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.

Now, if you’re one of “those people” constantly trying to catch the Bible in an error, here’s a good place to start. Notice that in Luke 2:39, he testifies that “when they had performed everything according to the Law and the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” So, that implies that after forty days, they return home. But when do the Magi come to visit? That isn’t clear in Luke – it isn’t even mentioned in Luke – but Matthew talks of it in his chapter 2, v. 1-13…

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

6“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’

7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10  When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

So the magi arrived after His birth, but Matthew doesn’t say when the star appeared, or whether the magi started travelling before the star appeared, or for that matter if God showed them the star before Christ’s birth so as to time their arrival at or near the time of delivery.

But if Luke suggested that they stayed in the Bethlehem/Jerusalem region for forty days and then went home, Matthew begs to differ:

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, 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.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

By most scholars’ estimations, given the historical knowledge of the time of this Herod’s reign, that would have been a minimum of two years or so. So is this a contradiction with Luke 2?

I’m going to say no, and here’s why. Re-examine verse 2:39 of Luke: “when they had performed everything according to the Law AND THE LORD, they returned into Galilee…” The Law said forty days, but the LORD said much longer! He told them to go to Egypt until further instructions arrived, which they did. Technicality? Maybe. But I submit to you that this is an example of the Holy Spirit’s hand alive in Luke’s penLuke may very well not have known that Joseph bravely obeyed His God despite the hardship of a two year sojourn into an unknown land on the spur of the moment, but the Spirit did, and caused the good doctor Luke to word his gospel in such a way as to cover up any contradiction, and thus prevent any error in the Scriptures. 

God is at work everywhere, my friends, and in His Word He did whatever He had to in order to ensure validity and self-consistency. We can take the Bible at its word. Luke 2 is one of the Most Important Chapters of the Bible, and its addendum in the gospel of Matthew’s second chapter fills in the details of which Luke wasn’t aware. 

One final note: The Holy Step-Father, Joseph, was a bad-assThink about everything he does: undertakes the 70-mile journey to Bethlehem with a nine-month pregnant wife carrying the Lord of the World, because Rome would hunt them down if they didn’t go. He arrives there, cannot find ANYWHERE to put his bride up, so he makes do in a barnyard (read: cave, probably) and delivers his own step-child. A ton of shepherds show up to visit and freaks them out (“but Mary laid it up in her heart”… she was freaking out!), but not as much as the three rich guys whose language they may or may NOT have understood, giving them the money they would need to flee the country for two years to save the Kid’s Holy Hide from Herod’s megalomaniacal rage. (What did you think they did with all that GOLD they were given? God was planning for their escape!) And then he takes them to flipp’n EGYPT! On God’s say-so!

Joseph was a bad-ass. (That’s probably why he couldn’t be around when Jesus started ministering. Mama Mary just kind of hung around in back – Step-Dad would’ve Stepped In!)


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