Q. I have a question regarding the Holy Family’s return trip/timing to Nazareth. In Matthew’s account, the wise men were led by the star “till it came and stood over where the young Child was.” (2:9) with verse 11 stating “they were come into the house”. From there, they fled into Egypt as the “angel of the Lord ” told Joseph in a dream to escape Herod’s seeking to destroy Jesus. Reading further in chapter 2, it looks like they were there for up to 2 years before being told again by the angel of the Lord to “go into the land of Israel” since it was safe for Him now to return.
Now, in Luke 2:21, Joseph and Mary are taking Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem on His eighth day for the circumcision rite. In the next verse, it says “when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished Simeon and Anna’s accounts are told, then in verse 39 it says “…they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.” So, when did they leave Bethlehem to present Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, and where were they when they received the Magi?, flee to Egypt?, etc.
A. We have to piece together little hints from the different gospel accounts to get an overview and even then we don’t get a detailed timeline of events. Remember, the Gospels are not meant to be strictly historical accounts, but are four different perspectives tailored to specific audiences. Matthew wrote to the Jews, Mark to the Romans, Luke to the Greeks, and John to the Church.
Our first hint comes from Matt. 2:16 where Herod ordered all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and under killed “in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” This tells us the Magi didn’t arrive on the night of the Lord’s birth, but could have reached Jerusalem as much as two years later. The exact timing is unknown. Also, the Holy family had moved into a house in Bethlehem sometime before the Magi arrived (Matt. 2:11). Shortly afterward they fled to Egypt, where they remained until Herod died (4 BC).
According to Leviticus 12:2-4, Mary was ceremonially unclean for 7 days after the Lord was born. Then on the 8th day she would have presented the Lord for circumcision. Following that she had to wait another 33 days before presenting herself to a priest for her purification rites. It was most likely during this time when they encountered Simeon and Anna. (Numbers 18:16 says the consecration of the first born had to take place when the Lord was one month old.)
Luke did not include the visit by the Magi, the flight to Egypt, or anything after Mary’s purification but simply said that after they had done everything required by the law they returned to Nazareth. Mark and John didn’t record the events of the Lord’s birth at all but focused their accounts on His adult ministry. Only Matthew mentioned the Magi and the flight to Egypt.