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We see at Luke 2: 22- 39 the presentation of Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem and the return of the Holy Family to Nazareth :

" When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord ...........When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth "

Matt 2:21-23 narrates the settling of Holy Family at Nazareth in a different context, that is, after the visit of the Magi, the Holy Family's escape to Egypt and its return from that place :

" Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Jesus was dedicated in the Temple when He was just 40 days old, as was required by Leviticus 12:1-4 . On the other hand, the visit of Magi is believed to have taken place when Jesus was older , say two years (given by the massacre of children upto the age of two by Herod ) . Apparently, the return of Holy Family to Nazareth as mentioned at Luke 2:39 took place after a considerable gap of time .My question therefore is: How does the Catholic Church explain the gap between the time of Jesus' presentation at the Temple and that of His Family's return to Nazareth ?

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When did the Holy Family actually settle down at Nazareth?

Scriptures tell us that after the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple the Holy Family went to the town of Nazareth.

39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. - Luke 2:39

Assuming the Holy Family left the next day journey from Jerusalem to Nazareth would have taken anywhere from 4 to 7 days depending on variables. But this is only one interpretation proposed by Catholic theologians and others do exist.

It is about 120 Km from Narareth to Jerusalem and another 10 Km from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. (About 80 miles in all) If Mary had not been feeling very well it could have taken nearly a week to do the journey. - Nazareth to Bethlehem

And what are the variables that could make a trip from Jerusalem to Nazareth go faster or slower?

Galilee is north of Jerusalem; Bethlehem is to the south. The shortest route, 70 miles more or less as the crow flies, is through Samaria. Given the antipathy between Jews and Samaritans, Joseph and Mary likely skirted the area and went around the longer way.

Assuming an average pace of 2.5 mph, 20 miles a day, would mean a trip of four 8-hour days. Some speculation puts it at seven days, or ten. I think four days is about right. Mary in her late teens, strong, healthy peasant stock; even pregnant and near delivery she could have managed walking it.

That is if they didn’t bother with a donkey. With a donkey, no question, it was a seven- to ten-day trip. Yes, all the images depict Mary seated on a donkey. I suggest they are wrong.

I’ve hiked with pack burros; it is slower. A donkey will pretty much set its own pace and not usually the one you would like. You may be in front tugging a lead, but the donkey is in charge. You get to walk ahead and pretend you’re in command.

Even if they did have a donkey, I bet she walked. Donkeys aren’t fit for riding (again, yes, there are people who enjoy it over short distances; I’m not one of them at any distance). Eighty miles riding a donkey, picturesque as might be, still works out to, oh, let’s see, yes, 80 miles riding a donkey. Sensible people that they were, they walked. - Biblical travel: How far to where, and what about the donkey?

Now settled in at Nazareth, the Magi would have visited the Holy Family in their home town.

The Magi Visit the Messiah

2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 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.”

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 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. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 “‘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.’ ”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 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.”

9 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. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

From the above passage we can notice several points that can easily go unnoticed. The Magi visited the Holy Family in a house and not a manger. The Gospel does not state that the Magi actually went to Bethlehem; only that Herod had told them that the Newborn King was to be born in Bethlehem. Thus it is very conceivable that the Magi found the Holy Family at Nazareth and not Bethlehem. The Holy Family could have returned to Bethlehem after the presentation and found a house to remain in. The Catholic Encyclopedia admits that the interpretation of these variables in unknown and unsure!

Time and circumstances of their visit

The visit of the Magi took place after the Presentation of the Child in the Temple (Luke 2:38). No sooner were the Magi departed than the angel bade Joseph take the Child and its Mother into Egypt (Matthew 2:13). Once Herod was wroth at the failure of the Magi to return, it was out of all question that the presentation should take place. Now a new difficulty occurs: after the presentation, the Holy Family returned into Galilee (Luke 2:39). Some think that this return was not immediate. Luke omits the incidents of the Magi, flight into Egypt, massacre of the Innocents, and return from Egypt, and takes up the story with the return of the Holy Family into Galilee. We prefer to interpret Luke's words as indicating a return to Galilee immediately after the presentation. The stay at Nazareth was very brief. Thereafter the Holy Family probably returned to abide in Bethlehem. Then the Magi came. It was "in the days of King Herod" (Matthew 2:1), i.e. before the year 4 B.C. (A.U.C. 750), the probable date of Herod's death at Jericho. For we know that Archelaus, Herod's son, succeeded as ethnarch to a part of his father's realm, and was deposed either in his ninth (Josephus, Bel. Jud., II, vii, 3) or tenth (Josephus, Antiq., XVII, xviii, 2) year of office during the consulship of Lepidus and Arruntius (Dion Cassis, lv, 27), i.e., A.D. 6. Moreover, the Magi came while King Herod was in Jerusalem (vv. 3, 7), not in Jericho, i.e., either the beginning of 4 B.C. or the end of 5 B.C. Lastly, it was probably a year, or a little more than a year, after the birth of Christ. Herod had found out from the Magi the time of the star's appearance. Taking this for the time of the Child's birth, he slew the male children of two years old and under in Bethlehem and its borders (v. 16). Some of the Fathers conclude from this ruthless slaughter that the Magi reached Jerusalem two years after the Nativity (St. Epiphanius, "Haer.", LI, 9; Juvencus, "Hist. Evang.", I, 259). Their conclusion has some degree of probability; yet the slaying of children two years old may possibly have been due to some other reason — for instance, a fear on Herod's part that the Magi had deceived him in the matter of the star's appearance or that the Magi had been deceived as to the conjunction of that appearance with the birth of the Child. Art and archæology favour our view. Only one early monument represents the Child in the crib while the Magi adore; in others Jesus rests upon Mary's knees and is at times fairly well grown (see Cornely, "Introd. Special. in N.T.", p. 203).

It seems most logical that the Magi certainly visited the Holy Family after the Presentation. As we know the Magi presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We also know that Mary offered “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” If they had had enough money they would have offered a lamb as was the Jewish custom in those days. Besides, Jesus is the real Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

…7And the priest will present them before the LORD and make atonement for her; and she shall be ceremonially cleansed from her flow of blood. This is the law for a woman giving birth, whether to a male or to a female. 8But if she cannot afford a lamb, she shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. Then the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’” - …7And the priest will present them before the LORD and make atonement for her; and she shall be ceremonially cleansed from her flow of blood. This is the law for a woman giving birth, whether to a male or to a female. 8But if she cannot afford a lamb, she shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. Then the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’”- …7And the priest will present them before the LORD and make atonement for her; and she shall be ceremonially cleansed from her flow of blood. This is the law for a woman giving birth, whether to a male or to a female. 8But if she cannot afford a lamb, she shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. Then the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’” - Leviticus 12:7-8

To further show that the Church does not know exactly how to explain the Biblical texts surrounding the events of Our Lord’s birth, I am going to let Fr. Ryan Erlenbus explain the differences in the various time scenarios proposed by Catholic theologians. It is impossible to know for certain when the Magi actually visited the Holy Family.

The Magi must have arrived shortly after Christ’s Nativity

There are several points which must be recalled from the biblical narrative: The Magi visit Christ in Bethlehem; the Magi visit Christ in what Matthew calls a “home,” which may be different from the “stable” where Luke states the Child was born; after the Presentation in the Temple (forty days after the Birth), Luke tells us that Jesus was taken to Nazareth; it seems that Joseph took his family to Egypt fairly soon after the Magi departed; when Herod realized he was deceived he had the children in Bethlehem and the surrounding towns killed.

In the previous article, we have seen that the Child was born in a stable and adored that night by the shepherds. However, the Magi probably came shortly later, after the Holy Family had received hospitality in some home in Bethlehem (hence, Matthew speaks of a house). Thus, we can be reasonably certain that the Magi came to Bethlehem at least a day or two after the Nativity. However, it is most certain that they did not come any later than forty days after Christ’s birth, since then the Holy Family would not be in Bethlehem, but in Nazareth (since Luke states that they returned to Nazareth after the Presentation in the Temple which, according to the Law, took place forty days after birth). Hence, we can reasonably conclude that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem somewhere between the second and the fortieth day after Christmas – why not accept the tradition of the thirteenth day?

The star appeared on the day of the Nativity

St. Thomas knew of two opinions about the apparition of the star seen by the Magi: Chrysostom (or the author of the Opus Imperfectum in Mtt.) and Augustine seem to state that the star was first seen by the Magi two full years before the birth of Christ, and that it took these two years for the wise men to make the journey and arrive in Bethlehem (on the thirteenth day after the birth).

On the other hand, St. Thomas mentions “others” who hold that the star first appeared only when Christ was born. According to this opinion, the Magi set off on their journey only on the day of the Nativity and were able to travel a long distance “owing partly to the Divine assistance, and partly to the fleetness of the dromedaries.” This is Thomas’ own opinion (ST III, q.36, a.6, ad 3).

Yet, it may be the case that the star appeared on Christmas day and the Magi arrived thirteen days later on account of the fact that they were not from the far East, but only from a nation a little to the east of Israel – this is the opinion of Cornelius a’ Lapide, and I share it as well.

A good reason to maintain that the star had not appeared to the Magi until the time of Christ’s birth is that, on the presumption that the Magi saw the star two years before the Nativity, the Magi would have learned of the Incarnation even before the Blessed Virgin Mary had! How strange this would be, for the Magi to know of the coming of the King before even the Mother!

Moreover, it seems that Christ should not have been made manifest to the world until after his birth, for until the Nativity he was hidden in the virginal cloister of his Mother’s womb. It is for this reason that the Nativity is celebrated with greater solemnity than the Annunciation (the Incarnation) – it was only in the Nativity that God’s Love was revealed openly to the world. Hence, Christ should first come into the world openly (by his birth) before he is manifested to the wise men. Therefore, we ought to conclude, as a matter of fittingness, that the wise men did not see the star until the very night of the Nativity. In this way also, Christ’s birth was heralded first to the Jews (to the shepherds) and then to the Gentiles (to the Magi).

The massacre of the Holy Innocents seems to have been nearly two years after the first Christmas

The primary reason why some (both of the past and of the present) hold that the star appeared two full years before the Nativity is based on the following line from Matthew 2:16, “Then Herod killed all the men children from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.” This time inquired from the wise men seems to refer to Matthew 2:7, “Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of the time of the star which appeared to them.” Hence, it is quite clear that Herod’s massacre of the Innocents was determined (in relation to the age of the children killed) by the time when first the Magi saw the star. The slaughter takes place about two years after the star first appeared.

However, while it seems that we ought to maintain that the star had indeed appeared two years before the slaughtering of the Innocents, this does not determine the relation of the appearance of the star to the Nativity. For indeed, it is quite possible that the slaughtering of the Innocents did not occur until nearly two years after the Nativity. In which case, the star would have first appeared on the night in which Christ was born; and Herod would have (over a year later) killed the children of two years, since he knew that the Child could not be older than the star which marked his birth.

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  • Well, the Magi would have visited Jesus only after his presentation in the Temple. Had they done so earlier, Joseph and Mary would have been able to buy a lamb (with the gold that they got as a present from the Magi, of course !) and offer it to the Lord at the Temple. – Kadalikatt Joseph Sibichan Feb 4 at 10:03
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The settled in Nazareth after returning from Egypt. St. Matthew 2:19-23 gives the order of events:

(19) But when Herod was dead, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph in Egypt, (20) Saying, Arise, and take the child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel. For they are dead that sought the life of the child. (21) Who arose, and took the child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. (22) But hearing that Archelaus reigned in Juda in the room of Herod his father, he was afraid to go thither: and being warned in sleep retired into the quarters of Galilee. (23) And coming to dwell in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was said by the prophets: That he shall be called a Nazarene.

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  • That is right. But, how do we reconcile Mtt 2:23 with Luke 2:39 ? – Kadalikatt Joseph Sibichan Feb 11 at 3:38
  • @KadalikattJosephSibichan Didn't they yearly go to Jerusalem? – Geremia Feb 12 at 0:28

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