Musee des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, France/Explorer, Paris/Superstock

Shielded by a hazy mist, Joseph and Mary escape to Egypt with their newborn son, in an etching by French artist François Millet (1814–1875). According to the Gospel of Matthew, the couple thereby escape King Herod’s decree to slaughter all babies born in their hometown, Bethlehem. Matthew is the only Gospel—indeed the only first-century source—to mention Herod’s murderous decree and the holy family’s subsequent flight. Not even the contemporaneous Jewish historian Josephus, who delighted in unmasking Herod’s ferocious nature, speaks of the massacre of the innocents. Further, Matthew’s account of the nativity directly contradicts Luke’s, which has the family return home to Nazareth immediately after Jesus’ birth.

In the accompanying article, Steve Mason asks whether Matthew (or his source) might have invented the story. The question, Mason concludes, must remain open: The inconsistencies and historical improbabilities within the gospel accounts cloud our ability to determine where Jesus was born.