Mark and John probably each inherited an ancient tradition of Peter's denial. It is plausible that it was the memory of a prediction by Jesus in the last days about the failure of the disciples, and in particular Peter, to live out the final confrontation, that helped to crystallize the memory of what happened on the night he was arrested : Peter, who follows secretly to the high priest's palace where a fire was made and who, confronted by a servant woman, denies being a disciple of Jesus. From this basic recollection, a popular story grew, developing a dialogue between Peter and those present in the room, adjusting to Jesus' prediction of three denials before two crowing, a prediction that probably used symbolic language to tell how quickly Peter would fall. It was probably in this state that Mark and John received the tradition of Peter's denial, before modifying it in their own way according to their theology.
Thus, Peter's denial has a historical basis, not only because two independent traditions (Mark and John) report it, but also because of its embarrassment: Christians would not have invented a story that shamed Peter when he was the first of the disciples and his death as a martyr in Rome was known. On the other hand, if the fact itself is historical, all the details that have made it a colourful account belong to the literary work: Peter follows "at a distance", he can be recognized by the glow of the fire or by his Galilean accent, he slips outside to get away from a too persistent servant, the denial grows in intensity up to oath and curse related to Jeus, and finally the crowing of the cock arrives at the last denial and leads Peter to remember Jesus' words and to live out his remorse.
Mark's literary work is to associate Peter's denial with the trial of the Sanhedrin, and to contrast Jesus' confession with Peter's denial. But by introducing Peter's remorse, he who will be one of the witnesses of Jesus' resurrection, he presents him as a model for the Christians of Rome who were giving in to persecution. By placing Jesus in the same room with Peter, and turning to him when he denies him, Luke emphasizes his compassion and concern for his disciples, even though he is suffering. John, on the other hand, portrays two disciples, Peter and another disciple (the one Jesus loved). Peter is never denigrated and there is no progression in denial, but rather it serves as an argument for the behaviour of the other disciple who never fails, and who will be with Jesus on the cross, a model for the whole community.
- General Setting
- First Denial
- Second Denial
- Third Denial
- Peter's Reaction
- The Gospel Accounts and Tradition
- Discussion of Various Answers
- Working Hypothesis
- The Function of the Denial Narratives
Words of Mark shared by the other evangelists are underlined. Square brackets  indicate parallels found in another sequence in the New Testament. Words in blue indicate what is common to Matthew and Luke, in red words of John shared by other evangelists.
|Mark 14||Matthew 26||Luke 22||John 18|
|54 [And Peter followed him from a distance until inside the court of the high priest, and he was seated together with the attendants and warming himself near the blazing flame.]||[58 But Peter was following him from a distance until the court(yard) of the high priest; and having entered inside, he sat with the attendants to see the end.] ||54b But Peter was following at a distance. 55 But when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the court and had sat down together, Peter sat down in their midst.||15 But following Jesus was Simon Peter and another disciple. But that disciple was known to the high priest, and he entered together with Jesus into the court of the high priest. 16a But Peter was standing at the gate outside.|
|66 (1st Denial) And Peter being below in the court, one of the servant women of the high priestcomes; 67 and having seenPeter warming himself ||(1st Denial) 69a But Peter sat outside in the court(yard); and one servant woman came up to him||56a (1st Denial) But having seen him seated near the blazing flame||(1st Denial) 16b Accordingly the other disciple, the one known the high priest, came out and spoke to the gatekeeper and brought Peter in. 17a And so the servant woman, the gatekeeper, |
|67 and having looked at him, she says to him, "You too were with the Nazarene, Jesus."||69b saying, "You too were with Jesus the Galilean."||56b and having stared at him, a certain servant woman said, "This one too was with him."||17b says to Peter, "Are you too one of the disciples of this man?"|
|68a But he denied, saying, "I dont know nor understand what you are saying." ||70 But he denied before all, saying, "I dont know what you are saying." ||57 But he denied, saying, "I dont know him, Woman."||17c He says, "I am not." l8 But the servants and the attendants were standing around, having made a charcoal fire because it was cold; and they were warming themselves. But Peter too was with them, standing and warming himself. [18:19-24 describes the interrogation of Jesus by Annas.]|
|(2d Denial) 68b And he went outside into the forecourt [and a cock crowed].||(2d Denial) 71 But after his having gone out into the entranceway,||58a (2d Denial) And after a short time||(2d Denial) 25a But Simon Peter was standing there and warming himself.|
|69 And the servant woman, having seen him, began again to say to the bystanders that "This is one of them." ||71b another woman saw him and says to those there, "This one was with Jesus the Nazorean."||58b another man, having seen him, said, "You too are one of them." ||25b So they said to him, "Are you too one of his disciples?"|
|70a But again he was denying it. ||72 But again he denied with an oath that "I dont know the man."||58c But Peter said, "Man, I am not."||25c And he denied and said, "I am not."|
|(3d Denial) 70b And after a little, the bystanders again were saying to Peter, "Truly you are one of them, for indeed you are a Galilean." ||(3d Denial) 73 But after a little, those present, having come up, said to Peter, "Truly you too, you are one of them, for indeed your speech makes you obvious."|| (3d Denial) 59 And after about one hour had passed, a certain man was insisting, saying, "In truth this one too was with him, for indeed he is a Galilean."||(3d Denial) 26 One [masc.] of the servants of the high priest, being a relative of him whose ear Peter had cut off, says, "Didnt I see you in the garden with him?" |
|71 But he began to curse and swear that "I dont know this man of whom you speak."||74a Then he began to curse and swear that "I dont know the man."||60a But Peter said, "Man, I dont know what you are saying."||27a And so Peter denied again,|
|72 And immediately a second time a cock crowed; and Peter remembered the word as Jesus had spoken it to him, that "Before a cock crows twice, three times you will deny me." And having rushed out, he was weeping. ||74b And immediately a cock crowed; 75 and Peter remembered the word spoken by Jesus that "Before a cock crows, three times you will deny me." And having gone outside, he wept bitterly.||60b And at that moment while he was still speaking, a cock crowed. 61 And the Lord, having turned, looked at Peter; and Peter remembered the saying of the Lord as he had spoken it to him, that "Before a cock crows today, you will deny me three times." 62 And having gone outside, he wept bitterly.||27b and immediately a cock crowed.|
There is a striking contrast in the episode of Peter's denial: on the one hand, it is one of the scenes where the four evangelists agree most, but on the other hand, at the level of detail, enormous differences appear. In order to follow our analysis, it is worthwhile to have the following table in front of us.
|General||Mark 14||Matthew 26||Luke 22||John 18|
|1. Time||In the night when J. (= Jesus) has been seized at Gethsemane on the Mt of Olives and led away to the h.p. (= high priest)||In the night when J. has been seized at Gethsemane on the Mt of Olives and led away to Caiaphas, the h.p.||In the night when J. has been taken on the Mt of Olives and led to the house of the h.p.||In the night when J. has been taken in a garden across the Kidron and led to Annas, father-in-law to Caiaphas, h.p. that year|
|2. Sequence of scenes||After Sanhedrin trial when J. was interrogated by the h.p. and abused by Sanhedrin members||After Sanhedrin trial when J. was interrogated by the h.p. (Caiaphas) and abused by Sanhedrin members||Before J. was mocked by the men holding him, and before (as day began) J. was led to a Sanhedrin inquiry to be interrogated by its members||First Denial: Before J. was interrogated by the h.p. (Annas) and slapped by guard|
Second and Third Denials: After above; when J. was sent bound to Caiaphas
|First Denial||Mk 14: 54.66-68a||Mt 26: 58.69-70||Lc 22: 54b-57||Jn 18: 15-18|
|3. Place||Peter followed J. from a distance until inside aulē of the h.p., below where J. was||Peter was following J. from a distance until inside aulē of the h.p., outside where J. was||Peter was following at a distance. Was in the middle of the aulē of the h.p. where J. also was||Simon Peter and another disciple were following J. Disciple entered into the aulē of the h.p. with J.; Peter left standing at the gate outside|
|4. Peters position||Seated together with attendants, warming himself near the blazing flame (phōs)||Seated with attendants to see the end||Seated in the midst of arresting party near blazing flame (phōs) of fire (pyr) that they had kindled||Brought in by other disciple, Peter stood with servants and attendants warming himself at a charcoal fire (anthrakia) made by them|
|5. Questioner||One (mia) of the servant women of the h.p.||One (mia) servant women||A certain (tis) servant women||Tile servant woman who was the gatekeeper|
|6. Accusation or question||"You too were with [rneta] the Nazarene, Jesus.”||"You too were with [meta] Jesus the Galilean.”||"This one too was with [syn] him."||"Are you too one of the disciples of this man?”|
|7. Reply||But he denied, saying, “I dont know nor understand what you are saying”.||But he denied before all, saying, “I dont know what you are saying”.||But he denied saying, "I dont know him, Woman”.||He (that one) says, "I am not."|
|Second Denial||Mk 14: 68b-70a||Mt 26: 71-72||Lc 22: 58||Jn 18: 25|
|8. Setting||Peter went outside into the forecourt (preaulion)||Peter has gone out into the entranceway (pylōn)||After a short time (still in the aulē)||No indicated interval (still standing in the aulē warming himself)|
|9. Questioner||Same woman servant, having seen him, began again to say to the bystanders:||Another woman saw him and says to those there:||Another man, having seen him, said:||They (servants and guards of v. 18) said to him:|
|10. Accusation or question||"This is one of them."||"This one was with [meta] Jesus the Nazorean”.||"You too are one of them||"Are you too one of his disciples?"|
|11. Reply||But again he was denying it.||But again he denied with an oath that "I dont know the man."||But Peter said, "Man, I am not."||And he denied and said, "I am not."|
|Third Denial ||Mk 14: 70b-72||Mt 26: 73-75||Lk 22: 59-62||Jn 18: 26-27|
|12. Setting||After a little (still in forecourt)||After a little (still in entranceway)||After about one hour (still in the aulē)||No indicated interval (still at charcoal fire)|
|13. Questioner||The bystanders again were saying to Peter:||Those present, having come up, said to Peter:||A(nother) certain (tis) man was insisting, saying:||One (masc.) of the servants of the h.p., a relative of him whose ear Peter had cut off, says:|
|14. Accusation or question||"Truly you are one of them, for indeed you are a Galilean."||"Truly you too, you are one of them, for indeed your speech makes you obvious||"In truth this one too was with [meta] him, for indeed he is a Galilean."||"Didnt I see you in the garden with [meta] him?"|
|15. Reply||But he began to curse and swear that "I dont know this man of whom you speak”.||Then he began to curse and swear that "I dont know the man"||But Peter said, "Man, I dont know what you are saying||And so Peter denied again.|
|16. Cockcrow||Immediately, a second time, a cock crowed||Immediately a cock crowed ||At that moment while he was still speaking, a cock crowed||Immediately a cock crowed |
|17. Reaction of Peter||Peter remembered the word as J. had spoken it to him, that "Before a cock crows twice, three times you will deny me." And having rushed out, he was weeping.||Peter remembered the word spoken by J. that "Before a cock crows, three times you will deny me." And having gone outside, he wept bitterly.||The Lord, having turned, looked at Peter; and Peter remembered the saying of the Lord as he had spoken it to him, that "Before a cock crows today, you will deny me three times." And having gone outside, he wept bitterly.|
- General Setting
- Sequence of events
In Luke and John, there is no separation between the moment when Peter's whereabouts are presented and the beginning of the denials. On the other hand, in Mark and Matthew, there is a separation between these two moments to give way to the trial of the Sanhedrin, which is a dozen verses. This allows Mark to combine the trial and Peter's denial, both taking place almost simultaneously.
In a similar way, John associates Peter's denial with Jesus' interrogation before Annas: the first denial takes place before the interrogation begins, the second and third while Jesus is being interrogated and sent back to Caiaphas. The aim is clear: to contrast Peter's denial with Jesus' confession.
In taking up Mark's account, Luke breaks away from it by not repeating his method of introducing a character and taking it a little further: he prefers a unified scene that is only left when the picture is complete. Thus he consolidates the description of Peter in the aulē where consecutive events follow one another.
- The presence of Peter
All the Gospels mention that Peter "followed" Jesus under arrest. This is astonishing. Didn't all the disciples flee at the time of the arrest? Mark and Matthew (and Luke in a way) solved the problem by saying that Peter was following "from a distance". Even John respects this tradition when he says that Peter arrived at the door after Jesus. Even though there is no indication that the disciples were being chased, it is easy to imagine that they were afraid and hiding.
- The place of the scene
All four Gospels agree to place the scene in or around aulē. What is the aulē? There are three possible meanings:
Matthew (26:69) refers to this third meaning. Mark, for his part, assumes that the house of the high priest has several floors, so that Peter's denial takes place on a floor lower than the one where Jesus is on trial; for him aulē designates a room or courtyard inside the building, while proaulion must designate the forecourt or courtyard outside aulē. As for Luke and John, it is less clear; one moves from one building to another within Jerusalem. But whether one is inside or outside the building, for Mark, Luke and John, Peter was near a fire (sitting for Mark and Luke, standing for John). This detail is understandable when we know that the nights in Jerusalem are cool in March and early April.
- The entire palace building
- A room inside the palace building
- The outer courtyard
Mark/Matthew mentions guards, just like John (with servants), and later on one will speak of servants woman. Thus, for the evangelists, in addition to those who had gone to arrest Jesus, there were in aulē servants who had not been involved in the arrest. Also, the charge against Peter produces no hysteria and no movement to arrest him.
- First Denial
The four Gospels speak of a servant woman (paidiskē). Mark uses a partitive expression ("one of the" servant women), which Matthew and Luke simplify in their own way, the former with "one servant woman" and the latter with "a certain servant woman". John specifies that she is also a doorkeeper, which has led some biblical scholars to ask: how can a woman be responsible for the door of the priestly palace late at night? It should be remembered that John has accustomed us to present plausible details of the culture of the time, and we have a precedent in Acts 12:13 when Peter is released from prison by night and "knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer".
- The other disciple
Who is this other disciple? Usually he is identified with the "beloved disciple", the one who was against Jesus' breast at his last supper and whom Peter asks to inquire about the name of the traitor, and who will stand by the cross. Moreover, in Jn 20:2 the expressions "the other disciple" and "the disciple whom Jesus loved" are clearly associated. Some biblical scholars have tried to associate this disciple with John, son of Zebedee, the fisherman of Galilee, with many twists and turns to explain how he could be known to the high priest. It is better to recognize that one cannot plausibly establish his identity, if not in a negative way: he is not one of the Twelve, and he is not a purely symbolic figure.
The evangelist John presents us with another problem: how can a disciple of Jesus, known to the high priest, have access to aulē at the very moment when Jesus is arrested and Peter is suspected of being a disciple as well? First of all, let us observe that the evangelist simply says that the other disciple "was known" to the high priest, and not "was very well known" to the high priest. It cannot be assumed that this knowledge also implied his connection with Jesus. Moreover, we have the example of Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin certainly known to the high priest, whose links with Jesus had remained secret. Moreover, when the servant woman asks Peter, "Are you too one of the disciples of this man?" This is a common expression in John, and the same expression appears in the Synoptics without any mention of the other disciple.
In the synoptic accounts (Mk, Mt, Lk), the intervention of the servant woman always takes the form of an accusation, whereas in John it is simply a question. In Mark the accused is called a Nazarene, in Matthew a Galilean. In the second denial, it will be the opposite with Mark and Matthew. This accusation concerning someone from Galilee is plausible when we know the apprehension of the authorities in Jerusalem with regard to these rural people who more than once disturbed the peace during the Passover feast (see Mk 14: 2; Lk 13: 1-3).
- Peter's reply
The action of denying is expressed in Greek by two terms that are completely synonymous: arnesthai and aparneisthai. But the way in which the evangelists describe this denial is not identical
The denial in John is the most serious: Peter says outright that he is not a disciple (ouk eimi: I am not), a dramatic contrast to Jesus' "egō eimi" (I am) at the time of his arrest. Luke simplifies Mark's sentence by retaining only the first part (as Matthew does), while using the vocative (woman!), as he often does (see Lk 5:20; 13:12). Mark's sentence has something convoluted in using oute...oute (instead of ouk...ouk) to say "not...nor" when linking two synonymous words, which is grammatically incorrect. But this sentence takes the form of repetition of the popular common usage to make its point, and above all to express both a psychological and theological progression in Peter's reply: first we speak of a lack of knowledge and understanding, then of denial, before moving on to the rejection of Jesus with swearwords (see #7, #11 and #15 of the preceding table).
|Mark||I don't know nor understand what you are saying|
|Matthew||I don't know what you are saying|
|Luke||I don't know him, Woman|
|John||I am not (a disciple of this man)|
- Second Denial
- Sequence of events
- John: The 2nd and 3rd denials are separated from the first by the scene with Annas
- Luke: The second denial comes "after a short time".
- Mark/Matthew: Peter changes his place and goes out towards the court (Mark) / towards the courtyard (Matthew).
Some manuscripts (the old Latin, the Vulgate, the Peshitta) on the Gospel of Mark add before the second denial: "and a cock crowed". This is probably the addition of a copyist (hence the square brackets) who, seeing Mark's phrase where a cock crows for the second time after the third denial without having previously mentioned a first crow, felt the need to rationalize the story. Mark probably deliberately ignored the first crow of the rooster in his account to make it plausible; otherwise Peter would have had to immediately remember Jesus' words.
- The place
While the first denial takes place at the door in John, and in the aulē in the Synoptics, the portrait is more diversified for the second denial. For John and Luke, everything happens in the aulē. For Mark, Peter goes out towards the proaulion (forecourt), and for Matthew, towards pylōn (entranceway). It is useless to try to harmonize the detail on the spot: the tradition received was probably very vague and each evangelist specifies it in his own way, and here Matthew prefers the well-known word of pylōn, to that of proaulion unknown elsewhere in the Bible.
But why does Mark present us with a Peter who is on the move? He probably wants to dramatize Peter's weakness: the latter wants to avoid the persistent gaze of the servant woman and moves away towards the vestibule, but the servant woman, from afar, still in aulē, continues to address aloud those who are there. Matthew and Luke have simplified this scene, Matthew by involving another servant woman, Luke by involving a man this time, and above all by not moving Peter.
- The words
For Mark, since the servant woman is no longer with him, Peter's reply is not directly addressed to her. But this denial is all the more reprehensible since this time it is no longer a question of not having understood the question, but of denying that he is a disciple of Jesus (This is one of them). Matthew accentuates the denial with an oath of Peter. Luke, for his part, emphasizes the contrast between Peter's words: "I am not (ouk eimi)" and those that will come out of Jesus' mouth before the high priest who questions him about his divine filiation: "You say, 'I am (eimi)'" (Lk 22:70).
- Third Denial
- The setting
This time there is no change of location. But the Synoptics postulate a period of time. As for the audience, it looks the same as the one at aulē. John specifies the identity of the questioner (One of the servants of the high priest, being a relative of him whose ear Peter had cut off) to establish a link with the previous scene.
- Regional accent
The third denial assumes that Peter is easily identifiable as a Galilean. Matthew clarifies this detail from by explaining that this identification is due to Peter's regional accent when he speaks. In Luke, Peter "truly" denies being "with" (meta) the Galilean, whereas earlier he had said: "Lord, I am ready to go with (meta) you and to prison and to death" (Lk 22:33).
- Cursing / Swearing
It is worth noting Peter's denial in Mark/Matthew. Swearing is not a problem, for it marks the gradation in Peter's denial. On the other hand, how is the verb "to curse" (anamathizein) to be interpreted? As a number of biblical scholars think, it is probably a transitive verb (to curse someone), and thus Peter would find himself cursing Jesus and swearing that he does not know who he is. As for Luke, according to his habit, he rounds off the angles and avoids intensifying the denial.
- A second cockcrow?
All the evangelists agree to write: Immediately the cock crowed. Mark is the only one to say that the cock crowed for the second time. Why is he the only one? It is likely that Matthew and Luke, who use Mark's text, have both eliminated this detail to be consistent, because his original account did not include a first crow.
- Is it a real rooster?
Some biblical scholars have hypothesized that Mark is not referring to a real cock, but to the third watch of the night according to the Roman count. Indeed, Roman night time consisted of four moments of three hours each: 1) "the late hour" (opse), from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.; 2) "midnight" (mesonyktion), from 9:00 p.m. to midnight; 3) "cockcrow" (alektōrophonia), from midnight to 3:00 a.m.; and 4) "early" (prōi), from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. But no data can convince us that the evangelists were referring to this Roman comput. They constantly refer to "a" (indefinite) cock crowing, thus to the animal of the farmyard.
- Roosters in Jerusalem?
The problem arose because the Mishna (about 200 AD), tractate Baba Qamma 7:7, forbids the raising of fowl in Jerusalem, and even forbids priests to raise them throughout Israel (and the crowing of the cock is close to the high priest's palace). But was a rule from the beginning of the third century in effect at the time of Jesus? Was it even observed? The Jerusalem Talmud, 'Erubin 10.1, presupposes the presence of roosters in Jerusalem. And the Old Testament (Prov 30:31; Job 38:36) and Jewish tradition (III Macc 5:23; Babylonian Talmud, Berakot 60b) speak of roosters. And we must rely on the evangelists, especially John who often shares detailed and accurate information about Jerusalem with us, to pass on to us the customs of the time.
- What time's the cockcrow?
Some field observations have shown that roosters in Palestine usually crow between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., but data from antiquity refer to the crowing of the crow at 12.30 a.m., 1.30 a.m., and 2.30 a.m. Cicero probably reflects reality when he writes: "Is there a time, night or day, when the rooster does not crow?"(De Divinatione 2.26.56). Thus, it is sufficient to state that the evangelists refer to the early hours of the morning, before daybreak, without being more precise.
- Peter's Reaction
- The fulfilment of a prophecy
All the Gospels associate the crowing of the cock with the third denial, and thus with the fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy. Mark does this with a convoluted construction (and Peter remembered the word as Jesus had spoken it to him) that Matthew and Luke simplify, while the allusion to Jesus' word is implicit in John, which is surprising, since he likes to remember so much that Jesus had announced certain things (Jn 18:9,14,32; 19:39).
- To weep
To describe Peter's reaction, the three Synoptics use the verb "to weep" (klaien). In half of the 21 cases where the verb is used in the Gospels, it refers to lamenting over a deceased person. So we can imagine the emotional charge in the verb.
- Matthew / Luke
Mt / Lc add "bitterly" (pikrōs). If Matthew and Luke usually copy Mark, how could they both add this adverb without consulting each other? Rather than imagining that one evangelist would have known the other, it is better to think that such a popular story spread in an oral form, and that certain emotionally charged expressions, such as "bitterly", were already fixed; it is such an oral tradition that would have influenced the evangelists.
The expression "weep bitterly" emphasizes that Peter is overcome by remorse and the prospect that it is no longer possible for him to fulfill his commitment to follow Jesus to death. However, the evangelists do not speak of despair. In Matthew there is the prediction that he will see him again in Galilee (Mt 26:32), and in Luke the announcement that Jesus prayed for Peter to rise up and strengthen his brothers (Lk 22:31-32). And tradition has kept the memory that he was the first one to see Jesus risen from the dead.
In Luke, it is not the crowing of the cock, but the fact that Jesus turns (strephein) to him that leads him to remember his words. This scene presupposes that Jesus is in the aulē with Peter. There is no need to try to harmonize it with the setting in Mark where Jesus is upstairs in a room in the palace, while Peter is downstairs in the courtyard. Luke has deliberately changed Mark's setting to present us with a Jesus who cares for his disciples at the moment they are tempted by Satan.
Here, there is no reaction from Peter. Such an omission is compensated by Jn 21:15-17 when Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him.
The first part of Peter's reaction in Mark is problematic: "And ________ (epibalōn), he was crying". Let's first note that "was crying", at the imperfect, has an inchoative value, i.e. he started to cry. But how to translate epibalōn (to throw over/on, to put on), here an aorist participle? Nine different meanings are possible.
- having thrown (himself), i.e. broke down
- having thrown (himself down), i.e., to the ground
- having thrown (himself out), i.e., rushed outside; this is the interpretation of Matthew and Luke who wrote: having gone outside
- having thrown (himself into), i.e., begun (to cry); burst into (tears). (interpretation of Theophylact)
- having thrown (his mind to it), i.e. thought of Jesus' prediction (KJV and RV reading)
- having cast (his eyes), i.e., on Jesus
- having thrown (back), i.e., answered (usages from Polybius)
- having thrown (a piece of clothing on), e.g., "and covering his head", perhaps to disguise himself (cowardice) or to hide his face (shame)
- having beat on himself, i.e., the gesture of striking the chest
(iv) and (v) are a tautology, since "crying" already has an inchoate value. With much hesitation, we opt for (iii), i.e. having rushed out.
- The Gospel Accounts and Tradition
- One, two or three sources?
Despite many differences in detail, the Gospels agree on the general sequence of events. Among the Synoptics, Luke offers the most divergent picture. But there is no need to ask for a different source, since 50% of his vocabulary is similar to that of Mark; just like Matthew, he depends on the latter.
On the other hand, John draws from a different source than Mark. Some biblical scholars reject this theory, under the pretext that both Mark and John place Peter's denial in the Jewish trial of Jesus. But this is forgetting that, very early in the history of tradition, the account of Jesus being handed over to the authorities is set in the night (1 Cor 11:23) and that the crucifixion of Jesus is set in the day (Gal 3:1). Within this fixed setting, the interrogation of Jesus by the Jews must take place at night, after his arrest, or early in the morning, before his crucifixion. The tradition of Peter's denial, which is associated with his arrest and the flight of the disciples, must also necessarily take place at night, at the time of his arrest or afterwards (especially if it is to be associated with the crowing of the cock). Thus, associating denial with the Jewish trial does not reveal anything particular about the Gospel sources. What is revealing, however, is the manner in which this association is made. And on this point John shows his independence (one denial before, two after), even though he acknowledges that his Jewish interrogation is quite different.
Moreover, the details of Mark's and John's accounts diverge. Even though in both stories Peter follows Jesus to the arrest and denies him three times before the crowing of the cock, in a setting where there is a fire in the aulē of the high priest and a servant woman, the way of combining these details is very different : John places the first denial before the entry into the aulē, but the second and third one by the fire in the aulē; Mark places the first denial in the aulē, but the second and third one outside the aulē, away from the fire. Except for a few key words like rooster, servant woman, or "warming himself", the whole vocabulary is different. In short, Mark and John draw from two different earlier traditions.
- One or three denials?
Some biblical scholars believe that originally there was only one denial, and it was Mark who, by combining different stories, or through editorial work, would have arrived at three denials. Two distinct possibilities must be recognized here.
- The first is that the early formulations of the tradition presented a single denial of Peter, and that subsequently, under the influence of the parabolic and popular narratives where the "rule of three" prevails, Peter's denial became three denials. Unfortunately, reconstructing this tradition is almost impossible.
- The second possibility is that Mark receives from the tradition only one denial, and it is he who takes the initiative to develop three denials. This would imply that the three denials did not exist before the year 70, the approximate date of his Gospel. Unfortunately, trying to see Mark's style of denial in the second or third denial proves nothing, because it would be difficult to do otherwise anyway. And to consider the fact that Peter comes out of aulē at the end of the first denial is the end of the story is to fail to understand Mark's subtlety.
In short, some of Mark's verses may well be considered older than others, but one would look in vain for convincing arguments showing that the tradition received by Mark contained only one denial. Moreover, if we turn to John, the source he receives seems to contain three denials.
If the oldest tradition contained three accounts of denial, we must nevertheless ask the question: behind these accounts, are there real facts? If Peter did indeed deny Jesus, how many times did he do so?
- Discussion of Various Answers
- The proponents of historicity
The main argument is that Christians would never have invented a story that would shame their most prominent leader. Moreover, how could each of the four evangelists have freely inserted an invented story into their work when they were most likely aware that Peter had died a martyr in Rome?
These arguments are truly compelling. However, some biblical scholars reach exaggerated conclusions when they go so far as to claim that the details of the denial came from Peter himself. That Peter contributed to the source of the denial story is plausible. But it must be remembered that there may have been more than one source for this story. Above all, it must be recognized that the artistic and colourful character of the present narrative bears the mark of the typical development of a popular narrative that may have first gone through an oral stage before being put into writing. For example, the dramatic contrast between Peter's denial and Jesus' confession betrays the pen of Mark. In short, the very fact of Peter's denial is one thing, the way of telling it is another, especially in the context where the scene has become almost a parable about the weakness of the disciple in the trial and his rehabilitation through repentance.
- The Skeptics
A number of biblical scholars have questioned the historicity of this story. Let us consider their arguments.
- How can Peter's denial be embarrassing, as the proponents of historicity claim, when Christianity is a religion that preaches a crucified-resurrected-of-the-dead? Does Peter not become the model of the Christian to be promoted? This argument of the skeptics is not convincing. For the crucifixion of Jesus was truly a scandal which only gradually found meaning, and this certainly does not justify the invention of the scene of denial. Mark 14:27-29 presents this scene as an embarrassing disgrace, and did not Matthew 10:33 write: "Whoever denies me before men, I in turn will deny him before my Father in heaven"?
- For other skeptics, Peter's denial is an example of anti-Petrine propaganda; Mark would dispute the Christology preached by Peter or in his name. Thus, Peter would be the model of opposition to Jesus. These skeptics are unaware that Paul himself, who was a persecutor of Jesus' followers, considered Peter to be a model of apostolic evangelization (Gal 2:7). They forget that the other evangelists made Peter play a positive role after the resurrection. They do not take into account that the synoptics and the 4th Gospel represent two independent traditions on Peter's denial. And finally, they overlook the scene in Mark of Peter's remorse and the evidence of his repentance.
- For still other skeptics, Peter's denial is the projection of the Eucharistic celebration in which the Lord's sufferings are remembered. Even the cockerel would be the echo of the rooster at the Easter celebration early in the morning. These skeptics forget 1 Cor 11 where Paul reminds us that the Eucharist has its source in a real event, the night when Jesus was handed over, received from tradition. And we can think that Peter played a role in the transmission of this tradition, since Paul met him in Jerusalem after his conversion (Gal 1:18). In short, one would look in vain for data supporting the hypothesis of a creation based on the liturgy.
- Some skeptics note that the account of Peter's denial contradicts the context: if it is said that all the disciples fled when Jesus was arrested, how can Peter continue to follow Jesus? These skeptics fail to note two things: 1) Peter's denial is precisely an illustration of Jesus' prediction that the disciples will be scandalized and run away, i.e. will be unable to face the trial; 2) Mark is careful to say that Peter was following "from a distance," a way of linking denial to the disciples' flight: Peter also fled Gethsemane, and now he is following the guards by stealth, only to fail again.
- Another argument of the skeptics refers to Luke 22:31-32: "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has called for you to be sifted as wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail. You therefore, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers". And above all, the promoters of this argument take care to prune out the expression "when once you have turned back", which they consider as secondary; thus Peter's denial would have no historical basis, since Jesus prayed that his faith would not fail. To this argument, several answers are necessary: 1) Luke reports this word of Jesus together with his prediction that he would deny him, without seeing any contradiction; 2) this argument presupposes a pruning of the text, and even if the pruning had a basis, Jesus' prayer would be justified in a context of trial that Peter had to face; 3) how can one base oneself on Luke by assuming that he is more original than Mark, contrary to the great majority of exegetes? 4) by considering the expression "when once you have turned back" as secondary, we go against important accounts such as those of Matthew (16:16-18: who presents Peter as a rock on which he will build his Church, while treating him as Satan a few verses later because of his incomprehension) or of John (21:15-17: the three questions of Jesus to Peter if he loves him and establishing him as pastor of the flock, while following the three denials).
- Predictions of denial
Were these predictions made after the events, just as, according to some, Jesus' prediction of his own death? It is not clear why predictions of denial would have been made after the fact, when so many other incidents related to the passion were not predicted at all? It is even possible, on the contrary, that it was rather the prediction of Peter's denial that would have helped to formulate and preserve the denial itself. Indeed, why would one have taken care to remember a prediction if it did not come true? And the crowing of the cock, linked to the night of Jesus' arrest, would have no particular significance if it were not linked to a prediction, and a prediction fulfilled.
- Working Hypothesis
When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem and had to face the exacerbated opposition of the authorities, one might think that he guessed that an attempt would be made to arrest him, and that there would be defections among his followers, either through treason or desertion. Words on the subject may have been spoken at various times during the last few days. These words have been preserved by tradition in the context of his last meal. Of the three predictions of Jesus (Judas, the disciples, Peter), only the one concerning Peter and his association with the crow must necessarily be related to the night when Jesus was betrayed. But the instinct of tradition to relate this prediction to the general anticipation of the flight of the disciples could be just as historical.
The numbers in the phrase "before the cock crow twice, you will have denied me three times" may be a creation of Mark, but nothing prevents it from being pronounced in a symbolic tone, to indicate not an exact number, but a short period of time, accentuating the speed with which Peter would completely collapse.
Early versions of a continuing account of the passion must have mentioned Judas' betrayal and the flight of the disciples. And as an example of this flight, there was a brief mention of Peter's denial when he was challenged by a servant woman around a fire in the high priest's aulē where Jesus was being held prisoner. Later on, the tradition could begin to detail this account in dialogues, when Peter played a much more visible role in the Christian community and became the evangelist of circumcision (Gal 2:7). In the expansion of the original story, it was possible to begin to interpret Jesus' prediction literally, so that the story now contained three distinct denials, with the last one corresponding with the crowing of the cock. It is probably in this state that Mark and John received their source on which they rely.
Such a working hypothesis does justice both to the historical basis of the story and to its imaginative style. For a basic fact and an imaginative expansion can coexist.
- The Function of the Denial Narratives
These stories are very colourful: Peter follows "from a distance", he can be recognized by the glow of the fire or by his Galilean accent, he creeps outside to get away from an overly persistent servant woman, the denial grows in intensity until the oath and curse targeting Jesus, and finally the crowing of the cock arrives at the last denial and leads Peter to remember the words of Jesus and to live out his remorse.
Mark places this account at the moment when Jesus faces the Sanhedrin. Peter, who had previously confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One (8, 29), now denies him. As we have already pointed out earlier (see transition episode), this account is marked by 2 Samuel 15 (David, abandoned by his friends and advisers, goes to the Mount of Olives to pray), and by the last chapters of Zechariah which take place in the Mount of Olives with his references to the blood of the covenant, the murdered shepherd and the thirty shekels of silver thrown into the temple treasury. But the most important influence is not the Old Testament, but the predictions of Jesus himself.
Unlike Mark, Peter and Jesus are present in the same place in aulē. When Jesus turns to Peter after his denial, Luke wants us to know that, at the very heart of his suffering, Jesus is concerned about others.
His approach is completely different. He portrays two disciples. First of all, Peter is never denigrated and one would seek in vain a progression in denial. Rather, he serves as a stooge for the other disciple's behaviour, who never fails. This disciple will reappear at the cross, the only one to follow Jesus to the end. It is impossible to conclude anything about its historicity, since only John speaks of it, and only in the context of Jesus' last days. What we can say is that John's Gospel reflects a communal situation where Christians were expelled from synagogues for confessing Jesus and therefore fearing for their lives. The example of the other disciple is therefore offered to them as a model.
It is a theology of the cross that Mark presents to us here. His Gospel was probably first written in the context of the Christian community in Rome during Nero's persecution. Many Christians not only renounced their faith, but even denounced their co-religionists. What are we to think of the latter? Is hope totally lost? And now Mark presents us with the figure of Peter, the one who boasted that he could follow Jesus to the end, the first to confess that he is the Messiah, and who now, despite Jesus' word to pray not to enter the trial, swears not to be his disciple and even curses him. Does not his repentance mark the voice of all those Christians who have floundered in their faith?
- The Denial
The verb "to deny" was already part of the various testimonies about martyrs in Judaism. The Maccabean brothers challenge the Jews to deny their ancestral law and their brethren (4 Macc 8:7; 10:15). Revelation 2:13 praises Christians for resisting persecution. 2 Timothy 2:13 promises that Christ will be faithful, for he cannot deny himself. The Roman Pliny the Younger questioned people suspected of being Christians and gave them three opportunities to deny their faith (Epistles, 10.96-97). This echo of the context of the first century is sufficient to convince us that the listener of the account of Peter's denial could easily refer to his own situation.
Next chapter: End of the Sanhedrin Proceedings; Transfer to Pilate
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