You Asked: Are the Differing Narratives of Peter’s Denials Reconcilable?

Jack C. from Chicago asks:

Regarding Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial and the ensuing narrative that describes the denial, Matthew, Luke, and John disagree with Mark in such a way that seems like an irreconcilable contradiction: both accounts logically cannot be true. No commentary has provided a satisfying explanation. Can anyone? Should this interfere with our belief that the Scripture is inerrant?

We posed this question to Craig L. Blomberg, distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary in Littleton, Colorado.

A generation ago, Harold Lindsell in his widely quoted Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976, pp. 174-76) found the differences between the Gospels’ accounts of Peter’s denials so great that he postulated that Peter actually disavowed knowing Jesus six times! The problem is that every one of the four Gospels has Jesus predicting that Peter would deny him three times and then going on to describe only three denials by Peter. The kind of harmonization Lindsell suggested unfortunately discredits the whole enterprise in many people’s minds. But better ways exist to deal with the apparent discrepancies.

There are actually a number of interesting differences among the Gospel parallels for this event. Because John uniquely narrates Jesus’ hearing before Annas, he separates the first from the second and third denials (John 18:15-27). The three Synoptic Gospels narrate the three denials together as a single passage, but without contradicting John in any way. Luke places the denials before his account of Jesus’ trial by the Sanhedrin (Luke 22:54-71), whereas Matthew and Mark put them afterward (Matt. 26:57-75; Mark 14:53-72). This difference is probably related to the fact that Luke narrates a trial at daybreak (Luke 22:66), after the nighttime proceedings that Matthew, Mark, and John describe. Luke’s account may well correspond to Matthew and Mark’s notice that early in the morning the Jewish leaders held a council to determine what to do with Jesus (Matt. 27:1-2; Mark 15:1-2). If the rabbinic law that it was illegal to come to a verdict in a capital case at nighttime was already in force in Jesus’ day, this brief gathering may have repeated some of the night-time proceedings in a perfunctory fashion just to give them some semblance of legality (cf. further my Historical Reliability of the Gospels [Downers Grove: IVP, rev. 2007], pp. 178-80).

Another commonly noted difference is that only Mark refers to two cock crows, both in Jesus’ prediction (Mark 14:30) and in its fulfillment (Mark 14:72). But anyone who has ever awakened to roosters’ squawking, usually beginning well before dawn, will know that their raucous noise does not lend itself to easy agreement on just how many times a given bird crowed! And it’s not as if Mark anywhere earlier in his narrative includes a first crow separate from this second crow (although some later scribes tried to create one by adding to verse 68, “and the rooster crowed”). If Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed twice, and those crows were one right after each other, then it is equally true that Peter denied him three times before the rooster crowed once. Matthew, Luke, and John (or the oral tradition before them) could easily have streamlined Mark’s fuller narrative by omitting the seemingly unnecessary detail of the second crow.

Heart of the Question

There is a different way Mark appears to differ from the other three Gospels, which may get to the heart of our question. There is little difficulty harmonizing Peter’s words in each of his three denials, as they build toward a climactic affirmation that he knows nothing of Jesus. For those who prefer “additive harmonization,” one can easily imagine Peter saying all the words attributed to him in the four Gospels in the chaotic scene of multiple accusations, sometimes by multiple people at once. More likely, as is the case throughout so much of the Gospel parallels, each writer is being faithful to what Darrell Bock calls the “gist” of the various speakers’ words. Paraphrase was the norm in ancient history writing, in a world without quotation marks or any felt need for them. But what of the identity of the three interrogators?

Matthew, Luke, and John all agree that a servant girl (Gk. paidiskē) was the first person to approach Peter (Matt. 26:69; Luke 22:56; John 18:17). John also calls her a doorkeeper. Matthew calls the second person to query Jesus allē (the feminine form of “another”), presumably meaning another servant girl (Matt. 26:71). Luke calls this second individual heteros (the generic use of the masculine form of another word for “another”), thus not specifying the individual’s gender (Luke 22:58). John is vaguer still, using merely a third person plural verb eipon (“they said”) to introduce the second accusation. The third and final question for Peter comes from “the bystanders” (Matt. 26:73). Luke speaks merely of another person (allos; Luke 22:59), while John specifies him as a servant of the high priest (John 18:26). But again there is no contradiction.

That leaves Mark’s version. The first accusation in Mark comes from one of the servant girls (mia tōn paidiskōn; Mark 14:66)—-no problem. The last challenge comes from the bystanders, just as in Matthew (Mark 14:70). That leaves only the person who prompted Peter’s second denial. Mark calls her hē paidiskē. Often this would be translated, “the servant girl.” Coming after the reference in verse 66, it is natural to take this article as resumptive, referring back to the same girl. But not all uses of the article in Greek are best translated with articles in English. If this is a generic or categorical use of the article, then it means one of a class and can be translated “a servant girl” and be understood as referring to a different one. Interestingly, the King James Version rendered Mark 14:70 in exactly this way, though more recent translations have largely rejected this rendering. Alternately, we may just have to assume that more than three people accused Peter, even if he denied it only three times. After all, “the bystanders” already suggests more than one person making the final accusation. In any event, there is no threat to the inerrancy of Scripture.

As for good commentaries on all of this, see especially D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Revised Edition, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), pp. 623-24.