Whose recognition of Peter prompted his second denial that he knew Jesus?

Posted on Mar.21, 2009. Filed in Matthew, Mark, Luke. Average rating: 6.0 / 10 (Rate It).

All three of the synoptic gospels record Peter’s denial that he knew Jesus. One detail that differs between the accounts is who it is that recognises him prompting his second denial.

In Mark, Peter’s second denial is prompted by the same servant-girl as his first:

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, ‘You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘I do not know or understand what you are talking about.’ And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them.’ But again he denied it. [Mark 14:66-70 (NRSV)]

So a servant-girl claims that Peter was with Jesus, and Peter denies it, the first denial. Then the same servant girl says to the bystanders that Peter is one of Jesus’ followers, and again he denies it.

Matthew and Luke, however, are clear that the second denial wasn’t prompted by the servant-girl who had first accused Peter.

In Matthew, the second accusation comes from “another servant-girl”:

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, ‘You also were with Jesus the Galilean.’ But he denied it before all of them, saying, ‘ I do not know what you are talking about.’ When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, ‘This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ Again he denied it with an oath, ‘I do not know the man.’ [Matthew 26:69-72 (NRSV)]

In Luke, the second accusation comes from “someone else”:

Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ [Luke 22:56-58 (NRSV)]

Luke’s account is not only in tension with Mark’s because of the words “someone else”, but also with Matthew’s because of the denial “Man, I am not!” The second accuser, it appears was a man, not a servant-girl at all.

So whose recognition of Peter prompted his second denial that he knew Jesus? Was it the same servant-girl whose recognition prompted the first, another servant girl, or a man?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    Wow. In this sort of case, the normal reply would be that all the gospels together record everything that happened. But I don’t see how you can say that, since Jesus predicted that Peter would make three denials. One therefore can’t add more.

  2. 2

    Still, see Looking Unto Jesus for the best reply:

  3. 3

    Although you can’t add more denials, you can add more accusations. Having several different people accusing Peter before the second denial seems to me like the best approach, and probably good enough to prevent this claim of error causing inerrantists much concern.

  4. 4

    Clearly there were multiple accusers. By the time Peter swore an oath and the cock crowed in Good Friday morning, he had probably gathered a bit of a crowd.

    But there were more than three expressions of denial. Even so, there were only three episodes of denial. Each of them being more conscious and deliberate. In the first case his denial is dismissive and to a servant-girl (though others overheard). In the second case it is a series of flat denials. In the third case, he swore an oath as part of his denial.

    Each of these three episodes of denial probably involved more than one expression of denial. Luke’s account of the third denial is highly suggestive here. Luke records that one of the bystanders “kept insisting” that Peter knew Jesus. If he kept insisting it, Peter must have kept denying it (which is probably what ultimately precipitated the oath).

    The fact that the three episodes of denial each involved multiple expressions of denial also accounts for some of the variations in wording and meaning. For example, Peter says “I don’t know him” to the first servant-girl in two accounts, but he says “I don’t know what you are talking about” in two accounts. Is this a contradiction? No. He probably said both.* Is it, then, two of the three denials predicted by Jesus? No. It is the first episode of denial.


    *Though it is also perfectly possible that the accounts differ in this case because one pair of accounts simply records the gist of Peter’s words.

  5. 5

    I don’t agree that it’s clear that there were multiple accusers. Matthew and Mark refer to bystanders, but apart from that the only indication that there were multiple accusers is that each account gives a different accuser, which is precisely the problem that we’re trying to accommodate. That said, I’m happy to allow this as a possibility, so I don’t see this as a provable contradiction.

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