A Case Study of Peter’s Denial

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ ,

Note: This article by sister Elisabeth Strout, a female revert from the depths of Christianity to the heights of Islam, read her story here.

While getting ready to teach a Sunday School class on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, my mother asked me what Islam teaches about these issues. Honestly, I responded that the Qur’an simply states categorically that Jesus didn’t die, the Jews only thought they killed him. While that leaves room for countless theories, from the switching of bodies with a look-alike, to the swoon theory, the basic teaching is that Jesus did not die and come back to life, but rather ascended to heaven without dying. I concluded with the assertion that Christians themselves cannot trust their own Bible’s teaching, as it’s riddled with contradictions. My parents confidently disavowed any possibility of discrepancy between the Bible’s four accounts of the event, and as a result, I’ve spent the last few days studying the four Biblical crucifixion and resurrection narratives closely, to analyze the contradictions between them.

There are quite a few, and while some may be written off with the “inclusive” explanation (i.e. Matthew and Mark recount Jesus’ last words as being “my God, my God why have you forsaken me”, Luke claims they were “into thy hands I commit my spirit”, while John says they were “it is finished”, and Christians generally claim that Jesus said all three in succession, “my God, my God why have you forsaken me, into your hands I commit my spirit, it is finished”.), there are some narratives that cannot be reconciled, no matter how you superimpose them.

Rather than posting them all here at once and leave readers floundering in all the references, I decided to start with a case study of one particular event in the story, namely Peter’s denial of Christ. While the wording differs insignificantly between the three questioners who point Peter out, that is not primarily of interest. Take a look at Matthew and Luke’s accounts, which are almost identical, and then compare them with John, and then Mark, and notice the incompatible details:

Matthew 26:69-75

  • All disciples flee upon Jesus’ arrest, Peter follows at a distance.

  • A servant girl in the courtyard says, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean,” Peter responds, “I do not  know what you mean”.

  • different servant girl at the gate says, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth,” Peter responds with an oath, “I do not know the man”.

  • The bystanders say, “Certainly you are one of them, your accent betrays you,” Peter responds again with an oath, “I do not know the man.”

  • The rooster crows, Peter remembers Jesus’ prediction, and weeps bitterly.

Luke 22:55-62

  • Jesus is arrested (no mention made of disciples fleeing), Peter follows at a distance.

  • A servant girl in the courtyard says, “This man also was with him,” Peter responds, “Woman, I do not know him.”

  • Another person says, “You also are one of them,” Peter responds, “Man, I am not.”

  • Another person says, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean,” Peter responds, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.”

  • The rooster crows, Peter remembers Jesus’ prediction, and weeps bitterly.

So far, so good. Again, there is a slight difference of wording, but that can be overlooked. Take note of the emphasized words in Matthew, and now watch how in John, the story takes on a lot more detail (though John was written decades later), and the contradictions begin.

John 18:15-27

  • Jesus is arrested (no mention made of disciples fleeing), Peter and another disciple follow. The other disciple gets into the courtyard because he knows an official. Peter doesn’t get into the courtyard, so the disciple sends a servant girl to open the gate for him.

  • The servant girl at the gate says, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” and Peter responds, “I am not.”

  • The officers and servants around the fire in the courtyard say, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” and Peter responds again, “I am not.”

  • A relative of the man whose ear Peter cut off asks, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” and Peter denies it.

  • The rooster crows (no mention is made of his weeping).

So now, apart from the general wording and the location of the questioners (he goes from courtyard to gate in Matt., and from gate to courtyard in John), we have several distinct differences. First, the identity of the following disciples. Matt. claims all the disciples fled except Peter, and Peter alone followed from a distance. John makes no mention of the disciples fleeing, and claims both Peter and another disciple followed. Typical of John, the other disciple remains anonymous leaving Christians to speculate that it was probably John himself. Either way, either they all fled except Peter, or they all fled except Peter and John. It can’t be both.

Secondly, the identity of the questioners. Other than the first, the servant girl, Luke leaves the second two questioners anonymous, so his version is fairly compatible with the others. Matthew on the other hand, states that the questioners were (1) a servant girl in the courtyard, (2) a different servant girl at the gate, and (3) the bystanders (identified in John as officials and servants). John claims they were (1) a servant girl at the gate, (2) the by-standing officers and servants, and (3) a relative of the man whose ear Peter cut off.

While some may be tempted to generalize “bystanders” to mean anyone, including servant girls and relatives of earless men, the gospels purposely distinguish between the two, and the relative’s words in John set him apart even further from the bystanders of Matt., Mark, and Luke. While the three synoptics list, with slightly different wording, the third questioner as having recognizing Peter as a Galilean (because of his accent in Matt.), John’s third questioner (the relative of the man whose ear Peter cut) recognizes Peter because he saw him in the garden, during the arrest. It can’t be both.

Finally, we come to Mark’s account, which has yet another notable difference. While agreeing with Matthew about all the disciples fleeing except Peter, and the third question from the bystanders about Peter being Galilean, there are a few details that don’t match up.

Mark 14:66-72

  • All disciples flee upon Jesus’ arrest, Peter follows at a distance.

  • A servant girl at the fire in the courtyard says, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus,” Peter responds, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.”

  • Peter goes out to the gate and the rooster crows.

  • The same servant girl sees him there and says, “This man is one of them,” and Peter denies it.

  • The bystanders say, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean,” Peter responds with an oath, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.”

  • The rooster crows a second time, Peter remembers Jesus’ prediction, and weeps bitterly.

While Matthew specifies that the first two accusations were leveled by two different servant girls, Mark goes to the trouble of telling us they were spoken by the same servant girl. It can’t be both. The second, and more noticeable aberration, is that Mark’s account of the story, as well as his account of Jesus’ prediction, differ in the number of times the rooster crows. While Peter is told he will deny three times, and does deny three times, in all accounts, Jesus predicts it will be “before the rooster crows”, in Matt., Luke, and John, and “before the rooster crows twice”, in Mark. And sure enough, in Matt., Luke and John, Peter denies thrice before the rooster crows, while in Mark, he denies, the rooster crows (the sound of it doesn’t bring him to his senses yet), he denies twice more, and the rooster crows again. So which was it, before the rooster crows, or before it crows twice? It can’t be both.

It seems like a silly, insignificant story. Same servant girl or different one, courtyard or gate, bystanders or relative, all but one disciple or all but two disciples, Galilean accent or previous encounter in the garden, one crow or two; does it really matter? For the Christians who claim there’s not a single contradiction in the entire Bible, it does matter. You can’t get around these, and you can’t get around the dozens, if not hundreds more in the Bible, no matter how insignificant. For the more reasonable Christians who openly admit that sure, they’re ancient documents, there’s the occasional slip-up, but nothing major that affects doctrine, their intellectual honesty is refreshing, but it begs the question, can God’s divine revelation be anything less than perfect? When God sends a final text for all of mankind, shouldn’t it be held to the same standards of holiness and perfection as He himself? Others maintain that as God’s Word incarnate, Jesus himself was the final revelation, and it’s his person that matters, not the text. Yet the text is all we have of him today, and if it contradicts itself, if it can’t be trusted to deliver the truth about the small events, how can we trust its claims about matters as weighty as death and resurrection?

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