Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Bible Contradiction: How Many Times did Peter Deny Knowing Jesus?

The variations among the Gospel accounts of Peter’s three denials of knowing Jesus are a common example of biblical contradictions. Actually, it is a fascinating exercise in seeing how the Gospels vary in some of the details in ways that are complementary but are wholly consistent in the core of the story.

What these passages highlight is how we tell stories. We don’t include all the same details; we condense and summarize. That’s just the way we tell stories. It also illustrates how the biblical writers never claim to reproduce the exact words used, but certainly the core ideas. In this passage specifically, we cannot make common assumptions. There is no reason to believe that only one person asked each time if Peter was with Jesus; it explicitly says that a crowd was there, and presumably different people in the crowd were asking the same question. And we cannot also assume that Peter uttered only one-sentence answers. These variations are all reflected in the four Gospels.

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One of the biblical passages that's often pointed to as an example of contradictions is the story of Peter's denial, his threefold denial, that he even knew Jesus. And I didn't have room in the book to talk about it, so I want to talk about it here. But before we actually get into the text, there's a couple things I need to clarify.

One is, in terms of principles of how we tell stories, or more importantly, how the gospel writers tell stories, is that, first of all, there's selection of information. The Gospel of John specifically says that. They're not trying to tell us everything that Peter said, everything that the crowd said.

That's not their goal. There's selection of material, and with that comes a condensing of the story. And in other words, they're summarizing at points.

In other words, this is just how we tell stories. We don't give every single piece of information that we want that is part of the overall story, but we're selecting those pieces of information and condensing and summarizing where we need to in order to convey the story. Again, that's just how we tell stories.

And it's also important to understand that what we have in the Gospels are not always, sometimes we do, but we don't always have the exact words of Jesus or the exact words of, in this case, Peter, but we certainly have an exact representation of what they said. In other words, we get the meaning clearly, even if the gospel writers are using slightly different compatible words. I know for some people that's a little difficult to accept, but we have to understand we tell stories this way.

We don't always use the exact words that someone else used, and yet our storytelling is still viewed as accurate. When we get into the text, you'll see this. One of the things I really like about the story of Peter C. Niles is that we work through the text, is that you're going to see how synoptic criticism works, and you're going to see how there's variation in some details, but the basic message is very clearly portrayed by all the Gospels.

And in terms of this particular passage, there's a couple of clarifying comments I need to make. One is, sometimes there's an assumption that in terms of the people who are saying to Peter, hey, aren't you with Jesus, that the assumption is that only one person said it. And in fact, that's not what the text says.

There is a group of people, and different people in the group are saying, hey, you're a Galilean. We can see from your accent that you must have been with Jesus. We saw you with him.

And so you don't have just one person making each of the three accusations. You have a group of people, and what we'll see is the different biblical writers are relaying different things said by different people in the group, but all with the same intent. And I think sometimes there's also the assumption that Peter only responded one way.

No, I did not know him. And I think from the text, we can get that Peter was a little more vociferous than that. I don't know him.

I don't know what you're talking about. I have nothing to do with this guy. I think it's fair to assume because of the variety that Peter didn't just say one thing, but he said quite a few things in each of the individual three denials of knowing Jesus.

So if you're willing to accept that, let's look at the text, and we'll see how there's not really a contradiction here. So here we have the story laid out in columns for each of the four Gospels, and Matthew says, Truly I tell you, Jesus answered this very night before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times. So it's going to happen this night, and it's going to be before the rooster crows, and Peter is going to deny him three times.

Okay? You go to Mark, it says, Truly I tell you, Jesus answered today, yes, tonight, so same time designation, before the rooster crows twice. Okay, Mark is being a little more specific than Matthew, but that's okay. There's not a contradiction.

You will disown me three times. Okay, so that's the same. Go over in Luke, and it says, before the rooster crows today, okay, well, night's part of the day.

You'll deny me three times, so we have the same time designation, and in John, before the rooster crows, you'll disown me three times. So while the details are a little different, certainly the basic message is the same. So we go down in the story, and in Matthew, Peter's out in the courtyard, and Mark, he's out in the courtyard.

Luke tells the story of taking him to the high priest, and it's his courtyard, so that gives a little more specificity. That doesn't make Matthew and Mark wrong. It just means Luke's giving a little more information, and you'll notice together with them.

In other words, it's not just one person. It's a crowd. Then you go over to John, and we learn another piece of information is that, yes, we're with the high priest, but this disciple was known to the high priest.

In other words, that's John, and Peter had to wait outside. He went, and he was known to the high priest, so he got permission. He spoke to the servant girl and brought Peter in, so we're in the courtyard of the high priest, and Peter was able to get in there because John knew the high priest, specifically the servant girl, and the servant girl was certainly one of authority because she had gave Peter permission to come in, so it's not just any servant girl.

Okay, different amounts of information, completely compatible. In Matthew, you come to the first one. A servant girl came to him, said, you also are with Jesus, but he denied it, saying, I don't know what you're talking about.

In Mark, it's one of the servant girls of the high priest, okay, so there's, in other words, there's a crowd there, there's a bunch of people there, and one of them said, you also are with that Nazarene. Peter says, I don't know or understand what you're talking about. In other words, I don't have an idea what you're talking about.

He may even have been claiming he didn't understand what she was saying in her language, but Peter, again, said, no, I don't know him. In Luke, it's a servant girl saw him, not identified, but we know that from Mark who she was. This man was with him, but he denied it.

Woman, I don't know him, he said, so you have a servant girl claiming to know him, that he was with that Nazarene Jesus, and he said, no, I don't know what you're talking about. And then it's interesting, in John, the servant girl is identified. It says, she asked, and by the way, this is the NIV translation.

The she asked means it goes back to the servant girl in verse 16, so now we know exactly who this servant girl was. It's the one who gave Peter admission into the high priest's courtyard. Peter said, I'm not.

So the story continues. Peter leaves, and he goes out to the gateway, presumably the gateway to the courtyard. Another servant girl saw him and said, this fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.

He denied it again with an oath. This time, Peter's getting stronger. I swear, I don't know the man.

In Mark, again, he goes out to the entryway of the courtyard, and the servant girl saw him, and she said again to those standing around, again, we have a crowd. This fellow is one of them. Again, he, meaning Peter, denied it.

In Luke, we know that there's a time frame change. It's a little later. Now, what's interesting in Luke, though, and you see the NIV translation, man, they're making it clear that the someone else is a masculine word.

So this time, it's not the servant girl that's asking him. It's a man saying, you also are one of them. Well, it's a crowd.

There's not just one person saying. You can clearly expect that in a crowd, one person says, hey, this fellow is one of them, and someone else agrees and wants to enforce it. Yeah, you also are one of them.

There's no reason to think that each accusation is uttered by one and only one person. Now, look what we have in John. We have servants and officials.

Okay, now we know who the crowd is. They're servants and officials standing around getting warm, and so they asked him, you aren't one of his disciples too, are you? And the expected answer in the Greek is yes, and he denies it. So again, you have a crowd of people made up of servants and officials, different people making the accusation.

In fact, in John, it appears that there's a group of people saying the same thing. So not just the servant girl, but a bunch of people. Are you getting the idea how all this works? Get to the third denial.

Those standing there went up to Peter and said, surely you're one of them. Your accent gives you away. You're one of those sick Galileans.

We can tell from your accent. And now he really gets strong, and he starts calling down curses on himself. In other words, he's taking an oath.

I don't know him, but notice it's a group of people making the accusation. In Mark, those standing near to Peter said, surely you're one of them, for you're a Galilean. How do we know he's a Galilean? Because he has an accent.

And then again, he began to call down curses. In Luke, and by the way, you may have noticed this, that Matthew and Mark are very similar. Luke is actually closer to John.

And so, synoptic critics tend to think that Luke is using a different source than Matthew. As Matthew's using Mark, Luke's using a different account. But that's his kind of background.

And now we get in typical Lucan style specificity. About an hour later, not just a little later, but an hour later, another asserted, certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean. Peter said, man, in other words.

So, it's a man within the group that Luke decides to record. And now, John, we get more specificity. One of the high priest's servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him.

Didn't I see you with him in the garden? In other words, that's who the man is. He's one of the high priest's servants. And then finally, you have the rooster crowed.

In Mark, we record that the rooster was going to crow twice. And he did. Rooster crowed.

Rooster began to crow. Now, from my little understanding of farm life, a rooster doesn't just go cock-a-doodle-doo. It does it quite a bit.

So, you can say the rooster crowed. Well, the rooster crowed twice. The rooster probably crowed a whole lot more times than twice.

But be that as this may, there you go. Okay, so let's get back to the original question. Do the denials of Peter illustrate a contradiction in the Gospels? The answer is no.

Now, if you think that only one person could accuse Peter, and Peter could only give one response, and all Gospels have to be verbatim in order to be authentic, then you're going to see this as a contradiction. But there's nothing in the Gospel stories that allow you to make that kind of assumption. We know that there's selection of material.

We know the Gospel writers are not trying to tell us everything about every event. We know that they condense, they summarize the story. We know this thing from throughout the Gospels.

And what you get here is a great example of how you can have a variation in the details with the same meaning, even though some Gospels may give a little more information about the story than others. That's not a contradiction. There's just selection going on.

So, I think you can see that the denials of Peter do not constitute a contradiction.