If you’ve ever gone to Sunday school, you’re probably thinking that the answer to this question is obvious. Everyone knows Peter denied Jesus three times. Right? It certainly would seem that way from reading of any one of the Gospels individually.
Let’s try a harder question then. How many times did the rooster have to crow? Ah, now we have a slight dilemma.
In Luke 22:34 and John 13:38, Jesus said that the rooster would not crow at all until Peter had denied him three times. But according to Mark 14:66–72, Peter only denied Jesus once before the rooster crowed. Then the rooster crowed again after Peter made two more denials.
The denials in Mark are consistent with Jesus’ statement in Mark 14:30 that Peter would deny him three times “before the rooster crows twice.” But they seem to contradict the statements found in the other accounts.
Many solutions have been offered to this apparent discrepancy. Some say, for example, that the “cock crow” referred to a period of time, rather than to the literal rooster. But honestly, most of these ideas I’ve heard seem like a bit of a stretch to me. Plus, none of them provides a way to reconcile the three denials, which are described very differently in the four Gospels.
Peter first denied Christ to the servant girl who was keeping the door as he passed through it, at least according to John. But according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Peter first denied Christ to a servant girl who came to him while he was in the courtyard.
Things only get more confusing by the second denial. Mark recorded that the same servant girl accused him again, but Matthew specifically stated that it was a different girl, and Luke stated that it was a man. John’s account is ambiguous enough to fit the second denial with any one of the other accounts.
The third denial matches very well between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John’s account describes it differently, but it is not enough to technically create a contradiction. This one is at least less problematic than the second denial.
So how are we to resolve this? Are you rethinking my first question yet? Maybe the Sunday school answer ought to be reevaluated. It is true that each Gospel records three denials, but none of them states that Peter only denied Jesus three times.
Piecing the four accounts together, I would contend that Peter actually denied Jesus a total of six times.
It also seems that Jesus predicted six denials from Peter—three before the first crowing of the rooster and three more before the second crowing. Remember that Jesus actually made two separate prophecies about this. While it has generally been thought that his second prophecy referred to the same thing as the first, it could have actually been an addition.
The first prophecy was made around the table, shortly after Jesus had broken bread with his disciples. He said that the rooster would not crow until Peter had denied Him three times (Luke 22:34; John 13:38). Jesus made his second prophecy later, and Mark’s account specifies that these three denials would occur before the rooster’s second crow (Mark 14:30). Since Matthew’s account does not specify how many times the rooster would crow, it fits with Mark’s account for this to be the second crow (Matthew 26:34).
So Jesus first said that Peter would deny Him three times before the rooster crowed. Then Jesus later added that Peter would deny Him three more times before the rooster crowed a second time. All six of these denials are recorded. They are just split up across the four Gospels. By combining them together, we can see six distinct denials emerge.
The following is my proposed harmony of these events:
- First Prophecy (Luke 22:34; John 13:38): Jesus said the rooster would not crow that day until Peter denied Jesus three times.
- Second Prophecy (Matthew 26:34; Mark 14:30): Jesus said that before the rooster crowed twice, Peter would deny Jesus three (more) times.
- First Denial (John 18:16–17): The servant girl who was keeping the door of the courtyard asked Peter if he was a disciple of Jesus.
- Second Denial (Matthew26:69–70; Mark 14:66–68a; Luke 22:55–57; John 18:25): A servant girl of the high priest, who saw Peter in the courtyard warming himself by a fire, came and said that he was with Jesus, and the others around the fire asked if he was one of his disciples.
- Third Denial (Luke 22:58; John 18:26–27a): A man, specified by John to be a servant of the high priest and a relative of the person whose ear Peter had cut off, said that he saw Peter with Jesus in the garden so he must also be one of them.
- First Crow (Mark 14:68b; John 18:27b): A rooster crowed.
- Fourth Denial (Mark 14:69–70a): The servant girl who accused Peter earlier (when he made his second denial) saw him and again said that he was one of them.
- Fifth Denial (Matthew 26:71–72): Another girl said that Peter was with Jesus.
- Sixth Denial (Matthew 26:73–74a; Mark 14:70b–71; Luke 22:59–60a): Some who stood by said that Peter must be with Jesus because his speech showed that he was a Galilean.
- Second Crow (Matthew 26:74b–75; Mark 14:72; Luke 22:60b–62): A rooster crowed a second time. Jesus turned to look at Peter, he remembered what Jesus had said, and he went out and wept bitterly.
It is acknowledged that these six denials could be arranged in a slightly different order without affecting the solution. In particular, the fourth and fifth denial could easily be switched. In any case, this shows us a potential order which would completely solve the apparent contradictions.
But the best way to see how this all works out is to read a combined account with the details from all four Gospels. So I have combined them together for you, similar to how Johnston Cheney (and later John MacArthur) combined the four Gospels.
Read my combined account, “The Six Denials of Peter.”
Actually, I first heard about the idea of six denials from Cheney’s book, Jesus Christ: The Greatest Life Ever Lived. However, the chronology I have proposed is different from his, and I believe it resolves the discrepancies more thoroughly.
As a side note, I almost didn’t publish this post, because Jeremy Myers recently did a post on the same topic. But since I had written the majority of this before his post went up, I decided to go ahead and use it anyway. Plus, he seems to have mostly followed Cheney’s chronology (though he got it from an earlier printing of the book, originally called The Life of Christ in Stereo).
Be sure to check out Jeremy’s post, which is also a podcast that dramatizes Peter’s denials.