In reading the four Gospel accounts of Peter’s three denials that he was a disciple of Jesus Christ, there seem to be discrepancies. Can these apparent discrepancies be reconciled?Let’s first look at what the four biblical accounts say.
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when indicated otherwise or when we quote a non-biblical source that is using Scripture from a different version of the Bible. And, when bold print is shown in the Scripture passages we quote in this article, it is to focus on certain words that we will be addressing in our subsequent discussion.]
Matthew 26:69-75: Now Peter sat outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came to him, saying, “You also were with Jesus of Galilee.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you are saying.” And when he had gone out to the gateway, another girl saw him and said to those who were there, “This fellow also was with Jesus of Nazareth.” But again he denied with an oath, “I do not know the Man!” And after a while those who stood by came to him and said to Peter, “Surely you also are one of them, because your speech betrays you.” Then he began to curse and swear, saying, “I do not know the Man!” And immediately a rooster crowed. And Peter remembered the word of Jesus who had said to him, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times. Then he went out and wept bitterly.
Mark 14:66-72: Now as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came. And when she saw Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with Jesus of Nazareth.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you are saying.” And he went out on the porch, and a rooster crowed. And the servant girl saw him again, and began to say to those who stood by, “This is one of them.” But he denied it again. And a little later those who stood by said to Peter again, “Surely you are one of them; for you are a Galilean, and your speech shows it.” But he began to curse and swear, “I do not know this Man of whom you speak!” And a second time the rooster crowed. And Peter called to mind the word that Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.” And when he thought about it, he wept.
Luke 22:55-62: Now when they had kindled a fire in the midst of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. And a certain servant girl, seeing him as he sat by the fire, looked intently at him and said, “This man was also with Him.” But he denied Him, saying, “Woman, I do not know Him.” And after a little while another saw him and said, “You also are of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” Then after about an hour had passed, another confidently affirmed, saying, “Surely this fellow also was with Him, for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are saying!” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said to him, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” Then Peter went out and wept bitterly.
John 18:15-17, 25-27: Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest. But Peter stood at the door outside. Then the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to her who kept the door, and brought Peter in. Then the servant girl who kept the door said to Peter, “You are not also one of this Man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” . . . Now Simon Peter stood and warmed himself. Therefore they said to him, “You are not also one of His disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not!” One of the servants of the high priest . . . said, “Did I not see you in the garden with Him?” Peter then denied again; and immediately a rooster crowed.
Now let’s compare what these four accounts say about each of Peter’s three denials.
- Matthew, Mark, and Luke all say a servant girl accused Peter of being with Jesus.
- John says it was the servant girl who kept the door.
Clearly, there is no discrepancy among the four accounts of the first denial.
- Matthew says another girl spoke to Peter. Therefore, this girl was not the same one who first accused Peter of being with Jesus.
- Mark says the servant girl made her accusation to other people who were standing by. This girl must have been the same one who accused him the first time, in light of the statement that Mark’s account says she saw Peter again.
- Luke says another spoke to Peter. Clearly this was not the servant girl who accused Peter the first time. Furthermore, Peter’s response in this account indicates that the person was a man.
- John says they accused him, which indicates that several people made the accusation, but gives no indication as to their identity.
Thus, the person (or persons) who spoke to Peter during the second incident was (a) a girl other than the one who first accused Peter, according to Matthew, (b) the same girl who first accused Peter, according to Mark, (c) a man, according to Luke, or (d) several people, according to John. However, these differences can be reconciled.
Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible offers the following explanation to reconcile the apparent discrepancies between the account in Mark and the accounts in the other three Gospels:
And a maid saw him again–or, “a girl.” It might be rendered “the girl”; but this would not necessarily mean the same one as before, but might, and probably does, mean just the female who had charge of the door or gate near which Peter now was. Accordingly, in Matthew 26:71, she is expressly called “another [maid].” But in Luke (Luke 22:58) it is a male servant: “And after a little while [from the time of the first denial] another”–that is, as the word signifies, “another male” servant. But there is no real difficulty, as the challenge, probably, after being made by one was reiterated by another. Accordingly, in John (John 18:25), it is, “They said therefore unto him, &c.–“as if more than one challenged him at once.
In other words, not just one person but several people accused Peter during the second incident: the servant girl who first accused him, another girl, and a man. This is consistent with what the account in John says (i.e., they accused him).
- Matthew and Mark both indicate those who stood by (i.e., several people) accused Peter of being with Jesus.
- Luke says it was another (i.e., apparently, not either the first person or the second person who had accused Peter). Peter’s response in this account indicates that this person was a man.
- John says it was one of the servants of the high priest, and this account, like the one in Luke, indicates that this person was male, not female.
As was the case with the second denial, there seems to be a discrepancy among the four accounts of the third denial, given that Matthew and Mark both indicate several people did the accusing, whereas Luke and John both indicate only one person made the accusation. However, there are two ways to reconcile the discrepancy. First, it is possible that one person was the spokesperson for those who stood by. Second, it is also possible that more than one person accused Peter during this third incident.
Summary and Conclusions
The written accounts in all four Gospel books agree that, while Jesus Christ was on trial, Peter denied three times that he was one of Jesus’ followers, just as Jesus had predicted. However, there is disagreement as to who accused Peter of being a follower of Jesus each time. All four accounts agree that a “servant girl” accused Peter the first time, but they do not agree as who accused Peter the other two times. The second accuser is said to be “another,” in both Matthew and Luke; the same “servant girl” who accused him the first time, in Mark; and “they,” in John. And, the third accuser is “those who stood by,” in both Matthew and Mark; a “man,” in Luke; and “one of the servants of the high priest,” in John.
All four Gospel writers agree as to whom the first person was to accuse Peter of being a follower of Jesus. Therefore, it is necessary to reconcile only the accounts as to who made the second and third accusations. Apparently, there were several accusers the second time: the same “servant girl” who accused Peter the first time (according to Mark); “another” person, whom several translations suggest was another servant girl (according to Matthew and Luke); and other people (referred to as “they” by John). There may also have been several accusers the third time, since Matthew and Mark refer to “those who stood by;” Luke refers to a “man;” and John refers to a servant. (The possibility of several accusers the second and third time is supported by Norman Geisler, Ph.D., on page 66 of his book entitled Inerrancy.) However, it is also possible that the third accusation was made by a man, who was a servant, acting as spokesperson for a group of people who were there.
Reporters in modern times may differ somewhat as to the facts they choose to mention when reporting on a particular incident, but their accounts of that incident can all be accurate. The same is true for the writers of the four Gospels.
How Many Times Did the Rooster Crow?
There does not seem to be unanimous agreement as to the number of times that the rooster crowed after Peter’s denials. Mark specifically states that the rooster crowed twice, as predicted by Jesus. In contrast, the accounts in the three other gospel books appear to imply that the rooster crowed only once, although they don’t specifically state how many times the rooster actually crowed. Likewise, Jesus’ prediction in each of these three books regarding how many times the rooster would crow is not specific, but seems to imply that the rooster would crow only once.
In any case, it can be argued that a real discrepancy does not exist with regard to the number of times the rooster crowed, since Matthew, Luke, and John do not specifically state how many times the rooster will crow according to Jesus’ prediction, or how many times it actually did crow. It seems reasonable to assume that Mark was just more specific than the other writers.
Another possibility is mentioned by Geisler and Thomas Howe, M.A., who state on page 360 of their book entitled When Critics Ask,
It is . . . possible that different accounts are due to an early copyist error in Mark, that resulted in the insertion of “two” in early manuscripts (at Mark 14:30 and 72). This would explain why some important manuscripts of Mark mention only one crowing. . . .