Peter’s Denial of Jesus: By the Numbers

If you asked most people how many times Peter denied Jesus, you would overwhelmingly get the answer of three.  It seems pretty straight forward.  You might be surprised then to discover that many people actually believe that Peter denied Jesus six times!  How do they get that?  When you look at the account of the denial of Jesus in each of the Gospels, there is variation in the detail.  When did the cock crow?  Where was Peter?  Who was the person he was speaking to?  What did Peter say?  The only way to harmonize these accounts is to suggest that Peter denied Jesus six times and that certain Gospels only record three of the six.  An example can be found in this blog post.

For many people this is a serious issue.  For myself, it is no issue at all.  The Gospels agree that Peter denied Jesus three times.  The variations suggest that there were a number of traditions about this event, which strengthens the case for its historicity.  Differences in detail do not trouble me at all.

But there is something that does trouble me.  In the Gospels, Jesus specifically prophesies that Peter will deny him three times (Matt 26:34, Mark 14:30, Luke 22:34).  And yet some people are so intent on harmonizing the passages that they are willing to turn Jesus into a false prophet.  This tells me that some people see the authority of the Bible as trumping the authority of Jesus.  I am not denying the inspiration of the Bible (I very much affirm inspiration), but I have much more loyalty to Jesus.  Jesus prophesied and the prophecy came true.  That is of primary importance.  Any differences in the description of that fulfillment are only secondary.  I love the Bible, but I love the Bible for what it tells me about Jesus.  We must always give first place to Jesus and not try to raise the authority of the Bible above him.

If you are interested in learning more about how to work through these passages, you might be interested in Edwin Chong’s article in the Quodlibet Journal.

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4 thoughts on “Peter’s Denial of Jesus: By the Numbers”

  1. There’s a new book by Lawrence Goudge that gives a whole new perspective on the early days of the church. Goudge proposes that the Jewish followers of Jesus preserved the beliefs and practices of the original apostles: Peter, James and John. Therefore, the true heretics were those who created the new religion of the dying God (anathema to Peter James and John). Cover-Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus’s True Heirs exposes the church’s hypocrisy in first silencing those who truly followed Jesus and then exterminating them, just as they did the Cathars.  I just learned of a new book – Cover Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus’s True Heirs by Lawrence Goudge. I found it here Let me know what you think of it.

  2. I have no confidence in these wild conspiracy theories. There is no reason to believe that the death of Jesus was anathema to Peter, James and John. There just is no historical basis for this. These books are read only because people are attracted to conspiracy theories.

  3. Pastor Bedard,

    First of all, I would like to thank you for the link to my website. I am always appreciative of free publicity. 🙂

    However, since you seem to conclude that people like me are ending up making our Lord Jesus into a false prophet, I feel I must answer some of your comments here.

    The problem with the “number of traditions” idea is that it goes contrary to the very important claim that I (and many other believers) would make about the Bible: that it is the very words of God. If one looks at God as the true Author behind these books, writing through their human authors, rather than men trying to piece through various traditions, then it becomes impossible to believe that God would have confused what really occurred based on various traditions of men. Your idea fits well with a higher critical view of Scripture, but not one that maintains its inerrancy. (Note that when I say the Bible is inerrant, I mean in the original language and manuscripts, not in any translation, and not denying slight copying errors in manuscripts.)

    Differing details strengthen historicity, but only if they are spread out between various witnesses. If we believe God is ultimately behind all Scripture’s writings, then the question becomes if one can believe a witness who tells a story four different times, and gives it differently each time. A witness who did this would be found unreliable, I believe. On the other hand, a witness who gives different details of a story in four different tellings, but the details do not conflict, could still be viewed as reliable. In this case, the witness is merely supplementing the story, perhaps pointing out certain facts for different audiences concerned with different things. That is the view I am promoting in my article.

    As for claiming our Lord was a false prophet, I don’t believe I anywhere suggested that Peter did not deny the Lord three times. Your charge is based on cutting short what the Lord actually said. He did not say that Peter would deny Him three times. Rather, He said that he would deny Him three times before the rooster crowed. (Matthew 26:34, Luke 22:61, and John 13:38.) I fully acknowledge the truth of this. However, the Lord Jesus also said that Peter would deny Him three times before the rooster crowed twice. (Mark 14:30.) By refusing to accept that Peter denied Him a second set of three times, are you not the one who is saying that this second prophecy did not come true, and therefore making Christ out to be a false prophet?

    As for the article you bring up that suggests dissolving the inerrancy debate by admitting that the Bible is correct in its critical message, and not necessarily in its minute details, I find this unacceptable, largely because it makes the idea that God authored the Bible indefensible. If God was writing a book, one would expect Him to speak truthfully in everything He said in that book. One would expect the truth to extend to every detail mentioned, though of course God could not be charged with not mentioning every detail possible. If the Bible is not accurate in the details, then one must conclude that the Bible only contains God’s words, and yet is not God’s words in its every statement. This leads to no end of trouble. If the Bible only contains God’s words, then what criteria is to be used for deciding which of its words are God’s, and which are not? If only when it specifically says “Thus saith the Lord” are we to believe that God is speaking, then vast portions of the Bible, such as almost the entirety of Paul’s library of books, must be concluded under the “not God’s words” category. Yet this would undermine almost completely that “gospel message” that Mr. Chong is trying to uphold while adopting his expanded view of inerrancy. Yet if “thus saith the Lord” is not the criteria, what is? In the end, I am left with believing exactly what I want to believe of the Bible, and no more. My own whims become the authority, and not the Scriptures. Instead of placing my faith in God’s words, my faith is placed in my own cleverness in picking God’s words out of a background of otherwise questionable material. How, then, can I ever claim to be a man of faith?

    That is my argument in a nutshell, and I will not go farther for now. At any rate, I thank you again for the link, and the traffic sent my way.

    Keep studying the Word!


  4. I’m glad that you got some traffic out of this and I hope people found some of your other posts interesting as well.

    I do have a high view of the Bible, but I also believe the Bible was inspired as a first century document and not as a twenty-first century document and that it should be interpreted by first century standards. However, even if this was a twenty-first century document and I read it, I would assume that Jesus prophesied that Peter would deny him three times and that Peter did deny him three times. There is no way that I would read the Gospels and suppose that Jesus prophesied that Peter would deny three times and then immediately after prophesy that Peter would deny another three times in a slightly different way, especially when no Gospel suggests that. If Peter denied Jesus six times, one would expect that one of the Gospels at least would say such a thing but they do not.

    In order to keep such strict precision, there is so much forced harmonization. One would have to have Jesus tempted six times since Matthew and Luke do not have the same order of the temptations. You would have to have three signs on Jesus’ cross since none of the Gospels agree as to what was on the sign. There are many other examples of slight variations between the Gospels. Those variations are completely acceptable and do not take away from the Bible’s authority.

    In the end, I will read the Bible and try to interpret in a plain fashion and accept it as saying what it says. I have no problem with you disagreeing with me. People are welcome to read both of our posts and make up their own mind.

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