All four gospels record Peter denying Jesus 3 times, but it seems they record different events. Either they can all be reconciled to three, or there were more than three denials. Looking at the contexts of the denials, it seems that Peter twice denied before one servant girl, also denied before a different servant girl, also to a man and again to a group of men. Or looking at the specific questions given to Peter, again it seems there were more than three different questions to which Peter denied.

I suppose the question could be, how many denials do you believe there were, and if only three, which denials do you believe should be conflated?

  • The resolution involves: 1) admitting error in original text, or 2) error in subsequent texts that we have, or 3) conflating denials, perhaps establishing interesting guidelines on how literal a text is or how much it can be twisted, or 4) understanding that Jesus' prediction is best understood as "at least 3 times you will deny me." Mar 27 '14 at 1:54
  • @Fred Oakman These do differ a lot. It seems that in Matthew and Mark (KJV) Peter strongly replies to statements and almost pointed fingers, to maids and then bystanders; he ends up cursing and swearing. In Luke he calmly replies to statements with just “I am not” or “I know him not”, first to a maid, then to a man, then to another man. In John he also replies calmly, but actually by answering questions; those are from a maid, then a group, then one servant. Mar 27 '14 at 13:15
  • @FredOakman or in my case, the resolution (see my answer below) was not quite any of those four, but rather was not to admit error in the text (original or accurately preserved copies); not strictly conflate, but rather carefully seek non-contradictory parallel ideas to guide in aligning accounts; all while keeping a non-twisting hermeneutic, which included keeping three denials before a cock ever crowed (so no "at least" needed because there were 3 before the 1st crow), but realizing there may be more denials that happened, because each account focuses on separate denials/details.
    – ScottS
    Mar 28 '14 at 19:56
  • Also, to note, Luke was not an eyewitness of anything involving Jesus' life. He's merely narrating things he's heard from others. Fortunately, most of what he writes is corrborated by the other gospels.
    – user862
    Mar 29 '14 at 3:34
  • @H3br3wHamm3r81: I assume you are commenting primarily to John Martin's comment. However, "merely narrating" sounds so very "uninspired" (in the theological sense). I don't know your hermeneutical presuppositions, but for me, all Luke records is just as God-breathed (and thus true) as Matthew, Mark, or John, regardless of the process. Luke's gospel is just as much God's testimony of events through Luke's recording as the other three. I need no parallel corroboration of Moses's historical accounts in Genesis and I need none for Luke. So whether he was "eyewitness" or not is irrelevant.
    – ScottS
    Mar 29 '14 at 9:54

I Personally Believe Peter Denied Christ Exactly Six Times

I did a study of this exact problem in my seminary studies for my M.Div., and just looking at the textual details and collating the accounts came to the conclusion that the answer is best resolved as seeing it as two sets of denials of three each, with each group of the three occurring prior to a cock crowing. I offer the summary of my observations from that study below as to how this works.

The prophecy as related in Mark 14:30 is the only one to note two cock crows, and the construction is such that it can be read as "that you today, in this night, before twice the cock crows, thrice you will deny me." Now this could be understood as three denials followed by two cock crows, or it can be three denials, followed by a crow, and three other denials, followed by a crow. But to fit the other recordings of the specifics of the prophecy, that before the cock crows three denials will happen, it logically can only be the latter. Additionally, even in the fulfillment of Mark, the crows are separated in time (Mk 14:68, 72).

So here is a summary of what I came up with as a synthesis of the accounts:

Prophecy (Mt 26:34, Mk 14:30, Lk 22:34, Jn 13:38)

Comparison indicates no cock crowing can occur until at least three denials, but that there are two cock crows that will occur (as I just noted above).

1st Denial (Mt 26:51a-b; Mk 14:54a-b; Lk n/a; Jn 18:16-17)

A young woman at the door upon entering the palace. Only John records the denial, Matthew and Mark only note the entry into the palace, and Luke is silent about this.

2nd Denial (Mt n/a; Mk n/a; Lk 22:55a; Jn 18:18, 25)

Luke only notes the fire, and again it is John's gospel that is the only witness to this denial, which is to "servants and officers" standing around warming themselves at a fire, as Peter stood warming himself. It is "they" who confront him (v.25).

3rd Denial (Mt 26:58c-d; 69-71a; Mk 14:54c-d, 66-68; Lk 22:55b-57; Jn n/a)

John is not a witness of this encounter. Peter is now sitting by the fire (the night is growing longer), and a young woman comes and states she saw Peter with Jesus, which he denies, but now he is getting edgy, because the group thought he was one, and then this young woman came among them and stated the same thing. So Peter leaves the fire and goes "out into the porch" at which time there the...

1st Cock Crow Occurred (Mk 14:68 only)

It states it was as Peter went out into the porch that the crow occurs.

4th Denial (Mt 26:71b-72; Mk 14:69-70a; Lk n/a; Jn n/a)

Luke and John are silent here, but another young woman comes, which we know was after his going out into the porch from both accounts, and after the first cock crow from Mark's account, and she confronts Peter and he denies.

5th Denial (Lk 22:58 only)

This is a lone mention by Luke, that occurs after his sitting by the fire (denial #3), for Luke recorded that denial, but this denial is, based off Peter's reply, to a "man" (which means it is not a reference to denial #4, which was a young woman).

6th Denial (Mt 26:73-74a; Mk 70b-71; Lk 22:59-60a; Jn 18:26-27a)

This is the only denial noted by all four accounts. That it is the last one puts emphasis on it. The three synoptic gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk) mention the speech/ethnic aspect that alerts them to Peter. There is a group that accuses him, but John seems to mention a specific one accusing Peter, who was in relation to the one whose ear Peter cut off in the garden (and was himself apparently in the garden at the time, which may be why he was confident Peter was with Jesus, as Luke records of this witness, and why the vehement reaction recorded of Peter's denial in the other three accounts). There is nothing contradictory about John focusing on one, though other accounts note a group.1 That one was obviously a key witness against Peter! Now it could be possible that John's account is of the 5th denial instead, but there is one piece of evidence that lead me to place John's final account in line with these others--he, like Matthew and Luke, both note that "immediately" after that denial the...

2nd Cock Crow Occurred (Mt 26:74b-75; Mk 14:72; Lk 22:60b-62; Jn 18:27b)

Again, we only know it is the 2nd crowing from Mark, but it is the final denial in all four accounts. The other three accounts only record this crowing.

Why so Cryptic - Where at First Reading it Seems to be Three?

My study was simply on the correlation of facts noted to resolve the accounts as all being truthful and inerrant. There had to be a rhetorical (and perhaps other) reason God had each writer record differing sets of only three denials each. I have not yet studied out that, and am not sure a full answer could be had (at that point we are getting into "why" God did it that way, not "that" He did it that way).

However, my first thought was for it to be a potential stumbling block to unbelievers. An unbelieving, cursory reader will think there is "error" in the Bible because a quick reading would make it impossible to see the connections of the accounts. History has proven that unbelievers try to use these discrepancies to disprove the truthfulness of Scripture. One should always approach God's word as true (in faith, as HIS word of TRUTH [part of my hermeneutic]) and then try to resolve the tensions that seeing it as truth may make. I believe there is always a logical, truthful resolution to any tension in Scripture--but whether we always have all the knowledge we need to resolve it may not be so.

Would God intentionally set up such a potential stumbling block? Certainly. He tests faith in many ways, and this is no different than testing Adam to not eat of that one tree in the garden. That was a potential stumbling block to not having faith if there ever was one. The fact that God can set up such a scenario as Peter's denial and record it in four differing ways, and yet make each account still communicate truth is fascinating (any one account read alone speaks truth, but differing truths; and all accounts collated together speaks truth).

Of course, my view messes up (slightly) the nice parallel of Peter's three affirmations of love for Christ in John 21 (which many preachers I have heard will parallel to the three denials). However, rhetorically speaking, there is still the possibility of connection, because John only records three denials. So in the context of John's gospel, the parallel still holds up well.

Six Times Not Original to Me

The study I did was my own, but it was prompted by a quick statement alluding to the possibility of six denials by a professor of mine in school. He, in turn, got the thought from an end or foot note in a book. Unfortunately, at the moment I do not have the reference to that book to give (but I thought I should note it ultimately sparked the chain reaction of my investigation of the passages).2

UPDATE (6-11-2014)

I have since found a lengthy discussion of six or more denials in Appendix H (starting on p.229 [235 of the pdf]) of Wilbur Pickering's The Identity of the New Testament Text IV (2014) that also discusses some of the textual variant issues between the manuscripts.


1 The reason to not align the 2nd and 3rd denials is not primarily because the 2nd mentions a group, and the 3rd a young woman, as a group is still present during the 3rd denial. Rather, the key is Peter's posture. He is standing at the 2nd, sitting at the 3rd. In the 6th denial, there is nothing to contradict placing John's account with the other four--having the individual be a focus upon one within the group, who seem to be interrogating him.

2 A quick internet search found some others noting or advocating (not exactly in line with my articulation) a six denial view. The first reference states, "The six-denials approach was popularized by Harold Lindsell in his 1976 book, The Battle for the Bible." This could be the book that my instructor was referencing.

  • This is an excellent answer and I will study it more. I would like to get some more replies before I "grant it the answer award." The first who states his case always sounds right. Apr 1 '14 at 1:37
  • I understand. Mine is certainly a minority view. It would be interesting to see the argumentation others bring to try and reconcile to just three (I do not believe it can be done with full logical connections and fidelity to the textual witness, but I'm sure I have not read all the defenses of three, as there are variations of that). I must say, I have not seen anything that defended what you commented as "at least 3 times you will deny me," (emphasis added), but I can imagine such exists.
    – ScottS
    Apr 1 '14 at 2:29

I believe there were not more than three denials, based on the Two Sources hypothesis accepted in one form or another by the majority of New Testament critical scholars. This hypothesis states that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were substantially based on Mark's Gospel, with some further material, mainly sayings attributed to Jesus, from the hypothetical 'Q' document. By viewing the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke synoptically in the original Greek language, we can see that they are not independent accounts, because there is an evident literary relationship among them. Raymond E. Brown also describes, in An Introduction to the New Testament, numerous passages in Matthew and Luke that can only be explained as based on Mark's Gospel. In The Birth of Christianity, chapter 8, John Dominic Crossan describes in technical detail some of the clues that demonstrate the primacy of Mark against Matthew, Luke and ultimately John. He points out (ibid, p20-21) that the canonical stories are all by anonymous authors, none of whom knew Jesus personally.

If the authors of Matthew, Luke and John relied on Mark for so much of their narrative, then we can infer that they did not really know anything about the events Mark describes other than what they read in that Gospel. Changes made to Mark's account of Peter's three denials must be regarded as elaborations by the respective authors, and therefore not historically accurate.

  • We have vastly different premises in our hermeneutic. For me, I reject source theory. No demonstration of "literary relationship" can ever disprove that such relation is not simply because the Divine Author behind it moved them to write the same words. Also, my God of truth does not communicate things "not historically accurate" through His chosen writers. However, I can see from your viewpoint how the three denials is resolved... or is it? Was that number historically accurate? Or his denial? Or anything Scripture says? Why do you "believe" anything at all about the account? Just curious.
    – ScottS
    Apr 2 '14 at 20:47
  • You may reject source theory, as is your right. In doing so, you appear to say that 'mere' evidence of a literary relationship would not change your view. I cited two respected Christian authors and professors of theology in support of the Two Sources hypothesis, so it is a concept worthy of consideration. Apr 2 '14 at 21:11
  • When, in Mark 14:30, Jesus told Peter that he would deny him three times before the cock crowed, he was being remarkably prescient, but only if Peter denied him just the three times. Any other number and Jesus was just guessing. That leaves us with the contradictions in other gospels, which seem to point to more than three denials, but this makes biblical inerrancy so difficult. Apr 2 '14 at 21:21
  • True, "'mere' evidence of a literary relationship would not [and did not] change [my] view." Source theory emerged in a climate of anti-supernaturalism of the late 18th and 19th centuries. It presupposes God is not directly behind the human authoring of the text of Scripture, contra Scripture's witness. That many "respected Christian authors" hold it is unquestionable (many also do not), but in my mind, that they are wrong to hold it is equally unquestionable from Scripture itself. The "Synoptic Problem" is only a problem if one does not believe God gave the words to the authors.
    – ScottS
    Apr 3 '14 at 2:11
  • Actually, in Mk 14:30, Jesus prophecies the cock will crow "twice" before three denials. It is the other gospels that demand there be three denials before merely one cock crow. This is why for me, Peter must have denied six times (2 x 3) to avoid "contradictions" between gospels and affirm that in this case, yet again, biblical inerrancy holds. I am still desiring (if you are willing) a more direct answer from you about why you "believe" the accuracy of the witness to three denials, or any of the gospel witness at all on any points, if they are potentially "not historically accurate"?
    – ScottS
    Apr 3 '14 at 2:24

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