Easter. The Passion of Jesus XIV. Peter Denies Jesus. Different Stories. The Invisible Disciple.

Part 15, here.
Part 13, here.

You can read the whole series here.

Peter Denies Jesus. The details here differ considerably in the different Gospels.

The Invisible Disciple.

When Jesus is taken to the High Priest, Peter follows the group and enters the area where Jesus is. The various Gospels interpret the location of Peter differently. One has Peter in a courtyard, one inside a building, one in a court. He’s sitting with guards, warming himself by a fire. Mark has Jesus upstairs, Peter is below in a courtyard. Matthew says Peter is outdoors. Luke has Jesus go to the house of the High Priest, and Peter seems to go into the same house, where a fire is built. John has Peter interrogated before Jesus’ interview with Annas, then twice after. The Synoptics do things differently as usual. Before Luke’s trial, Peter denies Jesus three times.

Just to recap, in Mark, Peter is in the house but downstairs, in Matthew, Peter is outside, in Luke Peter is in the same room as Jesus. One thing the stories have in common is a maid who asked Peter a question. She says, you were with him [Jesus], Peter says, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Peter goes to the door or gate and the woman says to the bystanders, this man was with [Jesus]. He denies it (Mark doesn’t give an actual quotation from Peter here). Finally, others start to say Peter was with Jesus, and that he’s a Galilean. Then Peter starts to curse and swear.

The first denial evades the woman’s claim, in the second he says, I’m not a follower of Jesus. Peter is always at the top of every list of disciples, and this is Mark’s way of telling us that Peter is walking back the whole ministry.

Then the bystanders start recognizing Peter, and he swears. It means he takes an oath. The cursing part has generated some literature. The Revised Standard Version says “he began to invoke a curse on himself.” There is literature about the Greek at this point (curse is not used reflexively), and some translate it as “he began to curse Jesus [like ‘damn him’] and to swear, I do not know the man.” Mark has the prophecy of Jesus say that at the second crow of a rooster Peter will deny him three times (Mark 14:30). The other Gospels just mention a rooster crow.

The rule of three applies here. It’s a kind of psychological principle that triples make things better, more memorable, even more funny. “A priest, a rabbi, and a minister went into a bar . . . .” A more relevant example: the parable of talents. A man had ten talents, another had 5, another had 1. Often the last item carries the weight. Jesus finds the disciples sleeping 3 times. In the crucifixion, Mark notes the 3rd, 6th, and 9th hours (9 o’clock, 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock). It’s a literary sign that suggests that a work has developed in form over time.

Matthew uses Mark and just enhances it somewhat. Peter is outdoors. He has Peter say something explicit in the second denial (“I do not know the man”), and he has two different women approach Peter. Matthew gives a reason for the accusation that Peter is a Galilean: he has an accent. This is Matthew, always answering questions Mark leaves open.

Luke is the positive one, and he has already told us at the supper that Peter will succeed. Luke has a woman approach Peter first, like the others, but the second questioner is a man, and so is the third, no group is involved. For the third denial, Luke puts it an hour from the second. He doesn’t have a trial at night, so he can lengthen the experience. Luke does not have any cursing going on that would in any case be contrary to his apostolic ethos. There is one more item in Luke, since Peter and Jesus are in the same room, there can be visual contact, and after the third denial, Luke writes: “and the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” It’s more powerful than just the third denial/cock crow. The moment may recall the point in the Supper where Jesus says he has prayed for Peter, “and when you have turned, strengthen your brethren.” Then Peter goes out and weeps.

The Passion has inspired considerable art. The artist is challenged by the different Gospel narratives of the moment.

Bloch combines elements from Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

Bloch combines elements from Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Peter is the last to be separated from Jesus. He can’t come back until the resurrection.

John’s setting for the denial includes his famous invisible man. That is, he seems to be invisible to the other Gospel writers. The ID (invisible disciple) comes along with Peter to the High Priest’s palace, and John says the ID is “known to the High Priest” he just walks right in with Jesus, he’s a familiar face apparently. Peter is left standing outside the gate. The ID comes out and speaks to the girl at the gate and brings Peter inside. The girl who is both maid-servant and gate keeper (seems odd) then asks Peter, “are you too one of this man’s disciples? No I am not,” says Peter.[19] The ID apparently is known to everyone as both friend of the High Priest and follower of Jesus. John throws in some dramatic detail here. The police/guards and servants made a charcoal fire to stay warm and Peter stands with them to stay warm.[20] The ID is with his two friends, Jesus and the High Priest, apparently. It doesn’t say. The ID is at the last supper. He’s so close to Jesus there, that Peter has to speak to Jesus through the ID.

The ID stands at the foot of the cross, he doesn’t run away, never denies, he’s the first to believe, he defies all the rules. He comes to the tomb with Peter, whereas Luke has Peter alone. He’s invisible to everyone but John’s source. He’s a figure, a kind of plausibility generator, he’s there every time, so he can narrate whatever you need to know about Jesus when no one else is there, and in a sense he represents the faithful Johannine community.

Now the ID disappears from view, but maybe he’s the logical element that allows us to see what happens to Peter/Jesus. The ear now comes back to haunt Peter, because one of the servants is a relative of the fellow with the hacked ear (remember John names him Malchus). Are you too [is this a reference to the ID?] one of his disciples? No. Weren’t you at the garden? No [ear!]. There isn’t any Galilean claim, etc. in John. And the rooster crows. John doesn’t have Peter weep, but there is a time of acknowledged repentance in the last chapter (21) with the three requests, to feed the sheep. And maybe that helps to explain the addition of chapter 21 after the Gospel is completed.

In Matthew and Mark, the rooster signals the end of the Roman hour of night, it’s now early morning and the court now considers what to do with Jesus, and they conclude to take him to Pilate who is in town to keep order because of the feast day, and try to convince him to execute Jesus.

Mark contrasts sharply with John in the ID. For Mark, everyone fails, but the Johannine community has a hero (aside from Jesus) who never falters. In a way the ID is the discipline image of Jesus. In LDS tradition, we sometimes like to make heroes like the ID. They never really mess up, get scared enough to lie, never tarnish their honor, remain “clean” always, even if they’re late, the ideal women never get raped (they are too powerful, too protected), heal cows, stand by their men, and so forth and so on. It’s a thing in most all religious traditions.


[19] There are various articles about whether a girl (unmarried woman) could keep the palace gate at night. It doesn’t seem plausible, but who knows. Some later versions of the text change this to the “daughter of the gate-keeper.” Early on, the text is still “redactable” without a scandal. Things like that don’t really start to firm up for another hundred years beyond John. In Acts, when Peter escapes from prison and comes to a Christian household, there is a maid-servant at the gate, so there’s that.

[20] The ID is important here, because Peter has done something that could get himself in trouble with the High Priest, that is, John has Peter cut off the ear at Gethsemane. Having the ID vouch for him maybe makes Peter’s presence more plausible. Note the common elements here with the other Gospels, maid-servant, gate, fire, etc. The drama is woven around the same props, so these are probably early features of the story.


  1. Buildings in ancient Palestine and across the Roman empire often had central open-air rooms or courtyards. In a temperate Mediterranean climate, they didn’t necessarily make the same rigid indoor/outdoor distinction that northern European cultures make. One familiar example is the temple. When we think of the temple of Solomon or Herod, we might tend to picture the sanctuary proper, but of course “the temple” actually meant the whole complex, with all the courtyards and cloisters. So there isn’t necessarily a conflict between the accounts. Peter was probably in an open-air courtyard within a building complex. Certainly they wouldn’t have built a fire in an enclosed room—fireplaces were almost nonexistent until the Middle Ages.

  2. Are there any commentaries or sources to support the notion that Peter might have lied because Christ told him to do so in order to protect the fledgling church?

  3. Kerry, there are quite a few suggestions complicating Judas (not widely accepted). But Peter’s trajectory is a little more fixed. I think even the second century literature doesn’t try to rework Peter’s story much.

  4. A Book I would Recommend: Biblical Literalism A Gentile Heresy By John Shelby spong

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