“Woman, I know him not”: The Apostle Peter and the Testimony of Women.

Engraved_art_work_at_Gallicantu_Peter's_Church

Doors from the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu, the site where tradition says Caiphas’ house stood. Source: By Anton 17 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28493336

 

 

 

 

Late last night, after all my family was asleep and I was restless and sleepless, I reread the passages from the gospels about when Jesus is taken. And I noticed something I had never noticed before: When Peter denies Jesus, he is denying women.

In that dark, liminal night between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Peter is put totally out of his reckoning. It begins in the upper room when Jesus tells Peter he will deny him. “Not so,” he says, “I’ll die first.” But then when Jesus asks him and the others to stay awake and just be present with him while he prays, Peter denies him that. Sleep overcomes Peter, and Jesus wakes him asking “what, could you not even stay awake with me one hour?” That must have stung. Maybe it was a desire to prove Jesus wrong, to keep the oath he made back in the upper room that he would die before denying Jesus, or a desire to justify himself or redeem himself after falling asleep that motivated Peter to take up his sword not long after that. But then Jesus rebukes him again. First he’s been rebuked for not being zealous enough to accompany Jesus in his agony, and now he’s been rebuked for being too zealous in his defense of Jesus. And on top of that, he sees his Lord and Messiah bound and taken as a captive. He is out of his reckoning. He has no idea what he should do.

So he follows Jesus at a distance and sneaks in to Caiaphas’ court. Unable to save him, but unable to leave him either, he goes along—not to do anything but just “to see the end,” as Matthew put it (Matthew 26:58). 

To see the end must be one of the most hopeless phrases in scripture. And in that moment of desperation, Peter is approached by two women. First, a “damsel,” a young girl, comes to him and says “you were with that Jesus they just had on trial in there.” But Peter denies her testimony “before them all, saying ‘I know not what thou sayest'” (Matthew 26:70). Or as Luke puts it: “Woman, I know him not.” Peter then goes outside and “another maid,” another woman, comes to him and says “this guy was with that Jesus, too.” He denies her testimony too, but this time “with an oath, I do not know the man” (Matthew 26:72). Then after a while, those that had seen this exchange came to him and said “look, we know you were one of them, because you talk like a Galilean.” Then he “began to curse and swear” and denied it a third time (Matthew 26:74). Then he remembered what Jesus had said and “wept bitterly” (Matthew 26:75). [1]

In all four gospels the first time Peter denies Christ, he is directly denying a woman’s testimony of his relationship to Jesus. And in Matthew and Mark, 2 of the 3 times that Peter denies Jesus, he is directly denying a woman’s testimony, and the third time, he is indirectly denying a woman’s testimony because he is denying those that found her testimony credible.

Others have noted the fact that the first witnesses of the resurrection on Easter Sunday are women, and that the disciples failed to believe their testimony (Mark 16:10). Even before we get to Easter Sunday, here while Jesus is being beaten, mocked, and spit on, we see Peter denying women’s testimony that he is Jesus’s friend.

In moments of fear and moral confusion, it can be easy to fall unthinkingly into old habits and patterns of behavior that have been shaped by culture. For Peter, in his moment of moral confusion and fear, probably thinking of self-preservation, when confronted with the risk of being revealed as one of Jesus’s disciples, it was easy to deny the testimony of women. The first time was a flat-out lie, and not just a straight-up denial, but an attack on the woman’s credibility: “I know not, neither understand I what thou sayest” (Mark 14:68). It’s a short line from “I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I don’t even understand you” to “her story doesn’t even make sense, don’t believe her, she’s crazy.” The second time, he compounds his sin, not just lying this time, but lying under oath, bearing false witness. The old law was that truth is established in the mouth of 2 or 3 witnesses. And the bystanders in Caiphas’s house seem almost convinced now that 2 witnesses have said that Peter was one of Jesus’s followers, so they ask him the third time, noting that the women’s testimony is supported by the circumstantial evidence that Peter talks like one of Jesus’ friends. But Peter is able to overcome the force of their testimony by a display of angry curses.

Peter was able to escape detection and to escape the consequences of his relationship with Jesus because his denial was considered more credible than the testimony of two women, corroborated by circumstantial evidence. It was easier for Peter to deny Christ than perhaps would have been otherwise, because it was easy for Peter to dismiss women’s testimony by (1) attacking their credibility, (2) falsely relying on his own credibility (swearing a false oath), and (3) getting angry.

I don’t mean to condemn Peter as an irredeemable chauvinist and liar. This was a moment of fear and confusion, not the whole pattern of his life. The gospels are full of examples of Peter acting in admirable ways. But in this moment, with his hope limp and his moral compass spinning, it was easy to dismiss women’s testimony. I wonder if when Peter “wept bitterly,” after remembering Jesus’s prophecy that he would deny him, he felt sorrow and repented not just for denying his Lord, and for the hopelessness he may have felt as his dreams of a Messianic redemption seemed to vanish, but also out of guilt for lying, breaking the commandment against bearing false witness, and at least implicitly falsely accusing two innocent women of lying.

Maybe that’s why on Easter Sunday when most of the apostles dismissed the testimony of women that Jesus had resurrected as “idle tales” (Luke 24:11), Peter chose to break with the other disciples and believe the women. Instead of dismissing the women’s words as “idle tales, Peter “ran to the sepulchre” on the force of their testimony (Luke 24:12).

Believe women. Others have said it and we should listen. I’m no bomb-throwing radical, but I’ve always considered myself a believer in gender equality, and that makes me a feminist (apologies to anybody that gets triggered by the term), but over the past year or two, especially with the rise of #metoo, my eyes have been opened to ways that I’ve been unconsciously biased against women. And stories (associated with the Rob Porter scandal and the Joseph Bishop scandal) about priesthood leaders failing to believe woman when they report abuse are especially troubling. [2] So I say again: Believe women.

Now, we should believe anyone who tells the truth, and we should be careful to not be deceived by liars, regardless of their gender. And women are morally sentient beings as capable of lying as men are. But our culture has a long history and tradition of not believing women even when they are telling the truth. It isn’t explicitly written into our laws anymore—women are allowed to testify in court and there’s no legal reason to discount a woman’s testimony on the basis of her gender—but the truth is that even now women telling the truth are more often disbelieved than men telling the truth, and men telling lies are more often believed than women telling lies. We’re still too easily seduced by illusions of masculine strength as credibility. So when we say “Believe women,” that doesn’t mean that women can’t lie, or that we can’t question a woman’s words under any circumstances; it means that we should believe women to the same degree that we believe men. It means that we should take a woman’s word seriously. It means, for example, that we should not dismiss or discount a woman’s words because she’s saying that a man in a position of authority that we think was thoroughly vetted did something terrible, or because we’re worried about destroying his career.

For Peter in Caiphas’s house, in the early hours of Good Friday, women’s words were a witness of his connection to Christ, his highest loyalty and his truest identity. Denying their testimony, he denied that connection and loyalty and the truest part of himself. For Peter on Easter Morning, women’s words were a witness of his most profound hope. By believing their testimony, he answered the trust and loyalty that Jesus had placed in him and thus became himself a witness of that same hope. It was by believing women that Peter became the tireless and fearless witness of Christ that Jesus had always known he could be.

Sometimes the same thing is still true for us today.


[1] I’m aware of the alternative take on the passage that Jesus’s saying to Peter “thou shalt deny me” was perhaps not just a prophecy but a commandment, so that Peter would survive the night and be able to lead the church after the resurrection. It’s not totally implausible. I mean, there is precedent: the Old Testament has God commanding Abraham to lie (or tell a misleading half-truth) for self-preservation at one point. But the gospels speak of Peter “remembering” Jesus’s saying after the rooster crowed, which suggests to me that Peter had forgotten Jesus’ saying when he denied him rather than that he was consciously obeying those words.

[2] I’m not interested in discussing the specifics of whether these leaders were justified or their actions were understandable in context. I believe that most priesthood leaders are good men that work hard to do a monumentally hard job and are led by the Holy Ghost. But even good, inspired men can make mistakes—especially when their bias is unconscious. That’s why it’s even more important to examine our own biases.

Comments

  1. Rachel E O says:

    Wow. This post powerful weaves together Good Friday with the #MormonMeToo moment… thank you for sharing these inspired reflections on scripture.

  2. Thanks for this powerful Good Friday sermon. Like any good sermon, it simultaneously indicts me and offers me hope.

  3. Lovely, and of good report, and praiseworthy. Thanks, JKC.

    It feels important to notice how ingrained the default to not believing women is, so that it takes conscious effort to *not* unthinkingly discount women’s testimony, especially in an organization that structurally relegates women to the position of permanent supplicants.

  4. Rich and thought provoking. I am caused to reflect on how often the gospel stories use women as a foil. As the sinner, the person to be stoned or forgiven, the person to be believed, the witness. Objectifying (so pause to consider how and why that’s being done) and teaching.

  5. This is the latest of parallels in scriptural events that friends have pointed out in recent weeks (the others unrelated to this specific event). It’s been a wakeup call to me to realize how much there is in scripture that is *right there for me to see* but that I haven’t yet seen, and how relevant these books still are to our lives. I’m also struck by how many of these points I haven’t seen are those involving women. Thanks, JKC.

  6. Paul Ritchey says:

    Thank you, JKC. This is precisely what it means to liken the scriptures unto ourselves. As others have said, your reading is world-and-time-disclosive.

  7. Thank you. A little late for me, but hopefully this well written message will make a difference. I felt the emotions all over again; dismissed, discounted, credibility attacked…Oh, it is hard to relive. In the church and in the court they believed the lying man. Wonderful timely insight from a good man.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Excellent post. I’m a little embarrassed to acknowledge I never noticed that Peter was rejecting the testimony of women before, but once you pointed it out it was an “Oh, duh!” moment for me. What great timing to be able to teach us this important perspective on Good Friday!

    On your footnote 1, I discuss the argument that Jesus commanded Peter to deny him (so as to protect him) at some length towards the end of this blog post and in the comments. (Spoiler alert: I don’t buy it.) https://bycommonconsent.com/2009/04/07/some-notes-on-elder-hollands-conference-talk/

  9. Thanks for the good comments, everyone.

    Ginger, I’m sorry.

    Kevin, I hadn’t ever noticed it either, and if it weren’t for the fact that women’s testimony is kind of big deal at the moment, I’m ashamed to say I probably never would have noticed it. But yeah, it’s like, right there. On the commandment vs. prophecy question, I think you’re right. I don’t mind thinking of it as a command, and for years I favored that reading, but I’ve changed my mind. I do agree with the impulse to defend Peter against the periodic arguments that he was thoroughly wicked or a complete fool, but him having a moment of weakness and falling to temptation when his whole world is crashing down around him, and showing almost immediate remorse, does neither, in my opinion.

  10. Bro. Jones says:

    Thanks for this post.

  11. D Christian Harrison says:

    Superlative. Thank you.

  12. Timely and insightful post. And I appreciate your fair minded approach expressed in your footnote 2. It really does drive home the need for all of us to be aware of our culture-conditioned biases.

  13. Very nice. And your caveats and footnotes were spot on and excellent preemptive responses. Thank you.

  14. Don Marsh says:

    Please secure Mormon Archipelago and please to provide a means for technical issues that will not disrupt the flow of such beautiful and productive discussions. Thank you

  15. This post is outstanding, JKC. Thanks for pointing out this connection.

  16. Really excellent. A perfect and timely Good Friday post. Thank you!

  17. bodensmate says:

    OP said” When Peter denies Christ he is denying women”. I think this is a little over reaching. It may have been more difficult for Peter to get away with denying Christ if it had been men accusing him, but I think that would speak more about the culture in general (theirs and ours) rather than Peter personally; because I tend to believe Peter would have still denied Christ even if it had been men accusing him. His denial wasn’t personal to women, or a specific denial of women as much as a denial of his accusers (who just happened to be women).

    OP said “I don’t mean to condemn Peter as an irredeemable chauvinist and liar. This was a moment of fear and confusion, not the whole pattern of his life.” I’m sure Peter made lots of mistakes in his life, and committed lots of sins, as we all do. But it seems that this post is trying to equate Peter’s denial of Christ and his lying to (or about) a woman, as equally low moments in his life. I think that is a little of an over reach as well.

    OP said “So when we say “Believe women,” that doesn’t mean that women can’t lie, or that we can’t question a woman’s words under any circumstances; it means that we should believe women to the same degree that we believe men.” Excellent point. The moments where the leadership of the LDS church have failed women, or even abused women as in the case of Joseph Bishop and others are incredibly disturbing. I am angry about that, and think we should all push for fundamental changes in how the church handles cases of abuse.

  18. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for your moving and insightful writing. I have always noticed that these were women Peter was denying, just as I notice every woman mentioned in our body of scripture, even if only by description. It’s nothing new under the sun, and western culture has certainly been shaped by the dismissal and obscurity of women in scripture. But your meditation has articulated the significance in this most important passage and shaped it into a sad but important opportunity to teach; thank you.

  19. Bodensmate, I’m not making the comparative assertions you seem to see in the OP. I’m not saying it was “personal to women,” or speculating that if it had been men that told of his discipleship he would have acknowledged Jesus. The point is not that Peter failed Jesus because he was a misogynist and that he was redeemed because he became a feminist; the point is that it’s worth pondering why Jesus’ prophecy that Peter would deny him was fulfilled in this way in relation to the fact that Jesus choose women as his first witnesses of the resurrection, and what lessons we could draw pout if that for our lives today.