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Peter’s Denial: Apostleship and Repentance in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels

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Peter’s denial of Jesus is a story that occurs in all four gospels. Though the main events remain the same, each gospel writer endows the story with unique and often contrasting details that speak to each gospel’s focus and themes. Michael Coogan notes that an important theme in the gospel of Luke is “discipleship” (95). The theme of discipleship is certainly evident in Luke’s account of Peter’s denial of Jesus. Luke’s version of the story provides a contrast to Matthew’s account; while Luke portrays Peter sympathetically as a repentant disciple with a unique connection to Jesus, Matthew emphasizes Peter’s separation from Jesus as a result of his denial. Each gospel writer’s portrayal of Peter’s relationship with Jesus in this pericope takes on a larger significance: in contrast to the gospel of Matthew, in which Peter seems estranged from Jesus, the gospel of Luke emphasizes Jesus’ relationship with those chosen as his apostles, further reflecting the theme of discipleship.

Though Matthew and Luke’s account of this story differs, the versions share several details in common. Both accounts initially take place in a courtyard and involve Peter and several other characters. Matthew and Luke state that Peter was “following [Jesus] at a distance,” emphasizing his distance from Jesus and foreshadowing his denial (Mt. 26.58, Lk. 22.54). In both accounts, Peter is asked by various people if he has any connection to Jesus, and in both he denies his discipleship in multiple ways. Finally, both gospels fulfill Jesus’ prophecy in that the cock crows and Peter subsequently realizes his transgression. Both accounts end with the same sentence: “And he went out and wept bitterly,” which represents Peter’s repentance (Mt. 26.75, Lk. 22.62). These similarities provide a framework around which each gospel writer adds, omits, and alters details in order to emphasize certain aspects of Jesus and Peter’s relationship and the relationship of Jesus to the repentant in general.

The differences between these two pericopes outweigh their similarities. One difference between the two gospels is their portrayal of Peter in this episode. In Matthew, Peter’s denial is much more vehement than in Luke in that Peter “swore an oath” and “denied [his association with Jesus] before all of them” (Mt. 26.74, 70). Luke, however, depicts the bystanders as being more fervent than Peter in their questioning: Luke writes that “still another [of the bystanders] kept insisting” on Peter’s connection to Jesus (Lk. 22.59). Because in Matthew Peter’s denial is more vehement, he appears less harsh and more sympathetic in Luke than in Matthew. Luke’s more sympathetic characterization of Peter in this pericope elucidates the importance his gospel places on discipleship; by portraying Jesus’ disciples in a sympathetic light, discipleship in general becomes positive in Luke’s gospel.

One technique that Luke employs in his account that differs from Matthew is his use of impersonal pronouns and unnamed characters. Luke describes the people with which Peter is sitting in the courtyard simply as “them,” whereas Matthew identifies these people as “the guards” (Lk. 22.55, Mt. 26.58). Likewise, the people who question Peter are also unnamed; though the first is identified as a “servant girl,” the other two are referred to as “someone else” and “still another” (Lk. 22.56, 58, 59). The namelessness in Luke contrasts Matthew’s pericope, in which all of the participants are identified, if not by name, by rank or position: two of the questions come from “servant-girls” and the third comes from “the bystanders” (Mt. 26.69, 71, 73). In Luke, Peter’s responses to his questioners also reflect their namelessness: he calls them “Woman” and “Man” (Lk. 22.57, 58). Peter’s use of impersonal names like “woman” or “man” to refer to the people in the courtyard indicates his lack of intimacy with them.

The namelessness in Luke extends to Jesus as well, suggesting that the people in Luke’s courtyard are estranged from Jesus. The questioners in Matthew refer to Jesus by name as both “Jesus the Galilean” and “Jesus of Nazareth” (Mt. 26.69, 71); in Luke, the questioners refer to Jesus merely as “him” (Lk. 22.56, 59). The idea that in Matthew the bystanders use Jesus’ name but Peter only refers to him as “the man” emphasizes Peter’s separation from Jesus (Mt. 26.72, 74). In contrast, Luke suggests that Peter is estranged and alienated not from Jesus, but from the people in the courtyard. The third man’s observation that Peter is a Galilean supports the idea that he is an outsider in this group of people (Lk. 22.59). Ironically, in Matthew, Peter is alone, while in Luke he sits with others in a group; however, because the other characters in Luke’s account are nameless, the group in which Peter sits holds little significance and he still appears isolated. Indeed, the only person to whom Peter has any connection in Luke’s pericope is Jesus himself, emphasizing his discipleship.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the two pericopes is when, in Luke, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter” after the cock crows (Lk. 22.61). This is a significant detail in that it occurs only in Luke’s account of the story. One way to read Jesus’ looking at Peter is to view it as emphasizing their relationship and their intimate connection as teacher and disciple. Additionally, the language that Luke uses to describe Jesus’ interaction with Peter points to their unique relationship. While the people in the courtyard “see” Peter (the servant-girl “stare[s] at him” and “see[s] him in the firelight;” a man questions him “on seeing him”), Jesus “look[s] at Peter,” suggesting that Jesus’ gaze is more thoughtful and scrutinizing and represents a deeper bond (Lk. 22.56, 58, 61). Matthew’s account of Peter’s denial lacks this intimate moment of connection between the two men, furthering their disconnection. This lack of connection is mirrored in Peter’s vehement denial of Jesus. Interpreting this line in Luke as evident of a connection between Peter and Jesus that is missing in Matthew furthers the theme of discipleship prominent throughout Luke.

Elsewhere in his gospel, Luke emphasizes the relationship between Jesus and his disciples as unique and different from his relationship with the rest of mankind. Jesus seems to make discipleship available to everyone in Luke’s gospel: Jesus appoints “seventy others” to preach in other towns, and Luke mentions Jesus’ tolerance of “someone casting out demons” that did not specifically follow him (Lk. 10.1, 9.49). However, the twelve disciples are separated out from these other followers to occupy a position very close to Jesus. As in the other gospels, Jesus gives the twelve (but not the seventy) the power to cast out demons (Lk. 9.1). Luke’s emphasis on discipleship extends into his portrayal of Peter’s denial in that Luke omits an important detail mentioned in Matthew: in Matthew (in a prior pericope), the disciples all “fled” after Jesus was arrested (Mt. 26.56). Though the disciples apparently do leave the scene in Luke (they have no more dialogue and are not mentioned in the narrative), Luke’s refusal to state this detail outright, in this pericope or anywhere else, implies the strength of the bond between Jesus and his disciples. Another detail unique to Luke is that Jesus “called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles” (Lk. 6.13). The unique name that he gives the twelve, coupled with the notion that Jesus chooses them out of many of his followers, indicates that they have a singular relationship with him. The significance of this relationship underlies Luke’s depiction of Peter’s denial of Jesus and subsequent repentance through “weeping” (Lk. 22.62).

A different way to read Jesus’ action of turning and looking at Peter, however, is to interpret it as an indictment or reminder in that it occurs immediately after Jesus’ prophecy against Peter is fulfilled. The position of this pericope in the context of both Luke’s and Matthew’s entire gospels supports this reading. In Luke, Peter’s denial occurs directly after Judas’s betrayal of Jesus in Gethsemane; in Matthew, Peter’s denial directly precedes Judas’s repentance. Luke’s juxtaposition of Judas’s betrayal with Peter’s denial sets up the two pericopes as parallels. The setting also supports this interpretation: whereas Peter moves from the “courtyard” to the “porch” in Matthew (Mt. 26.69, 71), in Luke the entire episode takes place in the “courtyard,” which mirrors the garden atmosphere of Judas’s betrayal in the previous pericope (Lk. 22.55). In juxtaposing these pericopes in his gospel, Luke suggests similarity between Judas’s and Peter’s betrayals of Jesus and thereby emphasizes Peter’s transgression in denying Jesus. Because the significance of the denial is magnified in Luke, Peter’s repentant act of “weeping bitterly” in the final lines of the pericope takes on more significance (Lk. 22.62). The position of the pericope in Matthew’s gospel takes on a larger significance as well, in that it directly precedes the episode in which Judas “repented, and brought back the thirty pieces of silver” (Mt. 27.3). Matthew’s juxtaposition of Judas’s repentance with Peter’s makes Peter’s seem less singular and, as a result, less significant.

The notion that Peter repents of his transgression also furthers the theme of discipleship and the intimate relationship between Jesus and his disciples in Luke. Just as in the other gospels, Jesus states in Luke, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5.32). Jesus’ tolerant and accepting attitude toward all people, especially those who repent, is evident in three parables that do not occur in any of the other gospels: one involves a lost sheep, the second a lost coin, and the third is the parable of the prodigal son (Lk. 15.3-32). These parables all emphasize repentance as a means to a strong relationship with God. In the context of the entire gospel, Peter in this pericope can be seen as a parallel character to the prodigal son (in the parable, the father of the prodigal son “saw him” from far off, just as Jesus “looked” at Peter), who repents and perhaps enjoys a stronger relationship with Jesus as a result, furthering Luke’s theme of discipleship (Lk. 15.20).

Though the pericope relating Peter’s denial in Matthew portrays Peter as estranged from Jesus, Luke’s account stresses the bond between Jesus and Peter. In Luke, Peter’s denial and subsequent remorse reflect the gospel’s larger focus on repentance and discipleship. Luke makes these themes evident throughout his gospel in his parables and his accounts of Jesus’ interactions with the twelve apostles. Luke’s emphasis on discipleship speaks to his characterization of Jesus: because Luke emphasizes Jesus’ strong bonds with Peter specifically and the other disciples in general, Luke’s Jesus appears to be just as human as he is divine. In this light, Luke’s Jesus seems as capable of intimate relationships with other men just as he is capable of divine forgiveness in response to repentance.

Works Cited

Coogan, Michael. “Introduction to Luke.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 3rd ed. Ed. Michael D. Coogan. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2001, 93-5.

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