“The Event Could Have Happened Only One Way”
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
A concerned Bible student once wrote our offices regarding the apostle Peter’s triple denial of Jesus. It was not the usual inquiry regarding how many times the rooster crowed following Peter’s denials of Christ (a question that we have answered elsewhere; see Lyons, 2004). Rather, his question focused on the charges made against Peter prior to each of his denials. All four gospel writers first testify that a “servant girl” confronted Peter (Matthew 26:69; Mark 14:66; Luke 22:56; John 18:17). The writers then seem to “go their separate ways.”
Matthew writes: “[A]nother girl saw him and said to those who were there, ‘This fellow also was with Jesus of Nazareth’” (26:71, emp. added).
Mark records: “[T]he servant girl saw him again, and began to say to those who stood by, ‘This is one of them’” (14:69, emp. added).
Luke writes: “And after a little while another saw him and said, ‘You also are of them’” (22:58, emp. added).
John testifies: “[T]hey said to him, ‘You are not also one of His disciples, are you?’” (18:25, emp. added).
About one hour later (Luke 22:59), just prior to Peter’s third denial, John records that “one of the servants of the high priest,” a relative of Malchus, accused Peter (18:26, emp. added). Matthew and Mark, on the other hand, write: “[T]hose who stood by” charged him with associating with Jesus (Matthew 26:73; Mark 14:70, emp. added). What is going on here? How can all of the gospel accounts be accurate if they all are different? Allegedly, “[t]he event could have happened only one way.” Is this true? Did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John err in their recording of this event?
Before answering this supposed contradiction, imagine that you are sitting next to three newspaper reporters at a professional basketball game. Ten minutes into the game, a fracas breaks out in the stands involving one prominent basketball player and a few fans—a scenario not too bizarre, given recent outbreaks at sporting events. The next morning, the three reporters retell the events in the following manners:
Reporter #1: After an angry fan sitting behind the team’s bench insulted Joe Smith by calling him a “namby-pamby boy,” Joe ran into the stands and demanded that he stop.
Reporter #2: A small group of fans behind the Wings’ bench had been taunting Smith with racial slurs for 10 minutes. Finally, Joe had had enough. He jumped into the stands and yelled at everyone in the group, insisting that they stop the verbal abuse.
Reporter #3: What caused Joe Smith to leap into the stands and threaten a father and his three sons? The father had called Joe a sissy, and the sons joined in by repeatedly calling him a “mama’s boy.”
Is it possible for all three of these reports to be true? Could it honestly be stated that Joe was responding to “an angry fan,” while at the same time reacting to “a small group of fans”? Could Joe have been called both a sissy and a namby-pamby boy? The answer to all three questions is “yes.” Reporters tell stories from different perspectives, often including details that other reporters omit. Most people have no problem understanding modern-day examples of supplementation. In fact, we often read different reports of the same story in order to get a fuller picture of what took place. One reporter’s story can differ from another’s without contradicting it.
Are the differences in the gospel writers’ accounts of the accusations hurled at Peter proof of biblical errancy? Not any more than the differences in the basketball reporters’ accounts are proof of mistakes on their part. On the occasion of Peter’s first denial, one of the high priest’s servant girls accused Peter of being a disciple of Christ. Prior to Peter’s second denial, the writers inform us that he was accused by a plurality of people, including (1) the same servant girl who confronted him the first time (Mark 14:69), (2) an unnamed man (Luke 22:58), and (3) a group of individuals simply designated as “they” (John 18:25). Only an hour later, “one of the servants of the high priest,” a relative of Malchus, accused Peter (John 18:26), along with “those who stood by” (Matthew 26:73; Mark 14:70). Nothing in these accounts is incongruous.
Surely one can picture the various blood-thirsty individuals all hurling charges at Peter throughout the night in hopes of him being arrested, beaten, and killed, as was Jesus. We must keep in mind that these accounts are not contradictory, but supplementary. No writer gives every detail about every event. One must read them all in order to have the best possible understanding.
Truly, “the event happened only one way.” However, it was recorded by four different individuals from four different, but harmonizing, viewpoints.
Lyons, Eric (2004), “Cock-a-doodle-do...Twice?,” Apologetics Press, [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/573.