The four gospel accounts, though brief (cf. Mk 14:66-72; Lk 22:54-62: Jn 18:15-18,25-27; see comments at v.34 on two cock crowings [Mark]), contain substantial differences, and a variety of solutions have been proposed. Matthew and Mark are in close agreement and list three denials: (1) before a servant girl, in the courtyard; (2) before another girl, but out by the gateway; (3) before bystanders apparently in the court. Luke also lists three: (1) before a servant girl, apparently near the fire; (2) before another person, place not specified; (3) before yet another person, still in the courtyard (22:60-61). The three denials recorded by John are (1) before a servant girl, at the door; then, after a break in the narrative, (2) before some people— the verb is plural but may he a generalizing one—(3) before one of the high priest's servants, a relative of Malchus.
Several things may be said.
1. Some attempts to harmonize the texts have resulted in Jesus' predicting three denials at each of my different times, making six denials (cf. H. Lindsell, Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976], 174-76). This is not only intrinsically unlikely but introduces major source-critical problems never addressed and handled.
2. It may help us to look at the location of the relevant pericopes in the four gospels. If our treatment of the trial sequence is correct (see Overview, 26:57-68), Matthew and Mark do not record the examination before Annas but simply say that Peter followed Jesus into the courtyard. Then they place Peter's three denials after the preliminary trial before the Sanhedrin. Luke records neither the examination before Annas nor the preliminary trial before the Sanhedrin and therefore places Peter's three denials before recording the Sanhedrin trial at dawn. John has nothing about the Jewish trial (though it may be hinted at in 19:24) except Jesus' examination before Alums. If Peter's first denial took place about the time of that examination, it is understandable that John separates it front the other two, which he describes after Jesus has been led before Caiaphas.
3. The order of the first two denials may be reversed between John and the Synoptics (cf. the order of the temptations; sec comments at 4:1-11), but which gospel has the historical order cannot easily be determined. John has "the girl at the gate" asking the first question and implies, but does not state, that this occurs on Peter's way in. Matthew and Mark have Jesus move back out to the gate as the setting for their second denial. Several possibilities come to mind, but no adequate way of testing them.
4. Remaining differences are minor and are capable of many solutions. Problems arise from the brevity of the accounts. In a setting around a fire, two or three may speak up at once (see comments at vv.69-70 ); or, more probably, the plural in the second denial (in John's order) is generalizing (as in Mt. 2:20). The differences in the reports of the denial adequately be accounted for on redactional grounds.
69Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. "You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said.
70But he denied it before them all. "l don't know what you're talking about,” he said.
71"Then he went out to the gateway, where another girl saw him and said to the people there, This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth."
72He denied it again, with an oath: "I don't know the man!"
73After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, "Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away."
74Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, "I don't know the man!"
Immediately a rooster crowed. 75Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.
69-70 The article "a" in "a servant girl" masks an idiomatic use of "one" (mia. v.69; see comments at 8:19; 21:19; cf. Moule, Idiom Book, 125). Her remark to Peter reflects both an accusation and her curiosity. "Jesus of Galilee" (Mk 14:67: "that Nazarene, Jesus") is the kind of derogatory remark one might expect from a Jerusalemite convinced of her geographical and cultural superiority. Peter denies her words “before them all” (v.70), implying that several people were listening and that some may have joined in the questioning. The form of Peter's denial is akin to a formal, legal oath (cf. m. Sebu. 8:3).
71-72 Peter "went out" to the gateway. apparently retiring from the brighter light of the fire into the darkness of the forecourt. Again he denies the accusation, this time with an oath. "Oath" here (v.72) does not refer to"swearing" as we know it in profanity; rather, Peter invokes a solemn curse on himself if he is lying and professes his "truthfulness” appealing to something sacred (see comments at 5:33-34; 23:16-22).
73-75 A little more rime elapses. Luke says "about an hour later” (22:59). In any age, accent in speaking varies with geography (e.g. Jdg 12:5-6), and Peter's speech shows him to be a Galilean (cf. Hoehner, Herod Antipas, 61- 64). That one of those present at Peter's denial said that his accent proved him to be a disciple of Jesus shows how much Jesus' ministry had been in Galilee and how relatively few of his disciples were from Judea. Having lied twice, Peter finds himself forced to lie again, this time with more oaths (v.74). Immediately the rooster crows, a bitter reminder (v.75) of Jesus' words (v.34). He who thought he could stand has fallen terribly (cf. 1Co 10:12). Luke tells us that Jesus looked at Peter—perhaps through a window or as he was being led across the courtyard. If we cannot credit the legend that after this Peter never heard a cock crow without weeping, we may justifiably assume that Peter's bitter tears led to his being "poorer in spirit" (5:3) the remainder of his days than he had ever been before.
From this point on, Matthew does not mention Peter again.
Dorothy Jean Weaver (Matthew's Missionary Discourse: A Literary Critical Analysis [JSNTSup 38; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990], 149) offers a more optimistic reading of this paragraph. At least Peter followed Jesus to the high priest's house, she observes, and then he remembered Jesus' prediction—and together these facts demonstrate that "Peter is still active as a disciple.” But oh, the betrayal and the tears!