Matthew 26:69-75 Peter’s Moment of Faithlessness

Caravaggio, The Denial of Saint Peter (1610)

Matthew 26:69-75

Parallel Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:56-62; John 18:25-27

69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70 But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” 71 When he went out to the porch[1], another servant-girl[2] saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72 Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” 73 After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” 74 Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. 75 Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

All four gospels report Peter’s denial of Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest. Peter remains a ‘little faith one.’ He is unable to remain faithful under the threat of persecution and death, even though earlier he proclaimed that even if he must die with Jesus he will not deny him. On the one hand, Peter’s lack of faith in this scene is strongly contrasted with Jesus’ faithfulness throughout the passion narrative. On the other hand, one of the underlying concerns of my work through Matthew’s gospel has been to reappraise the negative view of the disciples and the judgmental view of Jesus that underwrites this. Peter, unlike Judas, is not condemned by Jesus for his inability to hold himself to his own high standard of faithfulness. Jesus never expresses that he expects Peter to remain steadfast in this moment or condemns him. Instead, Peter and the rest of the disciples will not be permanently branded by their inability to remain faithful once their shepherd has been taken away. They will all be intentionally regathered in Galilee by their shepherd at the end of the gospel.

Peter will remain the boldest of the disciples throughout the gospels and often he is the voice that speaks for all the disciples. Previously he is the one who utters the confession that Jesus is the Christ, but also he is bold enough to (wrongly) reprove Jesus when Jesus declares that he will go to Jerusalem and suffer at the hands of the chief priests and the scribes. (16:16-23) Peter is the one who speaks at the Transfiguration (17:4) and gets out of the boat and approaches Jesus in the midst of the storm (14:22-33). Peter, unlike the rest of the disciples in Matthew, has followed Jesus as far as the courtyard of the high priest. His proximity is what leads these servants of the high priest to question his relationship to Jesus. Ironically, Peter’s rebuke of Jesus about his initial declaration about what would happen when they come to Jerusalem as well as Jesus’ declaration of Peter’s upcoming denials bear witness to Jesus’ ability to perceive how events will unfold far more accurately than Peter. Jesus’ words have proven to be accurate throughout the story and they await completion as the story ends.

Matthew continues to relate events using the gifts of an oral storyteller, and this continues with his use of the escalating pattern of three. Throughout this reading, I have tried to illustrate how Matthew tightens this pattern, which is already present in Mark, and here in this scene the three-fold denial moves from a statement to an oath, to a curse with an oath. Peter is contrasted with Jesus who often remains silent before the accusations, but when Jesus does speak his words declare who he is even when the religious leaders consider it blasphemy. Peter responds to each accusation quickly but with words that are untrue. Peter does not model the type of truthful speech that the Sermon on the Mount calls for (5:33-37) and not only swears an oath twice but even invokes a curse. Comparing Peter, or any person, with Jesus invites that person to be viewed negatively as Anna Case-Winters can demonstrate:

The contrast of his cowardice with Jesus’ courage is dramatic. At the very time Jesus stands before Caiaphas and makes a bold confession, Peter caves before a serving girl. Peter’s three denials under pressure are the reverse image of Jesus in Gethsemane. Three times he petitions God to be spared the trials ahead; three times he stands fast in his faithfulness to God and God’s will regardless of the outcome. (Case-Winters 2015, 300)

The community of the faithful is comprised of many who are ‘little faith ones.’ In times of crisis, they may fail to ‘acknowledge Jesus before others’ and instead through words or actions ‘deny Jesus before others.’ Peter is confronted by servants, and particularly ‘servant girls’ and although these servants may have had a lower standing in society than Peter as a male, these ‘servant girls’ were also aligned with the power that seemed to be stronger at the moment. In the courtyard of Caiaphas, the kingdom of heaven probably seemed a distant dream as its Messiah is abused. The disciples of Jesus work towards wholeness, but they are not perfect. Leaders like Peter will continue to need their moments of faithlessness forgiven. They will continue to need the blood of the new covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Peter, and the rest of the community of Christ, are not disqualified by their moments of faithlessness. Instead, the covenant of God and the forgiveness it offers remains stronger and Peter along with the rest of the disciples will reemerge in Galilee on the other side of the resurrection.


[1] The Greek pulona is a vestibule which is an antechamber, hall, or lobby next to the outer door of a building.

[2] ‘Servant-girl’ is not present in verse 71, the Greek has simply that ‘another’ saw Peter.

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