BEFORE A ROOSTER CROWS ONCE OR TWICE? A Seemingly Intractable Contradiction in the Gospel Accounts Solved

BEFORE A ROOSTER CROWS ONCE OR TWICE? A Seemingly Intractable Contradiction in the Gospel Accounts Solved

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© 2022, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

The Problem 

One of the seemingly most intractable apparent contradictions in the Gospel books concerns Jesus’ foretelling, at the last supper, Peter’s denial of Him.  All four Gospel books include this.  Matthew records the following:

31 Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written:

‘I will strike the Shepherd,
And the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’

32 But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.”

33 Peter answered and said to Him, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.”

34 Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.”

35 Peter said to Him, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!”

And so said all the disciples. (Matthew 26:31-35)

Jesus’ prediction is in v. 34: “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.”  So Jesus says that Peter will deny Him three times before a rooster crows.  It is thus in the Gospel According to Luke also:

Then He said, “I tell you, Peter, a rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me.” (Luke 22:34)

And in the Gospel According to John:

Jesus answered him, “Will you lay down your life for My sake? Most assuredly, I say to you, a rooster shall not crow till you have denied Me three times.” (John 13:38)

What Jesus foretells seems very clear; Peter will make three denials of Him before there is a cockcrow.  But in the Gospel According to Mark, it is different:

Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that today, even this night, before a rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.” (Mark 14:30)

Now, some apologists deny that there is any apparent contradiction here.  Jason Lisle, for example, says this:

If the rooster crows twice, then it necessarily crows once (and then once again). Jesus said that Peter would deny Him three times before the rooster crows twice (Mark 14:30). The accounts of Matthew, Luke, and John do not record this detail (that the rooster would crow twice) — but they also do not deny or contradict it. That is, neither Matthew, Luke, nor John say that Peter will deny Christ three times “before the rooster crows only once,” or “before the first crow.” You can search all you like, but there is no passage that says the rooster crowed only once.[1]

Similarly, Creation Ministries International (CMI) functionary Paul Price avers that

This is not a contradiction, even on the face of it.  One gospel (Mark) gives more detail than the other two, while the other two don’t specify a number of times. … Having one version that gives a specific number of times while the others are more vague, simply saying that the rooster would crow, is simply not a contradiction.[2]

Unfortunately, Lisle and Price are careless here; the apparent contradiction cannot be explained away as simply different levels of detail.  In Matthew, Luke, and John, Jesus says that there will be no cockcrow until Peter has denied Him three times.  Yet Mark tells us that this is what happened:

66 Now as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came.

67 And when she saw Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with Jesus of Nazareth.”

68 But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you are saying.” And he went out on the porch, and a rooster crowed.

69 And the servant girl saw him again, and began to say to those who stood by, “This is one of them.”

70 But he denied it again. And a little later those who stood by said to Peter again, “Surely you are one of them; for you are a Galilean, and your speech shows it.”

71 Then he began to curse and swear, “I do not know this Man of whom you speak!”

72 A second time the rooster crowed. Then Peter called to mind the word that Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.” And when he thought about it, he wept. (Mark 14:66-72)

Thus, while in Matthew, Luke, and John, Jesus says that there will be no cockcrow until after Peter denies Him three times, Mark tells us that there was indeed a cockcrow before Peter had denied Him three times; specifically, there was a cockcrow after Peter had denied Him only once.  Pace Price, there is certainly a contradiction here “on the face of it.”  Skeptics have not overlooked this.[3]

Proposed Solutions That Fail

The most common approach to this contradiction seems to be a denial that there is a contradiction, as we saw Lisle and CMI’s Price do.  Gleason Archer also goes that route, saying,

Is this a real discrepancy, as some critics allege?  Hardly, since we may be very sure that if the rooster crows twice, he has at least crowed once.[4]

While that is certainly true, it is irrelevant, as the apparent contradiction is not in the number of cockcrows but in their timing in relation to Peter’s denials.   Archer goes on to say,

Apparently Jesus did specify that the cock would crow a second time by the time the third denial had been expressed by Peter.  The important part of the prediction, however, lay not in the number of times the rooster would sound out but in the number of times Peter would basely deny to his interrogators that he belonged to Jesus – or even that he was acquainted with Him.  To add or include additional information does not amount to a contradiction of the testimony of a witness who has given a somewhat briefer account.[5]

Now, while adding additional information in and of itself does not amount to a contradiction, it certainly may do so, and in this case it seems to do so; having the rooster crow after Peter denied Jesus only once certainly seems to be a contradiction with the statement that there would be no rooster crow until Peter had denied Jesus three times.

Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, after also claiming – wrongly – that “there is no contradiction between the two accounts because … Matthew and John do not expressly state how many times the rooster will crow[6] do make another suggestion to explain the difference:

It is also possible that different accounts are due to an early copyist error in Mark, that resulted in the insertion of “two” in early manuscripts (at Mark 14:30 and 72).  This would explain why some important manuscripts of Mark mention only one crowing, just like Matthew and John, and why “two” appears at different places in some manuscripts.

This is not possible, however, since the problem is not simply the insertion of “two” at Mark 14:30 and 14:72; Mark also lists two separate cockcrows, one after Peter’s first denial of Jesus and the second after his third denial of Jesus.  So while we could imagine a copyist accidentally inserting “two” at Mark 14:30 and 14:72,[7] the idea that he would “accidentally” insert “And he went out on the porch, and a rooster crowed” – after the first cockcrow – in Mark 14:68 is absurd.

The only possible text-critical solution would be to suggest that “twice” was accidentally inserted in one verse, and then later copyists deliberately made the other changes to make the narrative fit this new prediction that Peter would deny Jesus three times before the rooster crows twice.  John Wenham argues for this[8], but it not viable.  The testimony of early Christian writers shows a universal antipathy towards the idea of making changes to sacred text[9], and, in this case, if a copyist was trying to correct a perceived error, would he not simply have dropped the “twice” instead of repeating it and creating an entirely new sentence to describe it, complete with background details?[10]

Meanwhile, CMI’s Paul Price, after telling us that “This is not a contradiction, even on the face of it,” proposes solutions to the apparent contradiction; after rehashing the vain suggestion that Mark is simply giving more details here, he suggests that

Another way to look at this is that the phrase “before the rooster crows” could be understood as an idiom meaning ‘before daybreak’”[11].

These seems to be an ad hoc attempt, however; he offers no evidence that there was ever such an idiom used, nor can I find any evidence to support such a claim.  Furthermore, the New Testament includes a number of expressions translated as “daybreak” in various English Bibles[12], none of them having anything to with a rooster crowing.

It should be noticed that there is another attempted solution, one described (and deprecated) by Bart Ehrman:

For the inconsistency in the account of the denials of Peter, the author [Johnston Cheney] had a very clear solution: Peter actually denied Jesus six times, three times before the cock crowed and three more times before it crowed twice.[13]

This solution relies on assigning a different meaning to “times” when Jesus speaks of one time versus three times, though there is not reason to do so.  It would also be more convincing if Peter’s first denial, before the first cockcrow (Mark 14:68), were a “triple denial” that consisted of three actual denials within one “time” of denial – but it does not.

No wonder, then, that this is considered one of the most intractable apparent contradictions in the Bible.  The solutions proposed by apologists fail to solve the problem.

A Proposed Solution That Works

There is one fundamental problem in the proposed solutions offered by apologists, a fundamental problem that causes the solutions to fail; they all assume that Jesus predicted Peter’s denial once, and so they have to try to explain how Matthew’s record of “before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times” (and Luke’s and John’s) is really the same thing as Mark’s record of “before a rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.”  As we’ve seen, they fail.

But what if Jesus didn’t predict Peter’s denial only once?  What if He predicted it twice?  In other words, Jesus first predicted that “before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times”, and then, in a second, separate prediction, said that “before a rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.”

But how and why would this happen, some might ask.  Is this a desperate, baseless gambit, or is it rooted in Scripture?  Let us consider how the events might have unfolded by combining the four accounts[14]:

  • Jesus warns His apostles that all will be made to stumble this night and will be scattered (Matthew 26:31, Mark 14:27)
  • Peter insists that he himself will not stumble (Matthew 26:33, Mark 14:29) and that he will lay down his life for Jesus (John 13:37)
  • Jesus foretells that Peter will deny Him three times before a rooster crows (Matthew 26:34, Luke 22:34, John 13:38)
  • Peter nevertheless insists that even if he has to die with Jesus, he will not deny Him (Matthew 26:35)
  • Jesus foretells that Peter will deny Him three times before a rooster crows twice (Mark 14:30)
  • Peter continues to insist that even if he has to die with Jesus, he will not deny Him (Mark 14:31)

It would seem that, in response to Peter’s insistence that he would not deny Jesus even after Jesus told him that he would do so, Jesus accommodated Peter by changing the scenario from Peter denying Jesus three times before a rooster crows to Peter denying Jesus three times before a rooster crows twice; He made it easier for Peter to hold to his resolve, as a cockcrow before the third denial would remind him of his resolution while there was still the opportunity to keep it.

Now, some might object that this reconstruction is simply a deus ex machina because, they say, “God doesn’t do things that way.  He doesn’t change the conditions just because people make objections.  He doesn’t say He’ll do one thing and then change it to another.”  But He does, in fact, do that.

The first example is the commissioning of Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:7-4:16).  Whom did God say was to confront Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?

4 So when the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses! …

9 Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel has come to Me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them.

10 Come now, therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:4,9-10)

It was Moses who was to confront Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt, but Moses demurred, citing one objection after another:

  • But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt? (Exodus 3:11)
  • Then Moses answered and said, “But suppose they will not believe me or listen to my voice; suppose they say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.’” (Exodus 4:1)
  • Then Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)

God answers every objection.  When Moses claims to be ineloquent, slow of speech and slow of tongue, God answers,

11 “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the Lord?

12 Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say.” (Exodus 4:11b-12)

Moses is now out of excuses, yet he still wants God to send someone else: “But he said, ‘O my Lord, please send by the hand of whomever else You may send.’” (Exodus 4:13) – and God, though angered by this, accommodates Moses by giving him his brother Aaron to go with him and do the talking:

14 So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses, and He said: “Is not Aaron the Levite your brother? I know that he can speak well. And look, he is also coming out to meet you. When he sees you, he will be glad in his heart.

15 Now you shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth. And I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will teach you what you shall do.

16 So he shall be your spokesman to the people. And he himself shall be as a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God.” (Exodus 4:14-16)

God altered the original command here to accommodate Moses.

Nor is this the only example; consider the case of King Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20:1-6:

1 In those days Hezekiah was sick and near death. And Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, went to him and said to him, Thus says the Lord: ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die, and not live.’”

2 Then he turned his face toward the wall, and prayed to the Lord, saying,

3 “Remember now, O Lord, I pray, how I have walked before You in truth and with a loyal heart, and have done what was good in Your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

4 And it happened, before Isaiah had gone out into the middle court, that the word of the Lord came to him, saying,

5 “Return and tell Hezekiah the leader of My people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; surely I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord.

6 And I will add to your days fifteen years. I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city for My own sake, and for the sake of My servant David.”’”

Here, God told Hezekiah explicitly via Isaiah the prophet what would happen to him; he would die and not live.  Hezekiah did not want to die; he cried and prayed to the Lord.  But he did so in vain, some Christians would say; God had said what He would do and that is immutable, and God wouldn’t possibly alter what He had said would happen in response to prayer.  But He did do so.

Could this be considered a contradiction?  God had said Hezekiah would die now, but then God said that He would give Hezekiah another fifteen years, yet no one would consider this a contradiction, because God’s final word on the matter sets aside His initial word.

We see with the prophet Ezekiel, also.  In Chapter 4, God gives Ezekiel the task of demonstrating in object fashion the captivity of Israel, by lying upon his side for three hundred and ninety days and then an additional forty days.  He was required to eat controlled rations to mimic the dire straits that would be in besieged Jerusalem:

9 “Also take for yourself wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread of them for yourself. During the number of days that you lie on your side, three hundred and ninety days, you shall eat it.

10 And your food which you eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day; from time to time you shall eat it.

11 You shall also drink water by measure, one-sixth of a hin; from time to time you shall drink.

12 And you shall eat it as barley cakes; and bake it using fuel of human waste in their sight.”

13 Then the Lord said, “So shall the children of Israel eat their defiled bread among the Gentiles, where I will drive them.” (Ezekiel 4:9-15)

This was certainly an unpleasant task, but Ezekiel was ready to undertake what the Lord said, but he has one objection:

14 So I said, “Ah, Lord God! Indeed I have never defiled myself from my youth till now; I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by beasts, nor has abominable flesh ever come into my mouth.”

Human waste was an unclean substance, per Deuteronomy 23:12-14, and Ezekiel, who had been carefully to stay ritually undefiled from his youth till this time, was loathe to defile himself by handling this unclean substance.  And God accommodates him:

14 Then He said to me, “See, I am giving you cow dung instead of human waste, and you shall prepare your bread over it.”

God had commanded Ezekiel to bake his barley cakes using fuel of human waste, but then He changed His command to Ezekiel, to bake his barley cakes using fuel of cow dung instead of human waste.  Though there was a change in the command, no one would consider this a contradiction, because he understands that God’s final word on the matter sets aside His initial word.

Therefore, inasmuch as God does change what He says in order to accommodate people, there is no difficulty in seeing Jesus changing His prediction of Peter’s three denials from taking place before the rooster crows to taking place before the rooster crows twice, in order to make it easier for Peter to do what he had boasted he would do – though Jesus knew he would nevertheless fail.  This sequence of events removes any apparent contradiction from among the accounts in the Gospel books of the timing of Peter’s three denials of Christ.  This supposedly intractable contradiction proves not to be intractable at all.


Endnotes

[1] Lisle, Jason. Keeping Faith in an Age of Reason: Refuting Alleged Bible Contradictions. 2017. Green Forest, AZ: Master Books, p. 27

[2] “Responding to William Lane Craig’s Attack on Biblical Inerrancy: A reader asks about Peter’s three denials of Christ.”  Posted on January 16, 2021.  At https://creation.com/inerrancy-peter-denial-contradictions.

[3] See, e.g., Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009, p. 7

[4] Archer, Gleason L. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, MI: Regency Reference Library, 1982, p. 339

[5] ibid.

[6] Geisler, Norman and Thomas Howe. When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992, p. 360

[7] Even if a copyist had inserted “twice” by accident in Mark 14:30 or 14:72, how did the other “twice” get inserted?  Are we to imagine two accidental insertions of the same word in two different places?  And even if there had been, such a secondary reading could never attain to a dominant position among the manuscripts, let alone one greater than 99%.  See Tors, John. “A Primer on New Testament Textual Criticism (In Manageable, Bite-Sized Chunks).”  Posted at https://truthinmydays.com/a-primer-on-new-testament-textual-criticism-in-manageable-bite-sized-chunks/.

[8] Wenham, John W. “How Many Cock-Crowings? The Problem of Harmonistic Text-Variants.” NTS 25:4 (1979), pp. 523-525

[9] Kruger, Michael J. “Early Christian Attitudes toward the Reproduction of Texts” in Hill, Charles F. and Michael J. Kruger. The Early Text of the New Testament. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 63-80.

[10] Again, even if such changes were added deliberately, they could never come to dominate the manuscripts; see Tors, op.cit.

[11] Price, op.cit.

[12] e.g., Luke 4:42, 12:38, 22:66; John 21:4; Acts 5:21, 20:11, 27:29

[13] Ehrman, op.cit.

[14] Regarding the possible objection that harmonizing the Gospel accounts is not a valid approach, see Tors, John. “Correcting Bart Ehrman on Harmonization: A Risible Objection Refuted.”  Posted at https://truthinmydays.com/correcting-bart-ehrman-on-harmonization-a-risible-objection-refuted/.

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