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Home > Fathers of the Church > The Harmony of the Gospels (Augustine) > Book III, Chapter 2

The Harmony of the Gospels, Book III

Chapter 2. Of the Proof of Their Freedom from Any Discrepancies in the Notices Given of the Predictions of Peter's Denials.

5. Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You shall seek me: and, as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, you cannot come; so now I say unto you. A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another. Simon Peter says unto Him, Lord, where are you going? Jesus answered him, Whither I go, you can not follow me now, but you shall follow me afterwards. Peter says unto Him, Lord, why cannot I follow You now? I will lay down my life for Your sake. Jesus answered him, Will you lay down your life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto you, The cock shall not crow, until you deny me thrice. John, from whose Gospel I have taken the passage introduced above, is not the only evangelist who details this incident of the prophetic announcement of his own denial to Peter. The other three also record the same thing. They do not, however, take one and the same particular point in the discourses [of Christ] as their occasion for proceeding to this narration. For Matthew and Mark both introduce it in a completely parallel order, and at the same stage of their narrative, namely, after the Lord left the house in which they had eaten the passover; while Luke and John, on the other hand, bring it in before He left that scene. Still we might easily suppose, either that it has been inserted in the way of a recapitulation by the one couple of evangelists, or that it has been inserted in the way of an anticipation by the other; only such a supposition may be made more doubtful by the circumstance that there is so remarkable a diversity, not only in the Lord's words, but even in those sentiments of His by which the incident in question is introduced, and by which Peter was moved to venture his presumptuous asseveration that he would die with the Lord or for the Lord. These considerations may constrain us rather to understand the narratives really to import that the man uttered his presumptuous declaration thrice over, as it was called forth by different occasions in the series of Christ's discourses, and that also three several times the answer was returned him by the Lord, which intimated that before the cock crew he would deny Him thrice.

6. And surely there is nothing incredible in supposing that Peter was moved to such an act of presumption on several occasions, separated from each other by certain intervals of time, as he was actually instigated to deny Him repeatedly. Neither should it seem unreasonable to fancy that the Lord gave him a reply in similar terms at three successive periods, especially when [we see that] in immediate connection with each other, and without the interposition of anything else either in fact or word, Christ addressed the question to him three several times whether he loved Him, and that, when Peter returned the same answer thrice over, He also gave him thrice over the self-same charge to feed His sheep. That it is the more reasonable thing to suppose that Peter displayed his presumption on three different occasions, and that thrice over he received from the Lord a warning with respect to his triple denial, is further proved, as we may see, by the very terms employed by the evangelists, which record sayings uttered by the Lord in diverse form and of diverse import. Let us here call attention again to that passage which I introduced a little ago from the Gospel of John. There we certainly find that He had expressed Himself in this way: Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, you cannot come; so now I say to you. A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that you love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another. Simon Peter says unto Him, Lord, where are You going? Now, surely it is evident here that what moved Peter to utter this question, Lord, where are You going? was the words which the Lord Himself had spoken. For he had heard Him say, Whither I go, you cannot come. Then Jesus made this reply to the said Peter: Whither I go, you can not follow me now, but you shall follow me afterwards. Thereupon Peter expressed himself thus: Lord, why cannot I follow You now? I will lay down my life for Your sake. And to this presumptuous declaration the Lord responded by predicting his denial. Luke, again, first mentions how the Lord said, Simon, behold Satan has desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not; and, when you are converted, strengthen your brethren: next he proceeds immediately to tell us how Peter replied to this effect: Lord, I am ready to go with You, both unto prison and to death; and then he continues thus: And He said, I tell you, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that you shall thrice deny that you know me. Now, who can fail to perceive that this is an occasion by itself, and that the incident in connection with which Peter was incited to make the presumptuous declaration already referred to is an entirely different one? But, once more, Matthew presents us with the following passage: And when they had sung an hymn, he says, they went out into the Mount of Olives. Then says Jesus unto them, All you shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. But after I am risen again, I will go before you into Galilee. The same passage is given in precisely the same form by Mark. What similarity is there, however, in these words, or in the ideas expressed by them, either to the terms in which John represents Peter to have made his presumptuous declaration, or to those in which Luke exhibits him as uttering such an asseveration? And so we find that in Matthew's narrative the connection proceeds immediately thus: Peter answered and said unto Him, Though all men shall be offended because of You, yet will I never be offended. Jesus says unto him, Verily, I say unto you, that this night, before the cock crow, you shall deny me thrice. Peter says unto him, Though I should die with You, yet will I not deny You. Likewise also said all His disciples.

7. All this is recorded almost in the same language also by Mark, only that he has not put in so general a form what the Lord said with regard to the manner in which the event [of Peter's failure] was to be brought about, but has given it a more particular turn. For his version is this: Verily I say unto you, That this day, even in this night, before the cock crow twice, you shall deny me thrice. Thus it appears that all of them tell us how the Lord foretold that Peter would deny Him before the cock crew, but that they do not all mention how often the cock was to crow, and that Mark is the only one who has presented a more explicit notice of this incident in the narrative. Hence some are of opinion that Mark's statement is not in harmony with those of the others. But this is simply because they do not give sufficient attention to the facts of the case, and, above all, because they approach the question under the cloud of a prejudiced mind, in consequence of their being possessed by a hostile disposition towards the gospel. The fact is, that Peter's denial, when taken as a whole, is a threefold denial. For he remained in the same state of mental agitation, and harboured the same mendacious intention, until what had been foretold regarding him was brought to his mind, and healing came to him by bitter weeping and sorrow of heart. It is evident, however, that if this complete denial— that is to say, the threefold denial— is taken to have commenced only after the first crowing of the cock, three of the evangelists will appear to have given an incorrect account of the matter. For Matthew's version is this: Verily I say unto you, That this night, before the cock crow, you shall deny me thrice; and Luke puts it thus: I tell you, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that you shall thrice deny that you know me; and John presents it in this form: Verily, verily, I say unto you, the cock shall not crow till you have denied me thrice. And thus, in different terms and with words introduced in diverse successions, these three evangelists have expressed one and the same sense as conveyed by the words which the Lord spoke— namely, the fact that, before the cock should crow, Peter was to deny Him thrice. On the other hand, if [we suppose that] he went through the whole triple denial before the cock began to crow at all, then Mark will be made to underlie the charge of having given a superfluous statement when he puts these words into the Lord's mouth: Verily I say unto you, That this day, before the cock crow twice, you shall deny me thrice. For to what purpose would it be to say, before the cock crow twice, when, on the supposition that this entire threefold denial had gone through previous to the first crowing of the cock, it is self-evident that a negation, which would thus be proved to have been completed before the first cockcrow, must also, as matter of course, be understood to have been fully uttered before the second cockcrow and before the third, and, in short, before all the cockcrowings which took place on that same night? But, inasmuch as this threefold denial was begun previous to the first crowing of the cock, those three evangelists concerned themselves with noticing, not the time at which Peter was to complete it, but the extent to which it was to be carried, and the period at which it was to commence; that is to say, their object was to bring out the facts that it was to be thrice repeated, and that it was to begin previous to the cockcrowing. At the same time, so far as the man's own mind is concerned, we might also quite well understand it to have been engaged in, as a whole, previous to the first cockcrow. For although it is true that, so far as regards the actual utterance of the individual who was guilty of the denial, that threefold negation was only entered upon previous to the first cockcrow, and really finished before the second cockcrow, still it is equally true that, in so far as the disposition of mind and the apprehensions indulged by Peter were concerned, it was conceived, as a whole, before the first cockcrow. Neither is it a matter of any consequence of what duration those intervals of delay were which elapsed between the several utterances of that thrice-recurring voice, if it is the case that the denial completely possessed his heart even previous to the first cockcrow,— in consequence, indeed, of his having imbibed a spirit of terror so abject as to make him capable of denying the Lord when he was questioned regarding Him, not only once, but a second time, and even a third time. Thus, a more correct and careful consideration of the matter might show us that, precisely as it is declared that the man who looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart, so, in the present instance, inasmuch as in the words which he spoke, Peter merely expressed the apprehension which he had already conceived with such intensity in his mind as to make it capable of enduring even on to a third repetition of his denial of the Lord, this threefold negation is to be assigned as a whole to that particular period at which the fear that sufficed thus to carry him on to a threefold denial took possession of him. In this way, too, it may be made apparent that, even if the words in which the denial was couched began to break forth from him only after the first cockcrow, when his heart was smitten by the inquiries addressed to him, it would involve neither any absurdity nor any untruthfulness, although it were said that before the cock crew he denied Him thrice, seeing that, in any case, previous to the crowing of the cock, his mind had been assailed by an apprehension violent enough to be able to draw him on even to a third denial. All the less, therefore, ought we to feel any difficulty in the matter, if it appears that the threefold denial, as expressed also in the thrice-recurring utterances of the person who made the denial, was entered upon previous to the crowing of the cock, although it was not completed before the first cockcrow. We may take a parallel case, and suppose an intimation to be made to the following effect to a person: This night, before the cock crow, you will write a letter to me, in which you will revile me thrice. Well, surely in this instance, if the man began to write the letter before the cock had crowed at all, and finished it after the cock had crowed for the first time, that would be no reason for alleging that the intimation previously made was false. The fact, therefore, is that, in putting these words into the Lord's lips, Before the cock crow twice, you shall deny me thrice, Mark has given us a plainer indication of the intervals of time which separated the utterances themselves. And when we come to the said section of the evangelical narrative, we shall see that the circumstances are presented in a manner which exhibits, in that connection also, the harmony subsisting among the evangelists.

8. If, however, the demand is to get at the very words, literally and completely, which the Lord addressed to Peter, we answer that it is impossible to discover these; and further, that it is simply superfluous to ask them, inasmuch as the speaker's meaning— to intimate which was the object He had in view in uttering the words— admits of being understood with the utmost plainness, even under the diverse terms employed by the evangelists. And whether, then, it be the case that Peter, instigated at different occasions in the course of the Lord's sayings, made his presumptuous declaration three several times, and had his denial foretold him thrice over by the Lord, as is the more probable result to which our investigation points us; or whether it may appear that the accounts given by all the evangelists are capable of being reduced to a single statement, when a certain order of narration is adopted, so that it could be proved that it was only on one occasion that the Lord predicted to Peter, on the exhibition of his presumptuous spirit, the fact that he would deny Him—in either case, any contradiction between the evangelists will fail to be detected, as nothing of that nature really exists.

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Source. Translated by S.D.F. Salmond. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1602302.htm>.

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