This is the forty-fifth installment, comprising Act 6, Scene 8, chapter 14:66-72, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the forty-fourth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
Scene 8: 14:66-72
66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. 67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, "You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth." 68 But he denied it, saying, "I do not know or understand what you are talking about." And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. 69 And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, "This man is one of them." 70 But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, "Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean." 71 But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, "I do not know this man you are talking about." 72 At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, "Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times." And he broke down and wept. (NRSV)
This entire scene revolves around two thematic issues which have been developed by Mark throughout the whole Gospel: the fecklessness of the apostles; and Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy, especially as these prophecies are made manifest in the events of his life. In Act 5, Scene 6, Jesus prophesied Peter’s denial of Jesus, which Peter vehemently denied. In the previous scene, Peter has followed Jesus at a distance, attempting to be both present and hidden in the shadows. It is clear that he is drawn to his teacher, but also filled with fear when he sees the physical abuse Jesus suffers.
He is drawn out of the shadows here by “one of the servant-girls of the high priest” (14:66). The Greek paidiskê means in the first instance “little girl,” but the diminutive in this context clearly refers to “female slave” and probably denotes a young slave. It seems likely that Peter came to her attention when Jesus was arrested. When she sees “Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, ‘You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth’”(14:67). Mark by including "she stared at him," demonstrates the initial tension in this scene. She has her eyes fixed on Peter. It is not obvious that she identifies Peter in a threatening way - she is after all a little girl and a slave- but any identification of Peter as a follower of Jesus might imply a threat. It might simply be curiosity which attracts her to Peter. Certainly Peter would not have been hiding himself, though, if he were at ease with the circumstances or his relationship with Jesus.
He senses the threat in being identified with his arrested Messiah and plays dumb, denying any knowledge of Jesus: “I do not know or understand what you are talking about” (14:68). When Peter leaves the area to go to the forecourt, the cock crows.
The second identification by the slave girl has more of an edge to it, as the dramatic tension is built by Mark. Mark also creates a greater sense of danger to Peter, as the girl now tells the bystanders, “This man is one of them” (14:69). By speaking to the crowd in general and identifying Peter to them, the girl seems to be interested in creating mischief. She also speaks with greater certainty. Who knows what the result will be if the crowd knows this is Jesus’ disciple? Percolating beneath the surface is the potential for menace from the mob, the same or similar mob as that which came to arrest Jesus. Peter denies that he is a follower of Jesus for the second time (14:70).
The third time that Peter is challenged, it is the crowd itself, the bystanders, who turn on Peter. When the bystanders become engaged in this identification, it is clear that Peter’s life is threatened. The bystanders say to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean” (14:70). At this point, Peter takes it upon himself to make his denial more formal or “official.” He “began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about’”(14:71). By swearing an oath, Peter has placed his life on a lie. He senses that his life is in danger and he preserves it by denying Jesus and the life that he has led by following him. He has chosen himself over Jesus. He wants to continue as a follower of Jesus, as even after Jesus' arrest Peter continues to follow at a distance or in the shadows. Yet, Peter cannot maintain this strength of character or purpose. He preserves his own life. Mark has created a scene in which each challenge to Peter has created greater danger. Each time Peter could have acknowledged his relationship with Jesus, but each time he becomes more vociferous in his denial. Peter has shown himself to be a human being, striving to be faithful but often weak and afraid.
At the point of his third denial, “the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And he broke down and wept” (14:72). This scene, when imagined visually, creates tension both at the level of physical danger to Peter – the previous scene, which Peter might have been watching, shows Jesus being physically abused – and at the level of prophetic fulfillment. Jesus knows what is to occur to him; he knows how strangers and bystanders will act; he knows how his disciples will behave. These prophetic fulfillments both relieve and create tension. They relieve tension because what occurs is known to Jesus and a part of the divine plan; they create tension because however much Jesus is aware of what is to happen, we still cannot imagine how these events will lead to God’s conquest of sin and death.
John W. Martens
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