Problem: The rooster crowed too soon
Verses: Luke 22:34, Mark 14:68; Status: Minor

All four gospels record that Jesus predicted that Peter would deny knowing him. This is Luke 22:34:

Jesus said, "I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me." (ESV)

Mark's version of the prediction is unique: it predicts that Peter will deny Jesus before the rooster crows twice. This is Mark 14:30:

And Jesus said to him, "Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times." (ESV)

These two passages on their own are not really contradictory. That the rooster will crow twice seems like a minor detail. However, a contradiction with Luke comes later, when Mark writes that the rooster first crowed after Peter had denied Jesus just once. This is Mark 14:66-68:

And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, "You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus." But he denied it, saying, "I neither know nor understand what you mean." And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. (ESV)

Peter then goes on to make two more denials (Mark 14:69-72) and then the rooster crows for the second time. While this is perfectly in harmony with the prediction Mark himself recorded, it seems to contradict the prediction as recorded by Luke, that Peter would deny Jesus three times before the rooster crowed at all.

A text-critical solution?

One solution is to say that the words "and the rooster crowed" were not present in the original version of Mark 14:68. According to the NET Bible's notes, a number of significant early manuscripts lack these words. However (as is also noted by the NET Bible) this explanation runs into trouble with Mark 14:72:

And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, "Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times." And he broke down and wept. (ESV)

The NET Bible says this verse "is much more textually secure". Since we are here told that the rooster crowed a second time, it seems highly likely that there should be a prior verse which tells of it crowing the first time. Presumably, Mark 14:68 is that verse.

A minor crowing and a major crowing?

The Apologetics Press has what might be the best explanation (though it still seems a bit of a stretch):

In the first century, roosters were accustomed to crowing at least twice during the night. The first crowing (which only Mark mentioned - 14:68) usually occurred between twelve and one o'clock. Relatively few people ever heard or acknowledged this crowing (Fausset's Bible Dictionary). Likely, Peter never heard it; else surely his slumbering conscience would have awakened.

The second crowing took place not long before daybreak - likely around three o'clock [...] It was this latter crowing that commonly was called "the cockcrowing." Why? Because it was at this time of night (just before daybreak) that roosters crowed the loudest

In other words, Mark conscientiously pays attention to the first crowing, but the other gospel writers simply ignore it, because it is not what the man-in-the-street would consider "the rooster crowing". Thus, what Mark calls the second crowing, the other writers call the first crowing. Mark is more technically correct, but the other writers are more in line with common usage. The problem thus disappears.

Obviously, the gospel writers differ on precisely what Jesus said, but that's well within what inerrancy allows, since they are reporting the spirit of his words rather than his exact wording.

Updated: 2009-03-17

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