Luke’s Trial of Peter around the Fire

I want to suggest some arguments for interpreting the pericope of Peter’s denial as a kind of court trial. Introducing the account of Peter’s denial of Jesus in Luke 22:54-62, I. Howard Marshall says this in his NIGTC commentary…

In Mk. the arrest of Jesus is followed by a night-time trial of Jesus, the mocking of Jesus and the denial by Peter (Mk. 14:53-65); since Luke has recorded a morning trial in place of Mark’s night-time trial, he has necessarily placed the accounts of the denial and the mockery before his trial scene. The result is that we are given a further example of the πειρασμός in which the disciples were placed (22:46)…

πειρασμός means ‘test’, ‘trial’ or ‘temptation’, so Marshall introduces this narrative section by pointing out that a unique feature of the way Luke tells the story is that the ‘trial’ of the disciples during Jesus’ arrest is highlighted more than in the other Gospels. He doesn’t limit the sense of ‘trial’ to the court, but referring to the German scholar W. Dietrich, Marshall continues…

According to Dietrich, 145-157, the Lucan narrative is more forensic in character, various witnesses in turn making an accusation against Peter, first a woman (whose testimony is ipso facto suspect) and then two men (whose testimonies confirm each other). The scene reaches its climax in the confrontation of the denier by the One who has been denied. Thus the roles of Satan as accuser and Jesus as the defender of Peter (22:31f.) are depicted in the actual narrative.

However, for several of the unique features of Luke in this pericope, Marshall states, “No plausible explanation of the change has been suggested.” He says this about the servant girl in 22:56 referring to Peter in the 3rd PERSON in Luke instead of the 2nd PERSON as it is in Mark. However, this could readily be explained as the girl accusing Peter within a trial scene. The unique use of the vocative ‘woman’ on Peter’s lips may function to discredit her testimony. The three accusers in the Gospels are different. Luke is the only one that includes two men, which may also be significant for interpreting this as a trial.

In Luke 22:59, Marshall sees no evidence of a trial scene…

ἐπ’ ἀληθείας (4:25; 20:21) replaces Mk. ἀληθῶς, a word which Luke reserves as an equivalent for ἀμήν (except Acts 12:11). The accusation is in the third person, diff. Mk., Mt., Jn., a change for which no redactional motive can be seen.

However, these changes may also serve to picture Peter within a forensic trial. While the other Gospels have this man speaking directly to Peter, Luke tells the story that the man is speaking to the others around the fire about Peter. It gives a greater sense of Peter being on trial with a witness giving testimony. This also explains why he says ἐπ’ ἀληθείας, literally “upon truth” or “based on truth.” Rather than just meaning ‘truly’ or ‘certainly’ (as in Matthew and Mark), “upon truth” in Luke gives this statement more the sense of Peter being on trial in court. This man is giving a testimony based “upon truth” or based on evidence. The evidence that he gives that Peter was with Jesus is: “for he is a Galilean.”

The oil on canvas painting is “The Denial of Saint Peter” by Gerrit van Honthorst, c. 1623, and is housed at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

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