“But Peter followed him from a distance up to the court of the High Priest and going in he sat with the subordinates to witness the end.”
“And Peter, from a distance, followed him as far as the courtyard of the High Priest and he was sitting with the subordinates and warming himself by the fire.”
“And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down in the midst of them.”
“The servants and the subordinates were standing around a charcoal fire they had made because it was cold and they were warming themselves. And Peter was also in that place and warming himself.”
Probably the obvious question to ask is with whom did Peter sit? Matthew and Mark speak of subordinates and John adds servants, but the question is, who are these people gathered in the middle of the night in Caiaphas’ court. Luke implies that these were amongst those who arrested Jesus, leading some English translations to render these verses as Peter sitting with the “guards.” Yet, the cohort (the official soldiers from the Temple) seems to have either departed or faded into the background for a variety of reasons, leaving us more likely with the rabble-rousers that made up the mob that accompanied the Cohort from the temple. Needless to say that this crowd is not a casual crowd and they are anything but neutral to the events that are transpiring.
Often this courtyard scene with Peter’s denial is portrayed as if Peter is being asked innocent questions about his association with Jesus and that his denials are out of an unfounded fear of what might happen. I don’t think that is what is implied here, though. These questions come from a very hostile crowd that is wanting to see blood — thus, while we still might speak of Peter’s cowardice to follow Jesus even to prison or death (Luke 22:33), prison or death most certainly would have been the end of this night for Peter had he spoken boldly of his connection with Jesus. Peter had escaped capture in the garden just hours earlier (if that long!), it is sure that this escape was fresh in his mind and he knew the climate of the people with whom he would be mixing in Caiaphas’ courtyard. Danger was all around.
It should be noted that some English versions translate Peter as standing by the fire while the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) portray him as sitting. This objection, if it be a real objection, can be answered in two ways. The simplest way is to recognize that Peter first approaches the fire standing up and remains standing so long as those around him are standing. Then, as Caiaphas takes his position for the trial, people settle down and sit. Peter, not wanting to stand out chooses to sit as well. The second way — if it be a way at all — is to note that the word that John uses, i¢sthmi (histami), can simply mean to be located in a particular spot (standing or sitting). Thus, there is no real contradiction between John’s account and the account of the other four evangelists.
While these questions may be curious, there are two clauses in these verses that are very striking. The first is how Mark refers to the fire around which Peter and the subordinates are gathered. Instead of using the ordinary word for “fire,” which in Greek is pu◊r (pur), he chooses to use the word, fw◊ß (phos) — “light.” One might be tempted to dismiss this as a curiosity, that perhaps Mark was simply looking for a different word to use for variety until one points out that this is the only time Mark uses the term fw◊ß (phos) in his entire Gospel. Furthermore, this is the only occurrence in the Greek New Testament where the term fw◊ß (phos) is used to refer to a fire.
One still might be tempted to suggest that Mark is just referring to the light that is emitted from a fire to foreshadow the fact that Peter would be recognized by those around him. Of course, this is presuming that this fire is the only source of light in the courtyard, which seems to be an odd assumption as oil lamps likely would have filled the space with light. A better answer is to recall that Mark is traditionally understood to have served as Peter’s scribe in Jerusalem, and thus this gospel was written under Peter’s oversight. Thus, there seems to be the suggestion here that the one thing Peter does not intend to do (at least initially) is to hide. His presence by the fire, in other words, is not just to warm himself (though that is one of the reasons), but is also to be present “in the light” and not in the midst of shadows. Of course, Peter’s nerve is lost as the proceedings go on and he realizes that he is noticed, but it is likely that at least at first, Peter’s intent was to be visible.
The second thing of particular interest is Matthew’s statement that Peter followed to see “the end.” The end of what? If Matthew is referring to “the end” of Jesus’ life, could it have been that Peter expected Jesus to be tried and executed even before dawn? Could Matthew have been speaking of “the end” with respect to their pilgrimage from the Sea of Galilee to Caiaphas’ courts? This latter explanation seems to be a better answer to the question. And, while likely not “the end” as Peter anticipated at the time, it indeed was the end — the end of Peter being only a follower and time for Peter to stand up and lead — though that final aspect would not be fulfilled until Pentecost. Solomon writes that to all things there is a season — for Peter (and for the other 10 who remained faithful), the time of following Jesus as he walked and taught in this earth had come to an end. Soon, the time would be for him to speak — and speak boldly he would.
“They led him to Annas first, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was the High Priest in that given year. It was Caiaphas who plotted with the Jews that it would be useful that one man die for the group. And Simon Peter followed Jesus in addition to another disciple. As that disciple was known to the High Priest he was also allowed in with Jesus into the courtyard of the High Priest. But Peter stood outside of the door, therefore the other disciple who was known to the High Priest went out and spoke to the doorkeeper and brought Peter in.”
“And the ones who had seized Jesus led him away to Caiaphas the High Priest, where the Scribes and the Elders gathered.”
“And Peter, from a distance, followed him as far as the courtyard of the High Priest and he was sitting with the guards and warming himself by the fire.”
“And they arrested him and led him off. They brought him to the house of the High Priest — Peter followed at a distance.”
As dark as this night already was, for Peter and Jesus, it was about to get darker. Jesus is ultimately tried by three groups prior to his execution — once here by the High Priest, twice before Pilate, and once by Herod. And of the groups that tried him, only that trial by the Pagan Roman — a Gentile! — had any semblance of order, and Pilate’s trial wasn’t a good one by any stretch of the imagination. And then there would be Peter’s denial. Grief is not adequate to describe the events of this night, but nothing short of grief can describe the sorrow that would befall the events that took place. According to Jewish custom, trials were to be held during the day and 2-3 credible witnesses were to be present. Darkness and lies reigned in the testimony of this night — even from Peter’s own lips…
As we look at the parallel accounts, though, we learn some interesting tidbits that are important to our understanding of this event. Notice how both Mark and John point out that it was Jesus that Peter was following. Mark does not say, “Peter followed them,” speaking of the mob that arrested Jesus, but he records that Peter followed “him.” What a significant reminder to us even today that when in the midst of trying times, we should always be following Jesus — though perhaps not at a distance.
We are told that Jesus is taken to the courtyard of the High Priest for this trial and that the High Priest at the time was Caiaphas. John will also introduce Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, a little further into the narrative. There is some debate as to which of these men is the real “High Priest.” At one point, Luke seems to imply that both men were High Priests at the beginning of Jesus’ three-year ministry (Luke 3:2) but then seems to indicate in Acts that it was Annas who was the High Priest (Acts 4:6). At the same time, John seems very clear in this passage that it was Caiaphas who was High Priest (John 18:24). At the same time, this adds another level to the discussion. Did Jesus meet with Annas first and then get sent to Caiaphas as seems to be implied by John 18:12, or was this all one meeting where both men were present?
To know some history about these men is helpful in seeking to put this puzzle together, and thankfully, Annas is well known in Jewish historical writings. Annas was officially appointed High Priest in the year 6AD in what was then the newly established Roman province of Judaea and he was appointed by another figure known to Biblical scholarship: Quirinius the Roman Governor (see Luke 2:2 — note that the census of which Luke speaks took place earlier, when Judea was still part of the Syrian province). During his reign as High Priest, Annas used his position and influence to garner great amounts of wealth for himself and his family and influence in the powers that be — both in terms of the Roman and Jewish authorities. He was aligned with the Sadducees, and though deposed in 15AD, he still held an important seat in the Sanhedron.
While in Ancient Israel, the position of High Priest was considered one for life (see, for example, references to the liberty given to manslayers that came with the death of the High Priest), by Jesus’ day the role had become more or less a political one and not necessarily one held until death, as in Annas’ case. Though deposed, four of Annas’ sons would rise to power as High Priest, as well as Caiaphas, his son-in-law, and one grandson. Thus, while it is clear from the texts before us that Caiaphas was the official High Priest, Annas still holds a great degree of influence and is treated with the respect due to the High Priest. In some circles, we might refer to Annas as “High Priest Emeritus.”
As to the sequence of events, then, it is clear from John’s text that the soldiers escorted Jesus to Annas first and then to Caiaphas, yet from the description it appears that the events being described take place in the same location (not both the house of Annas and then the house of Caiaphas). The answer to this can be presented in a fairly simple way. Annas and Caiaphas both were clearly behind the plot to arrest and try Jesus for insurrection, but Annas would have been the one of the two with the informal connections to see such a large mob rallied and led by a cohort of temple guards. These guards were likely loyal to Annas and thus, to Annas Jesus was brought. Annas, it seems, had an initial (informal) conversation with Jesus to satisfy his own curiosity — perhaps even in the shadows of Caiaphas’ Court — and then when done with Jesus, he sent Jesus along to Caiaphas for the formal “trial.” Note that the text never says it was Annas’ courtyard or house — only that Jesus was led to Annas first. The simple logic of the account then, places these events in Caiaphas’ court with Annas, his father-in-law, helping to manipulate and pull strings.
And such continues the darkest night in history…