Peter the Teacher - Reflections on Isaiah 50:4-9a and Mark 14:66-72

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, March 18, 2024

Peter the Teacher

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Mark 14:66-72

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          I want to offer today something rather different: a 21st-century imaginative reading of Is.50 and Mark 14, surrounding the apostle Peter. I know well that the early Christian communities found the four servant songs of 2-Isaiah to be fruitful ground for reflecting on the life and death of Jesus; Is.50:4-9a is the third of those songs, composed late in the Israelite exile in Babylon by an unknown poet who refers to a mysterious suffering servant who has been chosen by YHWH for multiple tasks with regard to Israel on the brink of their return to the homeland after two full generations in exile. Early Christians seized on these songs as prefigurings of the ministry of their Messiah. It is obvious that Isaiah did not have Jesus of Nazareth in mind as he composed his poetry some 500 years prior to Jesus’s birth, but that hardly blunted the active imaginations of those first believers who were quick to connect the songs with the man from Nazareth.

          So, in light of their imaginative work, I propose to connect this third song of Isaiah not with Jesus but with Peter, that follower of Jesus who was first the most spectacular of failures when it came actually to be a disciple, but in the end spoke proudly and boldly about the One he soon recognized to be his Messiah after all. Apparently, that bold preaching led directly to Peter’s death as a martyr in Rome, sometime in the middle of the first century CE. 

          My own imagination was peaked when I read the Hebrew of Is.50:4a, which reads quite literally: “YHWH God has given me the tongue of those who are taught.” NRSV and many others translate the line: “YHWH God has given me the tongue of a teacher,” a reading that fits better with the image of Jesus who was, of course, known as a teacher throughout his brief ministry. But the Hebrew seems to say that this servant is not a teacher, but rather one who has been taught by a teacher, hence, Peter, Jesus’s first and most famous (infamous?) disciple.

          The song goes on to describe this pupil as “not rebellious, who “did not turn backward “ (Is.50:5); who “gave his back to those who struck me,” who allowed his “beard to be plucked out,” who opened up his face “to shame and spitting” (Is.50:6). “YHWH God helps me, and that is why I have not been disgraced; I know that I shall not be put to shame” (Is.50:7). “The one who vindicates me is near,” he boasts. “It is YHWH God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? (Is.50:8,9).

          In my imagination, I hear Peter at the fireside in Mark’s gospel, denying his Lord loudly and pitifully, all the while recalling his boast earlier in the tale that he would “never deny Jesus, “even if he must die for him” (Mark 14:29-31). But as all know too well, when Peter has his chance to stand up for Jesus, to allow his beard to be plucked out, his back to be scourged, to be vindicated for his raw courage in the face of the might of Rome, he fails utterly. It appears that Isaiah was right about Peter; he is our teacher who has been taught by Jesus but who simply cannot put that teaching into practice.

          At that ominous fireside, below the courtyard of the High Priest where Jesus is being questioned and condemned, Peter is warming himself against the cold. One of the High Priest’s servant women sees him, and recognizes him as someone who was with Jesus, that notorious man from Nazareth (Mark 14:67). Peter’s denial of this charge is complete: “I do not know or understand what you are talking about,” he says. “Then the cock crowed,” as Jesus had earlier predicted. And Peter moved away from the fire toward the gateway to the courtyard. But the woman persists, telling some bystanders, “This man is one of them” (Mark 14:69). But Peter denies it again. But now even the bystanders, intrigued about this man, accused twice by the servant woman, say, “You clearly are one of them, because you are a Galilean” (Mark 14:70).

          When they say that, I have long assumed that Peter is revealed to be from the north by his accent, so I imagine him changing his speech patterns to reflect a non-Galilean provenance. His third denial is especially potent. He first “curses,” and then “swears an oath,” a very serious speech act in the ancient world, and shouts, “I do not know this man you are talking about,” drawling this reply in a southern brogue (?). And the infamous cock crowed for a second time. “And he broke down and wept” (Mark 14:72).

          This Peter teaches all of us just how difficult it is to follow Jesus. It is easy when life is moving along with power and success, but when the going is tough, when our following entails sacrifice and standing up in the face of injustice, risking things we are loathe to risk, even our very lives, we too often turn our faces away, protect our backs and beards, hide our supposed courage in fear. Like Peter, like us, more often than not.

          Yet, there is hope for Peter and hence hope for us. At the gospel’s very end, when the women look into the tomb and see a man in white tell them about the wonderful news of Jesus’s resurrection, he says, pointedly, “Go tell his disciples, and Peter, that he is going ahead of you to Galilee” (Mark 16:7). Of course Peter is a disciple, but his actions in that courtyard, his craven running away from Jesus’ monstrous death, requires that he be singled out for telling about Jesus, for forgiveness for all that wretched failure. But because even the women fail at the tomb, “they say nothing to anyone” about any of this great news, it is now up to us, we modern failures, to tell what we have heard. Peter finally did just that, as the Book of the Acts makes plain. So, what about us, we modern-day Peters? Will we tell?  

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