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Doctrines that creep in: Was it really a rooster crow?

Before the cockcrows, you will deny me
Before the cockcrows, you will deny me
Photo by Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

Let's imagine for the sake of this article that you had a pen pal in another country who could not speak English. So you emailed someone in your pen pan's village that understood English and translated for you. The only problem is that your translator has never been to the United States, never talked with anyone from the U.S., and has never seen television or movies made in America. One day, you send an email that didn't really have anything of substance; it was just a stream of events that you did earlier in the day. As you were typing, you began to think about that Dove chocolate candy bar you had. So, you quickly type in, “I ate a dove this afternoon.” Now, your translator gets this, but (s)he has never heard of a Dove chocolate candy bar. What do you think your pen pal will be told? Do you think your translator will tell your pen pal you ate a bird?

Remember, the New Testament was originally written in Greek and it's not the exact same Greek that is spoken in Greece today. Also, there is no one alive now who lived in the first century and there are no television shows or movies from that era. So, when our Bible translators render the New Testament Greek into English, they do not always know exactly what an original word meant.

Luke 22:34 And he said, I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me.

Then verse 60: And Peter said, Man, I know not what thou sayest. And immediately, while he yet spake, the cock crew.

Mark tells us there were two cockcrows, while the other gospels, without mentioning the first, just focus on the second. We think when the KJV says the “cock crew,” that Peter heard a rooster. That is unlikely. The Talmud (Baba Kamma vii 7) forbids the raising of poultry in Jerusalem “on account of the holy things” (or “on account of the sanctuary”). The fear was that as roosters dug up dunghills, they could have released unclean bugs, amphibians, and reptiles that could have potentially defiled the sacrifices that were eaten as food.

That roosters were forbidden in Jerusalem and therefore it couldn't be a rooster that crowed is a huge shock, especially since English translations say "cockcrow" and the newer translations actually read "rooster crowed." Not only that, but lots of movies and Easter plays all have a rooster crowing. But remember the analogy I began with about eating a dove?

If indeed roosters were forbidden in Jerusalem and this wasn't an actual rooster crowing, then what was it? The Bible gives us a hint in Mark 13:35. "Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning." In this teaching, Jesus seems to be referring to times of day and night. We all associate roosters crowing at daybreak, but Jesus makes a distinction between cockcrowing and morning. What could Jesus mean here?

The Romans divided each day into three-hour blocks and the night ones were called watches. The first night watch began at 6 p.m. and ended at 9 p.m. The second watch ended at midnight, the third at 3 a.m., and the fourth at 6 a.m. (or at sunrise). Jesus was referring to these watches when He taught, “Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning.” Notice, Jesus mentions the evening, midnight, the cockcrow, and the morning. So He lists all four night watches. The hour of 3 a.m. was called cockcrow. Why? The signal the ancient Roman divisions used to change the guard at 3 a.m. was a trumpet call. The Latin word for trumpet call (Latin was the language spoken by the Roman soldiers) is gullicinium, which means cockcrow. Thus, the shift that ended at 3 a.m. became known as cockcrow. There was a second trumpet blast or cockcrow that occurred at dawn.

Luke 22:61 And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. 62 And Peter went out, and wept bitterly.

The first cockcrow occurred shortly after Peter’s first denial. (Mark 14:66-68) From the verses above, a lot of time passed between Peter’s first and third denials. There were:

1) First denial and first cockcrow: But he denied, saying, I know not, neither understand I what thou sayest. And he went out into the porch; and the cock crew (Mark 14:68).

2) Second denial “after a little while”: And after a little while another saw him, and said, Thou art also of them. And Peter said, Man, I am not (Luke 22:57).

3) Third denial and second cockcrow after “about the space of one hour”: And about the space of one hour after another confidently affirmed, saying, Of a truth this fellow also was with him: for he is a Galilaean. And Peter said, Man, I know not what thou sayest. And immediately, while he yet spake, the cock crew (Luke 22:59,60).

I can tell you from personal experience, a rooster does not wait for “after a little while” and an additional “about the space of one hour” between crows. Spending time in a remote village in Belize, I was kept awake almost all night long by the constant and continual crowing of roosters. One would crow in the field next to me, then one down the street would crow, and another farther down the valley, and another, and another, and another … and then the rotation would start all over again. They told me that roosters crow when they are happy, and in Belize, the roosters must be very, very happy.

If this Passover fell in what would have been our month of April, then daybreak would have been around 5:00 a.m. With a second cockcrow at daybreak, there is only two hours between Peter’s first and third denials and that would agree with the passing of time as Luke recorded it. Moreover, the fact that Peter saw the Lord looking at him suggests there was enough light to see details at a distance – perhaps more light than would have been possible by oil lamps and torches - especially since the moon had already set.

So, it would seem to me that this wasn’t an actual rooster crowing, but it was the Roman end of watch trumpet calls, the gullicinium, of cockcrow and daybreak.

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