One of the most disturbing incidents in the Synoptic Gospels occurs as Jesus is on his way to Gethsemane. He prophecies regarding Peter that “today, in this night, before a rooster crows twice, three times you will deny (aparnēsēi) me” (Mark 14:30), something which Peter vigorously rejects. This prophecy occurs in Matthew 26:34-35 and Luke 22:34. Luke makes explicit that what Peter will deny is that “you know me.” The fulfillment of this prophecy occurs a few verses later when Peter, having in fact done the deed, remembers Jesus’ prophecy (Mark 14:72 (aparnēsēi); Matthew 26:75; Luke 22:61).
This compound verb also occurs in the Synoptics in one of Jesus’ pronouncements about discipleship. In Mark 8:34, after Peter’s ‘confession’ that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus has explained that the Son of Man is going to be betrayed, crucified and then rise again, Jesus states that “if anyone wishes to follow me, let him (or he should) deny (aparnēsasthō) himself….” This statement also occurs in Matthew 16:24 and Luke 9:23. However, in Luke 9:23 the textual evidence is split between arnēsasthō and aparnēsasthō with significant witnesses such as P75 and Codex Vaticanus reading the compound form. A similar textual issue occurs at John 13:38 where P66 and Codex Vaticanus read arnēsēi, but Codex Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus and others read aparnēsēi. We should note that Luke also reads this compound verb form in Luke 12:9.
The simple form arneomai occurs about thirty-three times in the New Testament. Alternation between the simple and compound forms occurs in several contexts in the NT. In the story of Peter‘s denial, although the compound verb is used in Jesus’ prophecy about Peter’s impending action (Mark 14:30), in the narrative segment that tells how Peter actually fulfills the prophecy, the simple form is used (14:68 ērnēsato; 14:70 ērneito; cf. Matthew 26:70, 72; Luke 22:57). Something similar occurs in Luke 12:9a and 12:9b where Jesus prophecies that “the one who denies (arnēsamenos simple form of the verb) me before humans shall be denied (aparnēthēsetai compound form of the verb) before God’s angels.” This could be read as indicating an intensification or culmination of this activity in the second clause. In Mark 14:30, 72; Luke 12:9b the act of denial seems to be construed as a culminating action. A similar textual issue occurs at John 13:38 where P66 and Codex Vaticanus read arnēsēi, but Codex Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus and others read aparnēsēi.
Smyth, Greek Grammar (1973 repr), 371 §1680 notes that in Classical Greek “prepositions in compositions…may give an idea of completion to the action denoted by the verb….” Koinē Greek certainly abounds with the usage of compound verbs and it is disputed whether such compound forms have a semantic nuance different from the simple forms. C. Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, vol. 1, 199, for example, rejected any distinction between arneomai and aparneomai, claiming that the New Testament uses aparneomai “with exactly the same meaning as the simple form, as is proved by the use of these two verbs in strictly parallel texts in the Synoptic Gospels.” Schlier, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 1, 471, similarly states that “in the NT the compound in no sense differs from arneisthai, whether by suggesting treachery or by giving greater intensity.” He regards the variations between parallel passages, “alternate use within the same sentence or short section” and “textual variants” to demonstrate this conclusion.
It may be that the textual variants reflect the perception of later scribes and not the intent of the original author. If we eliminate these texts for which we possess alternative readings from the discussion because we cannot be sure what the original author wrote, then we are left with the variations between simple and compound forms in the account of Peter’s denial and Jesus’ prophecy of that denial and the usage in Luke 12:9a, 9b. Matthew certainly parallels Mark’s usage and if Matthew is incorporating Markan text within his Gospel, this may well suggest some semantic nuance is being expressed when he retains the compound form. In this opinion, however, I would be in the minority.
We come back then to question of what this compound verb means. I am sure that Spicq and Schlier are correct when they indicate that the basic meanings attested for arneomai are also found with aparneomai. First, the verb can simply mean “say no.” The Genesis translator, for instance, says that “Sarra denied (ērnēsato) saying, “I did not laugh” (cf. Luke 8:45; Hebrews 11:24; John 1:20). This is somewhat different from the sense of the Hebrew which says “Sarah lied.” A second sense has more of a judicial usage in which the verb describes the action of denying charges or accusations. The writer of 1 John 2:22 asks “who is the liar/deceiver except the one who says in denial (arnoumenos) ‘Jesus is not the Messiah’.” Josephus, Ant. 11.341 says that Samaritans “seeing that Alexander had so signally honoured the Jews, decided to profess (homologein)themselves Jews… when the Jews are in difficulties, they (Samaritans) deny (arnountai) that they have any kinship with them….” This is an example of the contrast between homologeō (profess) and arneomai (deny). Consider John 1:20 where John the Baptist “admitted (hōmologēsen) and did not deny (ērnēsato), and admitted (hōmologēsen), ‘I am not the Messiah.’” I would locate the use of the simple and compound forms of this in the prophecy about and Peter’s actual denial of Jesus within this usage.
A third sense expresses “deny consent, refuse, protest.” At the discussion which ensues during the trial of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:16) the Jewish religious leaders have to admit that “we cannot refute/deny (arneisthai)” that a miracle has occurred. Again, in Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:35) he notes how the Israelites reacted to Moses, “whom they refused/denied (ērnēsanto).” Josephus recounts (Wars 2.171) how Pilate, governor of the Judean region, at night brought the legion’s standards into Jerusalem. Despite pleas from the Jewish people to remove them, “Pilate refused (arnoumenou).”
Finally, we discern the sense “renounce” used within a religious context. The single use of the compound form in the Septuagint occurs with this sense (Isaiah 31:7). The prophet says that the rebellious Israelites will turn to God “because on that day people shall disown (aparnēsontai) their handiworks of silver and gold, which their hands have made” (NETS). In Wisdom of Solomon non-believers are described as “denying (ērnounto) that they knew you (God)” (12:27; cf. 16:16). The author of 4th Maccabees indicates that the Jewish brothers will not be persuaded to “disown (arnēsamenoi) the ancestral laws of your polity” (8:7 NETS). Within the New Testament this sense occurs in Matthew 10:32-33 (Luke 12:9) with respect to people “renouncing the Son of Man in this age.” It also describes heretics who “deny (arnoumenoi) the sovereign Lord who bought them (2 Peter 2:1). And then it occurs in Jesus’ demand that discipleship requires that people “deny (aparnēsasthō) themselves, take up their cross and follow him” (Luke 9:23; Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34). Renouncing all claims to self-ownership and self-direction is the necessary ingredient in accepting Jesus as Saviour and Lord.
If there is a different nuance expressed by the compound form and it does communicate a sense of intensification or completion, then its occurrence in Jesus’ prophecy regarding Peter’s denial, as well as his demand that his disciples “deny themselves,” may well be significant. In Mark’s Gospel, for example, this compound form of the verb only occurs in 8:34 and 14:30,72. Both of these contexts deal with the issue of discipleship and relate in some sense to Peter, the apostle.