The Gospel Coalition

Editors' Note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to ask@thegospelcoalition.org along with your full name, city, and state. We'll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition's Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Zack B. from Fort Wayne, Indiana, asks:
In the Gospel of Mark, it says Jesus was crucified on the "third hour" (Mark 15:25), and the Gospel of John says the crucifixion sentence was on "about the sixth hour" (John 19:14). How was time being reckoned, and is this a contradiction?

We posed this question to Justin Taylor, vice president of the book division at Crossway, blogger at Between Two Worlds, and co-author with Andreas J. Köstenberger of Jesus' Final Week: An Easter Chronology and Commentary, due out from Crossway in early 2014.

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To answer this, we have to review some basics about how "time" was thought of in the first-century Mediterranean world. If we don't, it is easy to become anachronistic and to import or insist upon levels of precision that were not in operation in the original context.

How Jews Understood Time in the Day and Night


First, we should bear in mind that in the Western world we are extremely time conscious, keep tracking of time down to the second. But as Johnny V. Miller writes, "Time notations from the time of Christ and before were very inexact, bearing little or no resemblance to the modern concept of punctuality." Sundials were not in common use in the first century, and there was no unit of time used smaller than the "hour."

Second, Jews thought of a day---from sunrise to sunset---as represented by "12 hours." As Jesus asks his disciples rhetorically, "Are there not twelve hours in the day?" (John 11:9).

Third, Jews usually divided the day with three reference points. In Jesus's parable of the vineyard and the laborers he refers to "the third hour [from sunrise]" "the sixth hour [from sunrise]," and the "ninth hour [from sunrise]" (Matt. 20:1-9). These were general references for mid-morning, mid-day, and mid-afternoon, and these are the only time markers listed in the crucifixion accounts (Matt. 27:45Mark 15:2533Luke 23:44John 19:14).

Fourth, we see something analogous with how a first-century Roman or Jew would understand the night. When discussing his impending return, Jesus commands his disciples to stay awake, "for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning" (Mark 13:35). Here we see "night"---from sunset to sunrise---divided into four watches: evening, midnight, rooster-crow, and morning. Kevin Lipp produced for us this helpful visual aid:

 



What Is Going on in Mark 15:25 and John 19:14?


When we come to passage like Mark 15:25, it is probably best to understand the expression "the third hour" not as a precise reference to 9 a.m., but as an approximate reference to midmorning---from 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. until 10 or 10:30 a.m. Likewise, the "sixth hour" could refer to any time from 10:30 a.m. or 11 a.m to 1 p.m. or 1:30 p.m. (Remember that the "hours" were rough approximations of the sun's position in a quadrant of the sky.) If the sentencing was delivered, say, around 10:30 a.m., and two witnesses were to glance at the sun in the sky, one could round down to the "third hour" and one could round up to "about the sixth hour," depending on other factors they might want to emphasize (for example, if John wants to highlight in particular the length of the proceedings and that the final verdict concerning the Lamb of God is not far off from the noontime slaughter of lambs for the Sabbath dinner of Passover week). Ultimately, there is no final contradiction, especially given the fact that John gives an approximation ("about") of something that was not meant to be precise in the first place.


Comments:

[...] Well,  its amazing what a little thought and research will do for answering others.  ”You Asked What Time Did Jesus Die” answered by Justin [...]

Scott

September 21, 2012 at 05:22 AM

Justin -

The interesting thing to note is that Mark’s gospel has Christ die on Friday while John has him dying on Thursday.

Now, this creates no problem for me, though many evangelicals think it creates a problem and, thus, we have to solve it lest it seems God's word is errant. But if we try our hardest to make all the tensions/contradictions fit, then I think we fail to recognise some essential things about the Bible. Primarily, it is a library, not one book. I believe in it's God-breathed and authoritative nature. But God was letting his revelation be told by his kids - ones that lived in a particular context and wrote into particular situations with particular emphases.

I'm not going dualistic and ripping Scripture from history. It's very much embedded in history and addresses historical situations. But I will say that, as one colleague of mine once gave this definition, the biblical historical narrative is best described this way – A theological re-telling of history in the form of a narrative with the purpose of speaking into the present.

The intent of the Gospels is ultimately theological, though it is embedded in historical context. The intent of the creation narrative is theological, though it is embedded in a historical context. The intent of Samuel-Kings and Chronicles theological, though it is describing a historical context (thus why the Chronicler, as opposed to the writer of Samuel/Kings, lays aside most anything negative about David & Solomon). Each writer/compiler within the library have a theological point to make and that point could be different from those writing about a similar account.

Timothy Roth

September 21, 2012 at 01:12 AM

Richard, I think we too often confuse "fact" with "truth", and we live in a society that worships the former and has little regard for the latter. Without the ability to distinguish fact from truth, if you say "the Bible isn't entirely factual" people think you're saying "the Bible isn't entirely true". I think that's where the panic sets in.

darren

September 20, 2012 at 04:37 AM

Richard, the idea of the Bible not containing errors correlates with several issues. One is related to the notion of "God-breathed" or inspiration. G. Beale has a good article in the Westminster Theological Journal (2011, pg 1-22) I'd recommend; also "The Infallible Word" edited by N Stonehouse and Paul Wooley. Another is related to the Bible as canon, or the measure: the norma normans non normata (the norm that norms, but is not itself normed). If it defines the faith authoritatively, then it must be a reliable measure. If Jesus can say of the OT, "It is written," as if it settles the matter, then it must be trustworthy.

We want to be careful not to reduce Holy Scripture to a utilitarian level of a car or computer that "works just fine," because God intended it to be more than a tool that is functional and can be traded in. Speech is fundamentally different from a piece of technology. Speech enacts realities (God's speech more so!): it commands, it summons, it rebukes, it comforts, it condemns, it justifies. God's speech masters us, not vice-versa. I hope you don't say the same about your car or computer!

Thankfully God's word is more story (and good news!) than instruction manual. I can't follow instruction manuals worth squat. But I am curious that yours fits on only 2 pages. Mine is over 1300. ;-b

wina

September 20, 2012 at 02:45 PM

I have always understood that a 'Jewish day" (date, like the 14th day of the month) was from sunset to sunset, so I am confused now. Help?

Ryan Bogard

September 19, 2012 at 12:41 PM

I have a question what about the 3 days and nights? If Jesus died on Friday and rose on Sunday that is only two nights. My dad has been digging and for some reason believes it was on thursday for this reason. Does anyone have a reference book that would cover this topic?

Josh

September 19, 2012 at 09:53 AM

Awesome article! Visual aid was very helpful too. I recommend "Is the New Testament Reliable?" By Paul Barnett to further these sort of discussions. It includes this time "debate" and much more regarding the authenticity of Scripture as a historical document.

check it out:
http://www.amazon.com/New-Testament-Reliable-Paul-Barnett/dp/0830827684

Richard

September 19, 2012 at 09:02 PM

This may or may not be an error, but I often find it hard to understand why Christians so 'fear' errors in the Bible. The basic foundational beliefs (eg Jesus - Son of God etc)are shown in many places in the Scriptures and stand true. The Scriptues are only 'God-breathed', not handed down as a shining book for heaven. They have been spoken, handed down and copied by men, therefore anything with humanity, involved is bound to be flawed. Your home, car, computer, everything has some type of flaw or error in it, nothing here is perfect, but still works perfectly fine. Why can't the Bible be the same? It still works and does the job it's meant to do, as God intended.
Often I think we Christians, are too concerned about 'no errors' being in the Bible and other issues, and many end up holding the Bible in greater esteem than God himself.
At the end of the day, we do not understand many things in the Bible, nor are we meant to. The Bible is only like the small 2 page instruction manual you now receive with most products, whereas the real 1000 page manual, which describes every part and how it works, is with the Designer. Often we think we have the 'big manual', which cause us to have strife, lose faith and sadly, new converts.

Church Chair Guy

September 19, 2012 at 06:53 PM

Justin,

John 19:3 says that there was a "Special Sabbath" which would seem to be the Passover. So do you believe that in the year Jesus was crucified the Passover happened fall on Saturday? I know there is a one in seven chance of this, but if there was a "special" Sabbath or yearly Sabbath, the Passover, and then the weekly Sabbath of Saturday, that would certainly allow more time in the tomb. Thoughts on this?

"Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down."

Sam

September 19, 2012 at 04:56 AM

What would constitute an "unacceptable error"?

I guess I get worried that because we want an outcome we will push dodgy logic to meet our ends.

I don't think its the case here, but still curious.

Ryan Bogard

September 19, 2012 at 03:55 PM

Thank you!

Josh

September 19, 2012 at 02:37 PM

Thanks Justin.

God bless.

Justin Taylor

September 19, 2012 at 02:14 PM

Days were counted inclusively. The terminology was fairly flexible. It likely means he was in the tomb for parts of three day/nights. The evidence is pretty strong he was crucified on Friday and rose on Sunday morning. On the Friday date, see, e.g., http://is.gd/5Gv5xA

Andy Sharp

May 18, 2013 at 08:43 PM

Here is a timeline which I believe you'll find very helpful Ryan.

http://www.jesusfirst.org/free-downloads/articles/

Please take special notice of the notes by the maker, and reference them in your King James Bible. Especially the one about how Jesus actually celebrated the Passover Feast in the upper room with His disciples (on Tuesday night).

A notable Bible Scholar showed me that when there was a "Holy Day" (Passover) there were actually two Sabbath days in that week. Since it was the week of the Passover, which is always held on the 14th day of the first month Nisan/Abib (Leviticus 23:5, and Exodus 12:2) that will give you some infallible proof.

Furthermore, Jesus Himself told His disciples, "For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." Matthew 12:40.

The Bible also is clear about God not being "the author of confusion," 1 Corinthians 14:33. So why would Christ Himself say He was going to be in the heart of the earth three day and nights, if He really meant some "generality of time?"

As far as Jesus Christ being the Passover Lamb, there are two scriptures which should be considered, I Corinthians 5:7 and Isaiah 53:7. The reason I bring this to your attention is so you can also better understand how important Christ's timely death was.

Understanding the Passover Holy day, is very important, because it also lends much credence to the whole idea of why He was needed to be crucified as the Passover Lamb too. Referencing Exodus 12:3-7 specifically verse 5, "Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year..."

The only Book really needed to verify these facts is the king James Bible.

[…] Another would be the question of the time of day Jesus was crucified, and you can see our solution here. […]

Stephen

March 5, 2014 at 09:49 AM

The testimony of scripture is; Jesus was on that cross. In any form the testimony is clear and implicit. If the Holy Spirit gives you a personal confirmation via this wittness though scripture and or preaching of the gospel, rejoice. Hold on to your gift of faith in the blood of the Son of God that has washed your sins away.
This is not an over simplified truth, Jesus died on a cross for your sins. I don't mind a discussion on theology and history, I like it.
I'm not however, willing to overthink the things and lose sight of reality; Jesus died, Jesus rose from the dead, Jesus is God.
This comment is intended no more or less than a gentle reminder of the obvious.

Dan Wilson

August 6, 2013 at 04:55 PM

Unfortunately Andy that timeline appears to be incorrect. The article that Justin Taylor provided above (http://www.tyndalehouse.com/tynbul/library/TynBull_1992_43_2_06_Humphreys_DateChristsCrucifixion.pdf) makes a very strong case for Jesus to have been crucified on Friday 3 April AD 33 (14 Nisan). This calendar convertor (http://www.cgsf.org/dbeattie/calendar/?roman=33) agrees that 14 Nisan in AD 33 was in fact a Friday also.

I'm not sure how the timeline you linked to was put together, it seems to have been constructed arbitrarily? A year is also not provided.

Whilst the KJV has served us well in the past I think other sources of information may be required to accurately piece together the apparent "conundrum" of dating by Synoptics and John. The article above does that well. (The doctrine of sufficiency of Scripture does not necessitate requiring the Bible alone to solve all problems we may face.)

Dan Wilson

August 6, 2013 at 04:40 PM

This is a very helpful article, thanks Justin.