by Al Maxey

Issue #541 ------- July 26, 2012
At times it is folly to hasten;
at other times, to delay. The wise
do everything in its proper time.

Ovid (43 B.C. - 17 A.D.)

Clocking the Crucifixion
Reflecting on the Conflict in Time
Between the Gospels of John & Mark

Although we don't know precisely, to the exact minute, the timing of our Lord's arrest, trial and crucifixion, we do have some indicators within the Synoptic Gospels that are rather helpful. We know that after the paschal meal our Lord ate with His disciples, during which He took bread and wine and spoke of His body and blood, He left for the Garden of Gethsemane where He prayed fervently to the Father. We know that His arrest came during the night, for when the people came to arrest Him, "they were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons" (John 18:3). Many feel this may very well have been in the early morning hours before dawn (some speculate, as we shall see later, that it could have been around 3 a.m.). We know that before dawn Jesus had already experienced some of the interrogating and abuse that would be heaped upon Him. After the events described in Matthew 26:47-75, for example (which end with a rooster crowing), we then read, "When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put Him to death" (Matt. 27:1), and they handed Him over to Pilate. Luke 22:66 states this was "at daybreak," or "when daylight came" ("as soon as it was morning" -- Mark 15:1). The farce of a trial, the mocking, the scourging are all well-documented in the four gospel records, and all this took place in the early morning. This all came to a conclusion when He was led away to Golgotha and crucified. Mark states, "It was the third hour when they crucified Him" (Mark 15:25), which is generally understood to be 9 a.m. (according to the reckoning of time then in use). "At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour" (Mark 15:33; cf. Matt. 27:45; Luke 23:44), which would have been from noon to 3 p.m. At that time, the ninth hour (3 p.m.), Jesus died on the cross (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). Then, "as evening approached" (Matt. 27:57; Mark 15:42), Joseph of Arimathea was given charge of the body of our Lord, "and he took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away" (Matt. 27:59-60). Jesus, who had hung upon the cross for approximately six hours (from the third hour to the ninth hour), was buried shortly before sunset on the day of His death, as was the custom among the people of Israel.

All of this seems rather simple on the surface, although we certainly are not to suppose that the mentioning of specific hours suggests that these events enumerated took place precisely at the moment that the minute and second hands reached the numeral 12 on the clock. For one thing, the people of that time didn't have such clocks, thus these times given in the gospels were approximations (mid-morning, mid-day, mid-afternoon). Nevertheless, they do give us a good idea of the general timing of the events of the day of our Lord's arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial. There is a problem, however!! The apostle John, in his gospel account, makes a statement that "throws a monkey wrench" into the works with respect to the timing of our Lord's crucifixion. In John 19:14 our Lord is placed before Pilate, who is hearing the charges against Him and who has not yet pronounced the sentence of crucifixion, at "about the sixth hour." According to the other gospel writers, however, Jesus was crucified at the third hour, and at the sixth hour (at which time Jesus had already been on the cross for a period of time) darkness fell upon the whole land. Yet, according to John, at the sixth hour our Lord hadn't even yet been led away to be crucified. In one of the great understatements of all time, Adam Clarke notes, "Commentators and critics have found it very difficult to reconcile this third hour of Mark with the sixth hour of John" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 340]. "Critics differ widely concerning the time of our Lord's crucifixion" [ibid, p. 650].

The attempts by biblical scholars throughout history to reconcile these two accounts have been numerous. Theories abound, and they range from the credible to the ludicrous. A few reputable scholars even suggest: "No satisfactory solution has yet been found" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel, p. 150]. Lenski was convinced that scholars "must leave both Mark and John as they stand, and the solution must show that both are correct" [ibid], rather than accepting the flood of theories then current which "bear the stamp of desperate expedients on their face" [ibid]. Others concur: "No solution of the discrepancy is wholly satisfactory" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 535]. "How can John's notation of time be reconciled with the statement of Mark? Alford says that 'there is an insuperable difficulty in the text as it now stands'" [Dr. Alvah Hovey, An American Commentary on the New Testament: John, p. 376]. As one can see, we are faced with a rather significant problem here: an apparent contradiction that some skeptics have used to support their assertion that Scripture is not reliable, and certainly not inspired. If the gospel writers can't even agree on the time of Christ's death, should we trust them on any aspect of that event (or any other matter pertaining to our standing with God)? Such questions are often raised by those who find many such apparent contradictions in Scripture, and thus these textual and interpretive difficulties need to be addressed. Following are some of the more responsible theories.

Roman Time Theory

Perhaps the most popular theory is that John was using "Roman time" (hours are numbered from midnight forward) rather than "Jewish time" (hours are numbered from 6 a.m. or sunrise forward). Thus, when John says "the sixth hour," he would mean 6 a.m. rather than noon. This view is embraced by a number of reputable biblical scholars. When commenting upon this problem, Dr. A.T. Robertson states, with reference to Mark's mention of the third hour, "this is Jewish time and would be nine a.m." However, with reference to John's use of the sixth hour, he writes, "The trial before Pilate was the sixth hour Roman time: six a.m." [Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword]. He goes on to argue, "Why should John give Jewish time writing at the close of the first century when Jerusalem and the Jewish state passed away in 70 A.D.? He is writing for Greek and Roman readers" [ibid]. B.W. Johnson, in The People's New Testament With Explanatory Notes, agrees: "Mark says that the crucifixion began at the third hour, nine o'clock, as the Hebrews began to count at six. John wrote many years later, after Jerusalem had fallen, among people who began to count at midnight, as did all the Roman world, and he therefore used their language and called six o'clock the sixth hour, as we do, rather than the first hour as the Hebrews did" [p. 402]. Johnson admits that this view "has difficulties," but he feels they are fewer than some other theories. He is right on both counts.

One of the difficulties is that if Jesus is before Pilate at 6 a.m., who at this appearance sentences Him to crucifixion (which under their law was carried out immediately), how does one explain the three hour gap between the sunrise sentencing and the 9 a.m. crucifixion (as per Mark's account)? Although some feel the gap is too large, others argue that it is actually quite reasonable, given the fact that He would be carrying the cross beam through the streets of Jerusalem and to the place of execution outside the city gates, not to mention some of the indignities that would be inflicted after sentencing and before the actual nailing to the cross. Others suggest that the authorities would not be meeting to decide such matters this early in the morning (at sunrise); that they normally met later in the morning. On the other hand, this was a very holy time in Jerusalem, and no official wanted to be engaged in such matters during the day (as indicated by the other gospel writers, much of this occurred prior to and shortly after sunrise). Thus, I think the "gap" of three hours is not that significant of an issue, if it even constitutes one at all.

Of much greater exegetical concern, especially as regards authorial consistency, is: if John is indeed using Roman reckoning of time in 19:14, then it is the only place in his writings where he does so. In his other references to time in this gospel account it seems rather clear that he employs the Jewish reckoning of time. As one online blogger wrote, "Why would he switch to Roman time only in this one instance? It doesn't make sense!" [Servants' News, Nov/Dec. 2002, "John 19:14: What Time Is It?"]. For example, in John 1:39 we find a reference made to "the tenth hour" in the context of some disciples spending the day with Jesus. Most scholars feel this "probably means about four o'clock in the afternoon, since Jewish time was ordinarily reckoned from sunrise" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 40]. An even more obvious example is John 4:6 where Jesus meets with the Samaritan woman at the well. John says "it was about the sixth hour." That this was noon, rather than sunrise, seems rather obvious from the events of the story. "The sixth hour would probably have been about noon, reckoning from daybreak" [ibid, p. 54]. Why John would switch to Roman time in John 19:14, when his other references to time seem to be based on Jewish reckoning, is difficult to explain. For this reason, many scholars reject this view. Dr. Charles Ellicott writes, "The common supposition that St. John adopted the Roman division of hours, and that by 'sixth hour' he meant six o'clock, is equally unsatisfactory" [Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 535]. "Moreover, the Romans counted the hours in this way only for the civil day; for ordinary purposes they, too, reckoned twelve hours from sunrise to sunset" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel, p. 150].

Four Divisions of Day Theory

Just as there were four "watches" of the night (from sunset to sunrise) among the Jews, "the Jews also divided their day into four parts, which they called 'hours'" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16, Mark: pt. 2, p. 307], each of which consisted of three hours and each of which were known by the number of the hour at which they began. The first division of the day would be from 6-9 a.m. The second division would be from 9 a.m.-12 noon; the third division from noon-3 p.m.; the fourth division from 3-6 p.m. By this reckoning, one could refer to "the third hour" and mean any time between 9 a.m. to noon. "They called it the third hour until the sixth was sounded" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 29]. In like manner, a reference to "the sixth hour" could be anything from noon to 3 p.m., and so on. Since the common people of that day didn't have access to devices that measured time in precise increments, their references to time were more approximations, with sunrise and sunset marking the extremities of the day, and mid-morning, noon (mid-day), and mid-afternoon constituting the primarily markers during the day. "Finer distinctions of time were not recognizable without consulting the sundials, which were not everywhere at hand" [ibid, p. 856].

With this understanding of the Jewish divisions of the day, one can make a good argument that both Mark and John were using the Jewish reckoning of time, and both were placing the crucifixion in the second division of the day (the third hour = between 9 a.m. and noon). Mark declares it was "the third hour" when they crucified Jesus (based on this reckoning, it would be during that division that began at 9 a.m. and ended at noon; a division of the day known as "the third hour"), while John declared that when Pilate sentenced our Lord it was "about the sixth hour," which could easily mean that it was not yet noon, and thus still within that division known as "the third hour." Thus, we find that John is consistent in using Jewish time throughout his gospel account, and he is also not found to be in conflict with Mark, for both could be referring to the same division of the day. "Perhaps the best solution is that Mark indicates that the trial came early and that the execution occurred on mid-morning, while John stresses the fact that it was accomplished before noon. The expressions of time are approximations rather than precise statements of hours; John qualified his expression by saying 'about'" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 178]. "Hence, the time of Christ's crucifixion being supposed to be somewhat before, but yet near our twelve of the clock, it may be truly here said that it was about the sixth hour; and as truly said by Mark to be the third hour: that space which was called by the name of the third hour, being not yet passed, though it drew toward an end" [Dr. John Gill, Exposition of the Entire Bible, e-Sword]. "If the crucifixion took place midway between nine and twelve o'clock, it was quite natural that one observer should refer it to the former, while another referred it to the latter hour" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 856].

Matthew Henry (1662-1714), in his classic Commentary on the Whole Bible, indicates that the gospels place the crucifixion during the second division of the day, "from the third to the sixth hour (which was, as we call it, church time)" [e-Sword]. Thus, we see from this commentator that Jesus was crucified during "church time" (between 9 a.m. and noon). Interesting perspective! "It was going toward the sixth hour; it was between nine and twelve o'clock, by the general way of reckoning time which was then in vogue" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible, the NT, vol. 1, p. 516]. David Lipscomb (1831-1917) summed it up this way: "The whole time from the third hour to the sixth, that is, from nine to twelve, was called the third hour; and the whole intervening time from the sixth to the ninth, that is, from twelve to three, is called the sixth hour. John does not say it was the sixth hour, but about or near the sixth hour. So when he says about the sixth hour, and Mark the third hour, we are to understand that Mark takes the whole time of the third hour, from nine to twelve, and that John puts it near twelve. So in either case our Lord was sentenced between the hours of nine and twelve" [A Commentary on the Gospel According to John, p. 295-296]. This, by the way, was also the view promoted by John Calvin (1509-1564).

Textual Error Theories

I say "theories" (plural) because there are a number of suggested textual or copyist errors that have been brought forward over the centuries as possible explanations for the discrepancy between the accounts of John and Mark (and the other two Synoptic writers). Dr. Bruce M. Metzger, the noted NT Greek scholar, observed that several manuscripts, as well as a few Church Fathers, read "third" (the Greek word trite) instead of "sixth" (hecte) in John 19:14 [A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 253]. In the same way, there are a few manuscripts and fathers that read "sixth" instead of "third" in Mark 15:25 [ibid, p. 118]. Both seem to most biblical scholars to be little more than "desperate attempts at harmonization" by copyists who were troubled by what they perceived to be a severe conflict between the accounts of John and Mark. The weight of textual and patristic evidence, however, favors Mark writing "third hour" and John writing "sixth hour."

Similarly, some have suggested that copyists confused the symbols used for numerals. In a number of manuscripts, for example, rather than writing the word for a number, a letter of the Greek alphabet was used to refer to a number. Today we might have a=1, b=2, c=3, etc. "The Greeks designated numbers by the letters of the alphabet, and this mode of computation is found in ancient manuscripts. For example, the Cambridge manuscript of the New Testament has in this very place in Mark, not the word 'third' written at length, but the Greek letter gamma, the usual notation for third. Now it is well known that it would be easy to mistake this for the Greek mark denoting 'six.' An error of this kind in an early manuscript might be extensively propagated, and might have led to the present reading of the text. Such an error is actually known to exist in the 'Chronicon' of Paschal, where Otho is said to have reigned six months, whereas it is known that he reigned but three, and in this place, therefore, the mark denoting three was mistaken for the one denoting six" [Albert Barnes, Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. As Dr. Hovey points out: "It may certainly be conceded that, if the numerals were denoted by letters, a gamma may easily have been mistaken for a digamma, and thus the word 'sixth' may have been substituted for the word 'third'" [An American Commentary on the New Testament, p. 377]. Very few scholars believe this to have been the case, however.

Arrest to Crucifixion Theory

Although there are a number of additional theories proposed, some of which are rather strange and hardly worthy of consideration (such as those persons who suggest John intentionally changed the time of crucifixion to match the time of the killing of the Passover lambs; a clear case of historical manipulation for theological purposes), the above mentioned and discussed theories are the most plausible. However, as an illustration of the creative, and even responsible, thinking some have put into this problem passage (John 19:14, as contrasted with Mark 15:25), let me just share with you a view I stumbled across online (and, sadly, I can't even remember the web site now, although I've gone back and done several searches trying to find it). Notice the following explanation of this blogger: "I believe that when we put all the Scriptures together that tell us the events that happened from the time the Lord Jesus was first arrested in the early morning hours till the time that Pilate finally presents Him before the Jewish multitude in the open square and says, 'Behold, your King!,' was SIX HOURS. In John 19:14 the phrase 'and about the sixth hour' does not refer to the time of day at all, but rather to the amount of time that had passed from the initial arrest of Jesus till the time the nation as a whole pronounced their fatal verdict of 'Crucify Him!'" This individual believes the arrest most likely occurred around 3 a.m., which means that the statement of Mark to the effect that Jesus was crucified at the third hour (9 a.m.) would total "about six hours," which would explain John's statement. Therefore, when Jesus stood before Pilate and was condemned, it was "about the sixth hour" since He was arrested in the garden. An interesting theory!

Concluding Thought

One of the great dangers for those who have devoted their lives to in-depth theological studies in the pursuit of a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Scriptures and the One who breathed them forth into the world (2 Tim. 3:16) is getting so mired in minutiae and distracted by details that the message is missed. Someone once described religious scholastics as being so heavenly minded that they were of no earthly use. I fear this fate could easily befall us if we overly focus on the when of our Lord's crucifixion, and in so doing fail to perceive the why of it. Whether our Lord walked the road to Golgotha at mid-morning or closer to noon in no way detracts from the fact that He did walk that path to the "Place of a Skull." Yes, digging deeply into the written Word can be a fascinating exercise; I love it and encourage it in others. But, in that exercise may we never fail to perceive that the ultimate goal is to know more intimately the living Word: our Lord Jesus Christ. In relationship with Him, filled with and led by His Spirit, we lay hold of the promise of eternal life with the Father. If we lose sight of this spiritual reality, all our intellectual exercises will have been for naught!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Texas:

Your Reflections article ("The Invalid Hymnist"), with the comments on self-pity, came when I needed that kind of a jab most. I am having a lot of difficulty adjusting, not only to the fact of my wife's passing, but the fact that when I awaken each morning the first thing I think of is that the house is empty. That hurts! Thanks again, brother; your article has helped. Please say a prayer for me as I struggle with this loss.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Wow! Thanks, Al, for "The Invalid Hymnist." The hymn "Just As I Am" was the invitation song the night I responded. It was one of the last things my parents ever saw me do before their deaths. I was a little nervous about the whole thing, so it is good that the song has so many stanzas!

From an Elder in Florida:

Are there any foods a Christian may not eat today? I was reading Acts 15:20, 29: 21:25 and wondered if these statements apply to us today. Thanks.

From a Reader in New Jersey:

I must thank you once again for all the thoughtful articles you have written. My wife (we have been married for one month now) is from a very strict Church of Christ upbringing, and some of the concerns she has were so foreign to me that I didn't even know what to say to her until I got some insight into the thinking of this legalistic group from you. Again, thank you!

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