The Time Of Jesus’ Crucifixion in Mark and John: Studies in Mark, Pt. 76

As many New Testament scholars have pointed out, those from the New Testament era and more specifically, the non-Roman Elite of the NT era, understood “time” differently. Bruce Malina, for instance, has repeatedly shown that while 21st century Americans are predominantly future-oriented people (e.g. retirement funds, savings accounts, planning for education, hoping to get married, waiting to have kids, etc.), those we read of in the NT were quite the opposite—these agricultural and usually lower class personages were present-minded folk. In fact, Malina has argued that no NT personage could have possibly had a future orientation similar to that of a 21st century American. For the sake of argument and belaboring, I will say here that this is a view I, for the most part, share (I say “most part” because I certainly have not done away with the “already, not yet” aspect so apparent in the NT documents).

As Cadbury has pointed out, the NT word “hora” (English “hour”) is only attested to one time in a single Roman inscription from the first century. When the term “hora” was used it was not employed with exactitude and preciseness; especially not in terms of the type of precision time telling that occurs in civilized nations today. And this is not a point that is special pleading or begging the question. Indeed, this is a very important point when it comes to understanding certain portions of the NT. I will come back to this in a moment but I should also point out here that in antiquity, another factor that contributed to the issue of “approximating time” was that sundials and water clocks were not terribly accurate. As seasons changed and the sun moved, the length of certain hours in the day varied. Cadbury has also shown that in the ancient world, the notion of “seconds” or “minutes” didn’t even exist.

In the NT, “hora” can actually even refer to the whole length of “daytime” (that is, the time that the sun is up until it sets; see: Mt. 14.15, Mk. 6.35 & 11.11). “Hora” was also used to denote a “twelfth” of a day (Jn. 11.19) or even a specific moment (Mt. 8.13, 9.22, 15.28). When it comes to nighttime, we are well aware (and as I showed HERE) that the evening was divided into “four watches” (see: Mk. 13.35 and Acts 23.23) for biblical references to this. Just as well, daytime could be reckoned into fourths (e.g. Mt. 20.1-9). What this all means is that there is more than enough proof, even within the NT itself, that time telling was different then from now. Was it impossible to suggest “specific” times for things? No (see: Jn. 1.39, 4.52 for example)! But should we take what we do have with care and scrutiny? Yes!

So, NT personages would have tended to divide up time up like this: Into two main halves (daytime and nighttime), which broke down into fourths (four watches of night and four periods of daytime).

At this point, I’d like to offer an example in the form of a question: If someone in this society were to say today, “I’ll see you this evening” what would that mean? What “time” would they be referring to? Well, typically, in the U.S. “evening” refers to the period between 6pm – 9pm. Night tends to mean “10pm – Midnight”. However, if I were working with someone all day and when we were clocking out and heading home I said “Have a good night”, I would not be referring the hours from 10-12pm, no, I’d be referring to the time we left work until bedtime or even tomorrow morning. While we can be more specific with time, we still have general designations. In fact, if we are always overtly literal, we still have confusions.

However, I want to submit that these types of “generalities” or “approximations” were the norm when it came to time telling in antiquity. Overlap always existed. Specificity wasn’t an issue. This is something that we’re hung up on today that they were not hung up on in antiquity. In fact, I would contend that when we read of the crucifixion in both the Gospels that bear the names of Mark and John, this must all be borne in mind. Why? There are 2 reasons: 1) The authors may have been operating on different time schemes (see more on that HERE), and 2) It is likely that the authors were, whatever time table they may have been using, simply approximating things.

The Greek word “hos” in Jn. 19.14 is translated as “about”. Thus, the portion of the sentence containing this word is translated as “…it was about the sixth hour”. Notice how the author is approximating by using the word “about”. By ancient standards, this could have been anywhere from Noon - 3pm. Now, in Mk. 15.25, the text says: “And it was the third hour when they crucified Him.” By ancient standards, the third “hora” was not 3 O’clock, as we understand it but the quarter of the “daytime” ranging from 9am – Noon. (*Note that in Lk. the word “peri”, meaning “about” is also used of the sixth hour…there is a lack of specificity for a practical reason and it runs throughout nearly all of the NT texts—that’s how time was reckoned!)

Now, I realize that many will dub this “exegetical gymnastics”, label it as “conservative”, “evangelical”, “theological eisegetical” or whatever. This is all simply not true. I am attempting to look at the information and see if it fits together in a succinct way, before writing it off. Are there other ways of looking at the time issue? Yes. There is the digamma / gamma argument, the genre argument, the theological agenda argument, the error argument, etc. Do any of these hold water? It is possible. However, it makes clear sense to me (and without theological pre-dispositions) that what the two Gospels say, comport well with one another.

All I am suggesting here is that where there seems to be a tension between Mark and John, there is a plausible answer in terms of how time was told in antiquity. Such an endeavor, as I have argued is neither biased or out-of-bounds! The language of “approximation” when taken with the widespread practice of “approximation” must be taken into consideration. I am simply contending that some time between 9am and Noon, the events of the crucifixion were taking place.

On a closing note, it might also be worthwhile to point out, as I have already done in brief, in some dialogue with others (HERE), that Mark and John also viewed the events of the crucifixion a bit differently. Where the events are a complete whole or single unit for Mark they are split by John’s author. On these matters, I’m afraid we cannot be more specific than this. While many Christians let their doctrinal values cause them to overreach on things, we must not here. To read the texts with a more specific tint is to reach too far. To force the authors into being terribly specific about time is a stretch and cannot be sustained very well. At this point, that’s why I subscribe to the view proposed here.

Here are some suggested articles on the matter:

· Bruce Malina, Windows on the World of Jesus: Time Travel to Ancient Judea
· Oscar Cullman, Christ and Time
· Bruce Malina, “Christ and Time: Swiss or Mediterranean”
· R. E. Brown, Gospel According to John (Doubleday)
· J. E. Bruns, “Use of Time in the Fourth Gospel”
· J. V. Miller, “The Time of the Crucifixion”
· A. Mahoney, “A New Look at ‘The Third Hour’ of Mark 15.25”
· Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Eerdmans)
· J. A. Cross, “The Hour of the Day in the Fourth Gospel”
· H. J. Cadbury, “Some Lukan Expressions of Time”

These articles and books, among others, are good conversation partners when discussing and dealing with the above topic. *Note that this article will be added to the "Studies in Mark" page above.


  1. Well it seems you and me may be the only ones interested in this conversation.

    Your solution seems very similar to that of Blomberg in The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel in that he argues the authors of John and Mark 'rounded off' in different directions from an event that happened sometime between the watches of 9:00 am and 12:00 pm which is plausible from what you have noted in your post.

    What I am more interested in is not necessarily whether this event occurred at 9 or 12 (though I believe John has a theological agenda in purposefully noting twelve), but as to whether there is a discrepancy to the day the authors report--this is I think where we were missing each other in our last volley.

    I think there are some interesting avenues to explore. While it is true that the ancients were not future oriented in a sense (and I'm not entirely sure where this fits in with persons with eschatological beliefs in the first century anxiously anticipating the Day of the Lord which seems to have a slight future bent--though certainly a slighter future than we would project) persons could still discern between days in the present, and most importantly in the past. People of this era if they thought of the future differently--though it seems they were still concerned over the use of a proper calendar to govern near future observances--certainly valued the past. Genealogies, covenants, and the compiling of important literature all bear witness to the valuation of past events.

    That said when the author of John writes:

    Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, "Here is your King!" They cried out, "Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!" Pilate asked them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but the emperor." Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them."

    I have to pause and say that the day of Preparation for Passover is Nisan 14; this is the first day of the festival of Unleavened Bread. It is when the sun goes down that the passover Lamb is eaten and it becomes Nisan 15, so we are dealing with a lunar calendar and not a solar calendar, but...

    The author of Mark writes: " On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, "Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?"

    The plot thickens, and I say to myself hmmmm.... On the first day of Unleavened Bread (Nisan 14) when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, John has Jesus crucified and Mark has him preparing for a meal (Nisan 15)there may be something more going on here...

    Anyways, I do not have time to pursue this fully right now other than to note when this semester (that is putting a serious strain on my time and sanity) is done in December I am hoping to do some research and a paper on this subject, and if you have access to France's NIGTC commentary he has an interesting solution.

  2. Scott,
    Yes, you are certainly right about the ancients valuing the past and having some future bent to their eschatology. That is why I said I could not wholly subscribe to a theory that said they were only present-minded.

    As for the days, I did realize the discrepency here. Since I have a little time, I will try to flesh this out in another post soon. In the meantime, I'll also check out the France work, which I do have.

    Carry on the convo as you have time friend.

    Blessings, -tmwh