A Bible-Related Commentary
In a stark, straight-forward statement, the earliest gospel writer, Mark, declares:
“And it was the third hour when they crucified him.”
Since scholars generally agree that the ancient Jews reckoned their daylight hours from dawn to sunset we can be reasonably sure that by “the third hour” Mark (15:25) meant three hours from sunrise (= 6 a.m.), or roughly 9 o’ clock in the morning; thus providing us with a remarkably precise chronological record of the time of day Jesus underwent crucifixion.
However, when it comes to the Bible, things are often not as dry and clear-cut as they initially seem. The time of Jesus’ crucifixion provides us with just such an example; for if we turn to John 19:14 we learn from that evangelist that Jesus was still undergoing his trial before Pontius Pilate at “about the sixth hour” (or “noon”). Plainly, something isn’t quite right here. What John’s statement does, is not only put into question the time of day the crucifixion took place but now, even the day of the week it occurred on; and need I add, the accuracy of Scripture itself?
Before we go on to explore these issues in greater depth, however, one more gospel element needs to be inserted into the passion narrative equation to round things out: Jesus’ prophecy of Matthew 12:38-40 and his (alleged) stay in the heart of the earth for “three days and three nights”. It goes to the heart of why some Christians hold fast to the belief that Jesus’ crucifixion actually took place on Wednesday of Holy Week rather than on “Good Friday.”
The Wednesday Crucifixion Date
The origin of the belief that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday stems from a literal interpretation of a prophecy uttered by Jesus recorded in Matthew 12:38-40.
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days AND three nights in the heart of the earth. [RSV; emphasis mine]
The Wednesday crucifixion advocates take Jesus’ words “three days and three nights” to mean three literal 24-hour periods of time totaling 72 hours. Thus, working backwards from just before the crack of dawn and before Sunday proper*—the last moments of Jesus’ three days and three nights, if you will—we find the first 24 hours ending up being just before dawn on Friday; the next 24 hour mark ending up just before dawn on Thursday (here 48 hours prior to Sunday); and the 72-hour mark occurring just before dawn on Wednesday. Incorporating Mark 15:25 leads to Jesus having undergone crucifixion at nine o’ clock Wednesday morning. Jesus’ prophecy thus comes out being extremely accurate and fulfilled in the minds of the faithful. And, in the end, does not Jesus’ actual words take precedence over what others had to say in regards to the resurrection?
But wait. What about John 19:14 and that report that Jesus was still on trial at about the “sixth” hour?
*Remember: According to John 20:1, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and discovered it empty “while it was still dark” So this means Jesus’ “resurrection” took place not on the third day, nor “after three days”: but on the SECOND day (i.e. “Saturday”**). According to the other evangelists, MM returned to the tomb at dawn Sunday. For more on this subject see my “While It Was Still Dark . . . ” Parts II (here) and IV” (here).
The Roman-Time Argument
Perhaps the most popular and appealing explanation used by Christian apologists to account for the contradiction between Mark and John’s chronology concerning the time of the crucifixion is the “Roman-Time Argument.” This explanation argues that John used the Roman method of calculating time instead of the Jewish way. The Romans, claim Christian apologists, reckoned their hours from midnight instead of the Jewish method of reckoning them from dawn.
Seems plausible at first blush, doesn’t it? Using this “Roman” method of determining time would lead to Jesus being on trial before Pilate at six o’ clock in the morning (“the sixth hour” working from midnight forward) rather than noon. By incorporating Mark 15:25 into the picture, we then have Jesus being crucified three hours later at nine a.m. The discrepancy between John and Mark is removed, and the gospels stand in complete harmony.
But there are several fatal problems with this solution. First, there is no evidence whatever that the Romans counted their daytime hours any differently than did the Jews. In fact, the evidence points to the Romans having divided their “days” into two 12-hour periods: the daytime being divided into twelve individual hours ranging from dawn to sunset (and varying in length depending on the season of the year) while the night hours were divided into four 3-hour watches extending from sunset until just before dawn. The first hour of the Roman day was precisely the same as the Jewish one: from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. And the twelfth lasted from 5 p.m to 6 p.m.; the hours after sunset then began the aforementioned so-called watches rather than “hours” per se. So there is no difficulty in seeing the gospel writers refer to the “tenth hour” as a daylight (late afternoon) hour in the report of John 1:39, for example, yet refer to a nighttime hour as part of a “watch” or “watches” as in Mark 6:48 and Luke 12:38 respectively. And there is a further problem with the Roman-time explanation: Why would a native (Galilean?) Jew opt to employ a Roman method of calculating time that differed from the Jewish method and then fail to explain to his readers that he had done so? But perhaps even more problematic: Are we really to believe that the whole cast of characters would be assembled and that Pilate would conduct a public trial at dawn?
[See Jerome Carcopino’s Daily Life in Ancient Rome: The People and the City at the
Height of the Empire for more on Roman time-keeping.]
The Bundled-Time Argument
There exists a variant of the Roman-time argument that has the ancient Jews bundling their hours into three-hour segments so that, say, nine a.m to the noon hour constituted one time segment, the noon hour to three p.m. a second, and three p.m. to six p.m. a third. Since time measurement was extremely loose in Jesus’ day–or so some Christian apologists would have us believe–certain events can be said to have occurred at either the beginning or towards the end of one of these three-hour time segments and still be held to be reasonably accurate as far as ancient time measurement was concerned. So say the apologists. Adding seeming credibility to this method of computing time is the argument that the ancients didn’t have pocket or wrist-band watches to keep pin-point precision when marking time.
This skeptic’s reply is to remind theists that the bible is supposed to be the words of the most supreme force in the universe imparted divinely to the writers of Scripture. So one would expect rather precise time being recorded. But on a more practical level, the Jews in Jesus’ day utilized the sundial and perhaps the Roman Water Clock—among other methods—to keep tab of the hour. And an indication of this can be found in John’s gospel itself where the evangelist makes reference to the “tenth hour” in Chapter One, verse 39, and the “seventh hour” in Chapter Four, verse 52. Rather the opposite of what one would expect if the bundled-time theory had any validity. Then too, there are the recent discoveries of Jewish sundials amid the ruins of Qumran and even Herod’s temple itself.
Herodian sundial discovered amid Temple ruins; its base below.
A Thursday Crucifixion?
In an attempt to harmonize John 19:14 with Mark 15:25, some Christian scholars have concluded that too many events are packed into a six a.m. to 9 a.m. “Good Friday” time-frame to be credible. So they maintain that Jesus was tried on Thursday and not executed until nine a.m. the following morning. Problem solved. Mark and John are in perfect agreement.
A rather obvious problem develops in accepting this chronology, however: John states plainly that it was the Preparation of the Passover, meaning it was “Thursday” of Passover week alright. (More on this passage and its relevance in Part II.) But does the natural reading of the subsequent passages in John allow for an interval of some 21 hours between noon Thursday and Jesus’ crucifixion on Friday morning in keeping with Mark’s account? What could possibly account for John not informing his readers that nearly an entire day had elapsed before the crucifixion proper is a question Thursday crucifixion advocates trying to harmonize events with Mark’s gospel have failed utterly to explain.
The conclusion, next time in Part II of this commentary.
Part II (here)
Greywolf’s* Dictum: There can be no greater evil in all of existence than the Creator of evil. That would be the “God” Christians worship and adore and have absolutely no proof “He” even exists. End of Story.
** For more on a “Saturday Resurrection” see Here