This article is about the Roman and Jewish time-scale, and the references to time in the gospel of John.

Source: The Monthly Record, 1993. 4 pages.

John's Gospel: Counting Time

Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the "synoptic" gospels, which simply means that they look at the events they record from the same point of view. This implies that John's gospel is different. Here we look at one small point of difference to see what difference it really makes to our understanding of the Word.

Anyone who reads the synoptic gospels with care soon has to learn that these evangelists counted time in a different way from ourselves.

According to the Jewish method of reckoning, the daylight hours were divided into twelve, counting from sunset and from sunrise. Thus the sixth hour is not 6 a.m. or 6 p.m., as we would think; it is midday (or mid­night) — six hours after the rising (or setting) of the sun. Similarly, the Jewish day began at sundown. There was the evening, then the morning — one day.

This knowledge helps us to a more accurate under­standing of some details in the gospel stories. Thus, in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), the owner hires men at the third, sixth, ninth and eleventh hours of the day. Acquaintance with Jewish methods of telling the time enables us to recognise these as references to 9 a.m. 12 noon, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. respectively.

Similarly, Mark records how Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law. This hap­pened after they had come from the synagogue, so we may safely conclude it took place on the Jewish Sabbath. Mark then relates that "that evening after sunset" the people brought sick people to Jesus (Mark 1:32). As sundown marked the beginning of a new Jewish day, we see why they waited till after sunset to bring the sick: they were waiting until the Jewish Sabbath was over. Without that back­ground knowledge, we will miss an important point in the narrative.

But perhaps we've learned the lesson about Jewish time-keeping too well, because it is by no means certain that all New Testa­ment writers counted time in the same way. In fact, I believe that, if we recognise that John used our system of counting the hours rather than the Jewish one, we can make much better sense of certain incidents he records.

Although Christianity emerged from the Jewish world, it emerged into the Roman world. And in the Roman world, though what we will call the Jewish method of counting time, was widely employed, the Roman civil day, used, for example, in dating contracts and leases, counted time from midday and midnight. For convenience we will call this the Roman method.

In most cases in which John makes specific refer­ence to time-scale, we are simply dealing with narra­tives and not all that much hangs on the question whether John followed the Roman or Jewish method of counting time. But we do believe that even in simple narratives it is good to have the facts clearly implanted in our minds because this makes the gospel narrative more vivid, more memor­able and more useful. As if it's God's word we are deal­ing with, even the details are important.

We want then to look at the various passages in John's gospel where timing is mentioned; interpret his references to time according to what we are calling the Roman method and see what difference this makes to our grasp of the gospel narra­tives. We hope too that this will help us to see how knowing the background and culture from which or to which the Bible came can be helpful in understanding the Scriptures.

The First Disciples (1:35-39)🔗

John the Baptist has pointed out Jesus as "the Lamb of God". Two of John's disciples hear him say this and follow Jesus. Jesus turns and asks what they want. To their question: "Where are you staying?" Jesus replies, "Come and you will see". "So they went and saw where he was stay­ing and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour".

On the Jewish reckoning, "the tenth hour" is 4 p.m. and the day finishes at 6 p.m. It is hard to see in what sense the disciples "stayed that day" with Jesus if the incident occurred at 4 p.m. and the day was over by 6 p.m. But on the Roman reckoning, this happens at 10 a.m. and staying the day with Jesus is a more meaningful way of expressing what happened.

The Samaritan Woman (4:6)🔗

Jesus, on a journey with his disciples, sits down, tired, at the well in Samaria. His disciples go into the town to buy food; mean­while a Samaritan woman comes out to draw water. "It was about the sixth hour". Is this 12 noon (by the Jewish method of counting) or is it 6 p.m.?

Different pictures emerge depending on which option we accept. On the Jewish view, we have to explain why this woman goes to draw water in the full heat of the day. Usually, the explanation given is that, as an openly sinful woman, she was so shunned by her companions that she went to draw water when no one else was there.

But if you accept the Roman view, there is noth­ing difficult to explain. It is the end of a working day. Jesus is, not unnaturally, tired from his long journey; the disciples, not unnaturally, have gone to find food; and the woman, not unnaturally, is drawing water in connection with the evening meal.

Although the former pic­ture — with its focus on the woman's sinfulness — makes good sermon material, it is reading into the text something not stated. The second view fits in very well with the customs of the time. But ultimately our view of this passage depends on whether or not we think John generally used the Jewish or the Roman method of counting time.

The Official at Capernaum (4:46-54)🔗

Jesus is at Cana in Galilee. An official from Capernaum — a town some 16 miles from Cana — asks him to go with him and heal his sick son. Jesus seeks to put the man's faith on a better basis and he announces: "You may go; your son will live". The official trusts the word of Jesus and goes home. While on the way home the next day, he meets messengers who tell him that his son got well at the very moment of his encounter with Jesus: "the fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour".

Again the interpretation of this concerns only the details of the story. On the Jewish method, we are con­fronted with a strange delay. The anxious father is told by Jesus at 1 p.m. (the seventh Jewish hour) to go home. Yet he doesn't meet with messengers coming to meet him till some time the following day. Wouldn't his trust in Jesus' word of promise and command, not to mention his natural con­cern for his child, prompt him to go home as soon as humanly possible? Yet, if this happened at 1 p.m. he could surely have made sufficient progress home that day to meet his servants coming from home with the news of his son's recovery.

If, however, this hap­pened at the seventh Roman hour — 7 p.m. — the hours of darkness and the difficul­ties of a mountain path may well have prohibited move­ment till the next day. At first light, he hastens home and meets his servants with the happy news of his boy's recovery. The words "yesterday at 7 p.m." are then easily explicable.

All these instances refer to details of the stories. We acknowledge that they can be explained by the Jewish method of counting time, but to accept the Roman method makes our under­standing of what happened slightly easier. In the remain­ing two cases much more is at stake.

Jesus before Pilate (19:13-14)🔗

John's account of Jesus' trial and crucifixion does not easily fit in with synoptic accounts. Here, however, we deal only with one apparent discrepancy.

John records that the trial before Pilate took place "about the sixth hour". But that doesn't seem to fit in with the other gospels. They have Jesus hanging on the cross by then and darkness coming over the land from the sixth hour to the ninth hour (Luke 23:44). Moreover, Mark says that Jesus was crucified (that is, attached to the cross) at the third hour.

If you think that John used the Jewish method of recording time, then you are in problems here. The neatest explanation is that John is using the Roman method of counting time. So, according to John, Pilate's judgment of Jesus occurs about six in the morning, not about midday (as would be required on the Jewish method). Thus instead of disagreeing with the other gospels, John's statement coincides well with them. Mark, for example, has the Jewish Council reaching a decision "very early in the morning" (Mark 15:1). It is possible to fit the judgment of Pilate in at sufficiently early an hour for it to be described as being "around the sixth hour", about 6 a.m.

To take this line of interpretation allows the testimony of the gospels to fit together nicely and provides a more coherent picture of what happened.

Jesus Appears to His Disciples (20:19-23)🔗

It may not be apparent that this passage is relevant to our purpose: it makes no specific reference to an hour of the day. It simply records the appearance of Jesus "on the evening of that first day of the week". Why mention these verses here? For the simple reason, that this was after sundown; to the Jew, therefore, the next day had begun — it was already Monday. So John can't be using Jewish styles of reckoning here if he calls this the first day of the week.

The word "evening" can refer to a period either before or after sundown. Thus in Matthew 14:15, "when it was evening" would appear to refer to late afternoon, while in the passage we've already referred to in Mark 1:32, "evening" is clearly stated as being after sunset. What "evening" means has got to be decided by the context.

In this case, the proof that "evening" refers to a time after dark comes from Luke's gospel, which not only records this event but indicates more exactly the time of day at which it occurred. Jesus appears to two disciples on the way to Emmaus. They constrain him to come in to their house because it was "nearly evening"; the day was "almost over". We then have to allow time for the preparation of a meal before the couple realise that their guest is Jesus. Then they go back the seven miles of hill track to Jerusalem where they meet with the Eleven and share their experience of the resurrected Lord. Only then does Jesus appear to them "on the evening of the first day of the week".

This must have taken place after sundown. So John can't be thinking in Jewish terms, because invariably the evening of a Jewish day precedes the morning. John used the Roman method of counting, otherwise this resurrection appearance would have been on the evening of the second day of the week. And it would have been on the second day of the week that Jesus would have appeared "a week later" (John 20:26).

This isn't of merely academic importance. If these appearances had taken place on the second day of the week — as they did according to the Jewish reckoning — that would have altered the balance of evidence in regard to the importance of the Lord's Day in the life of the Church.

There are, of course, references to the importance of the first day of the week in Paul: he implies that the church regularly meets together on the first day of each week (1 Corinthians 16:2). Similarly, Luke records how the church at Troas met together on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). There is also the fact, not stated, though capable of being deduced from Scripture, that the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost took place on the first day of the week.

But there can be no underestimating the weight of John's testimony to the importance of the Lord's Day. He it is that uses that title in connection with the first day of the week (Revelation 1:10). And he is in his gospel who provides these key references to the presence of the risen Lord amongst his gathered people on the first day of the week on two successive occasions immediately after the death of our Lord. Yet these weren't first day of the week happenings at all, if you accept the Jewish method of reckoning days!

We can never know why John, the Jew, accepted in his gospel a form of count­ing days and hours which came from outwith his normal culture and way of reckoning. We wonder if it was a desire to give the first day of the week special prominence in the thinking of God's people that he adapted his natural outlook to a foreign culture. Thus he dated the two great appear­ances of the risen Lord to his assembled people on what was for him thereafter the special day — the Lord's Day.

Be that as it may; we can safely say that to accept the Roman way of counting time makes for an adequate and, in my opinion, a better understanding of certain Biblical stories; it provides a good explanation of what are otherwise worrying discrepancies between the gospels; and it points up the importance of the first day of the week in the thinking of John.

And the whole exercise of looking at this matter shows the usefulness of building up a store of background knowledge about the life and culture from which or to which the Bible came.

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