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What Hour is That?

Sometimes in the Bible it talks about what time of the day it was. All of the inspired authors of the New Testament were Jewish except for Luke who was a Gentile and all of the authors of the Old Testament were Jewish. The Jewish people in biblical times marked time differently than we do. We define a day being 24 hours long starting at midnight, but broken into two 12 hour sections (midnight to noon and noon to midnight.) This is considered Roman time.

Jewish time in the New Testament is broken up into 12 hour sections too, but they are divided into daytime and nighttime. The nighttime is from sundown to sunup which would obviously vary daily. But to put equivalent Roman time we will consider it 6pm until 6am. The daytime begins at sunup and ends at sundown which again will vary daily. Equivalent Roman time would be considered 6am until 6pm.

Each new 24 hour Jewish day began at sundown (or 6pm.) That is why the Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown.

In contrast our Roman days begin at midnight.

Jewish Daytime began at 6am; and ends at 6pm for counting hours. The first hour is therefore 7am; the second hour is 8am; the third hour is 9am, the sixth hour is noon or 12pm; and so forth.

  • Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44 – “from the sixth hour” refers to noon and “until the ninth hour” refers to 3pm

  • Matthew 20 – In verse 3 “third hour" refers to 9am/ “Sixth and ninth” hours in verse 5 refers to noon and 3 pm/ “eleventh hour” in verse 6 refers to 5pm

  • Acts 2:15 – “third hour of the day” is 9am

  • Acts 3:1 – “ninth hour” is 3pm

  • Acts 10:3 - “ninth hour” is 3pm

  • Acts 10:9 - “sixth hour” is noon

  • Acts 10:30 - “during the ninth hour” is 3-4 pm

  • Acts 23:23 - “third hour of the night” is 9pm

Some versions of the Bible say the Gospel of John used Roman time. (Again, Roman time is how we keep time.) Other versions of the Bible, mostly the newer versions, say the hours mentioned in John are Jewish time. Looking at the context of the verses, I would agree with Jewish time.

  • John 1:39 - “the tenth hour” could refer to the Roman time of 10am or the Jewish time of 4pm. (4pm makes more sense.)

  • John 4:6 - “the sixth hour” is perhaps Roman time of 6am or Jewish time of noon (The heat of the day at noon makes more sense.)

  • John 4:52 - “the seventh hour” is either 7am Roman time or 1pm Jewish time. (Again, Jewish time makes more sense.)

The Romans began ruling the Jewish people in Judea in 63 B.C. Apparently the Jewish people still told time with Jewish time for at least the next 100 plus years.

The Gospel of John was written around A.D. 80-90 - later than Matthew, Mark and Luke. John being Jewish, the advancement in scholarship of ancient texts and the context of the verses make me think he wrote the Gospel of John using Jewish time. Except then I can't explain John 19:14 where for "the sixth hour," the Roman time of 6 am, makes way more sense then the Jewish time of noon.*

We know the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written using the Jewish method of marking time. There seems to be some debate whether the Gospel of John was written using Jewish or Roman time. I certainly don't claim to know which is correct.

Jewish Night Watches: The Jewish people in the Old Testament divided the 12 hour night into three military watches instead of hours. Each watch was 4 hours long. The first or “beginning of the night watches” was from sunset (or for practical purposes, 6pm) until 10pm and was mentioned in Lamentations 2:19. The "middle watch" is from 10pm until 2am and was mentioned in Judges 7:19. The "morning watch" was from 2am until 6am and was mentioned in Exodus 14:24 and 1 Samuel 11:11. "Night watches" are also mentioned in Psalm 63:6 and Psalm 119:148. In the New Testament all the authors use the Roman Night Watches for dividing up the night.

Roman Night Watches: Rome takes over in the time period between the Testaments and rules the Jewish people. The Romans broke their number of military watches into four 3-hour watches. These were called:

  1. First Watch, also called Evening Watch – sundown, 6pm to 9pm

  2. Second Watch, also called Midnight Watch – 9pm to midnight

  3. Third Watch, also called Cock-crow or Cock-crowing Watch – midnight to 3am

  4. Fourth Watch, also called Morning Watch - 3 am to sunrise, 6am

Some Roman watches are mentioned in the New Testament:

  • Matthew 14:25 – “fourth watch of the night” refers to 3-6am

  • Mark 13:35 – “evening”, “midnight”, “when the rooster crows”, “morning”

  • Luke 12:38 – “second watch” refers to 9pm to midnight and “third” refers to midnight to 3am

When reading the Bible is it critical to know the Jewish and Roman time and the Jewish and Roman watches? Not really, but it helps with context of the passage. For instance in Matthew 14:25 when Jesus comes walking to the disciples on water it was the “fourth watch” or 3:00 am to 6:00 am. Matthew 14:22 tells us Jesus had the disciples get into the boat and go before Him. Verse 23 tells us Jesus went to pray and then evening came. This means the disciples had been in the boat over nine hours and may have been battling the storm a long time before Jesus came to them. That would be enough time to become really terrified! Is that crucial to the text to know that? No, not really - you get the point of the passage without that knowledge. But knowing the context makes your understanding richer. So it's useful to some degree.

Update 4/14/22: I wrote an article about Jesus rose on the third day considering it the Jewish way of measuring time. See Jesus Rose on the THIRD Day.

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