Clock Watching

Mark 15:25 says that Jesus was crucified at the third hour of the day. But John 19:14 says that Jesus was on trial before Pilate at the sixth hour. How can both be correct?

If John has Jesus on trial three hours after Mark has him nailed to the cross, something is definitely amiss! What’s going on here?

Before we talk about that, let’s talk about the weather.

As I write this, I see that it’s 26 degrees outside. On a May afternoon in Florida? Well, yes—if you’re measuring in degrees Celsius. On the Fahrenheit scale the temperature is 79. Either number is correct; it just depends on which method of measurement you’re using.

Something similar explains the apparent discrepancy between Mark 15 and John 19: the two writers are using different methods of reckoning time. In this case, Mark counts the time of day from sunrise (approximately 6:00 am), following the most common method of his era. So Mark’s “third hour” would be about 9:00am. John, on the other hand, is counting time from midnight, which was how the Romans marked the hours of the civil day (just as we do now). So John’s “sixth hour” would be around 6:00am. Matthew, Mark, and John all affirm that it was early in the morning when the Jews brought Jesus to Pilate (Matthew 27:1; Mark 15:1; John 18:28). So John says that Jesus was on trial around 6:00am, and Mark says that he was crucified around 9:00am. No discrepancy here; the two authors just use different “clocks.”

But why would John, who was Jewish, use Roman time reckoning in his account? The answer may lie in the circumstances of John’s writing, or his audience, or both. The available evidence indicates that John wrote his gospel while he was in Ephesus, which was a Roman provincial capital. Furthermore, he seems to have written in a way that readers from any region or nationality in the empire could readily follow. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that in his writing he would follow Roman conventions in such matters as time reckoning. (Go back to our weather illustration for a moment. Virtually any American, if asked the current temperature, would say it’s 79 degrees. But a visitor from, say, Europe would likely tell you it’s about 26.)

As this example shows, some of the alleged errors or contradictions in Scripture are simply the result of authors using different methods of computation.

To take an Old Testament example, different methods of computation account for many of the difficulties in the chronologies of the kings of Israel and Judah. Researchers such as Edwin Thiele (The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings and A Chronology of the Hebrew Kings) have shown that those difficulties can be explained by several factors, including overlapping reigns of a father and son, the frequent practice of counting part of a year as a whole, and even the use of different calendars (the Jews had a civil calendar and a religious calendar that began at different times of the year).

Though the Bible is the product of God’s inspiration, it was penned by different men who lived in different times and places, wrote for different audiences, discussed different subjects, and used different styles. When we take that into account (even if it requires some study on our part), many of the Bible’s alleged discrepancies vanish.