“And it was the third hour, and they crucified Him.”
“And it was the preparation [day before the weekly Sabbath] of the passover [week], and about the sixth hour: and he [Pilate] saith unto the Jews, Behold your King! But they cried out, Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him.”
Order of Contents
The seemingly variant data of Mark and John on the hour of Christ’s crucifixion is perhaps the most notable, seeming discrepancy in the New Testament; hence, writers throughout the ages of the Church seem to have commented on this seeming discrepancy more than any other.
It is also one of the most difficult apparent discrepancies in the New Testament. Thus, if one finds an adequate solution to the various Gospel data about the issue, or, if one cannot do that, if one at least finds that the data need not necessarily contradict itself, though one may not be sure as to how the accounts may be harmonized, one can be assured that all other seemingly problematic issues in the texts of the New Testament which are of lesser difficulty may likewise be easily resolved.
Various resolutions have been proposed throughout Church history in order to harmonize the accounts of Mark and John. For a survey of numerous of the more plausible ones, see J.C. Ryle’s treatment of John 19:14 in his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels). It is not likely that any new proposal not thought of before in Church history will be found to be an overwhelmingly sufficient and persuasive solution. Does a sufficient solution to the dilemma exist, and which of those proposed is to be preferred?
Mark & John Counted from Different Reckonings?
One popular and seemingly easy reconciliation of the two passages (which has become popular in modern times, though was known about through most of Church history) is that the two gospel writers used differing time reckonings. Mark counted according to Jewish time, which began at 6 am in the morning. Thus Mark’s third hour refers to Jesus being crucified at 9 am in the morning. It is said, though, that, especially due to the Roman context of the court of Pilate, that John was using Roman time, which is said to have begun at midnight. This would mean that the beginnings of the process unto Jesus’ crucifixion occurred at 6 am, and He was, by implication, finally crucified around 9 am.
This is the view that Alfred Edersheim exposits from in his Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah. This view was also taken by J. Piscator, de Dieu, Carpzov, J.D. Michaelis, Tholuck, Wieseler, Keil, Westcott, Burgon, etc.
This claimed reckoning of Roman time by John, though, is held on flimsy evidence. To see that it is much more likely that John was reckoning according to the common Roman and Jewish time from 6 am in the morning, see ‘The Roman Civil Reckoning & the Gospel of John’ on pp. 65-68 of Travis Fentiman, ‘The Biblical Sabbath is from Dawn to Dawn’ (2018). For further critiques of the trial before Pilate ending near 6 am and Jesus being crucified at 9 am, see Frederick Godet below and Robert Baillie in the Latin.
The Preferred View
The harmonization that will be argued for below is that (1) Mark and John considered the day to have begun according to the Jewish reckoning at 6 am in the morning, (2) Mark’s third hour reference is a summary statement hearkening back to the beginning of the process to crucify Christ (when his fate to that end was sealed) (3) and both Mark and John use round figures. This view has been popular in Church history and is possibly the dominant view thereof, e.g.: much of the early and medieval Church, Calvin, Bucer, Beza, Gualter, Brentius, Musculus, Pareus, Gerhard, Rollock, Morin, Goodwin, Leigh, Diodati, Lampe, Hammond, Poole, Jansenius, Benedict XIV, Burkitt, Hengstenberg, Ellicott, Ryle, etc.
Mark’s Reference Encompasses the Beginning of the Crucifixion Process
The time reference in Mark (whose relations of events on the cross is not necessarily in chronological order) is likely a summary, concluding statement (not uncommon in Biblical literature), referring not to the moment that the nails were hammered through Jesus’ limbs, but to either:
(1) the beginning of the process of the crucifixion (when Jesus’ fate was sealed), referring back to the beginning of the chapter in Mk. 15:1 (which begins a new scene and logical division in the account):
“And straightway in the morning the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council, and bound Jesus, and carried Him away, and delivered him to Pilate.”
(2) or Mark’s statement may refer to the Jews crying out to crucify Jesus before the court of Pilate (Mk. 15:13-14, when his mode of death by crucifixion was made certain) an hour or two after Mk. 15:1.
After the crowd of the Jews cried out before Pilate to have Jesus crucified, Jesus had yet had to be scourged (Mk. 15:15), mocked by soldiers in the Praetorium (Mk. 15:16-20), interviewed by Pilate again (Jn. 19:1-11) and offered to and condemned by the Jews yet again (Jn. 19:12), with Pilate changing locations for his final determination (Jn. 19:13), before John states that it was “about the sixth hour.” (Jn. 19:14)
While Jesus had been delivered to the Roman court of Pilate by the Jewish house of the High Priest (likely covertly, going around the more regular and full Jewish legal processes) on Friday near the crack of dawn (Jn. 18:28), yet Pilate sent Jesus back to the Herod, the Jewish governor (Lk. 23:7-8). Jesus then appeared not only before Herod, but also before “the chief priests and scribes” who “stood and vehemently accused Him” (Lk. 23:10). This appears to be connected with “the consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council” mentioned in Mk. 15:1.
Such a convocation of the whole, regular legal council would not likely have happened so early as 6 am, around sunrise and the start of the day, but rather later in the morning when it would have been suitable to hold such public and more regular proceedings, such as around 9 am or after (one has to account for calling the meeting, time for the travel of all members, etc.). The esteemed Medieval Jewish scholar, Maimonides, in fact says (see John Lightfoot’s commentary) that “The great Sanhedrim sat from the morning daily sacrifice, until the afternoon daily sacrifice.” The morning sacrifice was known to be held at 9 am.
From the Jewish court of Herod Jesus was delivered again to the Roman court of Pilate. After Pilate examines Jesus and finds no fault with Him, the crowd yet chooses to spare Barabbas. Pilate has Jesus scourged and then presents Him again to the crowd. At this time John says that it was “about the sixth hour”, the word ‘about’ explicitly indicating that the time reference is an approximate, round number. This means that the end of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, before He was immediately led away to be crucified, according to the common Jewish and Roman time reckoning, was around the noon hour.
Mark & John use Round Figures
As can be confirmed by the rest of the New Testament (see Hengstenberg below), Josephus and Philo (some of the evidence is in Fentiman’s article previously cited), it was common to divide the daytime hours into quarters, of roughly divisions of three hours each (these quarter-periods would be relative to the season of the year, sometimes being longer, sometimes shorter). Hence the main divisions of the day were the third hour (9 am), the sixth hour (12 pm) and the ninth hour (3 pm), as confirmed by other places in the New Testament. The easiest and most common way to tell the time of the day, before wrist watches, was to look up at the sun and see where it is in the sky.
Hence such time estimates were commonly understood to be approximate, and the span of the third hour, according to dividing the daylight into quarters, might reach as late as 10:30 am, while the 6th hour might be understood to start therefrom. It is also possible that both Gospel writers refer to the second quarter of the day (9 am to 12 pm), Mark reckoning it from the beginning of that period while John reckoned it from the end of that period.
Another alternative, which is grammatically possible, is that Mark’s statement, “it was the third hour, and they crucified Him,” may be translated as “the third hour happened, and they crucified Him”. Taking the temporal phrase as past tense conveys that Christ was crucified after the third hour came to an end (and the sixth hour began).
Hence it is very conceivable and natural that, according to Mark, the process of the crucifixion began in the third hour with the condemnation of Jesus before the council before Herod, and that yet it was “about the sixth hour” when Jesus’ trial before Pilate came to a close. Jesus was then shortly put on the cross. After some transpirings while on the cross, “it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour.” (Lk. 23:44; Mt. 27:45; Mk. 15:33) During the ninth hour, or around 3 pm, Jesus expired (Mt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34).
For a further detailed, harmonious elucidation of the many specific events involved in the process of Christ’s crucifixion, with further arguments supporting the view herein presented, see John Lightfoot, pp. 266-267 of The Harmony, Chronicle & Order of the New Testament (1682), ch. 33 in Works, in 2 vols. (London, 1684), vol. 1.
As John wrote his Gospel much later than Mark, his Gospel was in part designed to supplement the previous accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke, just as it everywhere does. Mark had summarized Jesus’ crucifixion process to have had taken place in the third hour. As the sun would not yet have been at the top of the sky, John giving further independent detail, says that it was about the sixth hour. As it is very likely that John would have been acquainted with Mark and his Gospel, it is very unlikely that John would have knowingly contradicted Mark, especially in light of the reception of such a contradiction by the early Christians and onlooking world (especially at a time when Christians were being persecuted by enemies, including those in official government positions).
Rather, the various independent and harmonious testimonies of Christ’s crucifixion by the Gospel writers fill out the events in greater detail, are mutually confirming and give greater assurance to truth of the crucifixion itself and all its details. The accounts internally testify to the Gospel writers being first hand witnesses to the events, or that they derived their information from first hand witnesses who were there when the events occurred.
The variant details also show that these stories were not a contrived conspiracy made up by the apostles, where one would expect, in such a case, a complete (and unnatural), preconceived conformity in all the details of their accounts.
The apparent discrepancy likely would not have been understood to be such by those first few generations of hearers, and it only appears to be a discrepancy to us because of our unfamiliarity with the first century context. Considering that we are so far removed from Christ’s original context, we ought to expect that we will not immediately understand the alignment of all of the details in the Gospels. The fact that we do not immediately understand how all the details fit together (as one would expect) is another evidence that these accounts have not been redacted and modified by later Christians after the writing of them by the Biblical writers.
If the apparent discrepancy of the hour of Christ’s crucifixion in the gospel accounts can be shown to not necessarily be a contradiction, and that there is even a likely and persuasive resolution to it, one may have great confidence that all the other seeming discrepancies in the New Testament which are of lesser difficulty, may also be easily resolved.†
† We consider the most difficult apparent discrepancy in the New Testament to be the question of what day Christ was crucified on. To see that the Gospel accounts of this are not contradictory, but have a persuasive resolution to them, see our webpage, Christ was Crucified on Friday, the 15th of Nisan.
May we take great confidence and faith in the words of the Crucified One: “Thy Word is Truth.” Jn. 17:17
Augustine – Book 3, Ch. 13, ‘Of the Hour of the Lord’s Passion…’ in The Harmony of the Gospels, pp. 416-429 in The Works of Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, a New Translation, ed. Marcus Dods, vol. 7 (Edinburgh, 1873)
While not everything in Augustine’s treatment is satisfactory, yet one of the concluding views he offers is substantially the same as that view taken on this webpage. In section 49 Augustine states:
“…any one who is willing… will easily perceive how… Mark has inserted this notice of the third hour, so that every one may there be led to bethink himself of an hour at which the Jews really crucified the Lord, although they sought to transfer the burden of the crime to the Romans…
Thus, lest any one should leave the Jews out of account, and make the conception of so great a crime lie against those soldiers, Mark gives us here the statement, ‘And it was the third hour, and they crucified Him,’ his object being to have those Jews rather discovered to be the real crucifiers, who will be found by the careful investigator in a position making it quite possible for them to have cried out for the Lord’s crucifixion [before Pilate, Mk. 15:13-14] at the third hour, while he [the investigator] observes [via the Gospel of John] that what was done by the soldiers took place at the sixth hour.”
On Mk. 15:25 in Catena Aurea, Commentary Collected out of the Fathers, vol. 2, pp. 319-321
Aquinas quotes Augustine at length, and a snippet from Pseudo-Augustine to the same effect.
On John, ch. 19, verse 14 in Commentary on the Gospel of St. John
Aquinas interprets the event much the same as we do, emphasizing John’s use of ‘about’ the sixth hour, saying that Jesus was crucified in the 5th hour (11 a.m.).
Hutcheson, George – on Jn. 19:14, pp. 397-398 of An Exposition of the Gospel According to John
The Scottish covenanter, Hutcheson, offers two views, the one argued on this page and the view that John was reckoning hours from midnight.
On Mark, chapter 15, see v. 25 from Commentary on Mark from the Talmud and Hebraica
Gives very helpful context from Talmudic writings inline with the view argued on this webpage.
pp. 266-267 of The Harmony, Chronicle & Order of the New Testament (1682), ch. 33 in Works, in 2 vols. (London, 1684), vol. 1.
Further confirms in detail the view presented on this webpage, giving a detailed harmony of all the events leading up to the crucifixion and those while Christ was on the cross.
De Moor, Bernard – ‘Theological Disputation on Mk. 15:25 & Jn. 19:14’ in Bernardinus De Moor’s Didactico-Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, Chapter II: Concerning the Principium of Theology, or Holy Scripture, pp. 617-646
De Moor (1709-1780) gives a bibliography of the literature on the topic (mainly from Latin works) in section 2. In section 6 he argues against counting John’s 6th hour from midnight. He discusses the interpretation given on this webpage in sections 7-8.
In sections 9-11 he argues for the position which he prefers, namely that Mark’s third hour is reckoning how many hours passed from the crucifixion till the soldiers parted Jesus’ garments. There are, however, numerous, significant contextual reasons against this interpretation (see Baillie for four of them, under the fourth view he examines).
Hengstenberg, E.W. – on Jn. 19:14, pp. 403-404 of Commentary on the Gospel of St. John (1865)
Hengstenberg argues the view presented on this webpage.
Godet, Frederick – on Jn. 19:14, pp. 379-380 of Commentary on the Gospel of John (1893), vol. 2
Godet takes the view argued for on this page and gives some critiques of the view that John counted from midnight.
Bede – On Mk. 15:25 in On the Four Gospels of the Evangelists in Works of the Venerable, Presbyter Bede, Anglio-Saxony, vol. 5 (Cologne, Germany, 1688), cols. 203-204
Bede (672/3-735) takes the same view as Augustine and that which is argued on this page, that Mark’s statement about the third hour looks back to the inception of the process to crucify Christ, by the demand of the Jews.
Zigabenos, Euthymios – On Mk. 15:25 in Commentary on the Four Gospels, p. 846 in ed. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 129
Zigabenos (d. after 1118) was a 12th-century monk and commentator on the Bible. He was a friend of the Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus.
Zigabenos takes the view, similar to that argued on this page, that Mark’s third hour refers to the beginning of Christ’s sufferings before Pilate in view of the cross.
Cartwright, Thomas – On Jn. 19:14 in A Gospel-Harmony Commentary, Analytically, Papaphrastically & Practically Illustrated… in one redacted body (Leiden, 1647), p. 1050 in the Metaphrase section.
Cartwright (1534-1603) was an English Puritan churchman. Cartwright takes the view argued on this webpage.
Baillie, Robert – Book 2, Question 14, pp. 86-90 of Historical & Chronological Works (Amsterdam, 1668)
Baillie, the Scottish delegate to Westminster, surveys five views (giving ennumerated objections to the first four) and then appears to prefer the last, fifth view (answering two objections to it), which is the view argued for on this webpage.
Morin, Stephanus – ‘Of the Hours of Salvation of the Suffering of Jesus Christ our Lord’ 96 pp. in Sacred & Philological Explanations in some Places in the Old & New Testament (Geneva, 1683)
Étienne Morin (1625-1700) was a reformed professor of Oriential languages in Amsterdam.
Lomeier, Johannes – ‘Dissertation 5: A Reconciliation of the Evangelists, Mk. 15:25 & Jn. 19:14’ in Zutphaniensis, Dierum Genialium, or Philological Dissertations, Decade 1 (Deventer, Netherlands, 1694), pp. 193-243
Lomeier (1636-1699) was a Dutch, Reformed minister and historian. He surveys five views on the subject (listed at the beginning), and ends up taking the fifth view, following Daniel Heinsius, that Mark’s third hour is counting the hours from the crucifixion till the parting of Jesus’s garments, which is the view that De Moor takes.
Bynaeus, Antonius – Sections 37-44, pp. 178-194 in Of the Death of Jesus Christ: a Most Full Commentary, vol. 3 (Amsterdam, 1698)
Bynaeus (1654-1698) was a reformed professor of theology and Oriental languages at Deventer, Netherlands.
Zeltner, Gustav G.
Of the Hour-Counting of Pilate: a Dissertation 1720 16 pp.
Zeltner (1672-1738) was a German, Lutheran theologian. He was a professor of theology at Altdorf, Switzerland (1706-1730).
De Moor, Bernard – ‘A Theological Disputation on Mk. 15:25 & Jn. 19:14’ in vol. 1, pp. 943-956 of A Continuous Commentary on John Marck’s Compendium of Didactic and Elenctic Christian Theology This has been translated into English, as referenced above.
De Moor (1709-1780) “maintained the fundamental line of confessional orthodoxy without drawing heavily on any of the newer philosophies… [and he] maintained a fairly centrist Reformed position… Vitringa and De Moor served as codifiers and bibliographers of the earlier tradition…” – Richard Muller
Wolf, Johann Christoph – on Jn. 19:14, pp. 969-976 in Philological & Critical Exertions in the New Testament, vol. 2 (1741), p. 969
Wolf (1683-1739), a mediating Lutheran, gives a bibliography on the topic and, after discussing the issue at length, takes the same view as B. De Moor, D. Heinsius, Hadrian Reland & van Mastricht, that Mark’s statement means that the parting of Christ’s garments happened three hours after Christ was crucified.
Koecher, Johann Christopher – On Jn. 19:14 in Philological & Exegetical Analecta on the Four Most Holy Gospels which Supplements and Augments Johann Christopher Wolf’s Philological & Critical Exertions (Altenburg, 1766), pp. 1264-1266
Koecher (1699-1772) was in the Lutheran tradition and gives an extensive bibliography on the subject in Latin, with a survey of the various views and their main representatives.
Elsner, Jacob – On Mk. 15:25 in A Critical-Philological Commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Utrecht, 1773), pp. 246-249
Elsner (1692-1750) was in the reformed tradition.
“And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, ‘Behold your King!'”
“The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day (for that sabbath day was an high day), besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.”
“Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate,”