“And they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour” (John ch1 v39).
“Jesus sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour” (John ch4 v6).
“Pilate brought Jesus out… It was about the sixth hour” (John ch19 vv13-14).
John probably talks about hours more than any other New Testament writer. More often and more deliberately.
In Revelation, there is the “one hour” during which the Beast reigns (ch17 v12), and the “half an hour” during which the Beast reigns without
upsetting God and rousing him to noisy anger (“silence in heaven”- ch8 v1).
In the gospel, repeated references to the “hour” of glorification which has come or not yet come, and the comment about “twelve hours in the
day” (ch11 v9). And, of course, the time references at the top of the page.
But what time system was John using?
The modern world knows about the problems of different time systems. “We’ll have the committee meeting at nine o’clock”, a society’s
chairman (UNSA) told me in my student days, writing “20-00” on the note-pad in front of him. He nearly got away with it, because I read this as
“ten o’clock”. I was still wondering which time to go by, up to the moment when the clock struck eight in the college library and I remembered
what “20-00 hours” really meant. Those of us brought up on analogue time are used to that kind of confusion in the evenings, which is the real
reason why we got into trouble when setting VHS recorders.
There is a season in the year when ATS always gives me the wrong time, because the system automatically allows for a “summer time” which hasn’t
started in my own country. And that’s on top of the basic problem of time-zones.
Most people know that the Jews counted their hours from dawn to dusk. But John appears to have spent his later days in Ephesus, where the prevailing
culture would have been Greek. One commentator suggests that John might have been working with a Roman-based “civil time”, similar to the modern
twelve hour clock- midnight to noon, noon to midnight. It’s an appealing thought, because it seems to explain his time references better than the
Jewish system. Let’s try them out, anyway.
“It was about the tenth hour” (ch1)
This was the day when John the Baptist told two of his disciples, Andrew and Philip, that Jesus was the Lamb of God. They went and joined Jesus,
taking Simon Peter along, and stayed with him “that day”. The “calling from the nets” in the synoptic gospels will have been a later occasion;
Peter and Andrew would have obeyed all the more readily, because it was not their first encounter.
On the Jewish system, the tenth hour is about 4 p.m. But then most of the day has passed already, with only a couple of hours left. Doesn’t that
take most of the meaning out of “stayed with him that day”?
On “civil time”, the tenth hour could have been around 10.a.m. Then “stayed with him that day” would have had much more substance to it.
“It was about the sixth hour” (ch4).
This was Jesus sitting by the well in Samaria, after a weary journey, when a Samaritan woman came to draw water.
On the Jewish system, the sixth hour is noon. It would have been more usual to visit the well at sunset, when the heat of the day had passed. So most
people preaching on this passage like to draw the moral that the woman was deliberately avoiding the company of her fellow-citizens because she was
ashamed of her lifestyle.
There is one difficulty with this theory. When the disciples returned, they saw Jesus talking to the woman and marvelled that none of the locals were
intervening to to say “What do you wish?” or “Why are you talking with her?” They would hardly have marvelled about this, unless there were
local people around who could have intervened if they felt like doing so. In other words, the woman was not, in fact, choosing to arrive at the well
at a time when nobody else was present. Nor did she have any difficulty in getting more people to come out to the well when the conversation was
On “civil time”, the relevant sixth hour would have been sunset. Then Jesus and the disciples would have arrived at the well after a full day’s
walk, instead of half a day. The woman would have been arriving at the well at exactly the same time as everybody else. The only drawback is that
preachers would lose a cherished sermon point.
“It was about the sixth hour” (ch19).
In John’s version of Good Friday, this was the time when Pilate brought out Jesus to face the Jews, just before making his final decision.
This timing famously clashes with the timetable in the synoptic gospels, where Jesus was already on the Cross by the third hour (Mark ch15 v25), and
the sixth hour saw the beginning of the darkness over the whole land.
But there is a very simple explanation, which solves the difficulty. All the business involving Pilate was happening around dawn, in concurrence with
the synoptic gospels. This works if we are allowed to assume that the “sixth hour”, in this case, means around 6 a.m., on civil time rather than
That leaves the best part of three hours to get Jesus flogged and on to the Cross in time for the Jewish third hour (9 a.m.), and the rest of the day
follows on from there.
All this also brings out the more general point that even Biblical words do not necessarily have the same meaning each time they are used. As in
everyday use of language, much depends on the person using them.
P.S. Admittedly, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If anyone walks in the day he does not stumble…” does point to a “dawn to dusk”
understanding of the twelve hours. But this remark was made among Jews, and may have been proverbial.
edit on 30-7-2021 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)