Did Jesus Die at the Third or the Sixth Hour?
by Trevor Major, M.Sc., M.A.
A skeptic argued the following: Mark 15:25 says that Jesus was crucified at “the third hour,” but John 19:14 says that Pilate presented Jesus to the Jews at “about the sixth hour.” Thus it appears that Jesus was on the cross three hours before His trial. How do we resolve this alleged biblical discrepancy?
The Jews and the Romans used different standards for reckoning the hours of the day, although both systems split the day into two periods of 12 hours. A new day for the Romans began at midnight (as it does for us today), whereas a new day for the Jews began in the evening at what we would call 6 p.m.
Various clues within the fourth gospel indicate that John was using the Roman system (Geisler and Howe, 1992, p. 376). This makes sense given that John was writing outside of Palestine to a Hellenistic audience. That Mark used a Jewish system makes sense in light of the strong tradition that his gospel account follows sermons delivered by the apostle Peter (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39). As always, we have to take into account the context, as well as cultural differences between the Jewish and Gentile worlds.
Given this distinction, the problem disappears. John has Pilate handing Jesus over for crucifixion at 6 a.m., and Mark has Jesus on the cross three hours later at 9 a.m. (i.e., “the third hour”). In fact, John begins his whole account of Jesus’ audience with Pilate by noting that it was “early morning” (18:28). This reference follows immediately after Peter and the rooster crowing incident. Roosters, of course, can crow at any time, but are most famous for signaling the beginning of a new day.
This is perfectly consistent with Mark’s account. The previous evening, Jesus and the disciples traveled from the upper room to the Mount of Olives and then to Gethsemane. The disciples fell asleep, and Jesus had to wake them in order to meet the arresting mob. Mark records the rooster crowing incident, and notes that the Jews delivered Jesus to Pilate “in the morning” (15:1). A skeptic might doubt that the events at the Prætorium took place at such an early hour (i.e., before 6 a.m.), but there is no evidence for this objection, and there is no inconsistency in the Gospel accounts.
I would like to end with a word of warning. Skeptics are notorious for raising a dozen objections in as many minutes. As you can see, it takes a lot more time and work to answer an objection than it does to raise it. And yet, if we do not answer every objection, no matter how frivolous it may be, the skeptic claims victory. We should recognize that most skeptics have no interest in making sense out of Scripture. The powers of comprehension and interpretation they would bring to an average newspaper are left behind in the case of the Bible. Perhaps this uneven treatment should not be surprising. After all, the skeptic has much to lose if the Bible is right.
Geisler, Norman and Thomas Howe (1992), When Critics Ask (Wheaton: IL: Victor).