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Sixth Hour (JOHN 19:14) or Third Hour (MARK 15:25)? An Intractable Discrepancy Solved

Updated: Jan 14

Introduction

Skeptics bring many charges of contradictions against the Bible. Most of them are trivial and easily answered. Others require more careful analysis, and there are a few that seem to stump Evangelicals, who seem unable to come up with a convincing answer [1]. One of these latter is the apparent contradiction between Mark and John regarding the time of day at which Jesus was crucified:

22 And they brought Him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull. 23 Then they gave Him wine mingled with myrrh to drink, but He did not take it. 24 And when they crucified Him, they divided His garments, casting lots for them to determine what every man should take. 25 Now it was the third hour, and they crucified Him. (Mark 15:22–25)
13 When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus out and sat down in the judgment seat in a place that is called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha. 14 Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” 15 But they cried out, “Away with Him, away with Him! Crucify Him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar!” 16 Then he delivered Him to them to be crucified. Then they took Jesus and led Him away. (John 19:13–16)

According to Mark, Jesus was crucified at the third hour, but according to John, Jesus was still standing before Pilate at the sixth hour. Prima facie, that seems to be a clear contradiction.


Proposed Solutions

Perhaps the most common attempt to resolve this apparent contradiction between Mark and John is to suggest that the two were using different ways of counting hours. Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe, for example, posit the following:

Both Gospel writers are correct in their assertions. The difficulty is answered when we realize that each Gospel writer used a different time system. John follows the Roman time system while Mark follows the Jewish time system. According to Roman time, the day ran from midnight to midnight. The Jewish 24 hour period began in the evening at 6 p.m. and the morning of that day began at 6 a.m. Therefore, when Mark asserts that at the third hour Christ was crucified, this was about 9 a.m. John stated that Christ’s trial was about the sixth hour [i.e. 6 a.m.]. This would place the trial before the crucifixion and this would not negate any testimony of the Gospel writers [2].

Is it possible that John was using the Roman time system? Certainly; objections to the idea by certain scholars are failures. D. A. Carson, for example, allows that John’s use of the Roman system “is barely possible, but it makes the chronology extremely tight[3]. Now, the chronology wasextremely tight,” but that had nothing to do with what time system was being used; it was “extremely tight” because a lot of events had to be accomplished in a span of a maximum of three hours, between the time Jesus was delivered to Pilate, around 6:00 AM, and the time He was crucified, at the latest at 9:00 AM [4]. Using the Roman time system rather than the Jewish time system does not affect the tightness of the chronology in any way, so it is exceedingly difficult to see why Carson would object to the idea that John used the Roman time system on the grounds that “it makes the chronology extremely tight”; that is simply not correct.


Carson also claims that there is no “convincing[5] evidence that the Roman system was used for anything other than legal matters, but even if that were so, most people would consider the trial of Jesus to be a “legal matter.” We could also note that where Carson sets the bar for “convincing” may not be where others would set it, and even if it were, a current lack of evidence would not mean that it was not done. This is an argument from silence from Carson, and not a strong one.


Got Questions, meanwhile, avers that,

Andreas Kostenberger also notes that John appears to use the traditional sunup-to-sundown frame of reference when referring to time in John 1:39 where the tenth hour seems to refer to late afternoon (4:00 PM), not 10:00 AM (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, “John,” Baker Academic, 2004, p. 74–75). So the “Roman time” solution seems to be unlikely [6].

Interestingly enough, Dr. James Davis says the exact opposite:

In John 1:39, two disciples come and meet Jesus after which they stayed with him “that day (τὴν ἡμέραν ἐκείνην).” John adds it was the 10th hour when they met him. Under a normal Jewish reckoning this would be 4 in the afternoon an unusual time to begin a day’s stay. Under a midnight reckoning the time would be 10 in the morning [7].

Davis’ suggestion is clearly more reasonable, and he proffers other examples in the Gospel According to John that indicate the Roman time system is being used.


It may seem, therefore, that this is an easy solution to the discrepancy, but a closer look shows that it does not solve the problem. In John 19:14, we read,

Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour.

If John was using the Roman system, this would be around 6:00 AM and would not conflict with the 9:00 AM crucifixion that Mark reports. However, if we read the entire section in John 19, we see that this took place after Jesus had been scourged and just before His crucifixion. Now, we know by harmonizing the four Gospel accounts that on Friday morning, the following events transpired prior to Pilate condemning Jesus to be crucified:

  • Confirmatory trial before the Sanhedrin “when morning came” (Matthew 27:1, Mark 15:1)

  • First examination by Pilate (Luke 23:3–5)

  • Taken to Herod; examined by Herod (Luke 23:6–11a)

  • Returned to Pilate (Luke 23:11b)

  • Second examination by Pilate (Luke 23:13–57; John 19:33–38)

  • The attempt to release Jesus, shouted down by the mob (Matthew 27:15–26a, Mark 15:6–14, Luke 23:16–23,

  • Jesus scourged (Matthew 27:26b–31a, Mark 15:15–20a)

Now, the indicators adduced by Davis [8] do support the contention that John used the Roman time system, and we accept that—but that by itself does not explain the difference. John 19:14 does indeed identify the time as 6:00 AM, but it would still mean that all of the things listed above must have happened between sunrise at 5:46 AM and 6:00 AM, which is obviously impossible. So the fact that John used the Roman time system does not explain his discrepancy with Mark’s time indication in Mark 15:25.


What else do apologists offer? Some appeal to a textual issue here, suggesting that the John 19:44 originally read “third,” but the manuscript evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the reading “sixth,” and no later, erroneous reading could ever come to dominate the manuscript tradition to the extent that “sixth” does; [9] even mainstream textual critics agree that “sixth” is the original reading [10].


The other two suggestions are, frankly, nonsense and unacceptable if Biblical reliability is to mean anything. One suggestion is that in Mark 15:25 (“Now it was the third hour, and they crucified Him”) “crucified” does not refer to Jesus’ actual crucifixion, but perhaps to when He was metaphorically crucified by the “tongues of the Jews[11] or to the dividing of His garments among the soldiers—though the Gospel books, in particular John at 19:23, are clear that Jesus’ garments were divided after He was crucified.


The fourth “solution,” the one that may be gaining traction among evangelical scholars, is—and it should be to no one’s surprise by now—is that we are being unreasonable to demand so-called modern standards of precision [12]. Carson, for example, writes,

More than likely we are in danger of insisting on a degree of precision in both Mark and John which, in days before watches, could not have been achieved [13].

Accordingly, Köstenberger absurdly writes,

since people related the estimated time to the closest three-hour mark, anytime between 9:00 a.m. and noon may have led one person to say that an event occurred at the third (9:00 a.m.) or the sixth hour (12:00 noon) [14].

Is such a suggestion at all viable?


It seems there is some confusion here about precision; there is a difference between “less precise” and “wrong.” If I say I live in Canada, that is less precise than if I say I live in Ontario, Canada, which is less precise than if I say I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada—but each of the statements is true; none of them is in error. But if I say I live in the United States, that is not “less precise” than saying I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; it is an error.


What was the level of precision regarding time in the New Testament? It was at the level of the hour, which is abundantly clear. The following are only a few examples:

  • Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day?” (John 11:19a)

  • They came and saw where He was staying, and remained with Him that day (now it was about the tenth hour). (John 1:39b)

  • And he went out about the third hour …. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour … And about the eleventh hour he went out … “These last men have worked only one hour” (Matthew 20:3a,5b,6,12b)

  • Then he inquired of them the hour when he got better. And they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” So the father knew that it was at the same hour in which Jesus said to him, “Your son lives.” And he himself believed, and his whole household. (John 4:52–53)

  • Then after about an hour had passed, another confidently affirmed, saying, “Surely this fellow also was with Him, for he is a Galilean.” (Luke 22:59)

  • But when they found out that he was a Jew, all with one voice cried out for about two hours, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:34)

  • Now it was about three hours later when his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. (Acts 5:7)

  • When He opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. (Revelation 8:1)

It is abundantly and undeniably clear that the level of precision at the time was to the hour (or even to the half hour, per Revelation 8:1). Indeed, we do not require modern levels of precision; we do not carp that the nobleman in John 4 was told that his son got better “at the seventh hour” instead of, say, 6:14 or 6:47.25. But, as the above examples show, people estimated time to the closest hour mark, not, as Köstenberger claimed, to the closest three-hour mark. It is exceedingly difficult to see how Köstenberger could make such an egregious mistake. So, no, contra his suggestion, there is no way that “at the third hour” and “at the sixth hour” could both be considered correct, even at the level of precision in Jesus’ day.


Yet it is Carson’s solution of choice to this discrepancy; he writes, risibly,

If the sun was moving toward mid-heaven, two different observers might well have glanced up and decided, respectively, that it was “the third hour” or “about the sixth hour.” [15]

So there you have it; the mistake was occasioned by at least one of the human observers misestimating the time. Whatever happened to divine inspiration and inerrancy? [16] But, then, Mark and John were not trying to be accurate, don’t you know:

Mark’s concern is to set a time frame in which the three hours of darkness occur (Mk. 15:25, 33). By contrast, John’s point appears to be that the proceedings had dragged on quite a long time. [17]

I would have preferred if Carson and Köstenberger had just admitted that they have no real solution to the discrepancy.


Those, then, are the solutions that have been put forth by scholars to try to explain the discrepancy between Mark 15:25 and John 19:14. Davis, who, as we have seen, admits that “The time of Jesus’ death has truly been a puzzle for anyone who has looked at this issue,” continues on to say,

All of the views for reconciliation have good arguments against them, but good arguments are not the same as decisive arguments. At least three resolutions (confusion of letters of gamma and digamma, [18] Roman civil reckoning of John, and time approximation) in this writer’s view are plausible. [19]

As we have seen, John is indeed using the “Roman civil reckoning” of time, but that does not solve the apparent contradiction with Mark 15:25, and the other two “resolutions” are most certainly not plausible; they are nonstarters. We need to look elsewhere.


The Solution

As is usually the case, we must begin with a careful look at the passages in the original language, Koine Greek:

Mark 15:25 ἦν δὲ ὥρα τρίτη καὶ ἐσταύρωσαν αὐτόν

The NKJV translates this precisely, but most other translations, including the NASB, ESV, and NIV, translate it differently.

Now it was the third hour, and they crucified Him. (NKJV) Now it was the third hour when they crucified Him. (NASB) And it was the third hour when they crucified him. (ESV) It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. (NIV)

Now, the NKJV’s translation is exact, so why do the other translations render καὶ (kai) as “when”? According to the BDAG entry 2(b)γ for καὶ, [20]


An expression of time + καὶ + that which occurs in the time means when that which occurs happened; hence, “It was the third hour” + καὶ (and) + “they crucified Him” means “It was the third hour when they crucified Him.” Then NKJV translation is correct, but so are the NASB and ESV translations:

Now it was the third hour, and they crucified Him. (NKJV) Now it was the third hour when they crucified Him. (NASB) And it was the third hour when they crucified him. (ESV)

Now, let us consider John 19:14 in the original language:

John 19:14 ἦν δὲ παρασκευὴ τοῦ πάσχα ὥρα δὲ ὡσεὶ ἕκτη καὶ λέγει τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις Ἴδε ὁ βασιλεὺς ὑμῶν

Consider the translations:

Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” (NKJV) Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he *said to the Jews, “Look, your King!” (NASB) Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” (ESV) It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon. “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews. (NIV)

These translations make it seem as if these events occur in the overall sequence in the account:

Pilate has Jesus scourged (John 19:1), and then the soldiers mock Jesus (19:2–3), and then Pilate brings out Jesus and tries to release Him (19:4–7), and then Pilate talked to Jesus again (19:8–11), and then Pilate tried to release Jesus again (19:12), and then Pilate brings out Jesus to the judgment seat (19:13), and then it was the sixth hour (19:14), and then Pilate said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” and then the Jews continued to demand Jesus’ crucifixion (19:15), and then Pilate delivered Jesus to be crucified (19:16). So it certainly seems that “the sixth hour” came right at the end of the events of the passion, just before the Pilate’s final attempt to release Jesus and his handing Jesus over to be crucified; hence, the apparent contradiction with Mark’s timeline.


But let us look again at John 19:14 in the original language:

ἦν δὲ παρασκευὴ τοῦ πάσχα ὥρα δὲ ὡσεὶ ἕκτη καὶ λέγει τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις Ἴδε ὁ βασιλεὺς ὑμῶν

What we see here is the exact same sort of structure as in Mark 15:25: An expression of time + καὶ + that which occurs in the time. So the sense of John 19:14 is “It was about the sixth hour when he said to the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’” [21] And that opens up the possibility that John 19:14–15b is an “editorial comment” inserted by John, rather than events in sequence in the narrative. An editorial comment is a statement inserted by the author in the midst of a narrative, a statement that does not form part of the narrative but is placed there to provide clarification or additional information, and this is something John frequently did in his Gospel book; for example (editorial comments bolded):

19 Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said: “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord,” ’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” 24 Now those who were sent were from the Pharisees. 25 And they asked him, saying, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, saying, “I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know. 27 It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.” 28 These things were done in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing. 29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:19–29)
40 One of the two who heard John speak, and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his own brother Simon, and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus. Now when Jesus looked at him, He said, “You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas” (which is translated, A Stone). 43 The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and He found Philip and said to him, “Follow Me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:40–45)
61 When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. 65 And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.” (John 6:61–65)
30 Jesus answered and said, “This voice did not come because of Me, but for your sake. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. 32 And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” 33 This He said, signifying by what death He would die. 34 The people answered Him, “We have heard from the law that the Christ remains forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?” (John 12:30–34)
9 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” 11 For He knew who would betray Him; therefore He said, “You are not all clean.” 12 So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? (John 13:9–12)
17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep. 18 Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.” 19 This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me.” 20 Then Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also had leaned on His breast at the supper, and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” (John 21:17–20)

Now, if John 19:14–15b is an editorial comment, why did John insert it? What point was he making? It would be that when the chief priests, elders and scribes brought Jesus to Pilate at the sixth hour, his initial reaction was to say to them, perhaps mockingly, “Behold Look at your king!” whereupon they demanded that He be crucified. Now, after all of the various examinations by Pilate, Herod, and Pilate again, Pilate asks, “Shall I crucify your King?” (Is he still mocking, or has something that came out during his interrogations of Jesus that caused Pilate to think that, just maybe, Jesus is indeed the King of the Jews?) Yet the answer from the chief priests, elders, and scribes remains the same as it was when they had first brought Jesus to him: “Crucify Him.”

In sum, then, it is viable to see John 19:14–15b as one of John’s many editorial comments, and, as such, the reference to the “sixth hour” is not related to the sequence of events (i.e. specifying the time at which Pilate delivered Jesus to be crucified) but is a comment about the initial and final attitude of Pilate and Jesus’ Jewish opponents. As such, it in no way conflicts with Mark 15:25, which does specify the time of Jesus’ crucifixion as the “third hour.”


Conclusion

One of the discrepancies in the Bible accounts that seem to stump evangelical apologists is the apparent contradiction between Mark 15:25, which tells us that Jesus was crucified at “the third hour,” and John 19:14, which tells us that Jesus was still standing before Pontius Pilate at the “sixth hour.” No viable answer has heretofore been offered. The assertion that John was using the Roman time system, which seems to be correct, does not actually solve the problem by itself. Appeals to a possible textual variant are not viable, and appeals to a supposed lack of modern precision are not viable either, nor acceptable to evangelicals, nor compatible with inerrancy.


However, it is grammatically and stylistically reasonable to see John 19:14–15a as an editorial comment by John (one of many he inserted into his Gospel account) and not as a sequential event in the narrative. Thus, the alleged contradiction disappears, and the discrepancy at long last is finally satisfactorily answered.

 

Endnotes

[1] For example, the date of Jesus’ birth in relation to Herod and Quirinius and the colour of Jesus’ robe when He was mocked prior to His crucifixion.


[2] Geisler, Norman L. and Thomas Howe. The Big Book of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1992, p. 376


[3] Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press and Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991, p. 605


[4] The “first hour” by the Jewish reckoning started at sunrise, around 6:00 AM and ended at 7:00, the second hour started at 7:00 and ended at 8:00, and the third hour started at 8:00 and ended at 9:00. So the latest possible time for Jesus’ crucifixion at “the third hour” was 9:00 AM. Similarly, by Roman reckoning, the sixth hour started at 5:00 AM and ended at 6:00 AM. Roman governors did not begin work before sunrise, however, which on the day of the crucifixion—Friday, April 3, AD 33—was at 5:46 AM (for which see Humphreys, Colin J. The Mystery of the Last Supper. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 187)


[5] Carson, op.cit.


[6] “What time was Jesus crucified?” Posted at https://www.gotquestions.org/what-time-was-Jesus-crucified.html.


[7] Davis, James, “The Time of Jesus’ Death and Inerrancy: Is Harmonization Plausible?” Posted at https://bible.org/article/time-jesus-death-and-inerrancy-harmonization-plausible.


[8] ibid.


[9] See Tors, John, “A Primer on New Testament Textual Criticism (in Manageable, Bite-Sized Chunks).”


[10] Bruce Metzger, for example, in A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd Edition. United Bible Societies: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994, p. 216) says that “the manuscript evidence is overwhelmingly in support of ἕκτη [sixth].” Of course, it is stock in trade for mainstream textual critics to side with the minority reading (almost always a vanishingly small minority) against the majority reading, especially if the minority reading introduces a problem or an outright error into the text. It is difficult not to suspect, then, that, had “sixth” been the minority reading, mainstream textual critics would have argued for its originality, in the interests of siding with yet another problematic reading.


[11] We can thank Augustine for this one: “What is it, therefore, that the Evangelist Mark says, ‘Now it was the third hour and they crucified him, ‘except at the third hour the Lord was crucified by the tongues of the Jews, at the sixth hour by the hands of the soldiers?” (Tractates on the Gospel of John 117.1)


[12] “What appears to be the currently prevalent view in the evangelical literature of those arguing for harmonization is that time approximation can account for a reconciliation of the two passages.” (Davis, op.cit.)


[13] Carson, op.cit.


[14] Andreas Köstenberger. The Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament: John. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2004, p. 538


[15] Carson, op.cit.


[16] See Tors, John. “The Three-Headed Monster and the Evangelical Betrayal of the Bible: Exposing the Major Weapons Levied against the Trustworthiness of the Bible.”


[17] Carson, op.cit.


[18] This is the textual variant gambit.


[19] Davis, op.cit.


[20] Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. (BDAG) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, p. 494.


[21] It is strange that of the NASB, ESV, and NIV, which all translated this construction as “when” in Mark 15:25, none translated it as “when” in John 19:14. In fact, the ESV and NIV translators did not translate the καὶ at all.


[22] For example, at 1:24, 1:28, 1:42b, 5:2 5:18, 6:6, 6:64, 8:27, 10:6, 12:33, 13:11, and 21:19.

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