Questions From Readers
Is it possible to determine the exact time of day that the impalement of Jesus Christ took place?
This question arises because of a seeming discrepancy between the inspired accounts of Jesus’ death recorded by the Gospel writer Mark and by the apostle John. Mark states: “It was now the third hour, and they [soldiers] impaled him.” (Mark 15:25) According to John, “it was about the sixth hour” when Pilate handed Jesus over to the Jews to be impaled. (John 19:14-16) Bible expositors have offered various explanations in an effort to resolve this seeming contradiction. However, sufficient Scriptural information is not available to explain the difference between the two accounts. Still, considering how people viewed time back in those days can be helpful.
In the first century of our Common Era, the Jews divided the daylight into 12 hours, counting from sunrise. (John 11:9) “The third hour” extended therefore from eight o’clock to nine o’clock in the morning and “the sixth hour” ended about noon. Of course, the sun rose and set at different times during the year. Consequently, the length of the daylight period varied, according to the season. Moreover, the hour of the day was determined by observing the position of the sun. Hence, references to time were approximate. The Christian Greek Scriptures generally refer to events occurring at the third, sixth, or ninth hour—often meaning about that time. (Matt. 20:3, 5; Acts 10:3, 9, 30) More specific reference, such as “the seventh hour,” was made only when the timing was essential to the development of the account being related.—John 4:52.
The Gospel accounts harmonize with regard to the timing of events during Jesus’ last day on earth. All four indicate that the priests and older men met after dawn and then had Jesus taken to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. (Matt. 27:1; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66; John 18:28) Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report that from the sixth hour, when Jesus was already on the stake, darkness fell over the land “until the ninth hour.”—Matt. 27:45, 46; Mark 15:33, 34; Luke 23:44.
One significant factor that may have a bearing on the timing of Jesus’ impalement is this: Scourging or whipping was considered a part of the impalement process. Sometimes the scourging was so terrible that the victim died under it. In Jesus’ case, it must have been sufficiently severe to make it necessary for another man to carry the torture stake after Jesus started out bearing it alone. (Luke 23:26; John 19:17) If the scourging was viewed as the start of the impalement procedure, some time would have to elapse before the nailing of Jesus to the torture stake took place. Different individuals might therefore give different times for the impalement, depending on the stage of the overall process during which they personally took note of the time.
The apostle John wrote his account decades after the other Gospel writers. He therefore had access to their accounts. True, John included a time that appears to vary from that given by Mark. However, this provides clear evidence that John did not simply copy Mark’s account. Both John and Mark were inspired by God. Although sufficient Scriptural information is not available to explain the difference, we can trust the Gospel accounts.