Timekeeping in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East

Students of antiquity stumble over important questions. To accept any ancient work such as the Bible as a valid historical document we must understand the basics of daily life in the Bible. It is unfortunate, or exciting depending upon your point of view, that the Bible encompasses over 2,000 years, thousands of square miles and dozens of cultures. Simple questions abound such as “what time of day was Jesus crucified?” While this article will not provide a definitive answer, it will shed light on the question.

Israel

Time was divided into days, weeks, months and years during the Israelite monarchy. During and after the Babylonian exile the Jews adopted the Babylonian system of dividing the daylight period into hours. 

Greece and Babylon

According to the journal of the British Archaeological Association (Volume 38:1882), the Athenians reckoned their day from sunset to sunset and the Babylonians from sunrise to sunrise.

Rome

The 1882 British Archeological Association journal also reported that the Romans measured their day from midnight (medice noctis inclinatio) to midnight. The phrase in Latin suggests “the decline of midnight” or the early morning hours. The second portion of the day was called the gallicinium, or cock-crow, and spoke of the later morning hours until noon. The third portion, the conticuum, was the hottest part of the day in Southern Europe, the hours of silence when men take their rest. The final part, the diluculum, constitute the evening when the day is declining. These portions would be roughly 0001 to 0600 (midnight to 6 AM, 0601 to 1200 (6:01 to 12:00 noon), 1201 to 1800 (12:01 to 6 PM), and 1801 to 2400 (6:01 to midnight). 

Other authorities attest that the Romans, like the Greeks and Jews, divided their day into twelve hours of light and twelve hours of darkness. While simple, this makes the length of each hour different depending upon latitude and time of year. While light and dark hours are the same all year at the equator, the period of light shortens during the winter and lengthens during the summer, and this change is more pronounced the farther north or south one goes. In Rome, for example, a summer solstice daylight hour would last around 75 minutes and a winter solstice daylight hour about 45 minutes, though the division of each hour into minutes and seconds did not occur until the Middle Ages.

The night watch was divided in three hour segments; the first watch from 1801 to 2100, the second from 2101 to 2400, the third from 2401 to 0300, and the fourth watch from 0301 to 0600. Pity the poor Romans who got stuck with the night watch on 21 December at Hadrian’s Wall!

Romans kept time with a sundial, imported from Sicily in 263 BC, and with a water clock. The sundial divided daylight into 12 equal hours but only measured sunrise, midday and sunset with precision. Courts opened at about the third hour (0900 or 9 AM) and lunch was at midday. After lunch was time for a nap and then return to work from 1600 to 1900. The day was divided in half, with the morning ante meridiem (AM) and the afternoon post meridiem (PM). The water clock was a container with a hole in it that was used to measure time. It controlled speakers’ time in the Senate and timed athletic events.

It seems most likely that the early Roman Empire used sunrise to sunrise, or sunset to sunset as the Greeks and Jews did, early in their history, but later transitioned to the midnight to midnight system. As their armies conquered and they gained a vast empire, it would be harder and harder to maintain, administer, and defend their far flung lands and peoples with inconsistent measures of hours and days.

Bible

Expressions such as “the sixth hour” are found primarily in the New Testament. The authors, all Jewish except for Luke (Hebrews is unknown), could have used the Jewish system (measuring from sunset to sunset or sunrise to sunrise) or the later Roman system (measuring from midnight to midnight). Typically Jews measured from sunrise but the Romans could either measure from midnight or noon. The context and each authors’ routine usage can provide some clues.

Passage

Term

Jewish time

Roman time

Most likely based on context

Matthew 20:3

“third hour”

0900

0300 or 1500

Jewish, because the landowner was going out to hire workers

Matthew 20:5

“sixth and ninth hour”

1200, 1500

0600, 0900 or 1800, 2100

Jewish, because the landowner was continuing to hire workers

Matthew 20:6, 9

“eleventh hour”

1700

1100 or 2300

Jewish, because the landowner was continuing to hire workers

Matthew 27:45-46

“sixth hour”, “ninth hour”

1200, 1500

0600, 0900 or 1800, 2100

Jewish, because the darkness was unusual and prolonged. Darkness early or late in the day is neither.

Mark 15:25

“third hour”

0900

0300 or 1500

Unclear

Mark 15:33-34

“sixth hour”, “ninth hour”

1200, 1500

0600, 0900 or 1800, 2100

Jewish, because the darkness was unusual and prolonged. Darkness early or late in the day is neither.

Luke 23:44

“sixth hour”, “ninth hour

1200, 1500

0600, 0900 or 1800, 2100

Jewish, because the darkness was unusual and prolonged. Darkness early or late in the day is neither.

John 1:39

“tenth hour”

1600

1000 or 2200

Unclear

John 4:6

“sixth hour”

1200

0600 or 1800

Jewish, because Jesus would not be tired from His journey at 0600 and the woman would not be getting water alone at 1800.

John 4:52

“seventh hour”

1300

0700 or 1900

Unclear

Acts 3:1

“ninth hour”

1500

0900 or 2100

Unclear

Acts 10:3, 9

“ninth hour”, “sixth hour”

1500, 1200

0900, 0600 or 2100, 1800

Unclear

Acts 10:30

“ninth hour”

1500

0900 or 2100

Unclear

Acts 23:23

“third hour”

2100

??

Jewish, “3rd hour of the night” suggests after sundown

Conclusion

In the modern world timekeeping has become such a science that fractions of a second matter. All over the globe commerce, war, navigation, research, and even relationships are impacted by the measurement of time. People today think in terms of minutes and seconds, while our ancestors thought in terms of day, fortnights, and seasons.

From this survey it seems clear that the New Testament writers measured time from sunrise (or sunset) rather than from midnight as the Romans later did. Writers of other ancient works used differing ways to measure, but they were all based on natural phenomena. To understand any ancient work, we need to have some understand of the basics of their lives. Time is an important part.  

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The Sanhedrin

No study of the New Testament is complete without a study of the government of Palestine in the first century AD, and no study of the government of Palestine in that period is complete without a study of the Sanhedrin. The term Sanhedrin is derived from the Greek phrase for “gathering place” and is not found in Jewish history prior to the periods of Greek domination under Alexander, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids.

History

Though the term came late in Biblical history, the idea of a Hebrew or Jewish ruling council came early. In the time of the Exodus (around 1400 BC), God told Moses to bring together 70 elders of Israel to receive His spirit and lead the people (Numbers 11:16). During the reign of Jehoshaphat in Judah, the king assembled priests and heads of families to discern and convey the judgment of the Lord and to handle controversies (2 Chronicles 19:8).  After the exile (during the Persian period), Ezra (5:5, 6:7, 10:8) and Nehemiah (2:16, 5:7, 7:5) made extensive use of ruling councils to legislate and judge.

The body known in the New Testament as the Sanhedrin is first cited by Josephus when a letter from the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III referenced a Jewish “senate”.  This “senate” was led by a chief priest and included priests and elders. It helped to provision soldiers and elephants (Seleucids used elephants) and eject the Egyptian garrison (Antiquities 12:138). Thus this Jewish body had legislative and even executive powers. The Sadducees were part of the early council and the Pharisees were added by Queen Salome (76-67 BC) (Josephus War, 1.5.2). The Romans reduced the power of the council on their ascent over Palestine in 63 BC but reversed themselves and by 47 BC the Sanhedrin, finally called by that name, summoned Herod (74-4 BC), who would later become Herod the Great, to account for the execution of a Jew named Hezekiah without its permission (Antiq 14.9.4-5). Herod was acquitted but was enraged, and upon becoming king slew many of the members, balanced the aristocratic Sadducees by adding more Pharisees, and limited the council’s power.

In 6 AD Judea, always restive and facing the Parthians, mortal enemies of Rome, became a Roman province. Under the Roman governor, the Sanhedrin was given legislative, executive and judicial powers as it had under Antiochus. These powers remained until the rebellion in 66 AD. Thus during the key years of the New Testament, the Jewish Sanhedrin was at the height of its power.

Regulations

There were actually two bodies referred to as the Sanhedrin. The first was a group of 20 to 23 men appointed to lead and judge in each city in Israel. It had local jurisdiction and was a cross between a city council and a religious court. The Great Sanhedrin, to which we have been referring above, was the Jewish ruling council of Palestine. It was led by the chief priest, and was composed of Sadducees and Pharisees, 71 men in all. The Great Sanhedrin legislated all aspects of religious and political life and served as the Supreme Court of the land. The group elected its own members, and the primary qualifications were age, wealth, and having completed Rabbinic studies.

The New Testament Accounts

According to the Mishnah, the Sanhedrin could not meet on the Sabbath, on feast days, or at night, especially in cases involving capital punishment (San 4:1). Capital cases had to begin with reasons for acquittal, and someone had to argue for the acquittal of the defendant (San 4:1). Thus the trial of Jesus, which was held before first light on Passover and in which no one argued for Him, was completely illegal (Matthew 26:57-66, Mark 14:53-65, Luke 22:63-71, John 18:3-28). In its desperation to execute Jesus, this descendent of so many venerable and important councils, gained eternal infamy.

Acts shows the Sanhedrin behaving more as it should. It rebuked but did not execute the disciples for teaching about Jesus (4:5-21) and again counseled caution against killing the disciples for spreading Christianity (5:27-40).  Some good men, including Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, served on the Sanhedrin. Unfortunately, the episode of Stephen again shows the Sanhedrin, infuriated by the spread of this new and “dangerous” religion, at its worst.

Post-Biblical History

The Sanhedrin remained as a shadow of its former self after the Jewish defeat in the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 AD) and even persisted after the Bar Kochba revolt (132-136 AD). Over time the leader of the Sanhedrin became known as the president or Nasi. The name of the group itself changed to Beth Din and later Beit Hava’ad. Its final major decision was in 358 AD, when the Sanhedrin adopted the Hebrew calendar. The last president of the Sanhedrin was Gamaliel VI (370-425 AD), who was executed by Theodosius II. The emperor then outlawed the Sanhedrin.

Conclusion

Like all ruling bodies, the Sanhedrin, or the Great Sanhedrin as the national body should be called, was composed of men. Therefore it was capable of everything grand, and everything grotesque, which men can do. The Sanhedrin was useful to the Jewish people in the hard years of Roman occupation. Unfortunately it was incapable of adapting to the massive disruption brought about by Jesus Christ and the beginning of Christianity. Because of this the Sanhedrin will abide forever in infamy.