Servants' News

Nov/Dec 2002

John 19:14: What Time Is It?


Many articles—some entire books—have been written attempting to resolve the apparent contradiction between John 19:13–14 which states that Pilate was concluding the judgment of Jesus “about the sixth hour” (Hebrew time, i.e. 12 noon), and Mark 15:25 which plainly says “Now it was the third hour [9 a.m.], and they crucified Him.”

Other verses fit this time schedule saying that it was dark from the sixth hour (noon) to the ninth hour (3 p.m.) (Matt 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44). He died the ninth hour (3 p.m. — Matt 27:46, 15:34). Other verses show that the Jewish leaders first judged Jesus, ready to take him to Pilate “as soon as it was day” (Luke 22:66), “when morning came” (Matt 27:1–2) and “immediately, in the morning” (Mark 15:1).

How can Jesus be with the Jewish leaders at daybreak (6 a.m.), on the cross at 9 a.m., but then still be finishing with Pilate at noon? My previous answers to letters on the subject stated that John must have been using Roman time (like our time), hence the 6th hour would have been 6 a.m. (Servants’ News July 1997, p. 19; Sept/Oct 1997 p.39; Sept/Oct 1999, p.17). However, this requires one to assume that John used a different time system than the other gospel writers. We also must say that John’s “about the sixth hour” really is as late as 7 or 8 a.m. Only two verses later it says: “Then he delivered Him to them to be crucified” (v 16)—which we know is 9 a.m. from Mark 15:25.

It would be most logical if John 19:14 said “about the 3rd hour” (9 a.m.). Then, John would be using Hebrew time and would agree with Mark 15:25. But just because we think it should say this, does not mean that it does. But what if someone who was alive almost 1,800 years ago said he saw the original writing of John and that it said the “third hour”?

While looking for some other information, I happened to find what I consider very good evidence that John 19:14 should say “the third hour”. In the 200’s ad, one of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, wrote about the problem with John 19:14 in section 6 of a work entitled: That up to the Time of the Destruction of Jerusalem, the Jews Rightly Appointed the Fourteenth Day of the First Lunar Month:

“When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgment-seat, in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew, Gabbatha. And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the third hour,” as the correct books render it, and the copy itself that was written by the hand of the evangelist, which, by the divine grace, has been preserved in the most holy church of Ephesus, and is there adored by the faithful.

When Peter of Alexandria wrote this, he was not trying to prove any kind of point about the timing of Jesus’ death, he was quoting the verse for other reasons. However, he notes in passing that many books had something else, but that the original manuscript, which was still available at that time, had it correct. There seems to be no motivation whatever for Peter of Alexandria to have made up this idea—it would certainly detract from his authority if any of his readers knew he was making something up.

Even today, a few ancient manuscripts still say “third hour” in John 19:14. But because the number is small, most of the master Greek texts that are the basis of modern Bible translations say “sixth hour”. Only thorough scholars like Adam Clarke bring out the “third hour” manuscripts. See the unabridged version of his commentary on John 19:14:

The sixth hour—Mark says, Mark 15:25, that it was the third hour. trith, the third, is the reading of DL, four others [other manuscripts], the Chron. Alex., Seuerus Antiochen., Ammonius, with others mentioned by Theophylact. Nonnus, who wrote in the fifth century, reads trith, the third. As in ancient times all the numbers were written in the manuscripts not at large but in numeral letters, it was easy for g three, to be mistaken for v six. The Codex Bezae has generally numeral letters instead of words. Bengel observes that he has found the letter g gamma, three, exceedingly like the v episemon, six, in some MSS. {Episemon = greek ‘st’ combined, similar appearance to final form sigma with a nearly flat top. Similar appearance to upper case gamma G.} The major part of the best critics think that trith, the third, is the genuine reading. See the note on Mark 15:25.

The only other Bible translation I could find that says “third hour” for John 19:14 is the Concordant Literal New Testament. Yet I believe “third hour” (9 a.m.) is the right translation. Why? It is consistent with the other books of the Bible, some ancient manuscripts actually contain this reading, the ancient writer Peter of Alexandria claims it is correct, a copying mistake seems likely and there seems to be no doctrinal reason why John 19:14 would have been altered.



Can the Bible Be Wrong?

How could God let the Bible be wrong on this detail for most of history?

1. God left Bible copying to humans—who make mistakes or add enhancements when they think they are right. To prevent copiests from trying to “harmonize” the Gospels, their supervisors may have deliberately removed all of the other Bible books from the room when they were copying. But if their “master copy” was difficult to read in a certain place, and they had no other manuscripts to check for consistency, they may have made a mistake. Later manuscripts used spelled-out numbers rather than the short form—probably because the short numbers were error-prone. But since the John 19:14 error got into master manuscripts before the new procedure began, it was spread to most copies. Whenever we do something for God, we should do the best job possible.

2. We must realize that God judges us based on what we do with what we know. Whether we have 1%, 2% or 10% of the Bible knowledge that Christ had, He can still see our character by what we do. But when we see a new truth that most other people do not, what will we do? Will we try to remember it and work to make it available to other Christians? Or will we let the truth die, as others have before us? — NSE

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