How did People Tell Time in Jesus’Day?

081114The modern person, especially in the West, thinks of  time in a very mechanistic way. We watch the clock, which is in itself a mechanical device without intrinsic meaning. We look to the clock rather than watch the sun, or watch our children grow, or we look to the crops, or even more broadly to the rise and fall of nations. For most of us time is not the unfolding of eternity or the cycle of life; time is simply a neutral span to be reckoned by its length, by the number of ticks on a device we have invented. We also tend to reckon time by what we can do with it. If we have a lot of time we can get a lot done; if we don’t have much time we can’t get things done.

Further, the modern, Western mind controls by measuring. And we love to measure time. And having measured it, we somehow think we control it. We assign monetary value to it (time is money!) and hang many expectations on it as in, “You’re taking too long to do that,” or “The deadline has passed.”

For ancient peoples, including the ancient Jews, such precision about time was unknown and to some degree impossible. Surely, for them, the measurement of time was of divine origin. God set forth the sun to rule the day, the moon and the stars the night (cf Ps 135:8-9).

The cycle of the sun set forth the day.  Another lengthier cycle of the sun, its rising and falling in the horizon, marked the year. So, too, “seasons” could be noted by this cycle. There was the longest and shortest day of the year known as the solstices. And then twice more in the year there were the equinoxes when the night and the day were almost exactly the same length.

As for the months, the moon declared these. The very name “month” in English is actually a mispronunciation of the word moon, as in, “What moonth are we in?”

There were different systems among the ancient peoples to demarcate time, some of them solar calendars, others lunar. At the time of Jesus, it is clear that there was a lunar year (354 days) in use. The lunar year has the serious disadvantage of being some 11 days behind the solar year, which quickly causes a discrepancy between the months and the seasons. Thus, from time to time, these differences had to be “caught up,” otherwise the declared summer months would eventually have opened in mid-winter, etc.

The Jewish people, generally speaking, waited until the error of the lunar calendar amounted to about a full month and then inserted an extra month, called Veadar, between the months of Adar and Nisan. A year with this extra month amounted to almost 400 days instead of the usual 354 days of the Jewish lunar calendars.

The decision as to when exactly to insert this extra month was made in a very empirical manner. Thus farmers might note to Rabbinic official that “The lambs are still too young,” or “The grain is not yet ripe.” When consensus built that the Veadar month needed to be inserted, it was ordered to be done. Decisions of this sort were usually made by a Beth Din, a legal council of Rabbis, following a complex procedure. Witnesses were examined as to the problem of the lagging clock in relation to the season. Chosen observers of the sun and moon were asked to testify in great detail as to where they had seen the moon, the size of its crescent, and its height above the horizon. And when the necessary evidence was collected, the Veadar month was declared. This would happen approximately every three years.

Generally, a month was said to begin in the evening of the 29th day, at the moment when the thin sliver of the new moon appeared in the sky. When all seven Beth Din court members agreed to the new month, it legally began, and fires were lit on the hilltops to announce it.

In ordinary years (without a Veadar) there were 12 months. But, frankly, the Anceint Jews told time more by their feasts than by the name of the month. Thus, the Jews thought of yearly time in this manner:

Jewish Month Corresponding Western Equivalent Cycle of Feasts
Nissan March–April Passover
Iyar April–May Lag B’Omer
Sivan May–June Shavuot
Tammuz June–July
Menachem Av July–August Tisha B’Av
Elul August–September
Tishrei September–October Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succoth, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah
Marcheshvan October–November
Kislev November–December Chanukah
Tevet December–January Conclusion of Chanukah
Shevat January–February Tu B’Shvat
Adar February–March Purim 

Months (the moon cycle) and festivals were the essential divisions of the year. The four seasons, which have a lot of important for us, were less significant for the ancient Jews, who lived in a climate that did not really fall into four distinct periods. For them there was only the cool and wet period of October to March and the hot and dry period of April to September. The intermediate stages between these two seasons were very brief. But, as noted, the chief points of the year were known in relation to the feasts. For ancient Jews, to hear of the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Day of Atonement gave them very clear time references.

But despite all these reference points, the honest truth about telling time in Jesus’ day was that it was murky. Frankly, there were any number of different calendars used in Palestine at the time. The Jews had an official calendar, but were divided even among themselves as to its details. This difference finds its way into the Scriptures, wherein the three synoptic gospels seem to date Passover one day, but John’s Gospel another. The reason is likely rooted in the two different calendars in use among the Jews of Jesus’ day. There is strong evidence that the Essene community used a calendar from the Book of Jubilees, which was a  solar calendar of 364 days rather than the lunar calendar of many other Jews. So even in the significant feasts  like Passover, different groups of Jews sometimes had strong differences as to how to enumerate the exact days of Passover. And add to this complexity the fact that the Romans had a completely different calendar from the Jews, as did the Samaritans. The Greek cities of the Decapolis used the Macedonian calendar, and others made reference to as many as four calendars: the Jewish, the Syrian, the Egyptian, and the Roman.

We who live with more certain parameters about time will wonder how anyone knew what time to show up anywhere! Yet from day to day it must be said that the ancient Jews lived in greater conformity with the natural cycles of the day. They got up when the sun rose and generally followed the cycle of the day, finishing work before dusk and then enjoying a few evening hours perhaps around oil lamps or by moonlight. But generally their lives were synchronized with the sun and the seasons, while our notions of the day are often artificial and in some ways unhealthy.

One of the greater mysteries in terms of telling time is the seven-day week. Most of the other increments make sense based on the cycles of the moon and the sun. But there seems to be no obvious reference in the natural order to explain a week being seven days. Surely the book of Genesis is the theological source for this practice. God worked for six days and creating the heavens and the earth, and rested on the seventh. Thus man, made in God’s image, did the same. And yet it seems clear that most cultures throughout human history seem to “reset the clock” every seven days. Where exactly this comes from naturally is not clear. It is possible that the influence of the Jewish scriptures had some role. Yet the seven-day cycle seems common even where Jewish faith could not have had much influence. Perhaps there is some inner circadian rhythm in the human person; it’s not clear. But for the Jews of Jesus’ time, it is clear enough that God had set this forth and thus it was to be followed.

Weeks lasted from one sabbath to the next; there is no evidence that the Jews named each day. Of course the Sabbath was named, and the day before the Sabbath was called Preparation Day (e.g., Mk 15:42). However other days were simply called the first day of the week (e.g., Mk 16:2), the second day of the week, and so forth. Romans and Greeks named each day off after a god or a planet, but there is no evidence that the Jews did this.

For the ancient Jews the day began at sundown. In larger towns, and especially in Jerusalem, the end of the day was marked with the sound of trumpets. This pattern is of course very different for us, who mark the beginning of the new day literally at midnight but practically at sunrise. We begin the day with work and then rest; they rested and then worked.

The division of the day and the hours was a comparatively recent phenomenon in Jesus’ time. The very word “hour” is not even found in the Old Testament, except perhaps once in the book of Daniel. But by the time of Jesus, the division of the day into 12 hours was commonly accepted. This fact is referenced in many places in the New Testament. For example there is a parable of the laborers who were hired at the 11th hour (Mt 20:9). There are references to Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well at the sixth hour (Jn 4:6). St. Mark says that Jesus was let out for crucifixion at the third hour and died at the ninth hour (Mk 15:25,33). Jesus admonished the disciples when they were unable watch and pray even for one hour.

Exactly how an hour was reckoned was obviously less precise than it is today. There was a general sense of the position of the sun and there were sundials in use, especially among the Greeks. But there was a general vagueness surrounding it and in determining the exact time of the day in Israel back in Jesus’ day. As already noted, our modern mania for promptness and exactness with time was utterly unknown at the time of Jesus, and even in many places in the world today. Time was a much more flexible phenomenon. In Jesus’ day it would’ve been meaningless to set an appointment for 10:30 AM or 6:00 PM. One would have had to be content to speak of meeting in the early evening, or in mid-afternoon, etc. To us moderns this would seem infuriating. But life was slower then and people were rarely in a hurry.

As for the night hours, things are even more vague. For those who were up at night (and cared), the night was divided into watches. It would seem there were four of them. St. Matthew, for example, states that it was in the fourth watch of the night when Jesus walked on the water to join his disciples (Mat 14:25). The last watch of the night would also feature the cockcrow as dawn neared.

Imagine how lost many of us moderns would be in a world where time was not of the essence, where it was on the periphery. For us who are ruled by the clock, the whole experience might be quite disorienting. On the other hand it might also be liberating to look, not slavishly to some artificial, unrelenting timepiece, but to the gentler, cyclical rhythms of God’s design. We might actually slow down to the pace of life He intended for us.  As for most of us now, we could well say, “I’m so busy I met myself coming back!” But somewhere, even in the world today, there are still those who, by the glow of gentle oil lamps, wait patiently until the day dawns and the morning star rises (2 Peter 1:19).

Here is a brief reflection by Fr. Francis Martin on time in the Bible. (Please pray for Fr. Martin, who has had recent setback in his health.)

8 Replies to “How did People Tell Time in Jesus’Day?”

  1. The main problem for people in the ancient world was that they did not have railways. Up until the 1840s there was no standardised time throughout the UK; different areas kept to their own times. This, however, caused considerable difficulties for the railway companies and gradually standardised time was adopted throughout the UK. According to Wikipedia the same development took place in the USA in the 1850s. So, if standardised times did not exist in Europe and the USA until the nineteenth century it is hardly surprising that they did not exist in ancient Palestine.

  2. It seems that controlling time by creating a method by which to measure it in miniscule increments has evolved into controlling people by forcing them into mental constructs developed by those who seek power. The most valuable part of any vacation I have taken has been the “right” to ignore countable time, giving me a tremendous sense of freedom that in itself feels immeasurably infinite and, therefore, undefinable. I relish just “being.” Yet, it is a state that is practically forbidden in so-called civilized cultures. How does one find it on a day-to-day basis? (I note the irony in my question!)

  3. Thank you Msgr. Pope for this fascinating article!

    I am not a bible nor history scholar, but my best guess for the number seven set for days in the week may have originated with God and Adam and Eve? I have no source for this, but if God conversed with Adam & Eve and Moses wrote Genesis, wouldn’t it be reasonable that Oral Traditions tracing back all the way to Adam & Eve based the week on what God told Adam & Eve about creation, ie, six days to create and rest on the seventh?

    Just curious.

  4. Nice article; makes me want to put all my clocks in the closet for awhile.

    One additional aspect of time back then was the standard of having twelve hours in a day. I think this arose from astronomy, where the position of stars over the course of a year changed month by month. There were 12 months, and twelve different positions the full moon could appear. These became the zodiac, 12 constellations of stars spaced evenly in a circle around the sky in the path where the moon, planets and sun traveled. The sky being divided into twelve equal arcs, as the sky moved steadily over the earth it was natural to divide the night and the day into twelve hours. And it is also thus that we have 360 degrees in a circle, there being 360 (roughly) days in a year. Each night the stars advance in sky a little more from the night before, and one could take the arc from one zodiac sign to another and divide it into 30 parts to get the movement of one day.

  5. +I am by no means an expert . . . but it has long been my understanding that . . . historically . . . here in western civilization . . . the invention of the mechanical clock . . . to measure and harmoniously stay in tune with the movement of GOD’s time throughout a day . . . has for centuries been attributed to coming from the . . . consecrated depths . . . of the . . . Holy Prayerful Heart . . . of the Apostolic Holy Roman Catholic Church . . . in particular the religious Order of St. Benedict’s monks in Europe . . .

    Benedictine monastic daily life . . . lived under the . . . “Holy Rule of St. Benedict” . . . has been for centuries upon centuries . . . profoundly ordered to daily accomplishing . . . as their first priority . . . the . . . prayerful . . . “Work of God” . . . and it is said that the mechanized clock was specifically invented so that the prayers of the . . . “Work of God” . . . which we now know of as the “Liturgy of the Hours/Divine Office . . . could be prayed at their appropriate times during the daylight hours and throughout the night hours . . . for the . . . REDEMPTION OF TIME . . . for the true purpose of life here on earth . . . mankind‘s salvation . . . to sanctify the days of said life . . . “… redeeming the time, because the days are evil“. – Ephesians 5:16 . . . “Walk with wisdom towards them that are without, redeeming the time.” – Colossians 4:5

    The GODLY . . . Biblical . . . Jewish . . . practice of reciting prayers at certain hours of the day or night . . . was continued by Christians from the very earliest days of the church . . .

    “As the Prophet saith: ‘SEVEN TIMES A DAY I HAVE GIVEN PRAISE TO THEE’ (Psalm 118[119]:164), this sacred sevenfold number will be fulfilled by us in this wise if we perform the duties of our service at the time of Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline because it was of these day hours that he hath said: “Seven times a day I have given praise to Thee” (Ps 118[119]:164). For the same Prophet saith of the night watches: “AT MIDNIGHT I AROSE TO CONFESS TO THEE” (Ps 118[119]:62).” – The Holy Rule of St. Benedict Chapter 16

    The knowledge and sweet wisdom . . . that as GOD’s children pray together in the Spirit . . . JESUS . . . the Blessed Christ . . . our Wonderful Lord and Dear Saviour . . . unites us all to Himself in the Spirit . . . in holy faith and in holy love . . . and transmits our prayer . . . and our lives . . . into His . . . perfect communion . . . with our Father in Heaven . . . deep in the mystical . . . LOVE of GOD . . . that mystically embraces the whole of humanity in prayer . . . opening up multitudes of channels of Holy Grace to flow down into our world for good . . . is such a blessed awareness . . . which can guard our hearts and minds holy peace . . . knowing . . . truly . . . OUR GOD REIGNS . . . may the blessings of God be ours . . . and His . . . Perfect . . . Holy Will be done in . . . each . . . of our lives . . .

    Here is an internet link to a really quite fascinating read entitled . . . “How The Monks Saved Civilization” . . .

    . . . all for Jesus+

  6. Live in Italy for a while to experience a world where time is not of the essence. (As I wait for a ride 1.5 hours late…. 🙂

  7. When portable clocks were developed, ones that would withstand moving and didn’t have to be perfectly level, they were used on ships, along with a sextant to calculate the latitude and longitude, very important when sailing to a predetermined location across an ocean, where there was nothing but water horizon-to-horizon in all directions.

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