The 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|
|Menachem Av||July–August||Tisha B’Av|
|Tishrei||September–October||Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succoth, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah|
|Tevet||December–January||Conclusion of Chanukah|
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.)