How Did People Tell Time in Jesus’ Day?

N.B.: I am in the Holy Land at this time. As my travel schedule is heavy, I am republishing some articles about life in Jesus’ day. I hope you will enjoy reading (or re-reading) them as much as I did.

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. For shorter periods of time we look at the clock rather than the sun. For longer periods, we watch the crops, track our children’s growth, or more broadly chart 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 span to be reckoned by its length, by the number of ticks on a device we have invented. We also tend to measure 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 much done.

The modern, Western mind tries to control by measuring; and boy do we love to measure time! Having measured it, we somehow think we control it. We assign monetary value to it by stating that time is money. We have many expectations based on it: “You’re taking too long to do that,” or “The deadline has passed.”

For the ancients, such precision about time was unknown and to some degree impossible. For them, demarcations of time were 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 daily cycle of the sun defined the day and night. A lengthier cycle of the sun, its rising and falling in the horizon, marked the year. Seasons could also be discerned by this cycle. There were the longest and shortest days of the year (the solstices) and the equinoxes, when the night and the day were essentially the same length.

The moon declared the passage of months. In fact, the very word “month” in English has the same origin as the word “moon.”

There were different systems used by the ancients to demarcate time, some of them were based on the sun and others on the moon. It is clear that in Jesus’ time, the lunar year (354 days) was used. 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. This difference had to be adjusted for periodically; otherwise, “summer” would eventually have occurred in the winter months!

Generally speaking, the Jewish people waited until the error of the lunar calendar amounted to about a full month, at which time they inserted an extra month (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 calendar.

The decision as to when exactly to insert this extra month was made rather empirically. Farmers might comment to rabbinic officials that the lambs were still too young or the grain was not yet ripe. When consensus built that the month of Veadar needed to be inserted, it was ordered to be done. Decisions of this sort were usually made by a Beth Din (a rabbinical court) following a complex procedure. Witnesses were examined as to the problem of the lagging calendar in relation to the season. Chosen observers of the sun and moon were asked to testify in great detail about the location of the moon, the size of its crescent, and its height above the horizon. When the sufficient evidence was collected, the Veadar month was declared. This happened 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 members agreed to the new month, it legally began; fires were lit on the hilltops to announce it to the populace.

In ordinary years (those without a Veadar) there were 12 months. In actuality, though, the ancient Jews told time more by their feasts than by the month. The Jews thought of yearly time in this manner:

Jewish Month 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 are important to us, were less significant to the ancient Jews, who lived in a climate that did not fall into four distinct periods. For them there was only the cool, wet period of October through March and the hot, dry period of April through September; the transition between them was fairly rapid. But again, the chief points of the year were known in relation to the feasts. For ancient Jews, hearing of the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) provided very guides to the time of year.

Despite all these reference points, telling time in Jesus’ day was fairly murky. There were any number of different calendars used in Palestine at the time. The Jews had an official calendar but were divided as to its details. This difference finds its way into the Scriptures, wherein the three synoptic gospels seem to date Passover on one day, while John’s Gospel pinpoints it on another. There is strong evidence that the Essene community used a solar calendar from the Book of Jubilees rather than the lunar calendar of many other Jews. So even in the significant feasts like Passover, different groups of Jews specified them on different days. Added to this was the fact that the Romans had a completely different calendar from the Jews, as did the Samaritans. Further, the Greek cities of the Decapolis used the Macedonian calendar, and others made reference to as many as four calendars: Jewish, Syrian, Egyptian, and Roman.

We who are used to more certainty about time will wonder how anyone knew when to show up anywhere! Yet it must be said that the ancient Jews lived in greater conformity with the natural cycles of the day than we do. They got up when the sun rose and generally followed its daily cycle, finishing work before dusk and then enjoying a few evening hours gathered around oil lamps or illuminated by the moonlight. Their lives were generally 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 or the sun, but there seems to be no obvious reference in the natural order to explain a week being seven days in length. Surely the book of Genesis is the theological source for this practice. God worked for six days, creating the heavens and the earth, and then rested on the seventh. Thus man, made in God’s image, did the same. It seems clear that most cultures throughout human history have “reset the clock” every seven days. It is possible that the influence of the Jewish scriptures had some role, but 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. For the Jews of Jesus’ time, though, it was clear enough that God had set this forth and thus it was to be followed.

Weeks lasted from one sabbath to the next, but there is no evidence that the Jews named each day. Of course the Sabbath itself was named, and the day before the Sabbath was called Preparation Day (see Mk 15:42), however other days were simply called the first day of the week (see 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 by 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 most of us consider it as beginning 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. In fact, the very word “hour” is not even found in the Old Testament, except perhaps once in the book of Daniel. By the time of Jesus, though, the division of the day into 12 hours was commonly accepted. This is referenced in many places in the New Testament. For example, there is the parable of the laborers who were hired at about the eleventh 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 recounts 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 for even 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 vagueness about its length and in determining the time of the day. Yes, our obsession with promptness and our exactitude with respect to time were utterly unknown in Jesus’ day and even in many places in the world today. Time was a much more flexible back then; 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 with arranging to meet in the “late morning” or the “early evening.” To us this would be infuriating, but life was slower then and people were rarely in a hurry.

As for the night hours, things were even less precise. For those who were awake at night (and cared), the night was divided into watches, apparently four of them. St. Matthew, for example, states that it was in the fourth watch of the night that Jesus walked on the water to join His disciples (Mat 14:25). The last watch of the night also featured the cockcrow as dawn drew near.

Imagine how lost most of us would be in a world in which time was not of the essence but rather existed on the periphery. For us who are ruled by the clock, the whole experience might be quite disorienting. On the other hand, though, it might be liberating to look to the gentler, cyclical rhythms of God’s design rather than being slaves to some artificial, unrelenting timepiece. We might actually slow down to the pace of life He intended for us. Most of us could easily say, “I’m so busy I met myself coming back!” 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).

2 Replies to “How Did People Tell Time in Jesus’ Day?”

  1. Absolutely fascinating! We are paid by the hour, schedule meetings and appointments by the 1/4 hour, carry hefty schedulers that divide our year into months, weeks, days, hours, half-hour and 1/4 hour increments, we estimate the time taken to travel from A to B, travel at 50 miles per hour (dropping to 15 mph in school zones!), are told “time-is-money”, pay lawyers thier astronomical fees by the hour and measure our enjoyment in increments, the game starts in 20 minutes, we take a break after the first quarter ( will I have time to get to the concession and back?) and if I leave in time I can catch the highlights after the 10 o’clock news. Phew! It’s tiring!

    I had to laugh when I read this: “For us who are ruled by the clock, the whole experience might be quite disorienting”. I recall visiting my mum for a week awhile back just before she died. Time was measured by meals (breakfast, lunch, supper and bedtime snack), naps (after-breakfast, after lunch, before AND after supper) and TV or radio news (breakfast radio news, lunch time radio news and evening TV news). It was most disconcerting after awhile because the flow of life became one big ‘timeless’, slow moving meal-nap-meal-nap combination. Lol, I wonder what eternity feels like?

Comments are closed.