When did Jesus die? The Gospels do not provide a single, unambiguous, answer.
This issue may be most easily addressed by breaking it down into more specific questions:
what hour of the day?
what day of the week?
what date in the month?
Hour of the Day
The Synoptics write that Jesus was near death by the ninth hour (Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46; Lk 23:44). In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is before Pilate at the sixth hour (Jn 19:14). The most common way of counting the hours was to begin at 6 AM. This means that in the Synoptics, Jesus is near death at 3 PM, while in John he has yet to be crucified by noon.
Folks who feel the need to harmonize suggest that John starts his numbering of the hours from midnight, while the Synoptics numbered the hours from 6 AM, as above. John then reports that Jesus is in front of Pilate at 6 AM. This fits more comfortably with Mark’s indication (Mk 15:25) that Jesus was crucified at the third hour, that is, 9 AM.
Since there is no need to harmonize, I am satisfied to say simply that Jesus died sometime in the late afternoon.
13 Replies to “When Did Jesus Die? (Hour)”
First, thanks for the warm welcome. It is great to find some kindred spirits.
Second, John C asked me to blog a bit on when Jesus died. The tricky part is the question of the date. But in order to do his request justice, I have elected to cover the other components as well.
I will post the other sections sequentially, over time, to allow for whatever else needs to be allowed for. I hope you enjoy this little series…
As for the year, I usually go with John P. Pratt’s Divine Calendars: Astronomical Witnesses of Sacred Events, A Collection of Articles on Religious Chronology. He sees undisputable evidence for the date he picks (4 BC? Can’t remember…).
I’m rummaging through my brain (it’s a crowded and messy place), and for the life of me I can’t remember where I read an excellent and very fair survey on this. JBL somewhere? Somebody have access to ATLA (I’m at home), go check on there.
Mogget — in your opinion, what does it matter to the gospel writers regarding the hour of his death? I’ve often wondered why they even mention the hour. Was there some type of Roman law on this? I just read Hengel’s Crucifixion for a paper, but I don’t recall anything in there on this.
The time / date of the crucifixion undoubtedly has theological implications for the authors of the Gospels and, I would suggest, for the preGospel sources they used. That is one very important reason to avoid harmonizing — you will lose the theology unless you know what you are doing.
Hopefully as we move through this, folks will begin to fill those implications in, in the comments sections, and see how the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel approach the topic respectively.
I think the key idea is the association of the death of Jesus with Passover and Unleavened Bread. With regard to the hour, then, at what time of the day were the lambs slaughtered?
This seems to have been more important to John than the Synoptics, because, as we will see, the Synoptics actually put the death of Jesus on the day after Passover, if Passover is reckoned according to Leviticus and Numbers.
Of the four temporal indicators (hour, day, date, year), the year is least important to our authors and / or their sources, which is one reason it is never mentioned.
When we get to the section on the year we will see that since we have no firm birth date, it is hard to get too excited about the year of his death.
I would say that at the time the preGospel sources were forming, and even as Mark was being written, the year of Jesus’ death was common knowledge. Now, alas, it is not so.
Seriously, David J.? John Pratt? You’re better off asking a Magic 8 Ball.
We can always pick up this threadjack when Mogget posts the next installment on date of birth.
Back on topic, what are the reasons that the gospel writers felt the hour was important?
My thought is that both the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel teach Jesus as the paschal lamb, but that they do so differently.
The Synoptics concentrate their use of this imagery around the Lord’s Supper — in fact, after the end of this meal, the Synoptics don’t refer to Passover again as part of the final movement toward death. They shift to the imagery of the righteous sufferer for the crucifixion, and finally the Great Day for the actual death. In Mark, Jesus is on the cross from about 9AM – 3PM. Six hours to suffer. The sky darkens about half way through, etc., etc.
On the other hand, John is quite clear that the meal Jesus shares with his disciples is not the paschal meal. The leaders of the Jews will, in the Fourth Gospel, decline to enter the praetorium during the trial in order to avoid the ritual defilement that would preclude particpate in the paschal meal later that night.
In John’s case, Jesus is standing before Pilate at noon, which means that he is crucified after the sun begins to descend, and at about the same time the lambs are being slaughtered. According to Exodus, this slaughter should take place “between the twilights,” but at the time of Jesus the priests were doing all the slaughtering and so it began rather earlier in the day. John will continue with the paschal lamb imagery for quite awhile — no bones broken, etc.
I’ve never heard of John Pratt, but that may very well mean nothing. The year of the death of Jesus is something into which I don’t think I’ve ever looked. So we’ll see…
This is what is fascinating to me about this topic. I can understand why John structures it the way that he does, it makes good symbolic sense. I don’t understand the timing in the Synoptic discussion. Wouldn’t this (and its arguable greater antiquity) lead to the Synoptic discussion being more accurate? Because I have heard (dimly-remembered) arguments going the other way.
ps. If this is more appropriate to a later post, feel free to respond there.
Let me answer you specificallly to the passion narrative (PN) in Mark, since that is the Synoptic version with which I am most familiar.
First, Mark’s PN is highly, yet subtly, structured. The first part, 14:1-72, deals with Jesus and his disciples. The second part, 15:1-47, deals with Jesus and the Roman crucifixion. Within these boundaries, there are a series of alternating scenes shifting from a focus on other characters to a focus on Jesus:
A The Jewish leaders and their plot (14:1-2)
B Jesus is annointed (14:3-9)
A Judas, one of the Twelve, joins the plot (14:10-11)
B Jesus orders the preparation of the paschal meal (14:12-16)
A Judas, one of the Twelve, is predicted as the betrayer (14:17-21)
B Jesus shares the paschal meal with the Twelve (14:22-25)
A Peter’s flight, and that of all the disciples, is predicted (14:26-31)
B Jesus prays in Gethsemane (14:32-42)
A Judas, one of the Twelve (got the idea, yet?) arrives in Gethesemane
B Jesus reveals himself at the hearing (14:53-65)
A Peter denies Jesus three times (14:66-72)
And now for the Roman stuff…
B Jesus reveals himself WRT to the Roman hearing (15:1-5)
A Barabbas is released rather than Jesus (15:6-11)
B Jesus is proclaimed innocent by Pilate and ironically styled as King of the Jews (15:12-15)
A The Roman soldiers ironically proclaim the truth as they mock Jesus (15:16-20a)
B Jesus is crucified (15:20b-25)
A Passersby and the Jewish leadership ironically proclaim the truth as they mock Jesus (15:26-32)
B Jesus dies and the centurion proclaims him God’s son (15:33-39)
A The women watch the crucifixion from a distance (15:40-41)
B Jesus is buried (15:42-47)
While we’re here, notice two things. First, there’s a whole lot here about discipleship. Second, there’s a frickin’ huge (David J., Millenial Model) amount of irony going on. This outline does not do justice to that particular literary feature, as we may get around to seeing at some point.
The interaction of Jesus with the Romans begins in 15:1. The crucifixion is the fifth and CENTRAL scene of the nine scenes that recount the climax of the mortal life of Jesus. And while there’s chattering before, and chattering after, there’s no talking in that scene — no direct speech is reported. (And for those who read in Greek, it’s in the historic present.)
Two other things kick off in this scene. First, Mark begins his countdown. In v. 25, Mark says “and it was the third hour and they crucified him.” In v. 33, it reads “and when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the land until the ninth hour” and finally, in v. 34, “and at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice…”
This suggests that what is going on is not “just happening.” Something is behind the events underway, and that Something is bigger than the simple, arbitrary, march of time.
(That Something can also make the sky go dark for three hours, so that oughta be a clue. The important thing with these “Something references” is that Mark, as also all the other Gospel writers, brings the reader to the foot of the cross and forces him/her to deal with it, but then ALWAYS moves the reader on. Each Gospel author moves toward the cross with different theological interests, each forces the reader to deal with the cross under a specific and different theological interest, and each finds different ways of hinting that the story is going to go on, even before the reader gets to the empty tomb. At the moment, Mark is forcing his readers to deal with the fact that God himself is behind the crucifixion of Jesus.)
Second, we pick up the first overt allusion to Ps 22 (Ps 22:19) in the behavior of the soldiers. Ps 22 is the righteous sufferer, and it will be worth your time to have a quick read, just to refresh your memory, if you have the leisure. This is the reader’s second indication, more specific than the first, that whatever is going on, is going according to a plan; that is, God’s design is being worked out. As these allusions mount, this insight should begin to come into sharper focus.
And so the point of this extremely long post, for those of you who are still awake, is that the way the story is told in both John and Mark has theological implications. In John, we see Jesus as the paschal lamb. In Mark, we see Jesus as the Righteous Sufferer, working out God’s plan on God’s timetable, a course of action that will push him to the limit, and in contrast with the behavior of the disciples, demonstrate just what it means to do it God’s way.
(Well, among other things. Very complex little story going on here. We could read the PN in Mark together as Easter approaches.)
Therefore, in Mark the point is not that it is 9AM, or noon, or 3PM, but that the time is evenly divided and the period of suffering is significant. On the other hand, in John punctiliar time (noon) is the important item. There is no tick of temporal indications in John, because the presence of a plan is worked out through the paschal imagery, not the Righteous Sufferer.
Great first sentence, there. Note to self: write and edit offline if you’re going to go on forever like that…
And how the dickens do you get indentation? And how do you get an original blog entry to link to a second page instead of going on forever?
Enquiring minds need to know, PDQ…
John C’s second point in his post about a light-year above this one, concerned the relative accuracy of the account in the Synoptics and in John. This is a good question, and I am not going to deal with it completely right now, since it will come back with a vengence when we get to the date of the crucifixion.
But for the moment, recall that long outline I posted above. Now, it used to be that folks looked at the powerful theological points worked out in John’s elegantly structured narrative, and when they failed to find the same elegance and order in Mark, they figured Mark was more historically accurate. But that outline I posted above, plus the fact that the central scene in the first part is the Lord’s Supper, and the central scene in the second part is the crucifixion, and the alternating pattern, and so on, ought to convince anyone that Mark’s PN is no less theologically ordered and oriented than John’s. So that’s no reason to think Mark more historical on that score.
The second reason offered for an a priori judgment of historicity for Mark in contrast to John is the idea that Mark’s work is older. It is true that Mark’s work is older, but this does not mean that Mark’s story is inevitably more historical. For example, in Mark Jesus comes to Jerusalem just once. And in one visit, he can so thoroughly alienate the Jewish temple leadership that they plot to kill him? And they want to kill him so badly that they are willing to kiss up to the Romans to do it?
That’s just not all that plausible. It’s far more plausible that Jesus made more trips to Jerusalem as part of his public ministry, giving him more time to rile up the Jewish leadership so that they decided to kill him. And that’s the way the story is told in John!
My point then, in this remarkably short post, is that each episode must be evaluated on its own merits for plausibility and ultimately historicity.
I am by no means precient; however, FPR has the potential for greatness, it would seem.
Mogget, your cohorts can give you a primer on formatting, but you can drop me an email if you wish.
Fascinating stuff, Mogget. Thanks for taking the time to explain the theological implications of the time of death.
It was bound to happen eventually as I got people smarter than me in here.
Thanks, all, but you are far too kind. I shall try to keep up with things. I am just glad to find folks with a common interest and some good questions!
And J, thanks for the formatting offer. It has struck me that HTML tags are what is needed, and I do have something on those here.
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