Did the Gospel Writers Make a Mistake about the Time of Jesus’ Crucifixion?

“And it was the third hour that they crucified him.”

(Mark 15:25)

C.S. Lewis spoke of something that he liked to call “chronological snobbery.” It was the notion that we, in our more modern generation, are the ones who are truly sophisticated and those in ancient times were little more than backwards and stupid. Of course, for even the most basic student of history, the foolishness of this position is readily apparent. No, they may not have had the technology that we have today, but they were no less stupid than we are now. They thought, they reasoned, and they produced great art, architecture, literature, and developed the foundations of technology upon which our more modern advances are built. The list of marvels are too long to list. Truly, one day history will record the ancients as the grand masters of thought and reason and we, though more technologically advanced, we will be remembered as the poorer children.

With that in mind, what is fascinating is how many objections to the Bible’s authority have developed over the past 200 years, but that were never a problem for the 1800 years prior to that. People see contradictions where the original authors and audiences saw none. No, is not because they were backwards and we so much more advanced; it is because we are that much more arrogant in our technological age.

And thus we arrive at this text. Now, if Mark’s chronology is taken on its own, there is no great contradiction. He states that Jesus was crucified at the third hour (9 am — 3 hours past dawn), darkness struck at the 6th hour (noon, verse 33), and Jesus died at the 9th hour (verse 34, about 3pm in the afternoon). Yet, when compared with John’s account, found in John 19:14, it was the 6th hour when Pilate gave Jesus over to be crucified.

Now, there are solutions to this apparent contradiction. But first, let me remind you of a principle of reasoning. As we are unable to go back in time and prove one hypothesis over another hypothesis, all we have to work with is the literary evidence surrounding the event. And, where there appears to us today to be a contradiction that neither the original authors nor the original audience considered to be a contradiction, all that needs to be presented to do away with the contradiction is one reasonable explanation. There are several reasonable explanations that can be offered, so which one you choose is less important than that there is an answer that can be given to what some moderns consider an error. There is an old phrase found in the Sherlock Holmes novels (credited to Sherlock’s father, actually) that goes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whichever option you are left with, no matter how improbable (to you), must be the Truth.” The skeptic may not like my answer, but there are reasonable answers nonetheless.

One of the more common (and simplest) solutions suggests that the difference found has to do with the audience to whom the works are addressed. As John is clearly writing to a Gentile audience, it can be argued that he is recording time by the Roman clock (which begins at midnight) and the Synoptics by the Jewish clock (which begins at sunrise). If one presumes that harmony, then the timetable of Pilate handing Jesus over to be crucified at about 6am and Jesus arriving at Golgotha by 9am for the crucifixion and then both chronologies align.

There are other answers that can be given, but where there is a reasonable answer, we can assert that the skeptic’s claim can said to be in error. The one answer that just makes no sense is that the Apostles (guided by the Holy Spirit) goofed up on recounting the time of this significantly important event, when making their record.

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