Was the sixth hour in John 4:6 noon or six p.m.?

This depends on if John used Jewish way for time or the Roman way. Answering this question also depends on which way Mark used for time:

According to John 19:14 it was about the sixth hour when Pilate brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment-seat at a place called Gabbatha. According to Mark 15:25 it was about the third hour when Jesus was crucified. Here again there need not be a conflict. A reasonable solution is this: John figures time the Roman way, and in counting the hours begins at midnight and at noon, just as we do today (D.C.G., art, “Hour”). Hence, when he says “about the sixth hour,” this could mean sometime between 6:00 and 6:30 A. M. On the other hand, the evangelist Mark figures time the Jewish way, and therefore tells us that Jesus was crucified about three hours after sunrise. Not only is there no conflict at all but once this solution is adopted, other passages in the Fourth Gospel become clear. See explanation of 1:39; 4:6, 52, 53. [Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Vol. 1, p. 17). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.]

However, the difference between Mark and John can equally be resolved by Mark using the Roman way for time and John using the Jewish way. In the account of the woman at the well in John 4, it is popular to use Jewish time, making the time noon. Noon would be an unusual time to go to the well. People holding this view explain the time as the woman avoiding other women going to the well. Hendriksen as well as A.T. Roberson (in Word Pictures of the New Testament) have John using Roman time and the woman arriving at the well at about 6 p.m. Of course, sunset would not be too far away and the account would happen in a very short time if finished before dark.

What other information do we have to help answer this question?

  • Here is a related, but different question. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/8861/… – Perry Webb Nov 14 '20 at 17:43
  • The Romans did not count time from midnight. The (pseudo-scientific) interpretation is based on a (biased) misreading of Roman law ascribing nocturnal activities to the next day when committed after midnight, and to the previous one when done before that specific moment; but, even then, they (still) counted the (nocturnal) hours as one to six (from sunset to midnight), and seven to twelve (from midnight to sunrise). – Lucian Nov 15 '20 at 2:54
  • @Lucian -- Where is this documented? – Perry Webb Nov 15 '20 at 13:09
  • See Roman timekeeping and Justinian's Digest (page 100, paragraph 8). – Lucian Nov 15 '20 at 18:25

Excellent question that this humble exegete will probably not resolve as many better have also attempted the same. So, let us examine the evidence in the Gospel of John:

For the most part, John appears to use the Jewish method of time reckoning by counting hours of 12 hours of daylight from dawn:

  • John 1:39 - the 10th hour (= about 4pm)
  • John 4:6 - the 6th hour (= about noon)

However, John also appears capable of using Roman time (counted from midnigh or midday) when discussing Roman officials:

  • John 19:14 - the 6th hour. This is translated as "noon" in NIV, TLV, CSB, etc; and 6am in God's Word, HCSB, Weymouth, etc; compare Mark 15:25, 33, 34, etc. [Noon would not allow enough time for all the other events before 3pm, Jesus' death.] See appendix below.

Back to John 4:6. In favour of "noon" we have:

  • It was an unusual time to draw water and no-one else was there at the well
  • The woman preferred to be alone because of her "history" and minimize confrontation with gossiping locals
  • It was the usual time for the midday meal
  • The traders were still open for the disciples to buy food
  • Many other events occurred before the end of the day such as (a) the woman returning to the town, (b) the townsfolk being called to the well and gathering to hear Jesus, (c) Jesus preaching to the townsfolk, (d) the people concluding that Jesus was the promised Messiah and asking Him to stay, etc.

None of this appears possible if the 6pm, about sunset, were the time setting.

APPENDIX - John 19:14

This is not the place to discuss "sixth hour", but to observe that it is problematic as per Ellicott's comments:

And about the sixth hour.—Comp. Notes on Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:25; Luke 23:44. St. John’s statement of time (twelve o’clock) seems opposed to that of St. Mark, who states that the Crucifixion took place at “the third hour” (nine o’clock); and no solution of the discrepancy is wholly satisfactory.

There are, as we may have expected, some variations of MSS., and as early as the time of Eusebius we find a suggestion that “third” should be here read for “sixth.” No competent critic would, however, for a moment admit that either in the parallel in St. Mark, or in this passage, there is even a strong presumption in favour of any reading except that of the Received text.

The common supposition that St. John adopted the Roman division of hours, and that by “sixth hour” he meant six o’clock is equally unsatisfactory. (Comp. Notes on John 1:39; John 4:6; John 4:52; John 11:9.) Even if it could be proved that this method was in use at the time, the fact would not help us; for if we read this text as meaning six o’clock, it is as much too early for the harmony as twelve o’clock is too late.

It is better, therefore, simply to admit that there is a difficulty arising from our ignorance of the exact order of events, or, it may be, of the exact words which the Evangelists wrote.

  • Should we consider the possibility of John 4:6 being 6 a.m.? – Perry Webb Nov 14 '20 at 22:50
  • 1
    @PerryWebb - I thought of this but rejected it because whatever time it was concluded a long walking trip and Jesus was hot and tired and hungry. This would only work if they walked half the night. Further, 6am WOULD be the time that other women would be collecting water at the well. – Dottard Nov 14 '20 at 22:58
  • Are you familiar with Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg's commentary, The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of All Israel. Jewish Studies for Christians. – Perry Webb Nov 15 '20 at 1:29
  • @PerryWebb - I am sorry that I have never heard of this commentary. Is it readily available? – Dottard Nov 15 '20 at 5:02
  • Eli still has noon as the time, but says noon is not the worst time to go to the well; 3pm is. But we don't know the season, so anytime may be good. He argues that the woman may have suffered misfortune rather than being immoral. – Perry Webb Nov 15 '20 at 13:14

In a comment above, Lucian referred to Justinian's Digest, page 100, paragraph 8 where I read "According to the Roman custom, the day begins at midnight and ends at the middle of the next night." The Wikipedia reference states that the civil day ran from midnight to midnight, while the natural day was from sunrise to sunset.

So, the question is whether John used the Roman civil day or natural day. Matthew, Mark and Luke used the natural day which is also the Jewish system. But John was written in the Greek-Roman city of Ephesus long after the fall of Jerusalem and Jewish dispersion, so he might well have used the Roman civil day. It is no problem to use two systems at the same time. I have lived for many years in Kenya where we have both systems. If you speak English, you can say 9 a.m. and that is translated into Swahili as "the third hour" (saa tatu). So, we are used to adding or subtracting 6 hours when moving from one system to the other.

If does not make sense to assume that John at times used one system and at other times used the other system, so we need to look at the four places where John mentions the hour of the day, that is: 1,39; 4:6, 52 and 19:14.

Alfred Edersheim discusses 4:52 on page 296 in his book: The Life and Times of Jesus, The Messiah.

So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” (ESV)

Edersheim explains: "Now, however the Jewish servants may originally have expressed themselves, it seems impossible to assume, that St. John intended any other than the Roman notation of the civil day, or that he meant any other hour than 7 p.m. The opposite view, that it marks Jewish notation of time, or 1 p.m., is beset by almost unsurmountable difficulties."

The problem is that if it was 1 p.m., the father could have reached home to Capernaum from Cana before dark, and he would undoubtedly be eager to see if the son was healed. The servants left home as soon as the son was better, so they should have met about halfway in the middle of the afternoon. But if that were the case, the servants could not possibly have used the word "yesterday". On the other hand, if it had been 7 p.m., the father would have stayed overnight, as it was dangerous to travel at night. The servants would have done the same, so they met in the middle of the morning the next day. Then the servants could have said "Yesterday".

If we look at 1:35-39, we read:

The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. (ESV)

This paragraph starts out with "the next day". That would be in the morning, and the first thing that happened was that they saw Jesus walk by. Two disciples followed Jesus and went with him to where he stayed. This fits nicely with 10 a.m. and with the fact that they stayed with him the rest of that day. The context is not conclusive one way or the other, but 10 a.m. is more likely that 4 p.m.

Then we have 4:3-6

[Jesus] left Judea and departed again for Galilee. 4 And he had to pass through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob's well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. (ESV)

Jesus was tired from a long day's journey and sat down to rest while the disciples went to find some food in the village. They planned to stay overnight outside as they thought the people to be hostile. This fits much better with about 6 p.m. than about noon. This was the normal time to come for water. The conversation would not take many minutes, and the distance to the town was short. There is no problem for this to have happened in the late hours of the afternoon and early into the evening. Jesus stayed there for two days preaching to them.

The final passage is 19:14:

Now it was Preparation day of the Passover [Feast]. The hour was about the sixth (DLNT)

Jesus was brought to Pilate immediately after sunrise, and after being taken before Pilate, then Herod and back to Pilate, he was brought to Golgotha at 9 a.m. There is ample time for these events as Jerusalem was a small city with a short distance from Pilate to Herod to Piltate to Golgotha just outside the city wall.

We need to recognize that Preparation Day was the standard way of referring to what we call Friday, the day before the Sabbath. It is never in Greek used to refer to the day before a feast day. And the "Passover" here stands for the weeklong Passover Festival. It is not the day when the Passover meal was eaten in the evening. The Greek has a genitive construction meaning Passover's Friday (preparation day for the following Sabbath).

We have earlier seen in 18:28:

Then they lead Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium. And it was early morning. And they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium in order that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover [Feast] (DLNT)

To "eat" the Passover Feast simply means to celebrate the weeklong feast, and there was an important meal on the day after the main Passover meal.

Let me end with a quote from Edersheim concerning this topic and recommend for those interested to read the full account.

many writers have interpreted the expression ‘the Passover’ as referring to the Paschal Supper, and have argued that, according to the Fourth Gospel, our Lord did not on the previous evening partake of the Paschal Lamb, or else that in this respect the account of the Fourth Gospel does not accord with that of the Synoptists. But as, for the reason just stated, it is impossible to refer the expression ‘Passover’ to the Paschal Supper, we have only to inquire whether the term is not also applied to other offerings. And here both the Old Testament and Jewish writings show, that the term Pesach, or ‘Passover,’ was applied not only to the Paschal Lamb, but to all the Passover sacrifices, especailly to what was called the Chagigah, or festive offering (from Chag, or Chagag, to bring the festive sacrifice usual at each of the three Great Feasts). According to the express rule (Chag. i. 3) the Chagigah was brought on the first festive Paschal Day. It was offered immediately after the morning-service, and eaten on that day - probably some time before the evening, when, as we shall by-and-by see, another ceremony claimed public attention. We can therefore quite understand that, not on the eve of the Passover but on the first Paschal day, the Sanhedrists would avoid incurring a defilement which, lasting till the evening, would not only have involved them in the inconvenience of Levitical defilement on the first festive day, but have actually prevented their offering on that day the Passover, festive sacrifice, or Chagigah.

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