The gospel writers make several references regarding the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Putting all those references together gives us an idea of the time of day that Jesus died. In this article, we will use the NASB because it presents a literal translation of the time references recorded in the original Greek.
We know that Jesus was arrested at night and was brought to Pilate the next morning. Matthew 27:1–2 tells us, “Now when morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus to put Him to death; and they bound Him, and led Him away and delivered Him to Pilate the governor.”
There was a series of hearings before Pilate and Herod, who was in Jerusalem for the Passover (see Luke 23:6–15). But Pilate had to make the final decision. Pilate had wanted to set Jesus free (Luke 23:20), but ultimately felt it more advantageous to appease the crowd. “When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves.’ And all the people said, ‘His blood shall be on us and on our children!’ Then he released Barabbas for them; but after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified” (Matthew 27:24–26).
Matthew provides some clues as to the time Jesus was crucified: “Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’ And some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, began saying, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’ Immediately one of them ran, and taking a sponge, he filled it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink. But the rest of them said, ‘Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him.’ And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:45–51). So according to Matthew, Jesus died “about the ninth hour.” Luke 23:44–47 agrees with Matthew about the darkness at the sixth hour and Jesus’ death about the ninth hour. Mark 15:25 adds further information: “It was the third hour when they crucified Him,” and the rest of the account agrees with Matthew and Luke about the times of darkness and Jesus’ death.
So, putting Synoptic Gospels’ accounts together, Jesus was crucified at the third hour. Darkness descended at the sixth hour until the ninth hour, and Jesus died about the ninth hour. Jesus was on the cross for about six hours, three of those in total darkness. In modern reckoning, a new day starts at midnight, so the third hour would be 3:00 AM. However, the Jewish day started at sundown, but hours were counted from sunup, which would be roughly 6:00 AM. So the third hour when Jesus was crucified would be three hours after sunup, or about 9:00 AM. The sixth hour when darkness descended would be roughly noon, and the ninth hour when Jesus died would be about 3:00 PM. This is all rather straightforward, except that John seems to record something different.
John 19:13–14 says, “Therefore when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha. Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour.” John seems to place the hearing before Pilate “about” noon, which would conflict with Mark, who records that Jesus was crucified at the third hour or 9:00 AM.
There are several possible solutions to the seeming discrepancy. Some have suggested that John is counting hours from midnight (the “Roman” method), so the sixth hour would be about 6:00 AM. This solves the problem of chronology; however, D. A. Carson, citing research by Henry Morris, thinks this unlikely, as this reckoning was normally reserved for Roman legal documents (Pillar New Testament Commentary, “John,” Eerdmans, 1991, p. 605). Merrill Tenney points out that this “Roman” method would be inconsistent with John’s other notations of time (NIV Bible Commentary, Volume 2, New Testament, “John,” Zondervan, 1994, p. 363). Andreas Kostenberger also notes that John appears to use the traditional sunup-to-sundown frame of reference when referring to time in John 1:39 where the tenth hour seems to refer to late afternoon (4:00 PM), not 10:00 AM (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, “John,” Baker Academic, 2004, p. 74–75). So the “Roman time” solution seems to be unlikely.
Another proposed solution is to attribute John’s mention of the sixth hour to a scribal error. In this theory, an early copyist of John mistakenly wrote Ϝ (the Greek numeral digamma, or 6) instead of Γ (the Greek numeral gamma, or 3). This would make John and Mark to be in complete agreement; however, Carson points out that there is absolutely no manuscript evidence for this variant (op cit, p. 606). Therefore, this solution rests upon conjecture entirely.
Kostenberger, although he does not necessarily endorse the idea, suggests that John may be making a theological point here and is not attempting to give a literal indication of the time (op cit, p. 536). The Paschal lamb selection would normally take place at noon on the day before Passover. Therefore, when Jesus was selected for crucifixion, John makes reference to noon (the sixth hour) to emphasize the fact that the Lamb of God had been selected. However, this solution has its own chronological difficulties. The “day of preparation” mentioned in John 19:14 is most likely preparation for the Passover Sabbath, not the Passover Feast that would require the lamb to be selected. The fact that Jesus had already eaten the Passover with His disciples would seem to indicate that the meal itself has already occurred.
Kostenberger (p. 538) and Carson (p. 605) prefer a solution based on the imprecise methods of ancient timekeeping. Before the use of watches and other precise timekeeping devices, the day was usually divided up into three-hour blocks, and people often estimated and rounded off the time. If it was mid-morning, say 10:30, one person might have rounded down and called it the third hour (9:00 AM); another person might have rounded up and called it the sixth hour (noon). In this solution, there is no discrepancy, just a difference in the way each writer estimated the time. (Even in modern times with digital clocks that tell time down to the second, we often round to the nearest quarter or half hour.) According to this solution, the choice between the third and the sixth hour would be a matter of personal estimation. It is possible that John and Mark “rounded off” the times in keeping with custom.
In the final analysis, this may be a case of expecting modern scientific precision from an ancient book. Carson puts it this way: “More than likely we are in danger of insisting on a degree of precision in both Mark and John which, in the days before watches, could not have been achieved. The reckoning of time for most people, who could not very well carry sundials and astronomical charts, was necessarily approximate. If the sun was moving toward mid-heaven, two different observers might well have glanced up and decided respectively that it was ‘the third hour’ or ‘about the sixth hour’” (p. 605).
Taking all the evidence together, Jesus was crucified at some time in the morning, and He died at some time in the afternoon. He would have spent somewhere between three and six hours on the cross, with a good portion of that time in total darkness. The gospel writers were not overly interested in precision in this matter. They were far more concerned with the theological implications, which they faithfully recorded.