Palestine Calling
by
W. M. Christie

Chapter XXIX

Bible Time


Our Gospel reading friends are well acquainted with the fact that the third, sixth, seventh, ninth, tenth, and eleventh hours of the day are mentioned, as well as the third hour of the night in Scripture, but the reckoning, so unfamiliar to western minds, keeps the Bible student a little out of touch at least, while others ask us questions. Why did the disciples stay with the Lord overnight, it being "about the tenth hour"? If 10 p.m., they would not have been there, nor seen if they were; if 10 a.m., there was ample time to go home (John 1:39). Then Christ's sitting on the well "wearied" at the "sixth hour" is a puzzle to some. In December it would be perfectly dark at both 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., and accordingly the story "does not hang together."

Now the whole reason for the trouble is that we reckon according to Roman time, but the Bible has a still more ancient way of looking at things. In Genesis 1, we read, "the evening and the morning were the first day." The evening came first, the new day began with sunset, and in New Testament times men looked forward to the time of rest and refreshment when "the night cometh and no man can work." We have heard it put, "God gave man a night's rest before demanding the toil of the day;" just as He gave the new-created man a Sabbath to begin his life in the new world (Gen. 2:2-3).

Accordingly the reckoning of the hours began at sunset, not at 6 p.m., as we have heard even ministers say in the pulpit. They are right, but only at the equinoxes. Twelve hours are counted on from sunset till the morning, and then twelve more for the day, but the counting is from the unfixed point in the evening, and 12 in the morning may be either before or after the dawn, according to the time of the year. Now the Jews in western lands have lost touch with this item of Bible knowledge, but the Arab has preserved it, and we had to live and work by it for many years. We fear, however, that under the mandate and European influence it will disappear.

The fact that "You have to change your watch (about a minute) every day" will add a little pressure toward its disappearance. In the old time the Arab watched the sunset, and when it was invisible he made his calculations as best he could. We remember sitting with Dr. Cornelius van Dyck, the translator of the Bible into Arabic, who to a great extent lived the "Arabic life and in part wore the Arabic dress." He had his watch in hand, and gazed at the setting sun, and, just as the last ray disappeared, he fixed the hands at "twelve." Of course in a sense that is wrong, for we know that the sun is actually visible through refraction for some minutes after the disc is actually below the horizon.

With our own double work in Aleppo we found it convenient to have a watch with two dials, one giving the European, and one giving the Arab, or Bible time. Our church intimations at the Sunday morning service must have been interesting, perhaps amusing, to an outsider. For example, if sunset were at 5:45 p.m., they would in English run thus: "Afternoon Service at 2:45 p.m.; Mid-week Service, on Wednesday, at 7:15 p.m." But in Arabic they were: "Afternoon Service at Nine o'clock; Midweek Service, On Thursday, at half-past one in the night." The most noticeable thing, of course, is the "contradiction" in the Wednesday and the Thursday, but to our readers the matter is now quite intelligible, and thence we are led to the thought that a little consideration would settle for us many of the "contradictions" and "errors" we meet with in the Bible.

Let us now apply our knowledge. The disciples who remained over-night (John 1:39) were about twenty miles from home, and perhaps half that distance from a suitable stopping place. The tenth hour, toward the middle of march, was about 3:45 p.m., and there would be darkness in two hours, and a difficult road to pass, hence the wish to stay, in addition to the desire to hear more in the quiet of the evening, a good start for these two new disciples.

The circumstances at Jacob's Well were these. Christ and the disciples (we believe there were only five then, cf. Sanh. 43 a) had started from their last night's resting-place with the "first dawn" and without breakfast (that was the custom even in our early days, "get the back of your journey broken in the morning hours and pick up your breakfast where you can later on"), and thus at the "sixth hour" there might well be both hunger and weariness. It was just a little before 11 a.m., and they might have started with the first indication of coming day, some time before 7 a.m.

But of greatest interest to the Christian is the last day of Christ's earthly life. We date this as the 7th April, 30 A.D. The sun rose at 5:40 a.m. that morning. The condemnation had already practically taken place in the night in the houses of Annas and Caiphas, but legally the sentence could only be pronounced in the day time, and right through there is apparent a manifest desire to present a "plausible legality" in the proceedings. Accordingly the Sanhedrin met, just after the time indicated, in the Council Chamber, and pronounced the death sentence. Then followed the leading to the Prætorium, and the earlier dealings with Pilate, the sending to Herod at the Maccabean Palace, and return to Pilate with further discussion and disputation till at the third hour, being 9:25 a.m., Pilate "delivered Him unto them to be crucified." Then the darkness was over the earth from the sixth until the ninth hour, or from 12:25 to 3:25 p.m.; and the sunset, before which the burial was completed was at 6:26 p.m.

One difficulty remains, and to many it has been a very real one. In John 19:14 we read that it was "about the sixth hour" when Christ was handed over by Pilate to be crucified. Now it was not the "sixth hour" by either Roman or Jewish reckoning. Is it an error? Some old MSS. have ventured to correct the text by substituting "third," but we consider "sixth" indisputable. What did the evangelist mean? Very often when in doubt, get at the writer's own meaning and your doubts will vanish. To us this seems a case in point. Our own opinion is that John was looking back over the long, weary, agonising hours that had passed from the arrest in Gethsemane to the final condemnation on the Pavement beside the Prætorium. As a free man, John had followed up the hill from the garden, in at the Sheep Gate, over the stony streets, and up the slope of the south-western hill to the abode of Annas and Caiaphas, down the slope to the Council Chamber, thence to Pilate in the tower of Antonia, from Pilate to Herod, and back to Pilate. He himself had had opportunities for a little rest, and perhaps some food and drink, but the Lord Jesus, nagged, bullied, beaten, mocked the whole night through, had had neither rest nor refreshment--not even a place where He could sit down. The memory of that night haunted the apostle, and in his old age, when he began to write the story, the memory of these long hours of "the contradiction of sinners" was still with him, and with a deep drawn sigh he records, "about the sixth hour." Yes, the silences, the echoes, the very sighs of Scripture are valuable. They waken the mind, they touch the heart, and lead to a greater appreciation of the infinite cost of our redemption.

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