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The Time of the Crucifixion
Chronological Issues in the Gospels

Dennis Bratcher

The time of day of Jesus' crucifixion is difficult to determine.  Mark's Gospel seems to give one time while the Gospel of John appears to have a different chronology.  Such historical questions about the Gospels are difficult to answer simply because the Gospels are not intended to give that kind of historical information.  On one level, it is entirely appropriate to maintain strongly that the Gospels are historical in nature. That is, they are grounded in actual historical events whether or not we have access to the details of those events.  Otherwise the Bible is little more than cosmic myth.  However, that does not mean that the writers were trying to recount historical detail in the same way that we in the 21st century Western world would expect historical detail to be given, which is what creates a problem for us as we ask historical questions.

This problem is compounded by the modern idea of absolute biblical inerrancy, which contends that any feature of the biblical text no matter how seemingly insignificant must be 100% accurate in all of its details in order for any part of the Bible to be true. While many proponents of biblical inerrancy want to deny it, that position grows out of a modern scientific rationalism that will only affirm something to be “true” that can be grounded in provable, or declared, “fact” (see The Modern Inerrancy Debate).  However, the Bible simply will not yield to that kind of rationalism, whether it is atheistic scientific rationalism or Christian apologetic rationalism.

None of that makes the question of the timing of the crucifixion irrelevant; it only means that there may not be a satisfactory historical answer in Scripture, which is why the issue is problematic and debated. One aspect of the problem lies in what is known as the “Synoptic Problem.” This simply expresses the fact that Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the “synoptic” Gospels) do not always agree on various details of the Gospel tradition while at other times they match word for word (see The Gospels and The Synoptic Problem). The fact that John’s Gospel differs significantly from the Synoptics in the chronology of Jesus’ life, including even the day on which Jesus died, further complicates the issue

Here is a short chart comparing the time references surrounding the crucifixion in the Gospels: 

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

27:1 When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death.

15:1 As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council.

22:66 When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought him to their council.

18:28 Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate's headquarters. It was early in the morning.

 

 

 

19:13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside... 14 Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon.

 

15:25 It was nine o'clock in the morning when they crucified him. 

 

 

27:45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

15:33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

23:44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon,

 

27:46 And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

15:34 At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

 

 

27:57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus.

15:42 When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath,

23:54 It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning.

19:31 Since it was the day of Preparation,… 19:38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea,…

27:62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate…

16:2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.

24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.

20:1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb...

A quick reading of this easily reveals that it is Mark and John that do not agree. According to Mark, Jesus was crucified at nine o'clock in the morning and died shortly after his so-called "cry of dereliction" at three o'clock in the afternoon.  However, John's Gospel still has Jesus before Pilate at noon, with no other time frame given for the actual crucifixion.  All four accounts agree that Jesus was dead by evening of that day. 

There is virtually no way historically to reconcile these accounts relating to the time of the crucifixion.  However, if we move beyond presuppositions that want to force the Bible to speak to our modern questions of absolute historical accuracy, we may have other ways to read the text in light of how it was written and how it was intended to be heard.

A careful study of the Gospels (which obviously we cannot do here) will reveal that all of the Gospel writers arrange and order the material of the Gospel traditions in order to emphasize different aspects of the Gospel. Simply looking at the material that certain Gospels include or leave out, even in the short references above, easily confirms this. The writer of John’s Gospel even tells us that he is picking and choosing material from the Gospel tradition that was available to him in order to shape his Gospel for a certain purpose (John 20:30-31):

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Luke says nearly the same thing in a different way when he tells us that he has carefully researched the traditions about Jesus (Luke 1:1-4):

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

It is easy to assume from our perspective that “orderly” here mean chronological order.  Again, a careful examination of Luke’s Gospel compared to the other Gospels (as well as the second volume of Luke, the book Acts, compared with the details of Paul’s life in his Epistles) reveals that this is not the case. For Luke, “orderly” means organized in such a way that the Gospel tradition becomes a faith confession to Jesus as the Christ, which in turn provides a foundational theology for the early church.

All this suggests that the purpose and organizing principle behind the Gospels is not historical and chronological, but theological. Another way to say this is that the historical details serve the theological purposes of the writers. That does not mean that they invented history. It only means that, contrary to our scientifically conditioned perspective, the details were not as important as the message.

So, for example,  In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus and the disciples ate Passover together the evening before the arrest in the Garden and Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified at nine the following morning. Yet in John's Gospel Jesus stands before Pilate at noon before Passover, the very time when observant Jews would begin the preparations for Passover by removing leaven from the house. John presents Jesus’ death against the background of the Passover, with the crucifixion occurring at about the time the Passover lambs were being killed in the Temple. When we remember that the first Passover was the beginning of the Exodus event, the defining revelation of God in Jewish history, John’s linking of the crucifixion with Passover in this way becomes a powerful theological affirmation of what God is doing in human history in these events. John’s Gospel is not so much concerned with chronology as it is concerned with helping us understand the significance of this event in light of God’s revelation throughout Israel’s history.  He is, in fact, writing theology, not history.

In their own ways, the other Gospel writers make similar use of various details they include in the narrative. Again, the point here is not that we must somehow make all the details fit according to our system of logic and according to our assumptions of what is important. Nor does it force us to conclude that since the details do not match according to our criteria that none of the account is true. Rather, we must listen to what each writer wants us to hear about Jesus and God’s act of redemption that is unfolding in the Gospel stories. The writers are not just giving us the facts; they have already processed the historical event into a faith confession about the nature of God at work in Christ, and what this historical event means for humanity and the church. It is to that theological witness that we must listen rather than becoming bogged down in trying to make the historical details fit. To miss the larger message, to lose sight of the forest while looking at the trees, is to violate what both Luke and John tell us is the purpose for the Gospels being written in the first place.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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