The Greek word hoʹra (hour) is used in the Christian Greek Scriptures to denote a short period of time; a fixed, definite time; or a division of the day. No term for “hour” is found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The ancient Israelites may have divided the daytime into four parts. (Ne 9:3) Instead of designating certain hours, the Hebrew Scriptures use the expressions “morning,” “noon,” “midday,” and “evening” as time markers for events. (Ge 24:11; 43:16; De 28:29; 1Ki 18:26) Also, perhaps more precise designations were “as soon as the sun shines forth” (Jg 9:33), “the breezy part of the day” (Ge 3:8), “the heat of the day” (Ge 18:1; 1Sa 11:11), and “the time of the setting of the sun” (Jos 10:27; Le 22:7). The Passover sacrifice was to be slaughtered “between the two evenings,” which seems to mean a time after sunset and before deep twilight. (Ex 12:6) This view is supported by some scholars, as well as by the Karaite Jews and Samaritans, although the Pharisees and Rabbinists considered it to be the time between the beginning of the sun’s descent and the real sunset.
God commanded that burnt offerings be made on the altar “in the morning” and “between the two evenings.” Along with each of these, a grain offering was made. (Ex 29:38-42) So it came about that expressions such as “the going up of the grain offering,” where the context indicates whether morning or evening (as at 1Ki 18:29, 36), and “the time of the evening gift offering” (Da 9:21) referred to a fairly well-defined time.
The 24-Hour Day. Egypt has been credited with the division of the day into 24 hours, 12 for daylight, 12 for night. These hours would not always be of the same length from day to day, because of the change of seasons, making the daylight hours longer and the night hours shorter in summertime (except at the equator). Our modern-day division of the day into 24 hours of 60 minutes each results from a combination of Egyptian reckoning and Babylonian mathematics, a sexagesimal system (founded on the number 60). The practice of counting the day from midnight to midnight, thereby eliminating the seasonal variation in the length of the hours, was a later development, perhaps Roman.
In the First Century. In the first century C.E., the Jews used the count of 12 hours to the day, starting with sunrise. “There are twelve hours of daylight, are there not?” said Jesus. (Joh 11:9) Of course, this made the hours vary in length from one day to the next, according to the seasons; the only times that they were of the same length as our hours was at the time of the equinoxes. Evidently this slight variation, which would not be so great in Palestine, did not create any major inconvenience. The start of the day would correspond to about 6:00 a.m., our time. In the illustration of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus made mention of the 3rd hour, the 6th, 9th, 11th, and, one hour later, “evening” (which would be the 12th). These times would correspond to our 8:00 to 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m. to noon, 2:00 to 3:00 p.m., 4:00 to 5:00 p.m., and 5:00 to 6:00 p.m., respectively. (Mt 20:3, 5, 6, 8, 12; Ac 3:1; 10:9) Midnight and “cockcrowing” are time designations also used in the Christian Greek Scriptures. (Mr 13:35; Lu 11:5; Ac 20:7; 27:27; see COCKCROWING.) Under Roman domination the Jews seem to have adopted the Roman division of the night into four watches instead of the former three.
A Seeming Discrepancy. Some have pointed to what appears to be a discrepancy between the statement at Mark 15:25, which says Jesus was impaled at “the third hour,” and that at John 19:14, which indicates that by “about the sixth hour” Jesus’ final trial before Pilate was just ending. John had access to Mark’s account, and he certainly could have repeated the time stated by Mark. Therefore John must have had a reason for stating the hour differently from Mark.
Why the seeming discrepancy? A variety of suggestions have been offered. None of these satisfy all objections. We simply do not have enough information to explain with any certainty the reason for this difference between the accounts. Perhaps Mark’s or John’s reference to the hour was parenthetical, not in chronological order. Whatever the case, one thing is certain: Both writers were inspired by holy spirit.
The synoptic Gospels clearly indicate that by the sixth hour, or 12 noon, Jesus had already been hanging on the stake long enough for the soldiers to cast lots over his garments and for the chief priests, the scribes, the soldiers, and other passersby to speak abusively of him. They also indicate that about 3:00 p.m. Jesus expired. (Mt 27:38-45; Mr 15:24-33; Lu 23:32-44) The truly important thing to remember is that Jesus died for our sins on Nisan 14, 33 C.E.
Other Uses. The word hoʹra is often used in the Christian Greek Scriptures to denote “immediately” or within a very short period. A woman who touched the fringe of Jesus’ outer garment became well “from that hour.” (Mt 9:22) “Hour” could refer to a special or momentous point of time not exactly specified or to the starting point of that time. For example, Jesus said: “Concerning that day and hour nobody knows” (Mt 24:36), “The hour is coming when everyone that kills you will imagine he has rendered a sacred service to God” (Joh 16:2), and, “The hour is coming when I will speak to you no more in comparisons” (Joh 16:25).
Again, “hour” might designate a general time of day, as when the disciples said to Jesus about the multitude of people that had followed him to a lonely place: “The place is lonely and the hour is already far advanced; send the crowds away.”
Figurative or Symbolic Use. Symbolically or figuratively used, “hour” means a relatively short period of time. Jesus said to the crowd who came out against him: “This is your hour and the authority of darkness.” (Lu 22:53) The ten horns on the scarlet-colored wild beast are said to represent ten kings who are to receive authority as kings “one hour” with the wild beast. (Re 17:12) Of Babylon the Great, it is said: “In one hour your judgment has arrived!” (Re 18:10) In harmony with Jesus’ words at Matthew 13:25, 38 concerning the wheat and the weeds, Paul’s warnings at Acts 20:29 and 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 7 regarding the coming apostasy, and Peter’s statement at 2 Peter 2:1-3, John, the last surviving apostle, could well say: “Young children, it is the last hour, and, just as you have heard that antichrist is coming, even now there have come to be many antichrists; from which fact we gain the knowledge that it is the last hour.” It was a very short time, indeed, “the last hour,” the final part of the apostolic period, after which the apostasy would spring forth in full bloom.
As recorded at Revelation 8:1-4, the apostle John saw, during a silence in heaven for “about a half hour,” an angel with incense that he offered with the prayers of all the holy ones. This reminds one of the practice in the temple in Jerusalem “at the hour of offering incense.” (Lu 1:10) Alfred Edersheim, in The Temple (1874, p. 138), presents the traditional Jewish account of this “hour”: “Slowly the incensing priest and his assistants ascended the steps to the Holy Place . . . Next, one of the assistants reverently spread the coals on the golden altar; the other arranged the incense; and then the chief officiating priest was left alone within the Holy Place, to await the signal of the president before burning the incense. . . . As the president gave the word of command, which marked that ‘the time of incense had come,’ ‘the whole multitude of the people without’ withdrew from the inner court, and fell down before the Lord, spreading their hands in silent prayer. It is this most solemn period, when throughout the vast Temple buildings deep silence rested on the worshipping multitude, while within the sanctuary itself the priest laid the incense on the golden altar, and the cloud of ‘odours’ rose up before the Lord.”