WHEN you want to know the time, what do you do? You likely glance at your wristwatch or a clock. If a friend asked you for the time, how would you reply? There are different ways of telling time. How so?
Well, let us say that it is one hour and 30 minutes after noon. You might reply that it is 1:30. Depending on where you live and what is customary, you might express the time as 13:30. That way of telling time is based on the system of a 24-hour clock. There are even places where that same time could be expressed as “half two,” meaning 30 minutes before two.
As a reader of the Bible, you might wonder how people in the Bible period told time. There was not just one way. The Hebrew portion of the Bible makes reference to “morning,” “noon,” “midday,” and “evening.” (Gen. 8:11; 19:27; 43:16; Deut. 28:29; 1 Ki. 18:26) On occasion, however, more exact timing is used.
In Bible times, it was customary to use watchmen. They were particularly needed during the night. Centuries before Jesus’ birth, the Israelites divided the night into three periods called watches. (Ps. 63:6) Judges 7:19 mentions “the middle night watch.” By Jesus’ day, the Jews had adopted the Greek and Roman system of four watch periods during the night.
The Gospels refer to these watches a number of times. For example, it was “in the fourth watch of the night” when Jesus walked on water toward the boat where his disciples were. (Matt. 14:25) In an illustration, Jesus said: “If the householder had known in what watch the thief was coming, he would have kept awake and not allowed his house to be broken into.”—Matt. 24:43.
Jesus referred to all four watches when he told his disciples: “Keep on the watch, therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether late in the day or at midnight or before dawn or early in the morning.” (Mark 13:35; ftn.) The first of those watches, “late in the day,” ran from sunset till about nine o’clock in the evening. The second, the “midnight” watch, was from about nine o’clock in the evening to midnight. The third watch, referred to as “before dawn,” or “when the rooster crows,” went from midnight to about three o’clock in the morning. It may have been during this watch that a rooster actually did crow on the night that Jesus was arrested. (Mark 14:72) The fourth division of the night, the “early in the morning” watch, ran from about three o’clock in the morning to sunrise.
Consequently, even though today’s timepieces were not available to people back in the Bible period, they had a system for telling the time of day or night.