WHEN you want to know what time it is, what do you do? You probably look at your watch or a clock. You may see that it is one hour and 30 minutes after noon. What would you tell a friend if he asked you, “What time is it?”
That depends on where you live. For example, you might say, “It is 1:30” or “It is 13:30.” In some places you might even say, “It is half two,” meaning 30 minutes before two.
How did people tell time back in Bible times? They also had more than one way. The Hebrew Scriptures use expressions such as “morning,” “noon,” “midday,” and “evening.” (Genesis 8:11; 19:27; 43:16; Deuteronomy 28:29; 1 Kings 18:26) But sometimes the Bible uses more precise terms.
In ancient Israel, it was common to have watchmen, especially during the night. The Israelites divided the night into three parts, which they called “watches.” (Psalm 63:6) In Judges 7:19, we read about “the middle night watch.” By the time Jesus was born, the Jews divided the night into four watches, as the Greeks and the Romans did.
The Gospels mention these night watches many times. For example, “in the fourth watch of the night,” Jesus walked on water toward the boat where his disciples were. (Matthew 14:25) And Jesus said in an illustration: “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.”—Matthew 24:43.
Jesus mentioned all four watches when he told his disciples to be alert because they “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; footnote) The first of those watches, “late in the day,” was from sunset till about nine o’clock in the evening. The second, the “midnight” watch, was from about nine o’clock in the evening till midnight. The third watch, “before dawn,” or “when the rooster crows,” was from midnight to about three o’clock in the morning. It was probably during this watch that the rooster crowed on the night that Jesus was arrested. (Mark 14:72) The fourth watch, “early in the morning,” was from about three o’clock in the morning to sunrise.
So even though people back then did not have clocks or watches like the ones we have today, they had a way of telling what time it was.