How did the apostles know what time it was?

Am looking for someone to fact check my thinking here…

In the bible, we hear a lot of references to time. Here’s one example from the Gospel of St John:

He said to them, “Come, and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day. It was about four in the afternoon. - John 1:39

Some scholars have wondered why it was important to mention that it was four o’clock in the afternoon, but my question here is not just “why”, but - how did they know it was 4pm?

Here I am going to form a hypothesis, and say - if we can answer how, then we can answer why.

The problem is - they could tell time pretty accurately, but it’s not like they had Timexes back then. I think one would likely have needed one of two things… either a properly calibrated sundial and the knowledge/ability to use it, or a communicated prayertime…

I’m thinking - because a properly calibrated sundial would have been remotely accessible, they probably used prayertimes… such that maybe scribes, who would have known how to operate a sundial and make daily and calendrical predictions, would read the sundial, and then they would tell everyone it was time to pray… People would then look at the type of prayer being said, and so they would then know the time of day…

I’m assuming this is where the Liturgy of the Hours came from… Before V2, the LTH originally had 8 hours, and they were mainly spread out at almost 3 hour intervals, except for the times around dawn and dusk, which seemed closer together - probably so people could sleep…

My question is basically if all this is correct; and, if not, where I might be going wrong.

Thanks and God Bless!


Is this really so odd? I’m pretty sure I could know the time within the hour without looking at my phone all day and I’m just a defenseless 21st century pleb. The season of the year + the sun’s position + a roughly accurate internal clock. People before modern technology would have been even better at intuiting this.


This is actually a serious question to which I’ve given a lot of thought, so I would appreciate it if people do not detract from my petition here.

To answer TK421’s objection… no, I disagree - with as much emphasis as architects, historians and biblical scholars gave to the study of time - I dont think changes in days and seasons were something they based upon individual perception, which would be judging more by appearances than any verifiable data.

If God’s blessed you with a great biological clock, then that’s great for you… I’m not sure it works for everyone though, especially people who lived 2000 years ago and didnt live the same kind of lifestyle or luxuries we live by (and often take for granted) today… This is even probably why we should let all mortal flesh keep silence… Our individual perceptions routinely fail, sinful lot that we are… even if a person had awesome biorhythms, then what if they got sick at some crucial time, like during a medical necessity? That could throw their daily cycle off completely…

As for objective social programming - they didn’t have a cell phone or wrist watch backing them up to reinforce their thoughts, so - again - my thought is they were using prayer more as a means to time their day…

And that connection to prayer is what I am trying to tap, if it exists…

They didn’t need a sundial. The position of the sun and the length of shadows would have been enough for people of that day and age to gauge the time with a good amount of accuracy. Also this was local time, not a standardised central time, also the length if an hour varied with the season


In addition to what Angannas said, I note that the Scripture says, “It was about four in the afternoon.”

This is not a super-accurate time measure, but rather a general knowledge that it’s about four hours past noon based on length of shadows, the position of the sun in the sky etc.

I don’t go around telling time by the sun, yet I could probably tell you when it was “about four in the afternoon” just based on the sun position and how the light looks at that time of day in the place where I live and during the season we’re in. I am sure people who didn’t have watches or phones showing the time and were used to telling time by the sun would have an even better sense of this than I do. It’s not rocket science.


What version were you using?

I suspect they said “4 in the afternoon” for our sake to understand a vague time in the original.

They might have had something called a water clock.

Water clocks are one of the oldest time-measuring instruments. They were invented in ancient Egypt. Their timekeeping is governed by a pendulum, but they use water for other purposes, such as providing the power needed to drive the clock by using a water wheel.

The Greeks and Romans advanced water clock design which resulted in improved accuracy.

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I wouldn’t say I have exceptional biorhythms. If you’re unconscious for a long time and wake up in a field and see a recognizable mountain or landform to know your directions, you should be able to quickly know whether it is closer to 9am, 12 noon, 3pm, or 6pm, just by looking at the sky and the color of the light around you.

Without any precise instrumentation, the hustle and bustle of the city and working life still followed patterns even if they weren’t down to the minute and people that followed routines from day to day got really good at knowing roughly how long each thing would take, how long it would take to travel up X road or sail down a certain river or stretch of sea.

I don’t know how much prayer had to do with it but even without routine prayers during the day the average person would be able to know this stuff. Even as late as the 1800s a lot of people might not carry a watch but they could intuit time pretty well.

Back in the day seafarers navigated by the stars. Telling the time by the sun, even without a sundial could not have been that big a problem.


“At about the tenth hour” in John’s Greek. The day from sunrise to sunset was divided into twelve hours. An hour was consequently longer in summer and shorter in winter. This meeting is thought (by some writers at least) to have occurred in March, so each hour then would in fact have been pretty close to one of our present-day standardized hours.

The OP’s question about Jewish prayers at set times of day is an interesting one. Maybe @meltzerboy2 can help us? Even so, that would be only a partial answer, because it would lead to the further question, How did they know when it was the right time of day for a particular prayer or benediction? My guess is that the observed position of the sun in the sky would probably be enough by itself, without any sundials or other timekeeping apparatus.

All times in the ancient world were “estimated”, using the formula that “the first hour” was about 6 am…so while the biblical translation of John 1:39 was “It was about 4 in the afternoon”, it was probably originally penned as “It was about the 11th hour” or something close to that (although I am speaking now without checking the exact translation of the Greek rendering of the text.

You will find the exact translation in the post immediately above yours.

If we don’t have the answer to this by next week I will ask the experts who no doubt have uncovered a few ancient time pieces in their travels.
Were there town criers, watchmen.

AT appointed times trumpeters would be on the parapets of the Temple and announce the coming of the Sabbath so people would know it was almost time to be done with their work. Again at the end of the Sabbath the trumpeters would announce the end of the Sabbath.

I think the Sabbath started at sundown on Friday. Pretty easy to see when the sun goes down.

People didn’t have watches, so they were used to roughly telling the time of day by the position of the sun and shadows.

If you grew up doing only that your whole life it’d be a lot easier than you, who are used to having watches, clocks, phones all around you with the time displayed, doing it today.

The trumpeters were trumpeting some time before sunset at an appointed time each Friday. One of the blocks that fell when the Second Temple was destroyed, bears an inscription that indicates it was most likely the place where the trumpeter stood and announced the Sabbath.

The historian Josephus wrote about it
“the point where it was custom for one of the priests to stand and give notice, by sound of trumpet, in the afternoon of the approach, and on the following evening of the close of every seventh day.”


Here is the inscription from the block now known as the trumpeting stone.

And here is where it was thought to be insitu

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Yes, there were trumpeters, but I am sure somebody living many miles away who couldn’t hear the trumpet was equally aware of its being sundown and therefore, the Sabbath. The trumpeting probably just served the same purpose church bells did calling people to Mass, to call people to attention who might otherwise be distracted and try to sneak in a few extra minutes of work or commerce.

Yes, when they say “about four o’clock,” there was no concept of +/- ten minutes. Cultures like this drive modern clock-watchers nuts, but actually living that way is no problem.

Honestly, if you live outside most of the time–say, if you are in farming or fishing–you get pretty good at reading the position of the sun or even the light level to an accuracy that surprises some moderns. This is because you need to get used to looking at the sky to gauge how much time you have left to get the day’s work done and get home before dark. Again, though–you just don’t need to know the time with great accuracy. No one cares. If you’re supposed to meet at a certain time, people get together and when everyone gets around to showing up, things start.

Exactly. As it is put in Nehemiah: “When the shadows were falling on the gates of Jerusalem before the sabbath, I ordered the doors to be closed and prohibited their reopening until after the sabbath…” Nehemiah 13:19) Likewise, the Sabbath was considered to be over when three starts were visible or when looking at a white thread and a black thread outside the one cannot be distinguished from the other. There are ways. When they needed to know the time with accuracy, they had ways to define what time things were to happen.

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This. See the parable of the laborers who were hired at the 11th hour (Mt 20:9). There are references to Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well at the sixth hour (Jn 4:6). St. Mark says that Jesus was let out for crucifixion at the third hour and died at the ninth hour (Mk 15:25,33). Jesus admonished the disciples when they were unable to watch and pray even for one hour.

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First Hour = sunrise or approx. “six o’clock AM” = Prime
Third Hour = approx. “nine o’clock AM” = Terce
Sixth Hour = approx. solar noon = Sext
Ninth Hour = approx. “three o’clock PM” = None
Twelfth Hour = sundown or approx. “six o’clock PM”

the Greek has “tenth hour” so the translators approximated this in the modern “four o’clock”. I personally prefer “tenth hour” and be educated about the old Greco-Roman system of timekeeping.

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