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How Did People Tell Time During Biblical Days?

Updated on May 28, 2013
Billrrrr profile image

Bill Russo is featured in the film & TV show, The Bridgewater Triangle & has written several books (both fiction & non) on Amazon Kindle.

How did people tell time during the period of Jesus’ life?

Actually, they did not tell time. They did not really care about time the way we do. Nobody had a 1:15 appointment with the hairdresser, or a 10:45 with their primary care doctor.

To get to work on time, they simply reported to their job at sunrise. When sunset came, work was over.

Sunrise. Sunset.

They were the two main times of day in the ancient world.

But what about the hours in between?

Actually there were no hours between. The concept of hours was unknown until about the time of Jesus. By the time of his death the day had been divided into 12 hourly parts.

In the centuries prior to the year one a.d., there were only four parts to a day. There was, as previously mentioned, sunrise and sunset. There was also the heat of the day and the cooling of early evening. Most of the farm work was done during the heat of day. The cool of the evening was devoted to domestic tasks, such as the carrying of water from the source to the houses.

Still, there must have been times when people needed to have at least a rough idea of what time it was. Sundials have been around for thousands of years, but their use was not universal and were probably used mostly by the wealthy or by institutions.

To answer the question of how people told time before the invention of clocks; I tried to imagine myself as being alive during that era. Here’s what I learned.

Traveling backward in time during my reverie, I made my way towards Jerusalem but veered off to Sicily because I realized that I knew nothing about what we now call the Middle East: so I decided instead to settle in the land of my grandfather. My brain flew me to what is today called Messina.

The weather is beautiful. The summer is hot and dry. The winters are warm and wet. It’s a great climate for agriculture.

Since I believe that I am descended from the Kings of Sicily, I am settling into a large stone house with a rooftop recreation area. All of the houses have flat, strong roofs which are used for agriculture and household tasks.

On hot summer nights, I sleep on the roof. The washing is dried there and some special flowers and vegetables are grown. My outdoor dining table is also atop my dwelling and I regularly throw feasts for friends, neighbors and my workers. I have six field hands who help me cultivate the finest olives and grapes in all of Sicily.

The Greeks rule the land now, but the Romans have their eyes on it. I don’t care who is in charge. I give them twenty per cent of my crop and they leave me alone.

Like all the houses, there are no steps inside the building to get to the roof. You reach it by climbing the fifteen steps that are affixed to the outside of the house.

Work in the fields starts at sunrise and the men work until sunset; but three times during the day, I call them in for food and rest.

At first I called them by whim, but I soon realized they would work better and feel better if their meals came at regular intervals.

I noticed that after they had been working for a while there was a shadow on my third stair. So I began calling the workers in , at three steps of shadow. I fed them breakfast and let them talk and joke until the sun reached four steps. Back to work they went and I called them again at eight steps. The lunch and the chatter continued until the sun reached nine steps.

My third call came at 12 steps. Food and conversation was joined with wine until the sun hit 13 stairs and then it was back to work until finally the sun set and each man went home to his own dwelling and his family.

Other men of this time may have different ways to tell time, but this one works for me.

Snapping back to reality and the 21st century, I decided to do some actual research on time telling before mechanical clocks, and it seems that I was on to something. Some people really did tell time by the shadows on their stairs.

In fact, with the aid of a reader’s digest book, I was able to learn the truth of the biblical “dial of Ahaz”

The dial was thought to refer to a sundial by which King Hezekiah told time.

As the King neared the end of his life and was dying, he implored God, through Isaiah, to let him live longer.

“I will add fifteen years to your life,” God said.

He added, “I will make the shadow cast by the declining sun on the dial of Ahaz turn back ten steps.”

It was thought by scholars that God was referring to a sundial, but according to “The ABCs of the Bible”; research has shown that the translated word ‘dial’, actually meant stairs. Biblical experts then surmised that King Hezekiah kept track of time by the path of the sun along a flight of stairs! He told time the same way that I did in my imagining!

Well, time stands still for no man or woman, so it was just a question of time before somebody invented a clock. History does not tell us who came up with the first mechanical clock or even when it was invented.

Some time around 1430 the first spring wound clock appeared. Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy is credited with the invention.

Paulus Almanus developed the first clock that showed minutes as well as hours, in the year 1475.

Clocks were in universal use until the invention of the cellphone in the late 1900s. The ubiquitous cellphone has prompted many people to abandon their timepieces - because the cellphone will give accurate time anywhere and even adjusts itself across time zones and for daylight savings time.

The Amazon Kindle has done a similar thing to books…..prompting many people to stop using real books and use the kindle instead.

Speaking for myself, I promise:

#1: To always use a real clock to tell time.

#2: To only kindle barbeque fires - NEVER books.

Well the old shadow of the sun has reached the third stair, so it’s time for me to call in the workers. We’re going to have wine and ‘parched barley’. You are invited!


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    • Billrrrr profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Russo 

      5 years ago from Cape Cod

      Thankyou Nell Rose for the great comment and for reading. It is up to us to us to uphold tradition and not fall for the latest gadgets!!!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      5 years ago from England

      Hi Bill, loved your story, and its fascinating to see that you were right. yes the shadows on the steps seem to be a good indication of the time, and I also agree with you, the only thing I kindle is my fire! lol! I would never give up books!

    • Billrrrr profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Russo 

      5 years ago from Cape Cod

      LOL I hope that S doesn't happen for a long, long time.

    • Carl8033 profile image

      Alexander Okelo 

      5 years ago

      Wow, I guess when the SHTF and there are no more wathces or clocks in the world, you would be really resourceful when it comes to telling guys what time it is. lol

    • Billrrrr profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Russo 

      5 years ago from Cape Cod

      Thanks for reading Carl8033. I enjoy guessing the time by looking at the position of the sun and then checking myself by looking at my cellphone. Sometimes I am correct to the minute. Usually I am within 30 minutes or so of the right time. Often when I wake up, I look out the window and speculate on the exact time. I am fairly accurate as long as it is not cloudy or rainy. In the wet weather, I am pretty far off.

    • Carl8033 profile image

      Alexander Okelo 

      5 years ago

      I guess they used sun dials or the anthykithera mechanism I believe :)


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