It's rather commonplace to hear these days, both in the pulpit and on the page, that Jesus was sentenced to death at the "very hour" the Passover lambs were being offered in the Temple. Above all, Raymond Brown made this idea popular in his commentary on the Gospel of John, when he argued that John's reference to Jesus' standing before Pilate on the Pavement (Gabbatha) at "about the sixth hour" (John 19:14) was a Johannine clue meant to signal to the reader that Jesus, the true Passover lamb, was being led to the cross to take away the sins of the world. (See Brown, The Gospel according to John, 2:556).
There's only one problem with Brown's theory; he's got no evidence to back it up. In fact, the little evidence we do have contradicts his assertion. For example, Josephus, who was a priest in the Temple in the first century A.D., makes very clear that the Passover lambs were sacrificed between 3 and 5 o'clock.:
Accordingly, on the occasion of the feast called Passover, at which they sacrifice from the ninth hour [=3p.m.] to the eleventh hour [=5 p.m.], and a little fraternity, as it were, gathers around each sacrifice, of not fewer than ten persons. (Josephus, War 6:423-24)
If this is correct--and the later Mishnah backs up Josephus, saying that at the earliest, the Passover lambs would not be sacrificed until 1:30p.m. (cf. Pesahim 5:1)--then John 19:14 cannot be a signal to the reader that Pilate is sentencing Jesus to death just as the Passover lambs are beginning to be killed in the Temple. Strangely, however, this false interpretation is so widespread that I regularly encounter people now who say that John "says" Jesus was crucified at the same time as the Passover lambs. But he says no such thing.
The Perpetual Sacrifice in the Temple: 9a.m. and 3 p.m.
So, is there any cultic significance to the hour of Jesus' passion and death? Did Jesus' death on Calvary correspond to any sacrifices in the Temple?
I would suggest there is, and that it is the Synoptic evangelists who have brought this out. For while the Synoptic Gospels make it explicit that the Passover lambs were slaughtered twenty-four hours before Jesus' death (cf. Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7), there was one other sacrifice that was going on in the Temple when Jesus was crucified on Good Friday: the perpetual sacrifice, known as the Tamid.
Strangely, this sacrifice, which is forgotten by almost everyone, was arguably the most memorable of all the Jewish sacrifices, since it happened every day, twice a day. According to the Torah itself, twice a day, in the morning and the evening, an unblemished male lamb was to be sacrificed in the sanctuary, and offered along with an unbloody sacrifice of flour and wine (see Num 28:1-8; Exod 29:38-42).
Now, although the Old Testament does not say exactly when the morning and evening sacrifice took place, according to ancient Jewish sources outside the Bible, the morning offering of the Tamid took place at 9 a.m., while the evening offering took place at 3 p.m. (See Mishnah, Tamid 3:7; Josephus, Antiquities 14.4.3; Philo, Special Laws, 1:169).
The New Tamid
With that information in mind, go back to the Synoptic accounts of Jesus' death on Good Friday. Remarkably, the Gospel of Mark makes very clear that Jesus' passion and death coincided with the offerings of the perpetual sacrifice:
And it was the third hour (9a.m.), when they crucified him (Mark 15:25).
And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour (3 p.m.). And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"... And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. (Mark 15:33-37)
Notice that Mark twice states that Jesus expired at the ninth hour, 3 o'clock. Why the emphasis? Apart from historical accuracy, what is Mark trying to communicate?
I would suggest that both chronological references are meant to tie Jesus' passion and death to the perpetual sacrifice being offered in the Temple: the bloody sacrifice of the unblemished lambs and the unbloody sacrifice of cakes and wine. In other words, Mark is showing us that Jesus is the true Tamid, the true perpetual sacrifice, who replaces the atoning power of the Temple cult. Perhaps this is why he stresses the effect of Jesus' death on the Temple:
"And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the veil of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom." (Mark 15:37-38)
In short, there is no reason to strain to connect the hour of Jesus' death with the Passover lambs that had been offered Thursday afternoon. For there was another sacrificial lamb, that was directly linked to atonement, which was being offered at the very hours of his crucifixion and death.
Now, I should probably stop here. But since it's Good Friday, I'll make one last point.
What Were the Jews in the Temple Praying for when Jesus Died?
According to ancient Jewish tradition, as found in the Mishnah and Talmuds, the daily Tamid was not just about sacrifice; it was also accompanied by prayers, which Jews everywhere would say while the sacrifices were being offered in the Temple. According to these traditions, a series of blessings, commonly known as the "Eighteen Benedictions," were being said by Jews everywhere in union with the Tamid (b. Ber. 26b; Gen. R. lxviii). Remarkably, the Rabbis claim that this was taking place even during the Second Temple Period (see Babylonian Talmud, Ber.33a, Meg. 17b.)--with the exception of the benediction against the "heretics," which the Rabbis say was added by Gamaliel II at Yabneh after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70A.D. (see b. Ber. 28b).
Now, before you balk at the idea of using Talmudic traditions to reconstruct Second Temple practices, recall that the New Testament itself tells us that Jesus own followers would go up to the Temple at the hours of the perpetual sacrifice to pray. This is explicit in the book of Acts:
Now Peter and John went up to the Temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour (=3p.m.) (Acts 3:1; cf. 2:15).
The question is: What prayers were Jews saying while the Tamid was being sacrificed in the first century? On the one hand, we could say, 'we don't have any idea'. On the other hand, ancient Jewish tradition, provides a rather concrete answer: it tells us that the Eighteen Benedictions were being prayed at that time.
What is striking about these prayers is this: If these ancient Jewish traditions are correct--and I realize that this is disputed--then what follows below are the kind of things the Jews in the Temple would have been praying for while the Tamid was being sacrificed and while Jesus was dying on the Cross:
1. According to Jewish tradition, at 9a.m. and 3p.m., the Jews in the Temple would have been praying for redemption:
"Look upon our affliction and plead our cause,and redeem us speedily for your name's sake, for you are a mighty redeemer. Blessed are you, O Lord, the redeemer of Israel." (7th Benediction)
2. According to Jewish tradition, at 9a.m. and 3p.m., the Jews in the Temple would have been praying for the forgiveness of sins:
"Forgive us, O our Father, for we have sinned; pardon us, O our King, for we have transgressed; for you pardon and forgive. Blessed are you, O Lord, who is merciful and always ready to forgive." (6th Benediction)
3. According to Jewish tradition, at 9a.m. and 3p.m., the Jews in the Temple would have praying for the coming of the Messiah:
"Speedily cause the offspring of your servant David to flourish, and let him be exalted by your saving power, for we wait all day long for your salvation. Blessed are you, O Lord, who causes salvation to flourish." (15th Benediction)
4. In fact, according to Jewish tradition, at 9a.m. and 3p.m., the Jews in the Temple would have been praying for the resurrection of the dead:
"You, O Lord, are mighty forever, you revive the dead, you have the power to save. You sustain the living with lovingkindness, you revive the dead with great mercy, you support the falling, heal the sick, set free the bound and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust... Who resembles you, a king who puts to death and restores to life, and causes salvation to flourish? And you are certain to revive the dead. Blessed are you, O Lord, who revives the dead." (2nd Benediction)
In short, if these traditional prayers do in fact go back to the Second Temple period, then something remarkable emerges. For we find a plausible explanation for why Mark emphasizes Jesus' crucifixion and death as corresponding to the hours of 9a.m. and 3p.m.. We find that ancient Jews were praying for the very things Christians believe were dispensed by Jesus on the Cross, at the very hour he was dispensing them.
Have a blessed Triduum and a holy Easter.