As Westerners on the cusp of the 21st century, we are all beings subject to the tyranny of the urgent. Whether it's deadlines, timelines, or headlines, we are surrounded by reminders that things must be done on some precise schedule and that we must conform to a plethora of pre-set calendars--the work calendar, the school calendar, the church calendar, the golf-course calendar. It thus comes as no surprise that when people like us read the Bible, we get confused and frustrated by the apparent lack of concern for temporal or chronological precision of the biblical authors.
What, for example, are we to make of the fact that Mark's favorite adverb of time is "immediately," a term he uses repeatedly in the first half of his gospel to convey a sense of motion or pace, but by which he hardly ever means more than "soon thereafter" or even "next"? On other occasions, he is perfectly content to simply say "some time after that" or "a few days later" or "one sabbath." Or consider Luke, in some ways the most precise of the gospel writers about matters chronological, who when it comes to speaking about Jesus' age when he began his ministry is content with simply saying "now Jesus was about thirty." We need to constantly bear in mind that the ancients were not wearing little sundials on their wrists as they went about their daily lives. The cycle of life was determined not by seconds and minutes but by sunrises and sunsets or, more broadly, by the calendar of religious festivals in a given year. Thus, for example, when Paul is discussing his travel plans in 1 Corinthians 16:24, he says he plans to stay in Ephesus "until Pentecost."
The New Testament, with the possible exception of Luke-Acts, was all written by early Jews who were followers of Jesus, and all of them adhered to a Jewish way of looking at the day and the year. This meant, for instance, that the day was seen as beginning at sundown and continuing on to the next sundown. The new day began with a time for worship, for a fellowship meal with family, or with a time of rest. The day did not begin with a time of work. It is the Romans whom we may blame both for urging on us that the day be seen as beginning at midnight and that by dawn we all ought to be up and working (notice how even judicial functions, like Jesus' trial, took place at dawn).
In regard to the year, the Jewish calendar varied considerably from the Roman one. The year for a Jew began in the fall, just in time for the harvest and a celebration of the bounty God had prepared. The Jewish calendar was then marked by certain holy festivals--the feast of Booths, of Weeks, and of Passover; the Festival of Lights (Hanukkah) and of Pentecost--and by a few special days (Rosh Hashanah--the "head of the year"; Yom Kippur-- the "day of atonement"). Holy days were truly holy days and not merely holidays (though that word is derived from "holy days").
This whole early Jewish way of looking at time explains certain biblical phrases that to us might be puzzling. For example, the phrase "reaping and sowing" seems backward to us, until we realize that a Jew looks at the year as beginning with harvest and ending with summer.When we bear in mind that the early Jewish calendar was a lunar one, we will not be puzzled by a warning from Paul not to be caught in the observance of "new moons and sabbaths" (Colossians 2:16).
What all these reflections should bring to mind is the awareness that the way we view and divide time is largely artificial and culturally engendered. Once we are cognizant of the "time-frame" with which the biblical authors work, we are far less likely to be frustrated by a lack of modern precision or puzzled by temporal phrases or references that do not comport with modern ways of looking at time. Indeed, we might even learn a few lessons about the merits of starting the day with rest, restoration, and spiritual refreshment. We might also begin to believe the words of Qoheleth (the "Preacher" of the book of Ecclesiastes), that "there is a time to every purpose under heaven."