Friday, September 16, 2011

The real meaning of "noon", How the ancient Jews (and medieval Christian monks) continue to influence modern society

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 20:1-16a
Going out about nine o’clock […] And he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock […] Going out about five o’clock […]
The parable of the landowner who hired laborers for his vineyard throughout the day, even hiring some at the last hour of the working day, and yet paid them all equally (giving each the usual daily wage). The Lectionary, following the New American Bible, renders the hours of the day in a way that is understandable to modern Westerners: Nine o’clock, noon, three o’clock, and five o’clock.
The original Greek text, however, speaks of the times of the day according to the old Jewish manner of counting time. As we consider this ancient method of measuring the day, we will see what the true meaning of “noon” is, and how both the ancient Jews and the medieval monks continue to influence even the most secular people of the modern day.

The hours of the day
The literal translation of the Greek text of this Sunday’s Gospel speaks not of “three o’clock” etc., but of the third hour … the sixth and the ninth hour … the eleventh hour.
Modern man counts time from midnight to midnight, hence at 12am the hours of the day begin anew and continue through to 12pm (which is roughly mid-day) and until 11:45pm (or 23:59). The ancient Jews, however, counted not from mid-night but from sunrise. Thus, the hours of the day began at dawn (which was the first hour, called “Prime”) and continued through to the sixth hour (which was about mid-day) and until the twelfth hour (about sunset). The hours of the night were generally calculated according to four “watches”, though there were often only three watches in the summer months (when the night was shorter).
To recognize the relation of the modern method to the ancient we offer the following table:
Modern method
Ancient Jewish method
First hour
Third hour
Sixth hour
Ninth hour
Twelfth hour
First watch of the night
Second watch of the night
Third watch
Till about 6am
Forth watch

The hours of the Divine Office
The hours of the Breviary (also known as the “Divine Office” and, more recently, the “Liturgy of the Hours”) are named after the ancient Jewish method of counting time. Hence, the daytime hours of the Breviary (which is the prayer-book of the priests and monks, and of the whole Church) are called: Prime, Terce, Sext, and None. These are the prayers which are said between Lauds (i.e. Morning Prayer) and Vespers (i.e. Evening Prayer).
Prime is said at 6am, which is the first hour. Terce is offered at 9am, the third hour. Sext is prayed at 12pm, which is the sixth hour. And, finally, none is prayed at 3pm, which is the ninth hour. These names – prime, terce, sext, and none – are nothing more than the Latinized way of naming the various hours of the day according to the ancient Jewish custom: “Prime” means “first”, “terce” means “third”, “sext” “sixth”, and “none” means “ninth”.
The anticipation of the “ninth hour”
Notice that the ninth hour begins at 3pm and that this prayer in the Divine Office was called “none” (which is simply from the Latin word meaning “ninth”). This word “none” is not pronounced as the English word “none” (i.e. “no one” or “nothing”) but the “o” is pronounced as “ow” in the word “own”.
Little by little, the prayer hour called “none” came to be called “noon” (the “own” sound being elongated into the “o” in “moon”). In fact, the modern word “noon” (which means “mid-day” or 12pm) comes from the ancient prayers of the Breviary – “noon” originally meant the “ninth hour” which was at 3pm. How then did “noon” come to mean “mid-day”?
In the middle-ages, the custom of anticipating the prayer times in the monastery became more and more popular. Over many years, the monks and the priests began to pray the Breviary earlier in the day – this was motivated, in part, by the fact that the monks would often fast from all food until after the “none” prayer time (especially during Lent); hence, the monks could eat earlier if they prayed the “none” hour not at 3 pm, but at 12 pm.
How “noon” came to mean “mid-day”
As the Christian monks and priests, in their prayer books, had adopted the ancient Jewish mode of counting time, the Jewish “hours of the day” came to be identified with the “hours” (or prayers) of the Divine Office. Ultimately, the prayers of the Breviary came to be more dominant in the European mind even than the original meaning of the Jewish “hours”.
When the prayer of “none” (now pronounced and called “noon”) came to be prayed not at the “ninth hour” (i.e. 3pm) but at mid-day, 12 pm began to be called “none” after the prayer time of the monks and priests. Thus, the English word “noon” originally refers not to 12 pm (or mid-day) but to the “ninth hour” which is 3 pm. However, because the monks and priests began to pray the Breviary earlier in the day, the word “noon” has come to mean “mid-day” or 12 pm.
Modern society is rooted in Christianity and Judaism
Many modern secularists refuse to speak of “Christmas” and instead insist upon the “winter holiday season”. They do this in order to keep Judeo-Christian biblical ideas out of modern language.
However, if such secularists really wanted to “purify” modern language from its Christian and Jewish roots, they would have to stop using even the most common words – like “noon”. Here, as bad as modern society may sometimes seem, it is encouraging for Christians to remember that the biblical influence on modern western society is so deep that the only way to remove the Judeo-Christian roots would be to utterly destroy Western Civilization. We can only hope that the secularists will recognize this truth.


SDG said...

Nice article. Just one quibble regarding your table: Everything works except the first row, "6am = first hour." Where all the other hours are as specified, the "first hour" would be 7am, not 6am.

Chatto said...


jeremyschwager said...

Good post. Those hungry monks have truly shaped our English language.
I pray too that secularists, and others, who tamper with English for their own political agendas will see the error of the ways. But it sometimes seems like an uphill battle.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

In fact, the matter is a bit more complicated ... the "first hour" of the Jewish day was from dawn to about 8am -- but this all depended upon when dawn was.
Hence, in the Summer months (when the day was longer), the first hour could be even earlier than 6am. However, in the Winter months (when the night was longer), the first hour would begin much later.

In other words, my chart isn't really an exact correlation between modern and ancient time-tables ... rather, it is only a rough approximation.
The "first hour" roughly begins at 6am, but truly begin at dawn.

[additionally, it is interesting to note that the "hours" of the Jewish method do not necessarily equal 60 minutes ... they are simply 12 equal divisions of the day-time]

It is true, however, that "Prime" (the first hour of the Breviary) was often prayed around 7am ... though even here there is no little diversity from monastery to monastery.

Anonymous said...

Great post father, I have a question though, What times are the Lauds, Vespers and Compline suppose to be prayed?

Msgr. Pope said...

Excellent. Thanks for this informative post.

Anonymous said...

I knew there was something about 3 o'clock that made me feel shlep-ish! The jews understood the same feeling exactly!

Jim Hicks said...

Really enjoyed this post. But I agree with SDG. I have always heard Prime referred to as 7am.

Jim Hicks

Fr Michael said...

Thanks, Father!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, this helped me I think. I recently started saying prime, sext and compline, (little hours?) but the lovely little divine office book I bought says prime is at full sunrise. That's not 6 am any more here. It's too much fun for me to try saying them in the Latin. Gloria Patri!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Jim Hicks and SDG,
There is no "zero hour" in the Jewish method of telling time ... hence, the "first hour" begins at sunrise.

Today, sunrise in Jerusalem was at 6:24am.
Throughout the entire month of June, sunrise was around 5:35am -- hence, the "first hour" began at 5:35am.
The latest sunrise ever is in Jerusalem is about 6:40am ... thus, the latest the "first hour" ever started for the Jews in Jerusalem was 6:40am.

So, if one were to make a table to relate the "hours" of the Jewish day to modern time, the "first hour" would begin somewhere between 5:30am and 6:40am (depending on the time of the year) ... don't you think 6am is a good in-between? Certainly, 7am wouldn't be right.

Gregory DiPippo said...

Fr. Ryan, I would add that part of the reason for the shift in the English language also has to do with the change in latitude. London is just shy of 20 degrees further north than Jerusalem; at the winter solstice, sunrise is at 8 a.m., and there are fewer than 8 hours of daylight. England also had a very much larger proportion of cathedrals run by monks than any other country; at the end of the solar year, they could not hope to cram the whole of the much longer monastic office into such a short period. Rome, on the other hand, is only 10 degrees further north, and the ecclesiastical equivalent to "noon" is Sext, i.e. Siesta (a custom which I hope you don't miss too much!) Best regards!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thanks for the info!
Most especially, thank you for pointing out the connection between sext and siesta!

Are you still in Rome these days?
It was my time spent over at S. Gregorio dei Muratori that first got me interested in the ancient traditions!

Steve Cavanaugh said...

Following up on Gregory's comment, in medieval England it was common to pray several offices together one after the other, because of this shortened day time in late Fall through early Spring, putting together Matins-Lauds-Prime and Vespers-Compline. When Cranmer crafted Morning Prayer (Mattins) and Evening Prayer (Evensong) as a combination of the morning and evening offices for the Book of Common Prayer, he was not creating this out of his own head, but institutionalizing a then-common practice.

Anonymous said...

My contribution to restoring none is that when I fast (every day except Sundays and feast days from the Exaltation of the Cross till Easter Sunday) I don't break my fast till after I pray vespers around 4-5pm. I do have a cup of black coffee in the morning though except Fridays.

Rick said...

Now *that's* what I call a cool, interesting, useful, and edifying bit of Catholic blogging!

Michelle said...

"Here, as bad as modern society may sometimes seem, it is encouraging for Christians to remember that the biblical influence on modern western society is so deep that the only way to remove the Judeo-Christian roots would be to utterly destroy Western Civilization. We can only hope that the secularists will recognize this truth." I am afraid they have recognized this...

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