Article: “Easter” or “Passover” in Acts 12:4? by KJV Today

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“Easter” or “Passover” in Acts 12:4?


The meaning of πάσχα is determined by context

The allegation that the KJV is in error for translating "Πάσχα (pascha)" as "Easter" in Acts 12:4 is based on ignorance of the Greek language and the biblical and early Christian usage of the word. "Πάσχα" is a polyseme, a word that could refer to more than one thing. It could refer to the Jewish Passover or the Christian Easter, depending on context. As used by Jews prior to Christ’s resurrection, it refers to the Jewish Passover; however, as used by Greek Christians after Christ’s resurrection (as was the case in Acts 12:4), it refers to the Christian celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection (Easter).

Before examining the meaning of "Πάσχα" in Koine Greek, one ought to begin by examining it in modern Greek (courtesy of Google Translate):

  • Easter = Πάσχα (Pascha)
  • Passover = εβραϊκό Πάσχα (Hebrew Pascha), Πάσχα των ιουδαίων (Pascha of the Jews)

In modern Greek, the primary meaning of Πάσχα is Easter. If one wants to refer to the Passover, he must qualify the term and refer to either the εβραϊκό Πάσχα (Hebrew Pascha) or Πάσχα των ιουδαίων (Pascha of the Jews).

In many other languages the primary meaning of “Pascha” is the Christian Easter:

In these languages, “Pascha” could refer to either “Easter” or “Passover” depending on context or a modifier. In French, for example, Easter is “Pâques” and Passover is “Pâques de Juifs” (“Pascha of the Jews”).

There is no doubt that "Πάσχα" means "Easter" in modern Greek. The charge, however, is that "Πάσχα" did not mean "Easter" until centuries after the composition of Acts 12:4. This is not true. In the Gospel of John there is already a distinction being made between the Christian Pascha and the Jewish Pascha. Passover in modern Greek is "Πάσχα των ιουδαίων" (Passover of the Jews). We see this same phrase already in the time of John the Apostle:

  • "και εγγυς ην το πασχα των ιουδαιων" (John 2:13)
  • "ην δε εγγυς το πασχα των ιουδαιων" (John 11:55)

The fact that John writes, "Jews’ Pascha" indicates that there was a need to qualify the word "Pascha." Eusebius' testimony is clear that the Apostles were already celebrating the "Saviour's Pascha":

  • "A question of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour's πασχα. It was therefore necessary to end their fast on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be. But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the resurrection of our Saviour." (Church History, Book V, 23:1)

The controversy among Christians which Eusebius talks about was concerning the date of the "Saviour's Pascha." Regardless of the date, however, Christians were all celebrating the "Saviour's Pascha," which is the celebration of the death and resurrection of the Saviour - Easter. By the time of the Apostles, "Pascha" came to mean "Easter" to Christians. "Pascha" meant "Passover" only to the Jews or to anyone specifically referring to the Jewish celebration.

Originally, Passover and Easter fell on the same day. It was only in the aftermath of the Quartodecimanist controversy that Passover and Easter came to be celebrated on different days. In passages prior to Christ’s resurrection, the KJV translates “Pascha” as “Passover” because the disciples were still celebrating the Jewish festival. After Christ’s resurrection, however, the KJV translates “Pascha” as “Easter” because the disciples were celebrating the Christian celebration of the resurrection. The only times the KJV translates “Pascha” as “Passover” after the resurrection are in 1 Corinthians 5:7 and Hebrew 11:28, both of which speak retrospectively of events prior to the resurrection.

Easter is a Christian word

The word "Easter" has some etymological baggage. Some Christians are wary of using the word because of its supposed pagan origin. The Venerable Bede (672-735) asserted that the word "Easter" derived from "Eostre," the goddess of the Saxons (De Ratione Temporum). In modern times Alexander Hislop connected Easter to the Babylonian goddess Astarte (The Two Babylons, 1858). However, these authors do not discuss the full picture of the etymology of "Easter." They were hasty to conclude that "Easter" is a pagan word. In the search for the complete picture of a word's etymology, we must dig deeper than these surface similarities between Easter and the name of a pagan goddess. For example, one could hastily conclude that "Allah" is a Muslim word. But upon deeper study, one would find that "Allah" is an Arabic word for "diety" that predates the advent of Islam. Likewise, "Easter" may appear to be a pagan word on the surface, but a deeper study would show that it is a Christian word. For hundreds of years English-speaking Christians have referred to Easter as the day of Christ's resurrection.

"Easter" is derived from "East"

The etymology of "Easter" is complex. "Easter" contains the word "east." The German word for Easter is "Ostern," which contains the word "Ost," which is German for "east." Since "Easter" in both of these Germanic languages contains the word for "east," we can see that the root word for Easter is "east." Even if "Eostre" (English) or "Ostara" (German) were the names of a Germanic goddess, the root word of that goddess is the word for "east." So if "Easter," the Christian holiday, derives its etymology from the word "east," it may not be an etymological descendent of Eostre (the goddess) but a separate etymological descendent of the word "east." The etymology of "east" gives us some clues as to why Anglo-saxon Christians adopted the word "Easter" to refer to Christ's resurrection, irrespective of whether a goddess by a similar name existed.

The etymology of the word "east":

  • "O.E. east, from P.Gmc. *aus-to-, *austra- "east, toward the sunrise" (cf. Du. oost, Ger. Ost, O.N. austr "from the east"), from PIE *aus- "dawn" (cf. Skt. ushas "dawn," Gk. aurion "morning," O.Ir. usah, Lith. auszra "dawn," L. aurora "dawn," auster "south"), lit. "to shine." The east is the direction in which dawn breaks." (Online Etymological Dictionary)

"East" refers to the dawn, sunrise, morning. What a fitting word to describe the day when Christ rose from the dead. Consider the following passages concerning Christ's resurrection:

  • "In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre." (Matthew 28:1)
  • "And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun." (Mark 16:2)

The day of Christ' resurrection was in the morning at the rising of the sun. In fact, it was not only a physical morning but also a spiritual morning because the light of salvation had come into the world. Christ began to rise as the "Sun of righteousness" at his resurrection. The following passages compare Christ with the rising of the sun:

  • "But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings;" (Malachi 4:2)
  • "We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:" (2 Peter 1:19)
  • "I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star." (Revelation 22:16)

With these details of Christ and his resurrection, there is no mystery as to why Anglo-Saxon Christians called the day of his resurrection "Easter," a word derived from "east," which means dawn, sunrise, morning. Just as the sun rises from the darkness of night, the "Sun of righteousness" rose (resurrected) from the darkness of death. Hence, Christ's resurrection was the spiritual sunrise, or Easter.

Christians reclaimed the true meaning of "Easter"

Just because pagans named their goddess of sunrise with a name derived from "east," it did not prohibit Christians from naming the day of Jesus Christ's resurrection with a name derived from "east." For example, pagans might call their gods "God," "Lord," "Helper," etc, but that would not prohibit Christians from addressing the true God by any of these same titles. In places prior to Christian contact, people are usually found worshipping a "god" (or many "gods"). When Christian missionaries arrive, they identify Jesus Christ as the true "god." Likewise, Anglo-Saxon Christians may have given the name "Easter" to the day of Christ's resurrection to identity Christ as the true God of sunrise (in the sense of being Creator of the sun as well as spiritually being the "Sun of righteousness"). Thus the word "Easter" stands as a testimony of the Anglo-Saxon Christians' rejection of the goddess in reception of the true God, Jesus Christ.

Even if there is any possibility of pagan etymological association, "Easter" is no more pagan now than are the words "God" or "Theos." The origins of the words "God" and "Theos" are pagan. "Wednesday" or "Thursday," which are derived from the names of Norse gods "Woden" and "Thor," are also pagan in origin. Since English is the language of people who were once pagan, we would not be able to speak a great part of the language if we were to avoid all words with even a hint of pagan etymology. If it is appropriate for Christians to worship "God," study "Theology" and announce a "Wednesday night Bible study," then it surely is appropriate for Christians to celebrate an "Easter service" even if the word had a pagan association in the past.

KJV Today

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