Textus Receptus: "ον και πιασας εθετο εις φυλακην παραδους τεσσαρσιν τετραδιοις στρατιωτων φυλασσειν αυτον βουλομενος μετα το πασχα αναγαγειν αυτον τω λαω"
King James Version: "And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people."
English Standard Version: "And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people."
The Greek word, "πασχα (pascha)", is correctly translated as "Passover" 28 times in the New Testament in the KJV. For this reason, some critics say that the KJV's isolated instance of translating the word as "Easter" in Acts 12:4 is an error. These critics agree with translations such as the ESV which has "Passover" in Acts 12:4. This article explains why the KJV is correct in translating "Pascha" as "Easter" in Acts 12:4. To begin with, we must set the record straight that "Easter" is not a pagan word.
The first myth to refute is the claim that the KJV uses "Easter" at Acts 12:4 to refer to a pagan holiday celebrated by king Herod. This myth is propagated by some KJV apologists who may be well-intentioned in upholding the inerrancy of the KJV. Yet such a myth defies what the KJV translators believed and practiced. Included in the 1611 edition of the KJV is a chart for finding the day of Easter in a given year. It is evident that the KJV translators viewed Easter as a Christian holiday. If the KJV translators considered Easter to be a Christian holiday, it is doubtful that they used it to mean a pagan holiday at Acts 12:4.
"To find Easter for ever." (modern spelling)
The Holy Bible: 1611 Edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson)
Those who propagate myth 1 typically identify Herod's pagan holiday as that of the Semitic goddess, Ishtar or Astarte. This false connection between "Easter" and these names of a Semitic goddess can be traced to the work of the Scottish minister Alexander Hislop. Hislop was an outspoken critic of Roman Catholicism. His book The Two Babylons exposed many of the unbiblical doctrines and practices of Roman Catholicism. However, Hislop erred when it came to statements about the etymological relationship between Easter and the ancient idols, Ishtar or Astarte. At page 103 of his book, he writes:
Sure enough, "Ishtar" (a form of "Astarte") may sound similar to "Easter", but the two words are not etymologically related. Astarte is "עשׁתּרות (ashtarot)" in Hebrew. This name is derived from the word "עשׁתּרה (‛ashterâh)" which means "increase" or "flock" (Brown-Driver-Briggs’ Hebrew Definitions). "עשׁתּרה (‛ashterâh)" is translated as "flocks" four times in the KJV. Hence, the name "Astarte" or "Ishtar" is a Semitic word related to animal fertility. This makes sense because Astarte was regarded as a goddess of fertility.
The etymology of "Easter" on the other hand has nothing to do with "flocks" or animal fertility. "Easter" ("Ostern" in German) is a Germanic word derived from the word "east" ("Ost" in German). Today, "east" refers to the direction from which the sun rises. The direction of east goes by that name because the Saxon word "east" meant "dawn", "sunrise" or "morning". The etymology of "east" is as follows:
The Old English word for the month of April was "Eosturmonað". The Venerable Bede (672-735) claimed that the word "Eostre" came from the name of a Saxon spring fertility goddess who went by that name. He wrote:
"Eostur-monath, qui nunc Paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a Dea illorum quæ Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit: a cujus nomine nunc Paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquæ observationis vocabulo gaudia novæ solemnitatis vocantes." (De Ratione Temporum)
"Eostur-monath, which now is translated Paschal month, was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, and whose name was celebrated in the festival at that [time]: by whose name they now designate the Paschal season, calling the joys of the new festival by the familiar ancient observance." (Translation by KJV Today)
Thus unlike the Easter/Ishtar connection myth, there is some linguistic basis to the claim that the name "Easter" comes from the name of a Saxon goddess called "Eostre". However, if the feast of the goddess was as ancient as Bede claimed, it is doubtful that he would have actually known which came first, the name of the month "Eostur-monath" or the goddess "Eostre". In fact, "Eostur-monath" comes from "Ōstar-mānod", the Old Germanic name for the month of April. Thus the origin of this name of the month of April is more ancient than the Anglo-Saxon language itself. By Bede's time, the tradition of the goddess had already been established so it may have appeared to him that the month was named after the goddess. However, it is far more logical that the name of the month, which means, "East/Sunrise month", came first in the ancestral language of the Saxons, which is Old Germanic, because March is the time when the days noticeably begin to start earlier (as stated under the section for myth 2, the Saxon word "east" was a descriptive word that referred to the dawn or sunrise. The -er suffix in "Easter" comes from the influence of either the Proto-Germanic austra or the Old Frisian aster). This religiously neutral origin for the name of Eosturmonað, derived from the Old Germanic Ōstar-mānod, is very likely because each of the months of the Old Germanic calendar is named after a natural phenomenon that characterizes the month:
Given how all the Old Germanic months are named after seasonal characteristics, it is more likely than not that "Ōstar-mānod" was originally a name given to the month based on its seasonal characteristic of the sunrise starting earlier. The Saxons borrowed the name for April from Old Germanic. It is clear that by the time of the Saxons, some of the months had been named with religious overtones (e.g. Yule, Rheda, Blood (sacrifice)). It may well be that by the time of the Saxons, a pagan meaning had become attached to the name of "Eostur-mónaþ"; but that was a later development.
(sources: Wikipedia entry on "Germanic calendar")
The naming of the first spring month as "East/Sunrise month" is logical and it is most likely afterwards that Old Germanic and Saxon pagans personified and deified this "sunrise" or "dawn" and celebrated her feast during the month (the Saxons called her "Eostre" and the Old Germans called her "Ostara"). What is commonly seen among cultures is that some words referring to natural phenomena become personified as pagan deities. For example, the Semitic fertility goddess Ashtoreth (Joshua 9:10) is the deification of the Semitic word "עשׁתּרה (‛ashterâh)" which means "flock" (e.g. Deuteronomy 7:13). Another example is the Semitic fertility god Dagon (Judges 16:23) who is the deification of the Semitic word "דּגן (dâgân)" which means "wheat" (e.g. Jeremiah 31:12). Another example is the name of the Roman goddess Aurora, which is the Latin word for "dawn". The Latin word "aurora" just means "dawn" if it is used in an ordinary sense. If a Christian goes on an "Aurora Borealis Tour", he is by no means participating in a pagan activity but is rather simply enjoying a magnificent "dawn-like" natural phenomenon in the arctic regions. Likewise, the fact that a Saxon goddess went by the name "Eostre" does not mean that "Easter" is a pagan word. Those who hold this myth make it sound as if there was once a goddess with a certain name and Saxon Christian simply took that name arbitrarily without any biblical basis. If, for example, the pagans worshiped a goddess by the name of "Sally" and Christians today refer to the day of the Lords resurrection as "Sally", then surely we have a problem. But that is not the case for Saxon Christians using "Easter" as the name of the day of the Lord's resurrection. As "easter" was a descriptive word that referred to the dawn or sunrise, we can understand why both pagans and Christians wished to use the word "east" for their respective purposes. Pagans wished to worship a goddess of sunrise so they called her "Eostre". Christians on the other hand wished to celebrate a very special dawn, so they called the day "Easter".
The Bible describes Christ's resurrection as being discovered in the "morning" at "dawn" or at "the rising of the sun" (see John 20:1 where it says the stone was already rolled aside while "it was yet dark"):
Christ's resurrection is a "dawn" also in a spiritual sense because that is when the light of salvation rose (resurrected) from the darkness of death. The following passages compare Christ to the sun rising from darkness:
Some Christians try to avoid anything that has to do with sunrise imagery, presuming that it is pagan. Yet God in his Holy word compares Christ to the rising sun. The word, "Easter" (austra in Proto-Germanic and aster in Old Frisian; see above), with its connotation of a sunrise, pays tribute to this biblical imagery of Christ as the "Sun of righteousness". The word translated "dayspring" at Luke 1:78 is "ανατολη", which means "1) a rising (of the sun and stars); 2) the east (the direction of the sun’s rising)" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon). The Old West-Saxon version of the Gospel of Luke translates the word as "eastdæle", which is the Saxon word for "east/sunrise". Luke 1:78 in West-Saxon reads, "þurh innoþas ures godes mildheortnesse. on þam he us geneosode of eastdæle up springende;" This is another proof that the word "Easter" came from the biblical language of the Saxons.
"Easter" is etymologically related to "east" (the direction) and refers to the "rising" of our Lord. This connection between the eastern direction and the resurrection makes some Christians nervous about a possible pagan influence. However, there is no reason for such concern because this connection between the eastern direction and the verb "to rise" is even found in the language in which the New Testament was written. The Greek verb "ανατελλω (anatello)" means "to rise" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon) and it is the word translated as "arise" in the above passage in 2 Peter 1:19 about Christ rising in our hearts. It is also the word used in Hebrews 7:14 which says that our Lord "sprang out of Juda". And "ανατελλω" is related to the word, "ανατολη (anatole)", which means, "the east (the direction of the sun’s rising)" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon). So there is a connection between the eastern direction and the verb "to rise" even in the language of the New Testament. The writers of the New Testament did not avoid using the verb "ανατελλω" (to rise) despite its derivation from the Greek word for "east".
Despite any explanation that "Easter" is derived from a generic Saxon word for "dawn" that is not pagan in and of itself (as with the Proto-Germanic austra and the Old Frisian aster), the mere possibility that a goddess went by the name of "Eostre" appears to scare some Christians into avoiding the word "Easter". These Christians need to realize that pagans should not be given monopoly over valid words in the English lexicon. If today it is discovered that a pagan sect calls its goddess by the name "Dawn", would these Christians abandon the word "dawn" from their everyday usage? No, that would be silly and it would amount to surrendering a perfectly biblical name to pagans. Anglo-Saxon and Old Germanic Christians may have been aware that a goddess went by the name "Eostre" or "Ostara". These Christians may have deliberately taken a word that was popular among pagans in order to reclaim the proper use of the word. Thus the word "Easter" ("Ostern" in German) stands as a testimony of the Anglo-Saxon and Old Germanic Christians' rejection of the goddess in reception of the true God, Jesus Christ. Such a victorious reclaiming of a beautiful word for the cause of Christ should be honored, not opposed.
The funny thing is that many Christians who oppose the use of the word "Easter" still celebrate Good Friday. Yet the word "Friday" is based on the name of a pagan goddess. The word "Friday" means "Day of Frige" - Frige being the name of a Norse goddess. "Good Friday" literally means "Good day of Frige (the goddess)". Some Christians say that Christ died on Wednesday or Thursday and rose on Saturday. Yet "Wednesday", "Thursday," and "Saturday" are also derived from the names of the pagan gods Woden, Thor and Saturnus, respectively. If one would actually like to avoid a "pagan connection", he would be wiser to avoid using the words "Friday", "Thursday", "Wednesday" and "Saturday" rather than the Christian word "Easter". Avoiding all of these words, of course, is an impossibility if we wish to communicate with others regarding the days of the week. We just have to admit that the English language is the language of a people who were once pagan and that there are many vestiges of pagan etymology in English. Also to be noted is the irony that this word "Ishtar" which some Christians wish to avoid appears to be related to "Esther", which is the name of an entire book of our Holy Bible. Esther lived in a pagan culture and was given a pagan name as with Mordecai (which is related to the pagan god Marduk). While it has been demonstrated that Easter has nothing to do with Ishtar, the Bible itself shows that God can redeem a name even if it is in fact related to Ishtar.
Now that it has been demonstrated that "Easter" is a biblical word referring to the day to celebrate Christ's resurrection, it will be shown why the KJV is correct in translating "Πάσχα (Pascha)" as "Easter" at Acts 12:4. For starters, here are some modern Greek-English dictionaries showing that at least in modern Greek the primary meaning of "Pascha" is "Easter", not "Passover":
Roman Catholic Church at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. According to this formula, Easter lands on the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox. Some Christians seem to think that this dependence on a Roman Catholic formula, which in turn is based on natural events such as the lunar cycle and the advent of spring, is in and of itself pagan.
While the scientific accuracy of the Nicaean formula for calculating the date of Easter is certainly open for debate, there is no basis to connect the formula to paganism. The formula is simply intended to make Easter land every year on a Sunday that is around the same time of the lunisolar year as when our Lord resurrected on that first Easter Sunday. Early Christians chose to celebrate the resurrection on a Sunday because the resurrection occurred on a Sunday ("the first day of the week" Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1). The celebration were to be held annually because of its connection to the Passover which happens annually. The date of Easter happens around the same time in spring not because of a calculated effort to coincide the date with a pagan spring festival, but because it is a historical fact that our Lord resurrected on a Sunday at this time of the year after the Jewish Passover, which happens in the first spring month of the Jewish calender. Unlike the date of Christmas, the date of Easter is based on biblical and historical facts.
The use of a formula to observe an annual Sunday celebration around the same time of the lunisolar year each year is not pagan, as even the date of Passover is set based on a formula using the lunisolar year. There is no biblical precept requiring the use of the Nicaean formula for calculating the date of Easter, but there is also no precept forbidding such a formula. The fact that this formula was adopted by Roman Catholicism at the Council of Nicaea does not mean that it is based on a Roman Catholic heresy. The Council of Nicaea did offer many sound points of theology. Once it was determined that the celebration of Christ's resurrection should occur each year on a Sunday around the same time of the year, the formula for calculating that date was purely based on the science of the time and not based on pagan practices. If Christians today wish to come up with a better formula for calculating the date to celebrate the resurrection or do not wish to celebrate the resurrection on an annual basis (perhaps based on the belief that the resurrection should be celebrated weekly or daily), these Christians have the liberty to do so. But Christians who choose to celebrate Easter according to the Nicaean formula have the liberty to do so and their practices should not be called pagan.
Oxford Greek-English Learner's Dictionary (Oxford UP, 2012)
Collins Greek-English Dictionary (HarperCollins, 2003)
Divry's Modern English-Greek and Greek-English Desk Dictionary (D.C. Divry, 1991)
Divry's Modern English-Greek and Greek-English Desk Dictionary (D.C. Divry, 1991)
"Pascha" is a polyseme, a word with multiple meanings. In certain contexts it refers to the Jewish Passover (celebration of the Exodus). In other contexts it refers to the Christian Easter. When used by Jews in a context prior to Christ’s resurrection, the word always refers to the Jewish Passover. However, when used by Greek Christians in a context after Christ’s resurrection (as Luke, the narrator of Acts, did in Acts 12:4), the word refers to Easter.
Many English-speaking people are deceived by the similar sounds between "Pascha" and "Passover" and therefore find it difficult to understand that "Pascha" could mean Easter. The English word, "Passover", is a perfect translation of "Pascha" in the context of the Jewish celebration because the root Hebrew word, "פּסח (pasach)", means "to pass over" (Brown-Driver-Briggs’ Hebrew Definitions). Yet it is only in English that the verb, "pass over", and "Pasach/Pascha" are phonetically similar. In other languages, it is not so obvious from phonetics that "Pascha" refers to the Passover. Perhaps that is why in most other languages the primary meaning of "Pascha" is not Passover. For example, in modern Greek, "Πάσχα (Pascha)" primarily means Easter. When a non-Jewish Greek person says, "Καλό Πάσχα! (Happy Pascha!)", he is not wishing you a happy Jewish holiday but rather a happy Christian holiday. In modern Greek, Passover is the secondary meaning of "Pascha". "Pascha" means Passover only when the context is clearly Jewish or when the word is qualified as being the Hebrew or Jewish "Pascha" as follows:
As with modern Greek, the transliteration of “Pascha” in these languages could refer to either Easter or Passover depending on context or a modifier. But often the primary meaning of "Pascha" is Easter. 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 Πάσχα and the Jewish Πάσχα. One of the words for 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:
Eusebius' testimony is clear that the Apostles were already celebrating the "Saviour's Pascha", which is clearly not the "Jews' Pascha":
Typical Engish translations of Eusebius' Church History, such as that above, translate "σωτηρίου πάσχα" as "Saviour's passover", but the literal translation is "Saviour's Pascha". Eusebius here is describing the Quartodecimanist controversy which arose when the churches in the second century could not agree on the day to celebrate this Saviour's Pascha. While some Christians are rightly skeptical of the writings of Eusebius by virtue of his connection to the Roman Catholic church, his testimony above simply concerns a fact that Christians celebrated the Saviour's Pascha. Eusebius gives a balanced report of the situation, even reporting that the Saviour's Pascha originally fell on the date of the Passover instead of on a Sunday, contrary to later Roman Catholic practices. Regardless of who was right in the Quartodecimanist controversy, the fact is that Christians from early times were all celebrating the Saviour's Pascha, which is the celebration of the resurrection of the Saviour. This was not the Jewish Passover but rather the Christian celebration of Easter.
Those who deny that "Πάσχα" came to mean "Easter" in Apostolic times are unable to explain when the shift in meaning arose. There is no record of councils or debates documenting the shift in the meaning of "Πάσχα" in Greek. There is also no logical reason for the shift in meaning to take place over hundreds of years. As far back as we can document, Greek Christians have accepted that "Πάσχα" refers to the celebration of the Lord's resurrection, which is "Easter". Given John's use of the word and the uncontradicted testimonies of early church fathers, it is far more candid to accept that "Πάσχα" already meant "Easter" in the first century. In the Bible, "Πάσχα" means Passover only when used by Jews or by anyone specifically referring to the Jewish celebration. In passages prior to Christ’s resurrection, the KJV translates “Πάσχα” as “Passover” because the narrators and characters are still referring to the Jewish festival. The only times the KJV translates “Πάσχα” as “Passover” after the resurrection are in 1 Corinthians 5:7 and Hebrews 11:28. In 1 Corinthians 5:7, the word "passover" refers to the passover lamb rather than the day of the year, so it is correctly translated "passover". In Hebrews 11:28, the narrative refers retrospectively to Moses' conduct, which was before the resurrection, so the word is properly translated "passover". The following diagram explains these distinctions visually:
Whether "Πάσχα" should be Passover or Easter at Acts 12:4 must be determined by discerning who is using the word in this instance. If the word is used by a Jew, then the word would mean Passover. If the word is used by Herod, then the word would mean Passover or perhaps a pagan festival (although the possibility of "Πάσχα" referring to a pagan festival has no basis in history or etymology). Contrary to what many believe, it is neither the Jews nor Herod who is using the word "Πάσχα" at Acts 12:4. It is actually Luke, the Christian narrator of Acts, who is using the word "Πάσχα" to describe the timeline of events for his Christian readers in the latter first century, many of whom were Gentile Christians. At the time of Luke's writing, "Πάσχα" at Acts 12:4 was no longer the Passover but Easter. When Luke speaks in Acts 12:4 as narrator, he is using words according to the mutual Christian perspective of himself and his readers. This is evident because he uses the word "church" (εκκλησία) at Acts 12:1 to refer to Christians. This is a dignifying Christian word to refer to the congregation of those who are called out by God. Neither Herod nor the Jews would have referred to these rebels as "the called-out ones". However, when coming from a Christian narrator for a Christian audience, the word "εκκλησία" carries a Christian meaning. The same goes for the word "πασχα". It may well be that Herod and the Jews had no concern or knowledge about Easter. Although Herod and the Jews were waiting for the Jewish Passover, Luke uses "πασχα" according to its Christian meaning of "Easter" to explain the timeline of events to his Christian readers. That is why "πασχα" is Easter in Acts 12:4.
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