Acts 12:4 in Greek and English
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.
Easter is not a pagan word
Myth 1: the KJV translators used “Easter” to refer to a pagan festival
Myth 2: “Easter” comes from the goddess named “Ishtar” or “Astarte”
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:
What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people of Nineveh, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. That name, as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar. (Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons (1858), p. 103)
- “Old English east “east, easterly, eastward,” from Proto-Germanic *aus-to-, *austra- “east, toward the sunrise” (cf. Old Frisian ast “east,” aster “eastward,” Dutch oost Old Saxon ost, Old High German ostan, German Ost, Old Norse austr “from the east”), from PIE *aus- “to shine,” especially “dawn” (cf. Sanskrit ushas “dawn;” Greek aurion “morning;” Old Irish usah, Lithuanian auszra “dawn;” Latin aurora “dawn,” auster “south”), literally “to shine.” The east is the direction in which dawn breaks.” (Online Etymological Dictionary)
There is nothing in “East” that suggests animal fertility. Hence the word has nothing to do with Astarte or Ishtar. Relating the Germanic word “Easter” to the Semitic word “Ishtar” is as fallacious as relating the English word “Baby” to the Semitic word “Babylon”.
Myth 3: “Easter” comes from the goddess named “Eostre”
“Easter” means “dawn”
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, 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:
|Old Germanic months
|Severe frost month
|Shedding of antlers
|Rheda’s month or wilderness month
|Three milkings month
|Blood (sacrifice) month
The resurrection morning = “dawn” par excellence
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”):
- “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)
- “Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.” (Luke 24:1)
As the Bible associates the resurrection with the dawn, there is biblical basis to calling the time of the resurrection the “dawn” par excellence. “Par excellence” means the referent is deserving of that noun more than any other. There have been many dawns throughout history, but that special dawn on the day of the resurrection is deserving of that noun more than any other. We often refer to notable biblical events using par excellence nouns, such as “the fall”, “the flood”, “the exodus”, “the exile”, “the advent”, “the cross”, etc. “Easter” is the Saxon word for this greatest dawn in all of history. By way of metonymical association, this term which refers to the “dawn” of the resurrection came to refer to the entire day of the resurrection.
The resurrection = spiritual “dawn”
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:
- “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” (Isaiah 60:1-3)
- “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings;” (Malachi 4:2)
- “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)
- “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)
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.
The etymology of “Easter” is similar to that of Aνατελλω
“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”.
Myth 4: “Easter” is tainted by residual pagan etymology
Myth 5: “Easter eggs” and “Easter bunnies” discredit Easter
Eggs and bunnies are fertility symbols and as such they can be considered pagan symbols. When Christians brought the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection to pagan nations, these symbols of spring became associated with the Christian celebration of Easter which happens in spring. Spring fertility festivals have ancient origins, and some of their practices are described in the Bible in passages such as Ezekiel 8:14-16 and Jeremiah 7:18 & 44:17-19. There are Christians today who avoid using the word “Easter” for fear that it necessarily refers to these pagan symbols and practices. However, the fact that our culture has come to associate fertility symbols with the name “Easter” does not mean that “Easter” itself is pagan. As with the word “Easter”, even the Greek word “Pascha” has become associated with pagan fertility symbols in present day Greece because “Pascha” is the Greek word for “Easter” (this will be explained in the next section of this article). Yet nobody in his right mind would advise Christians against using the word “Pascha”. Somehow the prejudice against the word “Easter” has become so strong among some Christians that logic no longer holds sway. Guilt by association is a logical fallacy. Moreover this logical fallacy is not applied consistently towards the word “Pascha”. Christians would be wise to purge Easter of its pagan symbols, but the word “Easter” itself remains a biblical word.
Myth 6: The calculation of the date of Easter is 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.
The KJV is correct in having “Easter” at Acts 12:4
“Pascha” means Easter today
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”:
“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:
- Easter = Πάσχα (Pascha)
- Passover = εβραϊκό Πάσχα (Hebrew Pascha), Πάσχα των ιουδαίων (Pascha of the Jew)
Although “Pascha” was originally a Hebrew word (“פּסח (pesach)”), Greek, being the language of a predominantly Christian nation, had appropriated the Jewish word and gave it the Christian meaning of “Easter”. That is why in modern Greek, the primary meaning of “Πάσχα” is Easter and Passover is actually the secondary meaning when “Πάσχα” is qualified as the “εβραϊκό Πάσχα (Hebrew Pascha)” or the “Πάσχα των ιουδαίων (Pascha of the Jews)”. Many other languages of Christendom are like modern Greek in making Easter the primary meaning of the transliteration of “Pascha”:
|Word for Easter
|Word for Passover
|Pâques de Juifs
|Páscoa dos judeus
“Pascha” meant Easter in the first century
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:
- John 2:13: “And the Jews’ passover was at hand….” (και εγγυς ην το πασχα των ιουδαιων)
- John 11:55: “And the Jews’ passover was nigh at hand….” (ην δε εγγυς το πασχα των ιουδαιων)
The fact that John writes, “Jews’ Pascha (πασχα των ιουδαιων)” indicates that there was a need to qualify the word “Pascha” for the immediate audience of John’s Gospel. Such a phrase would be redundant unless there were already a distinction between a “Jew’s” Pascha and “another” Pascha. Apparently within the first century, Christians had already appropriated the word “Pascha” to refer to the Christian celebration of the resurrection.
Eusebius’ testimony is clear that the Apostles were already celebrating the “Saviour’s Pascha”, which is clearly not the “Jews’ Pascha”:
“Ζητήσεως δῆτα κατὰ τούσδε οὐ σμικρᾶς ἀνακινηθείσης, ὅτι δὴ τῆς Ἀσίας ἁπάσης αἱ παροικίαι ὡς ἐκ παραδόσεως ἀρχαιοτέρας σελήνης τὴν τεσσαρεσκαιδεκάτην ᾤοντο δεῖν ἐπὶ τῆς τοῦ σωτηρίου πάσχα ἑορτῆς παραφυλάττειν, ἐν ᾗ θύειν τὸ πρόβατον Ἰουδαίοις προηγόρευτο, ὡς δέον ἐκ παντὸς κατὰ ταύτην, ὁποίᾳ δἂν ἡμέρᾳ τῆς ἑβδομάδος περιτυγχάνοι, τὰς τῶν ἀσιτιῶν ἐπιλύσεις ποιεῖσθαι, οὐκ ἔθους ὄντος τοῦτον ἐπιτελεῖν τὸν τρόπον ταῖς ἀνὰ τὴν λοιπὴν ἅπασαν οἰκουμένην ἐκκλησίαις, ἐξ ἀποστολικῆς παραδόσεως τὸ καὶ εἰς δεῦρο κρατῆσαν ἔθος φυλαττούσαις, ὡς μηδ’ ἑτέρᾳ προσήκειν παρὰ τὴν τῆς ἀναστάσεως τοῦ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν ἡμέρᾳ τὰς νηστείας ἐπιλύεσθαι” (Church History, Book V, 23:1)
“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 passover. 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, Translation from www.newadvent.org)
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:
“Pascha” meant Easter to Luke, the narrator of Acts 12:4
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.