Acts 12:4, in the King James Bible, says,
"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."
Other English Bibles use the word Passover instead of Easter in this verse, prompting people to wonder if the King James translators made a mistake or mistranslation in Acts 12:4.
In fact, it is often pointed out that the word translated as Easter in Acts 12:4 is the Greek word pascha, which is, itself, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word pesach. Pascha appears 27 times in the King James Bible's New Testament. It is translated as passover 26 times and as Easter only once. The Hebrew word, pesach, appears 46 times in the Old Testament and is always translated as passover.
Passover, itself, is an interesting word. It was coined by William Tyndale while he was translating the Bible into the common English of his day. He did not have a comparable English word to use so he invented the word passover to convey the meaning of the Jewish paschal feast in his 1525 Bible. It was ingeniously coined based on Exodus 12:12-13:
"For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD. And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt." (Emphasis added)
As you can see, passover carries the action conveyed in verse 13, where God says that He will "pass over" the houses where He sees the blood of the sacrificial lamb, into the noun, passover, that Tyndale used to translate pesach. Consequently, the lamb that was to be sacrificed in Exodus 12 was referred to as "the LORD'S passover" in verse 11 and "the passover" in verse 21 and the observance of the meal or feast as "the passover" in versus 43 and 48.
Exodus 12:27, then, brings both the sacrifice and the meal together as a commemoration of the Lord's passing over the houses of the children of Israel for us nicely saying,
"That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the LORD'S passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses. And the people bowed the head and worshipped." (Emphasis added)
Interestingly though, Tyndale did not carry the word passover into the New Testament. Instead, he mostly used the word ester, which became easter in the King James Bible, and, occasionally, paschall. Paschall is simply a transliteration of the Greek word pascha, but what about ester or easter? Where did that come from?
One common explanation is that Easter is an English form of Ishtar or Astarte, the goddess of fertility. Astarte was the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Ashtoreth, which itself is the Hebrew transliteration of the Babylonian or Akkadian name Ishtar. A similar explanation is that it originated in the name of the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn who was known by the names Estre, Estara, Eastre, and Ostara. Both explanations share the common idea that Easter is based on a pagan goddess and the celebration of that goddess. Consequently, many Christians eschew the use of Easter in reference to the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preferring to say Resurrection Sunday instead.
Even if true, claiming that Easter refers to a pagan celebration produces another conundrum. The Greek word in Acts 12:4 is pascha, not Astarte. Why, then, would the King James Translators, and Tyndale before them, have chosen to mistranslate pascha as Easter or have refused to correct such an obvious, egregious mistake? .
It is no wonder that critics of the King James Bible routinely point to Acts 12:4 as a prime example of a translation error in the KJB. So, again, where did Tyndale come up with Easter and why did the King James translators insist on using Easter instead of Passover? Well, the answer can be found by putting Acts 12:4 in context. Acts 12:1-4 says: ,
"Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.) 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."
The key is found in verse 3 where Luke inserts the parenthetical phrase, "Then were the days of unleavened bread." This phrase helps us understand where Easter fits in in relation to the timeline of the Jewish holy days. This timeline is outlined for us in Leviticus 23:
Notice, in the list above, two things. First, the feast of Passover precedes the Days of Unleavened Bread. Second, the Days of Unleavened Bread follow Passover. This may sound redundant, but it is vitally important to understanding where Easter comes in. Passover is on the 14th day of the first month and the Days of Unleavened Bread begin on the 15th day of the first month, right after Passover. Luke, therefore, has carefully pointed out for us that Easter, even though it is translated from the same word that is translated elsewhere as Passover, is not the same as the Jewish Passover as the Jewish Passover does not occur during or after the Days of Unleavened Bread but, rather, before them. This Easter, therefore, since it occurs after Passover and either during or after the Days of Unleavened Bread cannot be the same holy day as the Jewish Passover, even though it is translated from the same Greek word, pascha.
So, now the question becomes, was there a holy day observed during the early days of Christianity that occurred after the Jewish Passover, during or after the Days of Unleavened Bread? If so, was it ever referred to by the same Greek word, pascha, that elsewhere refers to the Jewish Passover?
Well, remember, Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week, a day following the Jewish Passover and occurring during the Days of Unleavened Bread. This event, the resurrection of Christ, was considered so essential to Christianity and the Gospel message that Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19:
"But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable."
The resurrection was considered so important that the early Christians commemorated it several ways. The first way was to meet on the first day of the week since Jesus rose from the grave on the first day of the week. Another was to observe the Lord's supper, picturing the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, until His return. Obviously, the sacrifice of Christ would have no value if there were no resurrection and if there were no resurrection then there would be no return to await. The resurrection was also pictured symbolically through baptism. As the Believer is lowered into the water it pictures the death and burial of Christ. Raising the Believer up out of the water pictures the resurrection.
Yet another way the resurrection of Christ was commemorated by the early Christians is indicated in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 where Paul writes: ,
"Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."
This passage appears to refer to the early practice of an annual celebration of the resurrection. This celebration became known as the Christian Pascha and has been referred to by such early Christians as Polycarp, Polycrates, Irenaeus, Eusebius, and others early in the 2nd Century. In fact, a controversy arose as to whether the Christian Pascha should be observed on the same day as the Jewish Pascha or on the Sunday following the Jewish Pascha. Polycarp, who had sat at the feet of the Apostle John, claimed that John celebrated the Christian Pascha on the same day as the Jewish Pascha and that the church in Ephesus had always done the same. This was also the practice of many churches in Asia. Other churches, particularly in Greece and Italy, appear to have favored the Sunday after the Jewish Pascha. Eventually, however, the controversy was settled at the Council of Nicea in the 4th Century where it was decided that the Christian Pascha should be celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon of Spring, the Paschal Moon.
While 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 sheds no light on which day the early Christians celebrated the Christian Pascha, Acts 12:1-4 does. This passage indicates two separate Paschal celebrations. The first is inferred by the context as having preceded the Days of Unleavened Bread. In other words, the Jewish Pascha celebrated on the 14th day of Nisan. The second is mentioned as occurring during the Days of Unleavened Bread, which makes it the Christian Pascha. Obviously, then, it is being celebrated on the Sunday following the Jewish Pascha. Either that or Herod was planning to hold Peter for a whole year, which makes no sense in the context.
So, now we have a holy day, the Christian Pascha, observed during the early days of Christianity that occurred after the Jewish Pascha or Passover, during the Days of Unleavened Bread, that is referred to with the same Greek word, pascha, as the Jewish Passover. But, again, where does the word Easter come from and why is it used here instead of Passover?
The answer comes in the form of the German word for resurrection: auferstehung. Nick Sayers explains in his article, Why We Should Not Passover Easter (http://www.easterau.com/):
"Because the English Anglo/Saxon language originally derived from the Germanic, there are many similarities between German and English…The English word Easter is of German/Saxon origin and not Babylonian as Alexander Hislop falsely claimed. The German equivalent is Oster. Oster (Ostern being the modern day equivalent) is related to Ost which means the rising of the sun, or simply in English, east. Oster comes from the old Teutonic form of auferstehen / auferstehung, which means resurrection, which in the older Teutonic form comes from two words, Ester meaning first, and stehen meaning to stand. These two words combine to form erstehen which is an old German form of auferstehen, the modern day German word for resurrection."
This is why Martin Luther translated pascha as Oster or Ostern in his 1522 German New Testament. William Tyndale followed suit by using the English word Ester in his 1525 English New Testament. Miles Coverdale followed Tyndale's practice in his 1535 English New Testament but updated Ester to Easter. The 1569 Geneva Bible, however, went back to using Passover.
The King James translators were well aware of the history of both the English and German translations of the Bible, as well as translations in many other languages. They were also fluent in their knowledge and understanding of the original Hebrew and Greek languages. Consequently, when it came to translating the Hebrew word pesach and the Greek word pascha into English they knew what they were doing.
They also knew that there were two Paschal or Passover celebrations celebrated since the early days of Christianity. First was the Jewish Passover commemorating God's protection of the Jews in Egypt when the death angel passed over the houses where the blood of the Passover lamb had been applied to the door posts. Second was the Christian Passover commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Passover Lamb.
So, while they followed Tyndale's use of Passover in the Old Testament, they chose to follow the Geneva Bible's use of Passover rather than Ester/Easter in the New Testament, with one notable exception: Acts 12:4. In this passage they wisely chose to use Easter instead of Passover to more accurately convey the meaning of the passage.
Now, Luke had only one word, pascha, to use for both the Christian Passover and the Jewish Passover. Consequently, he added the parenthetical phrase, "Then were the days of unleavened bread", in verse 3 to let his readers know that he was talking about the Christian Passover and not the Jewish Passover. In doing so, Luke lets us know when the event he is writing about took place. Peter was taken captive just after the Jewish Passover, during the Days of Unleavened Bread, and Herod intended to execute him right after the Christian Passover.
Following Luke's lead, the King James translators desired to clearly communicate this distinction between the Christian and the Jewish Passovers in their Bible. Consequently, they chose to retain Passover in 26 of the 27 occurrences of pascha in the New Testament because they refer directly or indirectly to the Jewish Passover. However, in Acts 12:4, pascha clearly refers to the Christian Passover. As a result, they wisely chose to use the English word Easter, which was derived from the old Teutonic form of auferstehen/auferstehung, meaning resurrection, knowing that their readers would recognize it as the annual Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ.
Unfortunately, pagan practices celebrating spring and fertility were attached to Easter celebrations over the centuries. Then, 1853, Alexander Hislop published a pamphlet, later expanded to book length in 1858, entitled, The Two Babylons. Hislop contended, erroneously, that Easter "…is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing less than Astarte…" Hislop's specious claims were expanded on and promoted widely enough that many Christians began to reject the historic name of Easter as a pagan, blasphemous slur against Christ. Rejection of Easter led soon to the oft repeated claim that the King James translators made a mistake or somehow compromised their Bible with a pagan word ignominiously taking the place of Passover in Acts 12:4.
The solution many Christians have come to is using Resurrection Sunday instead of Easter when referring to the annual celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a perfectly fine and acceptable name. Nevertheless, when you understand the rich history and origin of Easter as the English name for the Christian Passover you can have confidence using it to refer to the annual celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as well.
Regardless of which name you use, Easter or Resurrection Sunday, I hope you will remember that without the resurrection of Christ there would be no salvation. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:16-18:
For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.
Paul continues in verses 20-22:
But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
No mistake about it. Jesus died, was buried, and rose again, according to the Scriptures. He did not make a mistake and neither did the King James translators. Happy Easter!