The Use of 'Easter' in Acts 12.4

by T. H. Brown

“…intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people…” Acts 12.4 (Authorised [King James] Version)

This single occurrence of Easter in the Authorised Version as a translation of the Greek pascha, “passover”, is an interesting reminder of the problems which have confronted translators of the Holy Scriptures for many centuries. When the scholars of Alexandria came to translate the Hebrew into Greek in the third century B.C. they could find in the Greek language no precise equivalent for the Hebrew pesach, and they decided to adopt the Hebrew word in a Greek form. When the Bible was first translated into Latin the same course was followed, and the Greek pascha was adopted without translation. Centuries later, when Wycliffe translated the Bible into English from the Latin version, he could find in the English language no satisfactory equivalent, so he just gave the Latin word an English form — pask or paske. In the 16th century the Rheims New Testament followed Wycliffe’s example, but slightly changed the English form to pasche. None of these actually translated the word.

Tyndale’s New Testament and Pentateuch

When Tyndale applied his talents to the translation of the New Testament from Greek into English, he was not satisfied with the use of a completely foreign word, and decided to take into account the fact that the season of the passover was known generally to English people as ‘Easter’, notwithstanding the lack of any actual connection between the meanings of the two words. The Greek word occurs twenty-nine times in the New Testament, and Tyndale has ester or easter fourteen times, esterlambe eleven times, esterfest once, and paschall lambe three times.

When Tyndale began his translation of the Pentateuch he was again faced with the problem in Exodus 12.11 and twenty-one other places, and no doubt recognising that easter in this context would be an anachronism he coined a new word, passover, and used it consistently in all twenty-two places. It is therefore to Tyndale that our language is indebted for this meaningful and appropriate word. His labours on the Old Testament left little time for revision of the New Testament, with the result that while passover is found in his 1530 Pentateuch, ester remained in the N.T. of 1534, having been used in his first edition several years before he coined the new word passover.

Martin Luther’s German Bible

Martin Luther encountered the same problems in the translation of the Bible into German, but found no similar solution. In his New Testament we find Ostern, Osterlamm, Osterfest, Fest, and once only das Passa (Heb. 11.28). In Luther’s Old Testament Passah is most common, being used for 45 of the 49 occurrences of the Hebrew word, while Passaopffer, Osterfest, Ostern, and Osterlamm are each used once. The Hebrew word is first used in Exodus 12.11 and Luther rendered it Passah with a marginal note referring to the ‘Easter Lamb’ — “Was das Osterlamm bedeutet leret genugsam S. Paulus 1 Cor. 5 da er spricht, unser Osterlamm ist Christus der geopfert ist” (“… our Easter Lamb is Christ who is offered”).

From Matthew’s to the Authorised Version

Matthew’s Bible of 1537 incorporated Tyndale’s work on the Pentateuch, using passeover, but there were references to Ester in the chapter summaries in Leviticus 23, Numbers 9 and Deuteronomy 16. The Great Bible of 1539 made good use of Tyndale’s passeover in fourteen places, but retained Ester or Easter in the other fifteen New Testament passages. The Geneva Bible of 1560, the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, and the Authorised Version of 1611 continued the process of eliminating Easter and replacing it with passover. The fifteen New Testament occurrences of Easter in the Great Bible of 1539 were reduced to only one in the Authorised Version, and it seems probable that this was left inadvertently rather than intentionally, in Acts 12.4. If the translators intended to retain Easter in the Bible for ecclesiastical purposes they would hardly have been satisfied with one instance.

Passover is certainly to be preferred to Easter, as there is no evidence that Christians in the time of Herod observed an annual commemoration of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, or any commemoration other than on the first day of each week. Herod would not have been concerned with any Christian observances in any case, and his intention was to bring Peter forth after the passover. Tyndale was the first to use Easter in an English translation, and he was also the first to use Passover. His renderings influenced all subsequent English translations, some using one, and some the other, until in course of time Passover prevailed. If Tyndale had lived a little longer it is probable that he would have subjected his New Testament to a further careful revision, consistently rendering the Greek pascha by passover in every passage in which the word occurs.

This article was originally published in the Quarterly Record no. 470, January to March 1980.

Copyright © 1980, 1997 Trinitarian Bible Society

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