The charge has often been made against the King James Version that it has errors in it, and the implication often given is that the errors are serious enough to warrant it being discarded for newer, “better” translations. One of the charges of “error” regularly leveled against it is that it uses the word “easter” in Acts 12:4 and this causes people to err into celebrating a day not authorized by the Lord. I want to address this charge.
Various attempts have been made to both condemn and defend the KJV translation of Easter in Acts 12:4. One attempt to defend the translation is to say that the word Easter referred neither to a Christian nor a Jewish observance. Rather, some argue that Herod was waiting to observe a pagan festival, since he was a pagan Edomite descendant. After he observed his own pagan ceremony, then he would deliver Peter to the people, so the argument goes.
The problem with this ingenious theory is that the Text no where states that Herod was observing anything. It was not Herod, but the Jews who were observing this feast. The only reason he was waiting was because it was during the days of unleavened bread that Peter was taken (v. 3) and he wanted to please the Jews (Acts 12:2,4). He waited because it either would have caused a disturbance to kill Peter during this time or he wanted to present Peter’s death as a climax to their observances.
Another view often advanced is that this word cannot be translated “passover” as in all other passages of the New Testament because the Text states that “then were the days of unleavened bread” (v. 3). It is claimed that the seven days of unleavened bread came after the single-day feast of the Passover and therefore could not be a reference to Passover, since they were already in the days of unleavened bread (cf. Lev. 23:5,6). The problem with this view is that the Bible sometimes clearly combines the Passover and the days of unleavened bread. For instance, Ezekiel 45:21 states “In the first month, in the fourteenth day of the month, ye shall have the passover, a feast of seven days; unleavened bread shall be eaten.” Ezekiel called the Passover a feast of seven days. Luke also states “Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover” (Luke 22:1). Even reading the context of Exodus 12 where we have recorded the institution of the Passover reveals the closeness of Passover day with the following feast of unleavened bread (cf. Ex. 12:11-17, particularly v. 17 the feast of unleavened bread is described as the “selfsame day have I brought your armies out of the land of Egypt”).
There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the feast being observed in Acts 12 was the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread commanded in the law by Moses. How, then, can this be reconciled with the word “easter” used in the King James version?
The origin of the word “easter” is not as certain as some would like to make it out. Most commentators will rely on Bede’s statement on the origin of the word. Bede, an English monk who lived in the seventh and eighth centuries (672/673 – 735) wrote in his work The Reckoning of Time, as he was describing the various names of the months of the English, “Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘Paschal month’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.” So Bede identifies the name easter as having its origin in the name of a goddess and his antiquity gives his testimony a certain amount of weight that cannot be easily dismissed. Alexander Hislop, in his work, The Two Babylons, argued further that Eostre could be traced back to the Babylonian goddess Astarte.
But this may not be the last word on the matter. For instance, Britanica.com states: “The English word Easter, which parallels the German word Ostern, is of uncertain origin…There is now widespread consensus that the word derives from the Christian designation of Easter week as in albis, a Latin phrase that was understood as the plural of alba (“dawn”) and became eostarum in Old High German, the precursor of the modern German and English term. The Latin and Greek pascha (‘Passover’) provides the root for Pâcques, the French word for Easter” (Encyclopeda Brittanica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/176858/Easter).
Others have also made similar arguments. Nick Sayers writes, “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 correspondent) 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. The English Easter and German Oster go hand in hand.” (see http://www.easterau.com/).
The word “passover” in the Hebrew comes from the word “pecach.” This word, according to Strongs, means “a pretermission, i.e. exemption.” The Gesenius Hebrew and Chaldea Lexicon states that it properly means “a sparing, immunity from penalty and calamity.” It derives from the word “pacach” which means “to hop.” This word is used of lame Mephibosheth, as he hobbled and hopped along when he walked (II Sam. 4:4). Elijah used this word when he asked “How long halt ye between two opinions?” (I Kings 18:21). In other words, how long are you going to jump back and forth between two opinions? When pacach is used with the Hebrew “‘al,” which is used as a preposition, it is translated into two words as “pass over” (Ex. 12:13, 23, 27).
Prior to William Tyndale (1494–1536), the words “passover” and “easter” were not found in the Bible. Most translations left them untranslated. For instance, John Wycliffe (1320-1384) translates Lev. 23:5 as “In the firste monethe, in the fourtenthe dai of the monethe, at euentid, is pask of the Lord;” Here the Hebrew Pecach is left basically untranslated. Again, Wycliffe translates Num 9:2 as “and seide, The sones of Israel make pask in his tyme.” In the New Testament, Wycliffe translated the Greek pascha as pask. For example, Matt. 26:2 is translated “Ye witen, that aftir twei daies pask schal be maad, and mannus sone schal be bitakun to be crucified.”
But when Tyndale translated the New Testament, which he did before he translated the Old Testament, he introduced the term “easter.” His translation of Matt. 26:2, for instance, is:”Ye knowe that after ii. dayes shalbe ester and the sonne of man shalbe delyvered to be crucified.” Here, Tyndale translates pascha as ester, or easter. Tyndale translates Mark 14:14 as “And whither soever he goeth in saye ye to ye good man of ye housse: the master axeth where is the geest chambre where I shall eate ye ester lambe with my disciples.” Here, pascha is translated “ester lambe,” or Easter Lamb. When he later translated the Old Testament, he coined the term “passover.”
Was Tyndale in error? Did he not know that these passages referred to the Jewish feast ordained by God under the Mosaic Law? Did he mistakenly think this was a ceremony to a pagan goddess? Or did he believe the Jews were celebrating a “Christian feast” before Christ even died and rose again? The reader will understand that these questions are rhetorical and that Tyndale knew he was referring to the Jewish feast of Passover. The point is this, during Tyndale’s day, the term “easter” was used for the Jewish feast of Passover.
Tyndale was not alone in this. For instance, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) translated Mark 14:14 into German as “und wo er eingeht, da sprechet zu dem Hauswirt: Der Meister läßt dir sagen: Wo ist das Gasthaus, darin ich das Osterlamm esse mit meinen Jüngern?” Notice that the Greek pascha is translated as “Osterlamm,” or “ester lambe” as Tyndale translated it, or Easter Lamb in modern English. He translated Matthew 26:2 as “Ihr wisset, daß nach zwei Tagen Ostern wird; und des Menschen Sohn wird überantwortet werden, daß er gekreuzigt werde.” Again, notice that “Ostern” translates the Greek pascha.
The Bishop’s Bible of 1568, against which the King James Version was translated, uses the term “easter. In John 11:55 the Bishop’s Bible reads “And the Iewes Easter was nye at hande, and many went out of the countrey vp to Hierusale before the Easter, to purifie them selues.” Notice that the Greek pascha is translated “Easter” but also notice it is the “Jews Easter,” an obvious reference to the Passover. Again, the Bishop’s Bible uses Easter in Acts 12:4, the very verse we are now considering. The Great Bible uses the term easter multiple times in the New Testament and even in the Old Testament passage of Ezek. 45:21. “Upon the .xiiij. daye of the fyrst moneth, ye shall kepe easter. Seuen dayes shall the feate contynue, wherin there shall no sowre ner leuened breed be eaten.” Again, the Hebrew word for Passover is translated easter.
The point is to show that the word “easter” was used to translate the word for passover and stood for the concept of passover during this period of time when these great, historical Bibles were being translated. Because that is the case, the King James version cannot successfully be charged with mistranslating pascha in Acts 12:4 when it does the same. Those who make such a claim do not understand the history behind the translation or the origin of the word easter.
Furthermore, even if the name easter had it’s origin in the name of this goddess Eostre, this does not mean that translating the word for the passover by that name was in error because by the time the King James Version had been translated it had come to mean that to the translators. The time of year when the Passover occurred was known by them as Eosturmonath or Easter Month. Even today we call the Lord’s Day, the day on which the Lord arose from the dead, “Sunday.” Many congregations will have in their bulletins the times of the “Sunday services” but no one claims that this is wrong because the name “Sunday” was derived from the worship of the sun.
Even in the Bede quote above he let’s us know that Easter was equated with Passover. He states, “Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.” The “Paschal season” is a reference to the time when the Passover was observed, which was also the time, of course, when our Lord arose from the dead. By this time errors had crept in with regard to observing the resurrection of Christ, which he calls the “new rite,” but his quote identifies the Passover with the term easter.
The term easter in Acts 12:4 is not in error. It may be an outdated translation today, and it may have even been somewhat dated when the King James version was translated, but it is not in error. We are looking at the verse from the standpoint of the 21st century when we should be looking at it from the standpoint of the 17th century. If we do that, the problem clears up.
No one should take from this article that I endorse the observance of Easter as a religious holy day. In our day, Easter has come to mean something entirely different than when it was used in the King James Bible. In the early Bibles the term easter was used to refer to the passover. As the church began to fall away from the faith, and the doctrine corrupted, events like “All Hallows Eve,” “Christ’s Mass,” and “Easter” were added to the pure faith. But the charge that the King James translators erred in Acts 12:4 with easter is not accurate. In fact, the King James translators removed the other references to easter that were found in the previous Bibles, perhaps because the term easter was no longer being used the way it had been originally.
One final thought, contrary to claims of grievous error, I know of no one who has been lost because of the word easter in the King James Bible. However, I know of many who are lost because of the errors of modern translations. I do not mind an honest discussion of the translations of words, and I do not claim to be any kind of scholar, but it does bother me when people blindly and enthusiastically attribute error to the King James Bible, which has been used down through the centuries to combat error and promote the Lord’s church. I have yet to see any translation that measures up in every way to the beauty, majesty and accuracy of the King James version.
Eric L. Padgett