Easter is a time when Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. The story is so significant that it is told in all four Gospel accounts in the New Testament. Aside from the chocolate eggs, our whole calendar revolves around it. Whether you are a Christian or not you can’t miss Easter, and over time the festival has attracted various folk traditions.
The origin of the word Easter is debated. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says there is ‘widespread consensus’ that a Germanic source word led to the English word Easter, via Anglo-Saxon and the German word for Easter, which is Ostern.
Some people argue that Christians should not use the word Easter because it is not found in the Bible, but then the word ‘Bible’ is not in the Bible either. Yet many people miss that the word Easter is found in one very common translation of the English Bible. The venerable Authorized or King James Version (KJV) uses the word Easter in one verse in Acts 12.4. Early editions of the King James Version also included a table for finding the date of Easter. They clearly had no objection to the use of the word.
In Acts 12.4 in the KJV the word Easter translated the Greek ‘pascha’. How the word Easter got there is very interesting. The King James Version was not a new translation, but a revision of existing texts, largely stemming back to the work of William Tyndale. In the New Testament William Tyndale chose to translate ‘pascha’ as Easter. He did it not only in Acts 12.4, but in all 29 places where it was used in the New Testament. The reviewers and revisers who produced the King James Version changed all the other references of Easter to Passover. Whether they missed this one or had some reason for retaining it is not clear. However, no modern Bible translation uses the word Easter. Instead all the main modern English Bible translation translate ‘pascha’ as Passover.
Pascha is not really a Greek word. It was the way of saying and writing the Aramiac equivalent of the Hebrew word ‘Pesach’ in Greek letters. This is what gives the word for Easter in most European languages – For example in Latin Pascha, in French Pâques, in Spanish Pascua, in Portuguese Páscoa, in Italian Pasqua, in Russian Пасха, and in Welsh Pasg.
The main reason William Tyndale did not use the word Passover is because that English word did not exist then. Another reason may be that Martin Luther did the equivalent in German, and Tyndale was familiar with German and Luther’s work. However, after completing the New Testament, Tyndale then started to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew. When he came to the Hebrew Pesach he took the root of the Hebrew word which means ‘to pass over’, and he used it to coin the English word Passover. This new English term was readily adopted, and is today the word used for the festival by Jews and Christians alike. So now all modern translations use Passover in the New Testament instead of Easter.
Not all Christians mark Easter at the same time. Messianic Jews will observe it according to the Jewish calendar. Christians who follow the Orthodox tradition, and Christians who follow the Catholic and Protestant tradition, mark Easter on different days calculated by different ancient formulations. Even so, some years it is the same. Easter Sunday was the same Sunday in 2010 and 2011, 2014 and 2017 but in 2021 Western Easter is 4 April and Eastern Easter is 2 May.
Whatever you call it – and whenever you celebrate it – is not the issue. What matters is that at this time of year, Jesus rose from the dead. And as Paul explained to the church at Corinth, ‘if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’ (1 Corinthians 15.14, NIV).
Author: Neil Rees, 1 April 2021