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Kutilek and Easter

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“Easter”: Some Notes on Acts 12:4, KJV

The word pascha, found twenty-nine times in the Greek NT (all printed editions), was borrowed from Aramaic (the equivalent OT Hebrew word is pesach).  All but three of these twenty-nine references are in the Gospels (Matthew four times, Mark five times, Luke seven times, John ten times; besides these, also Acts 12:4; I Corinthians 5:7; Hebrew 11:28--Strong’s concordance under “passover” will give all the references except Acts 12:4; the Word Study Concordance, a.k.a., The Englishman’s Greek Concordance, will of course list them all together). 

Pascha in the NT often refers to 1. the Jewish festival celebrating the historic deliverance of Israel from Egypt, as recorded in Exodus 12.  Sometimes in the NT, it refers to 2. the Passover lamb eaten at the festival’s beginning.  Then, by extension, the term pascha came to include not just the day on which the Passover lamb was killed and eaten, but also 3. the feast of unleavened bread which began on the Passover proper and continued for seven days; Luke 22:1 makes this usage abundantly clear: “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called Passover” (NKJV).  [And, incidentally, pascha is in no way related to the common Greek word pascho, “to suffer”]

Twenty-eight of the twenty-nine times pascha occurs in the Greek NT, the KJV translates it “Passover”; in Acts 12:4, but only there, it is translated “Easter.”  Baptists and others have long criticized the KJV at this point.  Henry Jessey (1601-1663), a pre-eminent linguist and scholar among the English Baptists of his day singled out this as one of several mistakes in the KJV (see the 1671 biography of Jessey by Andrew Whiston(?), p. 49).  Many other conservative scholars from the 17th to the 20th centuries could be cited who criticized or corrected the KJV at this point (Matthew Henry, John Gill, Adam Clarke, Albert Barnes, et al.)

As background to how “Easter” incongruously ended up in the KJV at Acts 12:4, we need to consider how the Aramaic/Greek word pascha was rendered in a variety of ancient versions, modern versions, and English versions prior to the KJV, as well as the origin and development of the words “Easter” and “Passover.”

The ancient Latin versions, both the Old Latin ones (as far as I was able to examine them), and the Vulgate, uniformly (all 29 places in the NT) transfer or borrow the word into Latin from the Greek, i.e., pascha, as was similarly done with baptize, ecclesia, and some other Greek NT words.  It is no surprise that Latin (as Greek) had no native word for a Palestinian Jewish feast, and was compelled to borrow it instead.  Then, from the near-universal influence of the Latin Vulgate in Medieval central and western Europe, the Vulgate’s pascha was borrowed into all the developing Medieval Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Romanian, etc.) as well as the Germanic ones (Old English, Low and High German, Dutch, Icelandic, etc.).  [see, inter alia, “Pasch” and “Easter” in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)]

Both Wycliffe’s 1380s NT, and the Rheims NT of 1582, being translations from the Latin Vulgate, rather than from the original Greek, not surprisingly transfer the word from the Vulgate into their English versions (Wycliffe variously spelling it “pask” and “paske”; Rheims uniformly has “pasche”).

The ancient Gothic version of Ulfilas, made in the latter half of the 4th century is an interesting case.  Gothic was a Germanic language, indeed the earliest attested by several centuries.  The Gothic version, which originally included almost the whole Bible (but now is extant in fragmentary form) was made in the region north of the Black Sea, directly from the Greek text in the NT.  It is much more inclined to translate as far as possible rather than transfer Greek words into Gothic than is the Vulgate with Latin (in the passages where both are extant, the Latin Vulgate borrows 64 Greek words into its translation, while the Gothic borrows but 28).  In making his translation, Ulfilas was nevertheless unable to discover any Gothic/Germanic equivalent for pascha,--certainly no word cognate to “Easter”--and so he, too, like Jerome later, transferred or borrowed the word into his translation.  The fragmentary remains of the Gothic version include nine of the twenty-nine NT occurrences of pascha, and in every case (unfortunately Acts 12:4 is one of the missing passages), Ulfilas employed paska in his version.

Pascha was borrowed as a Biblical and theological word into the various forms of Medieval German, and its Hebrew equivalent--pesach--even appears in Luther’s OT translation at Exodus 12:11 as Passah (both his first and last editions, 1534 and 1545 respectively), though his NT practice was quite different, consistently using some form of Ostern (see below). (Lack of access to the several pre-Luther German versions, all based on the Vulgate, prevented me from examining their treatment of pascha).  

The German word Ostern is obviously cognate with our English word (and the KJV’s word at Acts 12:4) Easter, and so the origin and etymology of both can be considered together.  The article “Easter” in M’Clintock-Strong’s Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature (vol. III, p. 19), dependent on the English translation of Calmet’s Bible dictionary, informs us:

Easter is a word of Saxon origin, and imports a goddess of the Saxons, or, rather, of the East, Estera, in honor of whom sacrifices being annually offered about the Passover time of the year (spring), the name became attached by association of ideas to the Christian festival of the resurrection, which happened at the time of the Passover: hence, we say Easter-day, Easter-Sunday, but very improperly; as we by no means refer the festival then kept to the goddess of the ancient Saxons.  So the present German word for Easter, Ostern, is referred to the same goddess, Estera or Ostera.

The entry “Easter” in the OED indicates that Bede in the 8th century traced this name to the goddess of the vernal (spring) equinox; OED adds that she was probably originally a dawn-goddess.  (While a connection between the name of this goddess and the pagan ancient Middle Eastern goddess Ishtar / Astarte seems temptingly easy to make, I am unaware of any evidence supporting such a connection).

Because of the close co-incidence in time of the pagan Saxon festival of Estera (vernal equinox--around March 21) with the Christian celebration of Christ’s resurrection (three days after the Jewish Passover, and shortly after the spring equinox), the pagan name was transferred, after the conversion of the Saxons to professing Christianity (following the arrival of Austin in Britain in 597), to the now-celebrated Christian festival.  Then, by extension, the term was applied to include the co-incidental Jewish festival of Passover. (see OED, “Easter”). 

That “Easter” was formerly (four centuries and more ago) used for Passover, resulted in the, to us, rather bizarre sounding term “the Jews’ Easter” (see John 11:55, in the translations of Tyndale, the Great Bible, and Geneva NT of 1557).  We can no more imagine such an incongruity of terms as “the Jews’ Easter” than we can imagine the “Jews’ Christmas.”  At any rate, “Easter” was, for a time (long past), used for both the Christian celebration of Christ’s resurrection, and the Jewish celebration of the deliverance from Egypt.

It was in this latter sense--“Passover”--that the extant Anglo-Saxon translation of the Gospels (no other part of the NT exists in this language, including, unfortunately, Acts 12:4) employed the term Eastro / Eastron / Easter / Eastre / Eastra (variously spelled) in all 26 Gospel occurrences of pascha.  This translation pre-dates 1000 A. D. and was the work of unknown translators.  At first blush, it may seem odd that some form of “Pascha” was not simply transferred from Latin into Anglo-Saxon, but evidently “Pasch / Pask” was not borrowed into Anglo-Saxon religious vocabulary until after 1100 (see OED “Pasch”).

The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought massive changes to the Anglo-Saxon language, and the Anglo-Saxon version in a few generations became all but unintelligible.  Hence, Wycliffe’s version of the 1380s was necessary.  As noted earlier, Wycliffe, working from the Latin Vulgate, uniformly employed “pask(e),” the original Greek word pascha, transferred (via the Latin Vulgate) into his Middle English version, rather than the old Anglo-Saxon term Easter.

Tyndale’s English version appeared in 1526 (with later revisions; I consulted also the 1534, 1535 and 1536 editions); he almost universally used “ester” [=”Easter”] alone or in combination with “lamb(e)” or “fest” rather than “pascha” as in the Vulgate and Wycliffe (the exceptions are Matthew 26:17 in the 1534, 1535,  and 1536 editions, which have “pascall lambe”; Mark 14:12, “pascall lambe” in all editions; and John 18:28, which has “pascha” [1526] and “pascal lambe” [1534, 1535, 1536]).  It is evident that neither the Vulgate (which Tyndale certainly knew) nor Wycliffe (which he more than likely did not) did not influence him at this point, since he diverges from their practice.  And though the Anglo-Saxon Gospels uniformly had “Eastro,” etc., it is very unlikely that this usage influenced Tyndale, since that version was long-neglected and extant in so few manuscript copies as to be all but inaccessible, even if he knew about it.  Who or what influenced Tyndale to almost always translate pascha by “ester(-)”?

We need not look far for an answer.  Besides the Greek text of Erasmus (3rd edition, 1522), Tyndale had for consultation in making his English version the Latin Vulgate and Erasmus’ own Latin version, but especially Luther’s German NT of 1522, the famous Septemberbibel translated while Luther was in protective custody in Wartburg castle.  The influence of Luther’s NT translation on Tyndale’s NT in general is pervasive--the format, the introduction, the order of the books, and often in the translation itself.  When it came to rendering the Greek word pascha, Luther always has “Ostern” [=”Easter”] alone or in combination with “-lamb(e)” or “-fest”--Ostern / “Easter” (16 times), Osterlamb(e) / “Easter-lamb” (12 times), and Osterfest / “Easterfest” (once-Luke 2:41).  (I consulted facsimiles of the 1534 Bible, his first complete Bible, and the 1545, the last issued under his supervision; they were exactly alike in all 29 passages under consideration.  I am still searching for a facsimile reprint of the 1522 NT.  I have no reason to think it differed from these two Bibles). 

To illustrate Luther’s influence over Tyndale’s version at this point, be it noted that in the 16 places where Luther has “Ostern,” Tyndale has “ester” in 13 of them; in the 12 places where Luther has “Osterlamb(e)” Tyndale has “ester lambe” in 11 of them, and has “pascal lambe” in the other.  In short, Tyndale seems to have regularly (though not quite universally) taken his translation cues from Luther in how he translated pascha into English. 

Why Luther chose “Ostern” to render pascha is another matter.  In making his German translation, Luther had a penchant for using German terms most likely to be understood by common people, rather than the technically correct terminology of trained theologians, and I suspect that since “Ostern” as the designation for the time of Christ’s resurrection was better-known to the masses than the Jewish term pascha was, he used it even though it strictly had reference to a Christian festival, rather than a temporally co-incidental Jewish one.  (As noted, in apparent conflict with his NT practice, Luther, at Exodus 12:11, used Passah, that is pesach, the Hebrew word).  At any rate, Luther’s version directly and extensively influenced Tyndale in this matter.

In the OED entry “Passover,” the first, the earliest cited occurrence of this English word is in Tyndale’s English translation of the Law of Moses which was published in 1530, at Exodus 12:11, 21,.  It seems, then, that Tyndale himself coined or created the term, perhaps under the influence of the explanatory gloss in the Vulgate at Exodus 12:11, where Jerome explains for his readers the meaning of the Hebrew word pesach (which he transliterates from an unpointed text as phase), “id est, transitus,” “that is, passing over.”  It is notable that this was before Luther’s German version of Exodus appeared 1534, and therefore was without any influence from him, unlike Tyndale’s NT version of 1526, where Luther’s influence is pervasive.  In spite of his practice in the OT, for whatever reason Tyndale, under the influence of Luther’s version of the NT, chose to leave unrevised his usual rendering of pascha, that is, “Easter,” in the various editions of his NT until his death.

The use of “Easter” to translate pascha in English versions of the NT began to fade very quickly after Tyndale coined the word in his Torah version of 1530, as is evident from an examination of English versions after Tyndale.  The Great Bible (also known as Cranmer’s version), which was published in 1539 (just 9 years after Tyndale invented “Passover”) translates pascha by “Easter” 15 out of 29 times, but employs “Passover” 14 times.  And while the Geneva NT of 1557 (translated by William Whittingham) has “Easter” or “Easter lambe” 25 times (and “pascal lambe” and “Passover” twice each), yet when the whole Geneva Bible translation was issued in 1560, every NT reference had been uniformly revised to read “Passover.”  The Bishops’ Bible of 1568 followed suit, and in every case but 3 (John 11:55, twice, and Acts 12:4) likewise has “Passover.”  Why in these 3 cases they kept the rendering “Easter” is not at all clear.  And finally, the KJV in 1611 reduced these 3 to just 1, Acts 12:4, which is no more explicable than the three-fold retention of “Easter” in the Bishops’ Bible.

The notable 19th century reference work, M’Clintock-Strong’s Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, in the article “Easter” (vol. 3, p. 12) comments on the presence of “Easter” in the KJV here and here only:  “The occurrence of this word in Acts 12:4 . . . is chiefly noticeable as an example of the want of consistency in the translators . . . . It would seem from this, and from the use of such words as ‘robbers of churches,’(Acts 19:37), ‘town-clerk’ (19:35), ‘sergeants’ (16:35), ‘deputy’ (13:7, etc.), as if the Acts of the Apostles has fallen into the hands of a translator who acted on the principle of choosing, not the most correct, but the most familiar equivalents.”  At any rate, it is clear that 28 of 29 times, the KJV translators got it right, including altering 2 out of 3 remaining uses of “Easter” in the Bishops’ Bible. 

Adam Clarke (1762-1832) in his famous commentary at Acts 12:4, besides presenting extensive evidence from ancient versions on the matter, forthrightly declares, regarding the KJV’s use of “Easter” instead of “Passover” here: “Perhaps there never was a more unhappy, not to say absurd, translation than that in our text. . . .Every view we can take of this subject shows the gross impropriety of retaining a name every way exceptionable, and palpably absurd.”

For anyone who will objectively view the evidence, it is obvious that the English word that adequately, accurately and unambiguously conveys the sense of pascha in English is “Passover,” rather than “Easter,” and not in 28 out of 29 occurrences in the NT, but in all 29.  The KJV revisers, like all other fallible translators, at times failed to accurately translate the original text into English.  “Easter” in Acts 12:4 is one of those failures. 

Those who have made an idol of the KJV need to recognize their folly in this regard.  While the KJV is a commendable version that served well its generation, it was in no wise perfect or the “final word” in English, and most assuredly not “God’s word preserved for us in the form that we should have it,” to the exclusion of any and all other versions.  Like the Tyndale, the Coverdale, the Great Bible, the Geneva, the Bishops’ and the Rheims versions before it (as well as those versions that followed it) the KJV is subject to revision, improvement and correction on the basis of the original language texts.  To affirm otherwise is to impose on the Bible a doctrine which it nowhere teaches.

---Doug Kutilek


Note on sources (besides works mentioned in the body of article)

--On the Gothic (where the information was the least-accessible) see:

Braune, W., u. Helm, K., Gotische Grammatik.  Tuebingen: Max Niemeyer, 1956.

Metzger, Bruce M., The Early Versions of the New Testament.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.  Chapter VIII, “The Gothic Version,” pp. 375-393

Streitberg, Wilhelm, Die Gotishe Bibel, zweiter teil.  Heidelberg: Car Winter, 1965.  Fifth edition.  Reprint .

Wright, Joseph, Grammar of the Gothic Language.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924.

Bible texts consulted included facsimiles of Luther’s Bibles of 1534 and 1545, of Tyndale’s 1526 and 1536 NTs, and the Geneva Bible of 1560.  The other versions were consulted in printed transcriptions of Wycliffe, Tyndale 1534, 1535; the Great Bible of 1539 (1540 edition); Geneva NT of 1557; Bishops’ of 1568 (1602 edition), and the Rheims NT of 1582 in The English Hexapla (London: 1841) and The New Testament Octapla edited by Luther Weigle (New York, n.d.).  The Anglo-Saxon Gospels were consulted in the printed edition of Benjamin Thorpe (London, 1842).

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