"Easter" in Acts 12:4

by T.L. Hubeart Jr.


© 1996, 1997, 2003, 2006 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

This is perhaps one of the most commonly cited "errors" in the KJV. For example, The Interactive Bible web site lists this as one of several alleged "Undisputable, universally recognized errors in the KJV." Also, James White, in his book The King James Only Controversy (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1995, p. 233), makes much the same criticism. He repeated this claim (under his screen name "Orthopodeo") in an exchange during the month of August 1995 on America Online's Christianity Online Message Boards.

I posted a response to Dr. White ("Re: Easter/Passover," 08-21-95 at 22:40:23 EST) in that forum, correcting his erroneous claim. And I felt that making an expanded version of this response available on my Web page would be useful, since many writers, from Matthew Henry onward, have made the same erroneous assumption that "Easter" in Acts 12:4 is a mistranslation in the KJV.

Acts 12:4 (KJV) 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 translation of the Greek word "pascha" as "Easter" is not unprecedented, for it is the same rendering given in this verse by William Tyndale in his 1534 New Testament. However, the Geneva Bible changed this rendering to "Passover." Why then do the KJV men reinstate Tyndale's apparently less-correct reading?

It might be argued with some success, as the KJV's policy appears to be the giving of Roman equivalents for proper names in other areas of Acts (i.e., the gods of Acts 14:12, 19:24, 19:35), that such a procedure has been followed here. One could assert that as "Herod was a Roman" (Ruckman, Acts, p. 357), and as "Easter" actually began as a pagan holiday observed by Romans, only later becoming "Christianized" (see Alexander Hislop's The Two Babylons, pp. 103-13, for a detailed study), the KJV used a dynamic equivalent in rendering "pascha" to give the Roman side of Herod its due.

But such will not be my argument. On the contrary, I assert that "Easter" in the KJV is equivalent to Passover. And my evidence for this is found definitively in the Oxford English Dictionary (ed. 2), which under "Easter" sb.(1) gives as sense 2: "The Jewish passover. Obs." and cites instances of this usage dating back to 971 A.D.:

There was a tradition in the use of "Easter" for "Passover" in English Bible translations, stemming from Tyndale's New Testament (1525; rev. 1534-5), where he again and again refers to Passover as Easter and occasionally calls the Passover Lamb "the Easter Lamb." Rather than being the result of his not knowing the difference between the two celebrations, it appears that, in the words of an essay by T.H. Brown of the Trinitarian Bible Society,Tyndale, in translating the New Testament, "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." (This was not unprecedented, since as we have seen, the Oxford English Dictionary documents this usage centuries before Tyndale lived.) However, when he came to the Old Testament, Tyndale apparently felt that using "Easter" to translate the Hebrew word pecach was unacceptable, and so invented the word "Passover"to translate it. (Incidentally, David Daniell notes in his edition of Tyndale's Old Testament [p. xiii] that other Tyndale coinages include mercy seat and scapegoat.)

It is likely that Tyndale's use of "Easter"--which as we just saw could also mean "Passover" in his day--in his NT is indebted to his dependence on Luther's German Bible, which uses "Ostern" in the same way. "Ostern" means "Easter" in current German usage, but Luther's New Testament consistently uses the word for "Passover" (e.g., at Matt. 26:2--"Ihr wisset, daß nach zwei Tagen Ostern wird . . . ."); indeed, even in contemporary German in a certain context--such as the phrase "das jüdische Osterfest"--this word can be used for "Passover." Luther also switches terms in the Old Testament, generally using "Passah" for Passover, although not as consistently, as T.H. Brown points out.

It is worth remarking that successive revisions of the English Bible gradually dropped Tyndale's use of "Easter" for "Passover," perhaps in reflection of its gradual passing from English in this sense as his coinage "Passover" was accepted. The NT of the "Bishops' Bible" has only two verses which use "Easter" for Passover--here and at John 11:55 ("And the Jewes Easter was nigh at hand, and many went out of the countrey up to Hierusalem before the Easter, to purifie themselves"). The KJV only has "Easter" in the present verse.

Clearly, then, it is only ignorance of the history of Bible translation and of all the senses in which "Easter" can be taken that leads to a charge of "error" in the KJV at this verse.