Easter and the KJV

by Luke Wayne
10/31/18
Return to King James Onlyism

One of the most startling translation differences between the KJV and modern English translations is found in Acts 12:4, where the KJV uniquely makes mention of "Easter." The verse, in the KJV at least, reads:

"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," (Acts 12:4, KJV).

In modern translations, however, we find instead:

"...intending after the Passover to bring him out before the people," (Acts 12:4, NASB).

"...intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover," (Acts 12:4, NIV).

"...intending to bring him before the people after Passover," (Acts 12:4, NKJV).

"...intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people," (Acts 12:4, ESV).

So, which is correct? Did Herod intend to wait until after the Christians were done celebrating Easter to bring him out? Or did he delay until after the Passover?

The Word in its Context

Although King James Only advocates have come up with a number of creative ways to try to defend this as an accurate translation, the fact of the matter is that it is an anachronism. There was, at that time, no distinct Christian holiday separate from the Jewish Passover which could be distinguished as "Easter." Instead, those Christians that kept an annual feast at all celebrated the Passover. They celebrated it as a type fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but it was nevertheless still the Passover, (see "What is the History of the Easter Holiday?"). This is why, later in history when debates over the calendar caused the Jewish and Christian celebrations to eventually separate and become different holidays, in most places the Christians still called it "Pascha," or literally, "Passover." (Indeed, many places of the world still do so today.) There was no new Christian holiday during the New Testament era that could be called "Easter."

Beyond this, the context of the passage makes it clear that the Jewish Passover is what the author had in mind. If we simply add in the verse before, we see the fuller picture:

"And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.) 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," (Acts 12:3-4, KJV).

Thus, the passage has already noted for the reader that this was happening during "the days of unleavened bread." So, when Herod decided to wait until after the current holiday, Luke has already let us know that the Holiday was the Jewish Passover. While technically the Law of Moses distinguishes between "Passover" and "The Feast of Unleavened Bread," which starts immediately after Passover, later Scripture and Jewish tradition often speak of the two together as one feast called Passover. Note, for example, what the prophet Ezekiel wrote:

"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 45:21, KJV).

Thus, even by this prophet of God, the seven days of unleavened bread following the day the Passover lamb was killed and eaten were still rightly called "Passover." Indeed, Luke himself made it clear in his gospel that this is how he uses the term. Note his words:

"Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover," (Luke 22:1, KJV).

So, when Luke tells us in Acts that something was happening "in the days of unleavened bread" and then says immediately afterward that Herod intended to do something "after the Passover" it is obvious that he is talking about the Jewish feast and not some separate Christian holiday.

Why Does the KJV Say Easter?

So what happened? If "Easter" is not correct, how did it end up in the KJV? We can actually trace the steps through the history of Protestant English translations. It begins with William Tyndale. In his translation of the New Testament, Tyndale used the English word "Easter" as the word for the Passover. Everywhere the Passover is mentioned, Tyndale called it "Easter." So, for example, He has Paul write:

"Purge therefore the old leaven that ye may be new dough as ye are sweet breed. For Christ our Easter lamb is offered up for us," (1 Corinthians 5:7, Tyndale)

And the Book of Hebrews describes Moses establishing Passover as:

"Through faith he ordained the Easter lamb and the effusion of blood lest he that destroyed the first born should touch them," (Hebrews 11:28, Tyndale).

When Tyndale later translated the Pentateuch (Genesis - Deuteronomy) from the Hebrew, he used the word "Passover" throughout, so why "Easter" in the New Testament? Probably because the Greek word for Passover, "Πάσχα" (Pascha) does not have an actual meaning in Greek. Instead, it is a transliteration from the Hebrew "פֶּסַח"  "Pesach." In Hebrew, the word literally means "Passover," so in the Old Testament, Tyndale was translating the word's actual meaning. In the Greek, however, the word had no meaning and was simply the proper name of a Holiday. By that time, most Greeks used the word to refer to the now separate holiday known in English as "Easter." Thus, ignorant of the roots of the word at the time he was translating the New Testament, Tyndale used "Easter" to translate "Pascha." It is a quite understandable error!

After Tyndale, a translator named Miles Coverdale published an English Bible. Coverdale knew no Hebrew and relied on translations in other languages for his Old Testament. Thus, the mistake that Tyndale made in the New Testament, Coverdale made throughout his entire Bible. So, in Coverdale's Bible we read things like:

"Upon ye fourteenth day of ye first month at evening, is the LORD's Easter," (Leviticus 23:5, Coverdale).

And:

"Let the children of Israel keep Easter in his season," (Numbers 9:2, Coverdale).

The translations that followed moved increasingly toward diminishing the anachronistic use of "Easter" and increasingly utilizing Tyndale's literal translation of "Passover" more frequently, until we arrive at the Bishop's Bible (the precursor to the KJV) which retained only two remaining instances of "Easter," one in John 11:55 and the other in Acts 12:4. The KJV translators did not start from scratch on a brand new translation. Rather, they used the Bishop's Bible as their base and sought to correct it where it was not quite in line with the original languages. It seems the KJV translation committee caught one of the two stray references to "Easter" surviving from the Tyndale/Coverdale era but missed the other, leaving one rogue "Easter" in Acts 12:4.

Of course, this is not a huge issue. No doctrine is altered by the KJV's use of the word "Easter," and it is easy enough to teach people where the mistake came from and that the word here really means "Passover," but the existence of this kind of mistake in the KJV is proof that it is not what King James Onlyists claim it to be. The KJV is not the perfect English translation upon which no improvement could ever be made. Easter may be a rather benign translation error here, but it is still an error, and it is certainly an improvement to replace Easter with the proper word "Passover," just as modern English translations all do.