In the Bible it is written, “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.” (Ac 12:4) This text in the King James Version of the Bible (KJV) is regarded by many as a significant mistranslation of the underlying Greek; the KJV translates the Greek word pascha as Easter, a Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of Christ, derived from ancient pagan spring festivals celebrating fertility goddesses.
Many believe the Greek word pascha in this text should be translated Passover, and their reasoning is straightforward: in most of our English Bibles, every single time the Greek word pascha appears it is translated Passover . The KJV is (to my knowledge) the only version of the Bible which ever translates this particular word as Easter, and it does so only in this particular text; in every other instance the KJV translates pascha as Passover.
In light of this, many presume the KJV is incorrect here and are quick to highlight this text as a prime example of one of many presumed defects in the KJV. Some even claim from this (supposed) error that the translators had ulterior motives, that they made this mistake on purpose in order to please their king (James), or to support their own corrupt religious prejudices, as they were all men who celebrated Easter, the Christianized version of this pagan festival.
Yet one must note an obvious weakness in such a view: the KJV translators were consistently faithful in their work in every other instance, so we may certainly not claim they were ignorant, or that they were deliberately trying to deceive us (for then it stands to reason they would have mistranslated more consistently). They deviate from the norm in exactly this one instance, in only this lone context. And regardless of the ulterior motive one may suspect, we must ask ourselves how mistranslating in this singular, obscure text helps them to achieve it. How does such an error please King James, or provide support for Christianity’s adoption of a pagan festival?
Dare we suggest that the KJV translators actually wanted to us to think Easter was the same as Passover? That they deliberately confused the terms, hoping we would consider them synonymous? But why? Has anyone at any time ever believed such an absurdity? And can anyone imagine a remotely sane mind expecting such an obvious and inconsistent blunder to promote this outlandish end?
Or are we willing to claim the translators took it upon themselves to contrive some evidence for their replacement theology … that God had replaced Passover with Easter for Christians in the current “Church dispensation?” Does it seem reasonable to think the KJV translators were deliberately intending to confuse us in this way, by calling the same feast days both Unleavened Bread and Easter only once, and within a single obscure context? Can we imagine them considering such an isolated mistranslation to be an effective method of promoting Replacement Theology? The thought itself is yet another absurdity; such suspicions and accusations are deeply problematic in themselves. We must dig a little deeper to understand why the KJV translators made this particular translation decision.
When we look for answers here they are not difficult to find. In the immediate context the translators note that the scene takes place in “the days of unleavened bread.” (Ac 12:3b) Those familiar with the biblical festivals understand that the Passover meal initiates the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Le 23:5-6), so anything occurring after the first few hours of Unleavened Bread must follow Passover; Herod was not waiting for Passover itself to finish because this part of the celebration was already over. This is not a difficult line of reasoning to follow: it is a fact that the Greek word pascha in this particular text cannot be a reference to the Passover meal; it must be referring to something else, some other festival suggested by an alternate meaning for the word pascha. So the question before us is this: Is Easter a more reasonable translation of pascha than Passover in this singular context?
It should not surprise us to find that the correct translation of the Greek word pascha in any modern context actually is Easter, a fact easily verified via Google Translate. There is a very close relationship in the Greek language between Passover and this Christianized pagan festival … in Greek we even translate Passover, evraiko pascha or Hebrew Easter! Even though the two festivals are vastly different in origin, content and meaning, the fact that they generally occur about the same time of year provides significant similarity, such that the term pascha by itself might be imprecise in certain contexts. Good translators will therefore turn to context to guide them in each case, and in the given context we know pascha cannot be a reference to the Passover feast; one must look for an alternate meaning.
Yet one might claim that modern Greek is so vastly different from ancient Greek that Google Translate is irrelevant. This argument has some merit, in the sense that the modern Christian concept of Easter did not yet exist when the book of Acts was written: at that time there was no orthodox Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of Christ. So, unless we are willing to attribute pure idiocy to the translators, common sense tells us they did not intend this modern meaning for the word. They evidently used the English word Easter to refer to the ancient pagan spring fertility goddess celebration which was common in ancient Greco-Roman culture and from which the modern Christianized Easter celebration has been derived. In any case, regardless of their motives, an evolutionary linguistic argument against the KJV implies that in ancient Greek pascha meant only Passover, such that if the writer of Acts 12:4 actually had wanted to refer to the pagan festival occurring at about same time he would necessarily have used a different word. Yet a reasonably diligent investigation reveals no alternative to pascha, suggesting there has been no such change in the Greek language which would affect a good translation of this text. Until this can be shown, that the ancient Greek word for the pagan fertility celebration was not also pascha, there is no sustainable argument here.
So, after an initial cursory investigation, it turns out that the question we should really have been asking ourselves from the outset is not why the KJV has Easter in Acts 12:4, but why no other translation does, and why the KJV does not always translate pascha in this way. But again, the answer is obvious from the evidence at hand: in every other biblical context Passover is clearly the intended meaning of pascha … there is no contention on this point among biblical scholars. Acts 12:4 is the lone possible exception, and in this particular case we know pascha cannot refer to the Passover meal itself — another meaning must have been intended. Therefore the normal translation of pascha, or Easter, in this case meaning the pagan festival from which our English word Easter is derived, should therefore be considered, and may in fact be reasonable.
Yet those who would persist in rejecting the KJV as errant here prefer another option: they rightly observe that the term Passover is sometimes used to refer to the entire time period of the biblical spring festivals, including the feast of Unleavened Bread (Lk 22:1), during which our text takes place. So they think it reasonable to conclude that pascha in Acts 12:4 is a general reference to the entire set of feasts, in spite of the fact that the typical and more precise term, Unleavened Bread, has just been used in reference to it. If this anti-KJV assertion is true it makes the text of Acts 12:4 entirely unique: multiple terms for this feast are never used within any other immediate context except by way of explanation to non-Jewish people (as in Luke 22:1), which is not the case here. Such inconsistent use of terminology within the same context thus has no precedent; insisting on this translation therefore seems unreasonable (to me) if the standard meaning of pascha, Easter, does no injustice to the context. Why look for a third and more remote alternative when the verifiably common meaning of the Greek word satisfies the context? Does it?
It is clear from historical records that the Romans celebrated a spring pagan fertility festival at the time of the Vernal Equinox, which often shortly follows Passover. So envisioning Herod strategizing to wait until this pagan celebration is complete before dealing with Peter does no injustice to the immediate or general context: the pagan festival may have closely followed Passover as the text implies, and Herod would certainly have wanted his soldiers to be sober and on high alert in the event of any disturbance or uprising. Planning such an event with his troops distracted would have been unwise at best; there was always significant additional Jewish presence in Jerusalem during feast days and waiting until things quieted down after all celebrations were complete was certainly not an unreasonable strategy in dealing with Peter.
So, in Acts 12:4 the KJV’s choice of the common primary translation of the Greek pascha does no injustice to the context, the less common alternative translation (the Passover meal itself) is out of the question, and a reference to Unleavened Bread implies unprecedented and unjustifiable multi-term use within a single, immediate context. What should therefore now be apparent is this: based upon context the KJV’s rendering of Acts 12:4 is not entirely unreasonable.
The evidence before us should be more than sufficient to silence intense criticism of the KJV on this point; to reject the KJV with any rigor here one must demonstrate that Passover is the only correct way to translate the text, a position which is evidently untenable. Hopefully, many who have been misinformed will be open to further evidence that the KJV is a fully reliable instance of the written Word of God. For further exploration please see The Syrian Recension.