How did we get the word 'Easter?'

He is risen. (Photo: Unsplash/Pisit Heng)

Easter is a time when Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the story...

Significance of Easter

The story of the crucifixion and resurrection is so significant that it is told in all four gospel accounts in the New Testament. In fact our whole calendar revolves around Easter, as do school holidays and therefore quite often family holidays. There are two bank holidays for it on Good Friday and Easter Monday. The shops stock chocolate eggs and advertising is full of references to Easter. Whether you are a Christian or not you can't miss Easter, and over time the festival has attracted various folk traditions.

The word 'Easter'

The origin of the word Easter is debated. The Venerable Bede (673-735 AD) was fascinated by the dating of Easter, and he postulated that the word derived from an Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre. However he is the only source for this idea, and there is no other mention of this goddess in material which does not derive directly or indirectly from Bede.

Bede is normally relied upon as an accurate source, but some scholars think that this goddess did not exist. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says "There is now widespread consensus that..." a Germanic source word led to the English word Easter, via Anglo-Saxon, which also led to the German word for Easter, which is Ostern.

It is thought to come from the word for dawn, which was related to the word for east, because the sun rises at dawn in the east. Eostur-monaþ (Easter month) was the Anglo-Saxon name of the month which we now called April. So the festival of Easter may just be named after the month it usually fell in.

Some people say that we should not use the word 'Easter' because it may refer to a pagan deity, but then so do all the days of our week, which are mainly named after Anglo-Saxon deities. The months January and March are named after Roman gods, and the months July and August are named after deified Roman Emperors. If we stopped using words because in the distant past it may possibly have an etymology derived from a pagan deity, which we have forgotten about and no longer honour nor believe in, then that would invalidate almost all our calendars and diaries, and most church notice boards. Today the reality is that the word Easter is associated with a Christian festival, even if it is linked to many non-Christian or quasi-Christin folk traditions like painted eggs.

The word Easter in the Bible

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 in the Bible, albeit some old versions. It was used in William Tyndale's New Testament, and is actually still found in one very common translation of the English Bible. The venerable Authorised or King James Version (KJV) uses the word Easter in just one verse in Acts 12:4. Early editions of the King James Version also included a table for finding the date of Easter. The Church of England clearly had no objection to the use of the word Easter.

Easter and Passover

Acts 12:4 in the KJV 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." 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, who used the word Easter. In the New Testament William Tyndale chose to translate the Greek Πάσχα (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.

In the process of revision the Bible Committees responsible for the Authorized Version changed all the other references of Easter to Passover. There are theories, but whether they missed this one, or had some logic for retaining it is not clear. Defenders of the King James Version sometimes go to quite contorted arguments to justify its use in this verse, but it may simply be just a left-over from Tyndale which was missed. No modern Bible translation in English uses the word Easter. Instead, all the main modern English Bible translations, including the so-called New King James Version, translate Πάσχα (Pascha) as Passover.


Pascha is not really a Greek word, it was the way of saying and writing the Aramaic פָּסחָא (Pascha) equivalent of the Hebrew word פֶּסַח (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. In English, the word is found in the term "paschal lamb".

The main reason William Tyndale did not use the word "Passover" is simply because that word did not exist in English then. Another reason maybe that Martin Luther did the equivalent in German, and Tyndale was familiar with German and Luther's work. However, after completing his New Testament in 1526, Tyndale then started to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew. His Penteteuch was published in January 1530, when the year started in March, so this would now be reckoned as 1531, written by convention as 1530/1. When Tyndale came to the Hebrew פֶּסַח (Pesach) he took the root of the Hebrew word which means to "pass over", and he used it to coin the English word 'Passover', which was then printed as "passeouer", when u and v were used interchangably.

The term Passover was readily adopted. It is today the word used for the festival by Jews and Christians alike. So now, all modern translations of the New Testament use the word Passover, which Tyndale coined, instead of the word Easter, but it is still in one verse in the KJV.

When is Easter?

The controversy over which date to use for Easter began in the Early Church in the 2nd century AD. The original date of the crucifixion and resurrection followed the Jewish Passover, with the dating outlined in Leviticus 23. As the Church became less Jewish and more Gentile, they did not follow nor know the Jewish calendar. Passover was not on a fixed day of the week but Christians wanted to mark the resurrection on the "first day of the week" (Luke 24:1-6) i.e. Sunday. Discussion and disagreement over the best method of computing the date of Easter Sunday has been ongoing ever since and remains unresolved. So even today not all Christians mark Easter at the same time.

The Early Church, and Messianic Jews, remembered it according to the Jewish calendar. Christians who follow the Orthodox tradition, and Christians who follow the Catholic and Protestant tradition, mark Easter Sunday on different days calculated by different ancient formulations. Even so, some years it is the same. Easter Sunday was the same for eastern and western Christians in 2010 and 2011, 2014 and 2017. There have been attempts to create a common Easter Sunday for every year, but these have not worked so far. Maybe they will one day in the future. Meanwhile in 2024, the western Easter Sunday is 31 March, and the Orthodox Easter Sunday is 5 May.

Easter Services

Most churches hold a special service on Easter Sunday. It is a time like Christmas, or Harvest Festivals, when churches are often a bit fuller, when some people who might not normally go to church feel the need to attend. Some places also hold a special, often ecumenical, dawn service at 6am on Easter Monday to make the time when Jesus's tomb was found empty (Matthew 28:1), in order to celebrate the resurrection.

Whatever you call it and whenever you celebrate it, that is not the issue. What matters is that at this time of year, Christians recall that Jesus rose from the dead.

Republished from Christian Today UK.