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Friday, March 12, 2021

Easter in the King James Bible

Due to recent discussions, I provide an update of a previous post.
 
Acts 12:4 in the King James Version of the Bible: “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.”

This verse of Scripture has excited much discussion – often more than it should and of a nature that is not edifying. Now I add my voice, hopefully in soft rather than shrill tones that might edify the reader. Acts 12:4 has provided the anti-KJV-ist fodder to rail against the King James translation. It has incited the KJV-Only-ist to create tortured explanations of why “Easter” is correct and “Passover” would be incorrect (in this one verse).[i] The whole of it is rather simple. It could be dismissed rather easily, were it not for the extremists.

First, barring finding some source where the King James translators have explained it, we do not really know why they chose to translate πασχα (paska) as “Easter” in this passage. They translated the word as “Passover” in the other New Testament verses where it is used. While some explanations may seem plausible, they remain opinion rather than fact.

Second, a little knowledge of the development of the English language and the history of English translations apprises us that there is nothing sinister, secret, or stupid going on with the translation. Rather, it is quite simple.

Englishmen had no Jewish background. They were converted to Christianity from paganism. They had no word for the Old Testament feast of Passover. The Passover in the New Testament chronologically tied to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This they called “Ester” or “Easter.” The first translator of the complete Bible in English, John Wycliffe, used “paske” here, transliterating it over from the Greek or Latin.[ii] On the other hand, nearly 200 years later William Tyndale translated the New Testament. He chose “ester”,[iii] a word that was in common usage at that time. The word “Passover,” which is current in most modern translations, did not exist at that time. In fact, Tyndale himself coined the word “Passover” when he translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into English. Whatever his reasoning, Tyndale is the source of the word “Passover.”

As translation and language progressed, the use of Easter for Passover in the New Testament dwindled. By the time of the 1568 Bishops’ Bible “Easter” is used in only two places (here and twice in John 11:55). With the coming of the King James, “Easter” remained with one solitary use, in Acts 12:4.

Why did the King James translators not change “Easter” to “Passover” in Acts 12:4 as in all the other cases? Was it an editorial oversight? Did they see something that caused them to think it best left in place?[iv] Though not specifically mentioning the word “Easter,” “The Translators to the Reader” indicates that these scholars were not rigidly tied to one word in the receptor language (English) for the same one word in the donor language (Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek): “...wee have not tyed our selves to an uniformitie of phrasing, or to an identitie of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done...we cannot follow a better patterne for elocution then God himselfe; therefore hee using divers words, in his holy writ, and indifferently for one thing in nature: we, if wee will not be superstitious, may use the same libertie in our English versions out of Hebrew & Greeke, for that copie or store that he hath given us.” We will probably never answer why. Rather than worry over or fight about it, just know that the context indicates that Easter refers to the Passover season, and it was a legitimate word choice. It had included that meaning for over at least 600 years by that time, and should be no cause for foul fracases (nothing wrong with healthy debate).[v]


[i] Including the anti-KJV speculation that ties the origin of the word and holiday “Easter” from the festival of the goddess Ēostre (largely debunked), and some KJVOs’ insistence that πασχα in Acts 12:4 actually refers to a pagan holy day rather than Passover. I do not recommend the anti-KJV and KJVO links above; they are supplied only for informational purposes. Both of them are full of misrepresentations. “There is now widespread consensus that the word derives from the Christian designation of Easter week as in albis, a Latin phrase that was understood as the plural of alba (‘dawn’) and became eostarum in Old High German, the precursor of the modern German and English term.”
[ii] The Anglo-Saxon translations of the four gospels preceded Wycliffe’s translation by about 400 years. These use ēasterdaeges, ēastro, and ēastron.
[iii] My count using StudyLight.org is 26 times in 25 verses in the New Testament (ester or esterlambe). The English-to-Latin dictionary Promptorium Parvulorum Sive Clericorum first appeared circa 1440, and is attributed to Geoffrey the Grammarian, a friar who lived in Norfolk, England. In the 1865 printing at Archive.org (p. 143), we find Eesterne (Easter) means Pascha.
[iv] If the translators judiciously followed rules 8-11, it seems highly unlikely they could have accidentally left in the word “Easter” through an oversight. For an explanation of why they might have left “Easter” in place, see Easter in KJV, Acts 12:4. On the one hand, some contemporary KJV defenders have posited that “Easter” was left in Acts 12:4 because it is the only post-resurrection historical reference to paska/Passover. On the other hand, some recent KJV detractors have suggested the High-Church Anglicans altered the translation of Acts 12:4 back to the word “Easter” to preserve a mention of their then current celebration. I checked the Easter sermons of Lancelot Andrewes transcribed at Project Canterbury. He never mentioned Acts 12:4 in any Easter sermon (Sermons of the Resurrection Preached upon Easter-Day, 1606-1618 and Sermons of the Resurrection Preached upon Easter-Day, 1620-1624), which seems odd if that were one of the reasons they kept the word “Easter” in that passage.
[v] In the related German language, Martin Luther used Ostern (Easter) in his Bible translation.

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