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Feedback archiveFeedback 2008

Easter and Good Friday: questions and answers

Does Easter have a pagan derivation? Was Jesus really crucified on a Friday?

by Jonathan Sarfati

iStockphoto

Passover

5 April 2008

Dr Tas Walker’s article Genesis and the Cross published on Good Friday at the beginning of the Easter holidays prompted questions that we receive from time to time. The first concerns the word Easter itself, and the second concerns Good Friday.

Easter

We are occasionally rebuked for using the word Easter, on the grounds that it is allegedly derived from the Babylonian goddess Astarte, equivalent to the Assyrian goddess Ishtar. This comes from an oft-cited 19th-century book, The Two Babylons, by the Scots reverend Alexander Hislop:

‘Then look at Easter. What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people Nineveh, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. That name, as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar. The worship of Bel and Astarte was very early introduced into Britain, along with the Druids, “the priests of the groves”. Some have imagined that the Druidical worship was first introduced by the Phoenicians, who, centuries before the Christian era, traded to the tin-mines of Cornwall. But the unequivocal traces of that worship are found in regions of the British islands where the Phoenicians never penetrated, and it has everywhere left indelible marks of the strong hold which it must have had on the early British mind.’

So the main question is, how reliable is this connection? A secondary question is: would it be so serious anyway? But first, what did the original God-breathed manuscripts say?

Original languages

The Hebrew word for Passover is פֶּסַח (pesach), which comes from the verb פָּסַח (pasach) which means to pass over. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, this word was basically unchanged, becoming the Greek πάσχα (pascha). In some English Bibles, this is translated Easter, and other times Passover, but it’s the same word. Most other languages have the same word for both, e.g. Latin Pascha, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, and Dutch Pasen. English also retains this word in expressions such as ‘pascal lamb’. So where did the word ‘Easter’ come from?

Easter: common Anglo-Saxon term

Does the word ‘Easter’ come from paganism? The answer is a clear ‘no!’. Hislop’s research is very shoddy in many places (Hislop is refuted in A Case Study in Poor Methodology). He tries to see paganism everywhere, on even the flimsiest grounds. In this case, he imagines a connection between Easter and Astarte purely on the basis of sound similarity, with not the slightest trace of linguistic connection or any borrowing. By this spurious method, one could connect the Potomac river with the Greek ποταμός (potamos), although there is no connection between the native American and Greek words.

In reality, the word Easter is really Anglo-Saxon (sometimes Ester),1 not Babylonian. It was the common word for both Passover and Easter. J. R. Clarke Hall’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary provides the following list of related words showing that Easter was used for both:

east—I. adj. east, easterly. II. adv. eastwards, in an easterly direction, in or from the east

Easteraefen—Easter-eve
Easterdaeg—Easter-day, Easter Sunday
Easterfaestan—Easter-fast, Lent
Easterfeorm—feast of Easter
Easterfreolsdaeg—the feast day of Passover
Eastergewuna—Easter custom (appears only in the 9th century sermons of Aelfric where he is referring to Christian Easter practices)

The pagan derivation of Easter is conspiratorial fantasy. The word is Anglo-Saxon, and derived from the Germanic Oster meaning Passover, and is related to the words for Resurrection.

Easterlic—belonging to Easter, Paschal
Eastermonath—Easter-month, April
Easterne—east, eastern, oriental
Easterniht—Easter-night
Eastersunnandaeg
—Easter Sunday
Eastersymble—Passover (lit. Easter gathering)
Eastertid—Eastertide, Paschal season
Easterthenung—Passover
Easterwucu—Easter Week

An example of the word meaning the Jewish Passover comes from a 1563 homily: ‘Easter, a great, and solemne feast among the Jewes.’

Germanic origin

Anglo-Saxon itself is a Germanic language, and this is the genuine origin of the term Easter. Germans likewise used the word Oster or Ostern for both Passover and our Easter. E.g. when the Reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) first translated the Bible into German (1545), he used a number of German words relating to this, such as Osterfest (Passover/Easter), Osterlamm (Passover lamb). E.g. compare Luke 22:1, 7

NASB: Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was approaching.
Luther Bibel 1545: Es war aber nahe das Fest der süßen Brote, das da Ostern heißt.

NASB: Then came the first day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.
Luther: Es kam nun der Tag der süßen Brote, an welchem man mußte opfern das Osterlamm.

Describing a Passover at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, compare John 2:13,23:
NKJV: Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Luther: Und der Juden Ostern war nahe, und Jesus zog hinauf gen Jerusalem.

NKJV: Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did.
Luther: Als er aber zu Jerusalem war am Osterfest, glaubten viele an seinen Namen, da sie die Zeichen sahen, die er tat.

Compare also 1 Corinthians 15:7, identifying the true Passover Lamb, of which the lambs were types:

NIV: For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
Luther: Denn wir haben auch ein Osterlamm, das ist Christus, für uns geopfert.

Even in modern German, the ‘das jüdische Osterfest’ means the Jewish Passover. In turn, this word comes from Ost, or the sunrising, i.e. East. In turn, this is likely to come from the old German word auferstehen / auferstanden / Auferstehung meaning rising from the dead/resurrection. Luther used these words as well, e.g. throughout 1 Corinthians 15.

So the pagan derivation of Easter is conspiratorial fantasy. The word is Anglo-Saxon, and derived from the Germanic Oster meaning Passover, and is related to the words for Resurrection.

William Tyndale, Easter and his new English Bible

The brilliant and godly scholar William Tyndale (1496–1536) was the first to translate the Bible into English directly from Hebrew and Greek rather than via Latin, which was also the first English Bible to be printed mechanically. He was fluent in many languages—as well as his native English, he could speak French, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin and Spanish. But he was determined to produce a Bible in English, as he said, to ‘cause the boy that drives the plow in England to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself!’

However, because of persecution, Tyndale had to flee to Lutheran parts of Germany. Here, he completed his translation, which introduced many popular words and phrases into English:

  • Atonement
  • Jehovah
  • scapegoat
  • let there be light
  • the powers that be
  • my brother's keeper
  • the salt of the earth
  • a law unto themselves
  • filthy lucre
  • it came to pass
  • gave up the ghost
  • the signs of the times
  • the spirit is willing
  • live and move and have our being
  • fight the good fight

Much of his work is better known as providing the basis for the KJV (1611) and the Geneva Bible (1560).

Tyndale was also responsible for introducing the word ‘Ester’ into the English Bible. John Wycliffe, who produced the first English Bible in 1382, had translated from the Latin, and left the word pascha basically untranslated and called it pask or paske. Luther occasionally did likewise, using the transliterated form passah. For example, in Lev. 23:5, he rendered ‘the LORD’s Passover’ as ‘des Herrn Passah’, and in Ex. 12:27, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord was ‘Es ist das Passahopfer des Herrn.

But when Tyndale prepared the new Testament, he followed Luther’s more common practice and used the most common word in his native language. That is, while Luther most often used Oster and its cognates, Tyndale used Ester and its cognates.
For example:

Luke 2:41 And his father and mother went to Hierusalem every year at the feast of ester.
Luke 22:15 And he said unto them: I have inwardly desired to eat this ester lamb with you before that I suffer.
John 2:13 And the jews’ ester was even at hand; And Iesus went up to Ierusalem,
John 6:4 (And ester a feast of the jews, was nigh.)
John 11:55 The jews’ ester was nigh at hand
John 19:14 (It was the Sabbath even which falleth in the ester feast, and about the sixth hour)
1 Cor. 5:7 For Christ our ester lamb is offered up for us.

Note, if the Hislop pagan derivation theory were correct, it would imply that the godly Tyndale and Luther before him were really calling Jesus the ‘Astarte Lamb’ or ‘Ishtar Lamb’.

Tyndale and Passover

But when Tyndale translated the Old Testament, he thought that it was anachronistic to use the word Easter for the Jewish feast. This is because, as above, the derivation of Easter comes from the resurrection, which had yet to happen. So Tyndale went back to the root of pesach, i.e. pasach, meaning ‘to pass over’, and coined the new term Passover.

So it is due to Tyndale, not to paganism, that some English Bibles have two different words, Easter and Passover, to translate a single Hebrew/Greek term. As the KJV was essentially the 5th revision of the Tyndale Bible, and retains about 90% of its wording, it keeps this feature. But it more consistently applied Tyndale’s logic to retain Easter only for Acts 12:4, where the Christian resurrection celebration was in view not just the Jewish feast. For all other occurrences, the KJV translators used Tyndale’s new word ‘passover’. But this obscured the traditional meaning of Easter that included the Jewish Passover. Modern translations generally use only one word, Passover, to translate pesach/pascha.

Would it matter that much?

While the above firmly refutes the pagan derivation nonsense about Easter, there are far more familiar things that really are derived from paganism, but about which few people worry. It is illogical to avoid a Christian-based holiday that brings people together in worship because of some perceived tie to paganism, while using everyday products and ignoring their obvious pagan heritage. You might have your muffler replaced by Midas, wear shoes designed by Nike, chew Trident gum, or watch a movie by Orion Pictures. Several days of our week and months of our year are named after Norse gods, except for Saturday that comes from the Roman god Saturn, and Sunday and Monday of course. Several months are named after Roman gods. The eight planets and many of their moons are named after Roman deities. Mazda cars are named for a Zoroastrian deity, and many people drive a Saturn, Mercury, Ares, Aurora … etc.

But even in God’s Word, some of the heroes in the Bible had paganized names. E.g. Mordecai, the real hero of the book of Esther, has a name related to the Babylonian high god Marduk. Consider also Daniel’s three friends who were prepared to be thrown in the furnace rather than worship any but the true God. They were originally named Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, but are better known by the names the Babylonians gave them: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Daniel 1:7). Abednego means ‘servant of Nebo’, the pagan god.

Was Jesus crucified on Good Friday?

iStockphoto

Tomb

Some readers argue that in Matthew 12:40, Christ said that he would be ‘three days and three nights’ in the tomb, so if Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and rose on Sunday, it couldn’t have been three full 24-hour periods. Thus, they say, the crucifixion occurred on a Wednesday or a Thursday.

However, as I covered in Refuting Compromise pp. 79–80, in Jewish counting, a part of a day was counted as a whole day (a figure of speech known as synecdoche). So while X days and X nights can mean what it means in English, this was only a subset of its semantic range in Jewish idiom. The Jewish Encyclopedia explains (as cited in the Tektonics Apologetics article on this topic):

‘In Jewish communal life part of a day is at times reckoned as one day; e.g., the day of the funeral, even when the latter takes place late in the afternoon, is counted as the first of the seven days of mourning; a short time in the morning of the seventh day is counted as the seventh day; circumcision takes place on the eighth day, even though of the first day only a few minutes remained after the birth of the child, these being counted as one day.’

To demonstrate this, 1 Samuel 30:12 says, ‘he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and nights’, and this is equated in the next verse with hayyom shelosha (three days ago) , which could only mean the day before yesterday. Another example is 1 Kings 20:29 (NIV):

‘For seven days they camped opposite each other, and on the seventh day the battle was joined.’

So for Jews, the phrases ‘on the third day’, ‘after the third day’, ‘until the third day’ and ‘three days and three nights’ were synonymous.

In English counting, if they started fighting on the 7th day, it means they were only camping for six whole days. But in Jewish reckoning, the partial days are counted as wholes, so the text says they were camping for seven days. See also Genesis 42:17–18.

So the above shows that X days and X nights need not mean X 24-hour periods. So how should 3 days and 3 nights be understood in the Gospels? As we should interpret Scripture by Scripture, we should see what other passages say about the same event. One website has made a helpful table of all the references.

Interchangeability of terms : (All Bible data on Resurrection)

Bible Term

Duration in grave

Until the third day Mt 27:64 give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day
In three days

Mt 26:61 rebuild it in three days

Mt 27:40 rebuild it in three days

Mk 14:58 in three days I will build another made without hands.

Mk 15:29 rebuild it in three days

Jn 2:19–20 in three days I will raise it up

On the third day

Mt 16:21 raised up on the third day

Mt 17:23 raised on the third day

Mt 20:19 on the third day He will be raised up

Lk 9:22 be raised up on the third day

Acts 10:40 God raised Him up on the third day

1 Cor 15:4 raised on the third day

The third day

Lk 18:33 the third day He will rise again

Lk 24:7 the third day rise again

Lk 24:21 it is the third day since these things happened

Lk 24:46 rise again from the dead the third day

Three days later

Mk 9:31 rise three days later

Mk 10:34 and three days later He will rise again

After three days

Mt 27:63 After three days I am to rise again

Mk 8:31 after three days rise again

Three days and three nights

Jonah 1:17 in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.

Mt 12:40 for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

To take Matthew 27:63–64:

Sir, they said, we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.’

Note that even His enemies understood that ‘after three days’ meant that they only had to secure the tomb ‘until the third day’. If three full 24-hour periods were meant, then they would want to secure the tomb until the fourth day to make sure. So for Jews, the phrases ‘on the third day’, ‘after the third day’, ‘until the third day’ and ‘three days and three nights’ were synonymous.

We have to not only allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, but should allow for the understanding of the time period in which it was written.

So, on what day was Jesus crucified? The best explanation is that Christ was buried before about 6pm Good Friday (Luke 23:54). Since the Jewish day started at sunset, the late afternoon of Good Friday was the first day; Friday sunset to Saturday sunset was the 2nd day; the 3rd day began on Saturday at sunset, and Jesus had risen from the dead by early Sunday morning.

It is important to realize that when we attempt to work out difficult portions of Scripture, we cannot approach it as if we were reading a modern newspaper. We have to not only allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, but should allow for the understanding of the time period in which it was written. Our preconceived notions of ‘how it should be’ should be left out of the equation. See also Should Genesis be taken literally?

Related Articles

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References

  1. The following article is very informative: Nick Sayers, Why we should not Pass-over Easter, Contending Earnestly for the Faith 43:2–7, March 2008. Return to text.

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