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Bible Q

Where does the word Easter come from?

Easter (Ēostur) is the Anglo-Saxon name for the month of April, and is one of the twelve old Anglo-Saxon month names recorded by Bede (d.735). These Anglo-Saxon month names fell out of use after the Norman Conquest (1066) or earlier, and were replaced with the 12 Roman month names like January, February which we use today. Like most of both Anglo-Saxon and Roman month and day names the names are pre-Christian in origin and typically named after pagan gods or festivals; our Wednesday literally means Woden’s Day for example. However by Bede’s time any pagan association was just as much a distant memory as were any  Roman pagan associations of the Latin month names later used by the Normans.

Long after the other Anglo-Saxon month names had been forgotten however the month of Easter still remained associated with April and with the season of Passover. The meaning changed from a month to the Christian ceremony around Passover time remembering the Passover death and resurrection of Christ.

Wycliffe in his Bible (1390s) used the Hebrew, Greek and Latin term Pascha for the Jewish Passover, spelled by Wycliffe as Pask. However Easter continued to be the common name and Tyndale in his Bible had Easter, which was followed by the King James Bible in Acts 12:4.

Acts 12:4 “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.” (King James Version)

In Greek, Latin, and many other languages like Spanish (la Pascua) there is no difference between Jewish Passover and Christian Easter. Both in effect are the same event and have the same word in the original Greek. A difference however is that the specific remembrance of Jesus at the time of Passover is not actually established in the New Testament. It seems natural that for the early church the specific Sunday of Christ’s resurrection must have been in some way more powerful than the weekly “Passover” (1 Corinthians 5:7) of bread and wine celebrated by Christians, since it was the only one of 52 weeks when their Jewish relatives continued to sacrifice a Passover lamb. But still, there is no mention in Acts or the Epistles of the early church having made any effort to celebrate the one Easter Sunday any more than any other Sunday. Against that, there is no actual condemnation of those making special remembrance on that particular Sunday either. The advice of Paul (Colossians 2:16-17) is that while festivals have no purpose, it is not good to judge either.

Easter Sunday was probably the first festival to develop in the Christian calendar, as Bishop Melito (died 180) of Sardis in Asia Minor mentions special Easter services as already being an established tradition. The various folklore traditions associated with Easter are quite late – painted easter eggs for example are not documented until 1610, and difficult to trace in the Christian medieval period. They are not pagan.

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