Why is it called Easter?

Why do Christians call their feast Easter? Isn't that a pagan word? Did European Christians appropriate an existing pagan feast and add it to their religion? When did Christians start commemorating Easter?

Acts 12:4 is the only use of the word “Easter” in the English Bible (KJV). The Aramaic and NT Greek word Pascha is usually translated “Passover” in most English versions. Nearly every culture calls this feast either Pascha, Resurrection Day, or the Great Feast. But speakers of English and German have a different word… Why?

Map showing different names of Pascha in different countries
Click to embiggen.

One English monastic saint, Bede the Venerable, in the eighth century asserted his opinion that the word Easter had been a name of an Anglo-Saxon deity, centuries earlier before the sixth-century conversion of the Angles and Saxons; but no other references corroborate his assertion. We do know that Easter is an ancient Germanic word related to sunrise and spring, and before Christianity arrived, the dawn of springtime was Eostremonath, Eastermonth, making it a natural name for the Paschal season. (Compare the English word Lent and German Lenz, Dutch lente, both of which simply mean “springtime.”)

So how did the word “Easter” re-enter our language? English-speakers referred to the Resurrection feast as Pascha or Pask until 16th-century English Protestant reformer William Tyndale translated the New Testament from Greek into English. Tyndale did not want to use a foreign word, so he used the familiar English word for springtime, “Easter.”

Prior to Tyndale, the first translators of the Bible into Latin had all kept the Greek word Pascha. Fourteenth-century reformer John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English from Latin and also kept the word Pask. But later, when Tyndale translated the books of the Jewish law, he coined a new word, “Pass-over,” to convey the meaning of the Hebrew word.

Tyndale did not get to revise the New Testament at the same time he worked on the Old Testament, and the word Easter or Ester remained for a time in the latter. Matthew’s Bible (1537) later incorporated Tyndale’s work on the Old Testament, which used Passover, but there were still some references to Ester. The Great Bible of 1539 also retained Ester or Easter in places. However, the Geneva Bible (1560) and the Bishops’ Bible (1568) continued the trend of removing Ester from the English Bible.

In 1611, editors of a revision of the 1537 Matthew’s Bible sought and received royal authorization: We know their edition today as the Authorized or King James version, though at the time it was never very widely used, until it later became the default Bible of Evangelicals in North America. The AV or KJV retained a single reference to Easter in Acts 12:4, though this is likely an oversight.