“Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also (Then were the days of unleavened bread). 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” (Acts 12:1-4).
Here in Acts 12:4 the term “Easter” is the translation of the Greek word, pascha. In all of its 28 other occurrences in the New Testament it is rendered “passover.” Acts 12:4 is the lone exception.
The careful student of Scripture will immediately ask, “Why should a word which is so consistently translated one way, be translated another way here?” We believe that when all things are carefully considered, from the Word of God, we will reach the conclusion that pascha should be rendered “passover” in this text, just as it is in the other 28 places.
TWO FEASTS, ONE OBSERVANCE
While it is true that the feasts of passover and unleavened bread are two distinct entities, God’s prescribed method of observing them led to them being considered one and the same. This is because they were observed together as one festival during the first of three yearly convocations in Israel. “Three times thou shall keep A FEAST unto me in the year” (Exod. 23:14). Notice that it does not say “thou shall keep some feasts” but “A FEAST,” even though two feasts were held at this time. Deuteronomy 16:16 further explains, “Three times in a year shall all thy males appear before the LORD thy God in the place which he shall choose; in the feast of unleavened bread, and in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tabernacles….”
That these two feasts were observed as one is confirmed in Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning their future observance in the kingdom: “In the first month, in the fourteenth day of the month, ye shall have the passover, A FEAST OF SEVEN DAYS; unleavened bread shall be eaten” (Ezek. 45:21). It’s obvious from this text that the entire week was considered the “passover” even though the seven days of unleavened bread are also mentioned. This is why Luke 22:1 says “the feast of unleavened bread…is called the passover.” Luke 22:7 goes on to say, “Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the passover must be killed.” To say that “where both the terms passover and `days (or day) of unleavened bread’ are found in the same passage refer to the two as distinct entities” is forced at best; untrue at worst.
WHY DID HEROD WAIT?
Was Herod waiting for a Jewish or a pagan festival to end before bringing Peter forth to the people (Acts 12:4)? Scriptural evidence points to the Jewish passover, not the pagan “Easter.”
As has already been pointed out, the word translated “Easter” here is consistently rendered “passover” in all other places. But what about the argument that the passover itself was already finished, since Peter was arrested during “the days of unleavened bread?” There are two distinctly Scriptural possibilities which adequately answer this without interjecting a pagan holiday into the text. The first is the fact, already mentioned, that the passover is already identified in Scripture as “a feast of seven days” (Ezek. 45:21). The second is, to borrow an expression from the world of sports, “it’s not over ’til it’s over.” According to Numbers 9:9-12, a SECOND passover was scheduled for those who may have become ceremonially defiled and therefore unable to participate in the first. “…If any man of you or of your posterity shall be unclean by reason of a dead body, or be in a journey afar off, yet he shall keep the passover unto the Lord. The fourteenth day of the SECOND month at even they shall keep it…” (Num. 9:10,11). The normal passover, of course, was held the fourteenth day of the FIRST month.
The best explanation for Herod’s delay in bringing Peter out to the people, then, is that he was simply waiting for the first passover festival (including the days of unleavened bread) to run its course. But for those who would press the issue with technicalities over terminology, Acts 12:4 could be referring to the second passover which was only a few weeks away.
HEROD: PAGAN, PIOUS, OR PRAGMATIC
We would in no way wish to suggest that this Herod (known in history as Agrippa I) was a true believer, even under the Jewish program. But we do beg to differ with the view that he was strictly a pagan Roman with no reason to reverence the Jewish passover. While it is true that Agrippa I was educated in Rome, his ancestry can be traced to the Idumeans (or Edomites, descendants of Esau). His grandfather, Herod the Great, had constructed the temple in Jerusalem which stood at the time of Christ. This was not done out of his love for God, but for pragmatic reasons: to gain favor with the Jews. Agrippa’s uncle, Herod Antipas initially held off the execution of John the Baptist because “he feared the multitude, because they counted him a prophet” (Matt. 14:5). Other Roman-appointed leaders in Israel showed deference to the Jews (for example, Festus in Acts 25:9), so why shouldn’t Herod Agrippa I do the same?
Furthermore, Agrippa’s daughter, Drusilla, is called a “Jewess” in Acts 24:24 and his son, Agrippa II is described by Paul as a man who “believest…the prophets” (Acts 26:27). There was obviously a strong Jewish influence on this entire family, so we should not think it strange that in the text in question (Acts 12:4) Herod is thinking of the Jewish passover, not some pagan festival.
Now concerning the question, “What reason is there to believe the Jews would have been upset by Peter being killed at their passover?” There’s plenty of reason to think this, most importantly, the Scriptures: Mark 14:1,2 says, “After two days was the feast of the passover, and of unleavened bread: and the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take him by craft, and put him to death. But they said, not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar of the people.” If the very chief priests expected an uproar over an execution during a holy festival, why should it seem strange that the king would also recognize this sentiment in the people over which he ruled?
The fact that Christ was actually killed during this time simply illustrates the significance of His death. Christ was killed in accordance with the fulfillment of Old Testament types and pictures. God arranged for His death during the passover festival to show that the fulfillment of the types took place right on schedule. God simply overruled the sentiment that the chief priests had anticipated in order to carry out His divine plan. But in the case of Peter, there was no divine time schedule to meet, therefore we find the delay of Herod’s actions in respect of the wishes of the people.
The Scriptural evidence is clear, the pascha refers to the Jewish passover, not a pagan holyday. If there were no need by some to defend a particular translation of a particular word, no one would have ever imagined that the Holy Spirit meant “Easter” when He said pascha.