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Occam's Razor and 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.”

In the King James Bible, the Greek word pascha is translated as Easter in Acts 12:4. Opponents of the King James Bible have often pointed this out as one of the obvious mistakes in this translation. They even come up with this wild tale about how King James insisted that the Christian celebration of Easter be remembered by at least one New Testament mention. The story would be an amusing bit of trivia except for the fact that so many have taken this total fabrication seriously.

On the side of the defenders of the King James Bible, several explanations have been given as to why Easter is the correct translation in this passage. It occurs during the days of unleavened bread (Acts 12:3) which is after the Passover (Leviticus 23:5-6) and could therefore not be the Jewish Passover. Herod was not a true Jewish believer and so he was celebrating the pagan feast of Easter or Ishtar—a feast occurring close to the time of the Passover.

Different people take slightly different angles but they all deal heavily with the Jewish calendar and the religion of Herod. These explanations satisfy those who already believe in the infallibility of the King James Bible and are denied by those who do not. There may be much merit in their points. These details may explain why God providentially led the translators to put Easter in the passage. However, it probably does not explain their reasoning when they did it. There is a simpler way. This is where William Occam comes in.

William Occam, or William of Occam, lived from about 1280 (he was born near London) to 1349. He lived as a Franciscan monk and became one of the most powerful theologians and philosophers of his time. But his views did not put him in good stead with the papal hierarchy. In fact, he was imprisoned for four years by the pope and then excommunicated. Among other things, he declared Christ to be the only true head of the church, the pope to be fallible, the Bible to be the only infallible source of authority and the pope and church to be subordinate to the state in secular matters. His teachings made a strong impact on both John Wycliffe and Martin Luther.

Occam’s Razor refers to a principle developed by him and applied to the ponderous doctrines and proofs of the scholastics—especially Thomas Aquinas. In its most basic form, Occam’s Razor states that the simplest proof of a doctrine or principle is the best one. Why use extensive proofs of a doctrine if a simple one did the job?

Occam was fighting against the many-leveled and complicated proofs given by the philosophers of his time. However, there is much that we can learn from this today. Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us, “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.” God reveals to us what He wants us to know. Yes, we need to study, compare scripture with scripture and rightly divide the word. But sometimes we work too hard to get God’s word to fit our doctrine. Why not take scripture a face value unless Biblical truth requires otherwise?

Let’s apply Occam’s Razor to Acts 12:4. Instead of counting days and determining what holidays Herod would or would not celebrate, let us consider the meaning of the word Easter. The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first definition of Easter the following definition: "One of the great festivals of the Christian church, commemorating the resurrection of Christ, and corresponding to the Jewish Passover, the name of which it bears in most of the European languages." Notice that it corresponds to the Passover. But there is more.

The second definition is even more telling. It simply says "The Jewish passover. Obs." Of course, "obs." means obsolete; that is, it is not commonly used this way today but there was a time when it was.  As proof of this definition of Easter, it then gives quotes from the years 971, c.1000, 1398, 1535, 1563 and 1611. The 1611 quotation is from Acts 12:4 in the King James Bible. Even more telling is the quotation from 1535. It is taken from Coverdale's Bible in Ezekiel 45:21, "Upon the 14th day of the first month ye shall keep Easter" (spelling modernized). Easter was considered the correct name for the Passover in 1535.

In fact, the word Passover was not found in the English language until William Tyndale invented it for his translation of the Penteteuch in 1530. Up until that time, the Passover was always referred to as Easter. No distinction was made. In 1611, only 81 years later, Easter was still considered a correct name for the Passover.

Was God showing us something else in this passage? Something about the pagan celebration of Herod? Perhaps. But that is not necessary for a clear understanding of the text. In 1611, Easter meant Passover in the proper context. Occam’s Razor cuts through the difficult explanations that are so common and gives the simplest solution. At least, let’s start here and leave the more complex studies for advanced lessons.