In early Christianity, Easter was a much more significant holiday (“holy day”) than Christmas. And words associated with Easter offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of Christian faith.
The word “Easter," for example, along with its modern German synonym (“Ostern”), likely derives from the name of a goddess, “Eostre,” associated with the month of April.
In Greek, Latin and many other Western languages, by contrast, Easter is known as “Pascha,” a word derived from Aramaic. It’s related to the Hebrew “Pesach,” which English speakers know as “Passover,” the Jewish festival commemorating the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. The angel of death, says the Exodus account, “passed over” the Israelites while wreaking deadly havoc on their Egyptian slavemasters. (The original meaning of “pesach” is probably “he passed over.”) We owe the term “passover” to William Tyndale’s early 16th-century translation of the Bible.
The Sunday before Easter is often called “Palm Sunday,” remembering the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem during the last week of his mortal ministry, an event mentioned in all four of the New Testament gospels (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; John 12:12-19). John writes that jubilant crowds laid palm branches down before Jesus that day. Accordingly, faithful Christians of many denominations gather in processions around the world on Palm Sunday, bearing palm (or sometimes other) branches.
The Wednesday prior to Easter is known as “Holy Wednesday.” It recalls the ancient Wednesday before Christ’s death that he spent just over the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem, at the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany. As they sat at table, a woman identified as Mary anointed him with expensive oil. Judas Iscariot was indignant — or, at any rate, feigned indignation — complaining that the oil should have been sold and the proceeds distributed among the poor. (John 12:1-8 suggests that he really wanted the money for himself.) From that moment on, says Matthew 26:6-16, Judas watched for an opportunity to betray Jesus.
Holy Wednesday shouldn’t be confused with Ash Wednesday, the day of fasting that falls 46 days before Easter and marks the beginning of Lent. “Lent” is an abbreviated form of the Old English “len(c)ten,” which meant “spring season.” During 40 days of “fasting” during Lent — the six intervening Sundays are not counted as fast days — faithful believers forgo something that they care about in order to remember Christ’s 40 days of temptation and fasting in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13).
The day after Holy Wednesday ends the Lenten “fast” and is often called “Maundy Thursday.” It memorializes the Last Supper of Jesus and his apostles. The usual explanation for its rather curious name is that “maundy” comes from the Middle English and Old French “mandé,” which, in turn, reflects the “new commandment” (Latin “mandatum novum”) that the Savior gave to his disciples when he washed their feet — that they love one another, as he had loved them (John 13:34-35).
“Good Friday” marks the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Some claim that the term is a corruption of “God Friday.” Most, though, say that the word “good” here means “pious” or “holy.” After all, it designates the most solemn of all days, when Christ gave his life for us on the cross.
Through that act (which members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regard as the culmination of a process that began in the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday evening), Christians believe that Jesus effected the “Atonement,” designed to reconcile imperfect and fallen humanity with a perfectly righteous and holy God. The noun “atonement” and the verb “to atone” seem to have appeared in English during the 1500s, although a related adverbial phrase (“atonen,” in the sense of “in accord,” or, literally, “at one”) has been located around 1300. Once again, Tyndale may deserve the credit here.
The Atonement makes our redemption possible. To “redeem” is to buy something back, to pay off a debt, and the scriptures repeatedly describe Jesus as buying us from our slave master, Satan. We were in bondage to sin but are now free.
On “Holy Saturday,” the apostles were hiding, frightened, wondering what to do, awaiting arrest. Their master was dead. According to very ancient traditions, however, he didn’t linger in the tomb. Instead, he undertook the “Descensus,” a descent into the spirit world that’s also called “the harrowing of hell” (compare 1 Peter 3:19-20; 4:6).
And then came the dawn of that glorious, world-transforming first morning of Easter.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.