Between roughly 250 and 130 B.C., Greek-speaking Jews in the diaspora communities of the Eastern Mediterranean produced the translations of the Sacred Scriptures collectively known as the Septuagint, which are still used by many of the Eastern churches to this day. These translations seem to have been made mostly in Egypt, but were not the result of a unitary project, and vary considerably from each other in many ways. The translators regarded a number of Hebrew and Aramaic words as technical terms which were best left untranslated, one of which was the Hebrew noun “pesach” (derived from the verb “pāsach – to pass over”), the name of both the feast of Passover and the sacrifice offered during the feast. In the Greek version of the Pentateuch, this word appears 20 times in a transcribed form derived from Aramaic, “paskha”.
This usage carries over into the Gospels, which were of course written in Greek, and all four of the Evangelists use it in connection with the narratives of the Lord’s Passion, which took place at Passover. But even before then, St Paul had used it in the sense of “the sacrifice offered at Passover”, when he writes in 1 Corinthians 5, 7, “τὸ Πάσχα ἡμῶν ἐτύθη Χριστός”, which we can translate most literally as “Christ was sacrificed as our Passover sacrifice.”
Since Passover was the time of Christ’s Passion, i.e. suffering, early Greek-speaking Christians very naturally associated the name of the feast, Paskha, with the verb “paskhein – to suffer.” This is attested in the very first surviving sermon on Easter, preached by St Melito, bishop of Sardis in the mid-2nd century. “What is the Pascha? Its name is called from its characteristic (or “that which happened on it”); from ‘to suffer’ (τὸ παθεῖν) comes ‘suffering’ (τὸ πάσχειν). Learn, then, who is the One who suffers…” (parag. 46)
(An Egyptian papyrus of the 4th century, the lower part of which has the beginning of St Melito’s sermon on Easter; Chester Beatty Library BP XII, f.13v. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Following the lead of their Greek predecessors, the anonymous Latin translators of the New Testament simply kept the word as a transcription, “Pascha”, which is the origin of the word for Easter in the Romance languages. (Ital. “Pascua”, Fr. “Pâques”, etc.) By the time St Jerome revised the Latin text of the Gospels in the 380s, this usage had become too well established to change, and so he left the word “Pascha” alone.
However, Jerome was perfectly well aware of the fact that the association of “Pascha – Passover” and “paskhein – to suffer” was, as it were, a folk etymology based on a phonetic coincidence. In his commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew, he says, “The word ‘pascha’, which is pronounced ‘phase’ in Hebrew, does not come from ‘passion’, as most people think, but from ‘Passover’, since the destroying angel, seeing the blood on the doors of the Israelites, passed over them and did not slay them.” (cit. Ex. 12; Lib. 4 in Matt. 26, 2; PL 24, 190C) Therefore, in his Old Testament translations made directly from Hebrew into Latin, he replaces the transcription “pascha” with “phase.”
He must have also realized that this would sounds strange to Latin speakers who were used to hearing the word “pascha”, and so in the very first occurrence of it in Exodus 12, 11, he also adds an explanatory note, which is still part of the Vulgate. “est enim Phase (id est, transitus) Domini. – for it is the ‘phase’, (that is, ‘the passing-over’) of the Lord.” In the traditional liturgy of Good Friday, both versions, “phase” and “pascha”, still occur, the former in the Epistle, Exodus 12, 1-11, and the second in the reading of the Passion of St John.