Today is celebrated by many Christian denominations around the world in commemoration of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. In the English speaking lands, the day is known by the rather unexpected name of “Good Friday.” Good? What is good about such a day? I recall when I was in the 7th grade a Jewish friend asking, “why is it called “good” if it is the day that Jesus was killed?” Good question.
The etymology of the English name “Good Friday” is unclear and is the subject of much discussion and dispute. In other European languages the day is know variously as “Sad Friday,” (German) which is easily understood, “Passion Friday,” (Irish, Russian) where passion is used in the sense of suffering, also readily understood. In most romance languages, the day is termed “Holy Friday,” (French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian) which is once again fairly obvious. And in many Slavic languages, it is known as “Great Friday,” (Czech, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, and Slovenian) with the sense of being an important day. And all of these descriptors makes good sense. So why do English speakers call the day “Good?”
One explanation is that “Good” is simply a derivative of “God.” This etymological heritage is attested to in the familiar phrase “good-bye.” “Good-bye” originated as “God be with you,” said to departing travelers in a time when travel was always perilous. (“Good-bye” has a well documented history and can be traced from its first recorded written use in 1573 in a letter from Gabriel Harvey [as “godbwye”] to earlier forms such as “God be wy ye” and others.) Thus “Good Friday” would have come from “God Friday,” and that seems plain enough.
Other sources argue that “Good” in this context is simply used in the sense of “Holy.” The American Heritage Dictionary offers this explanation with confidence, admitting no other opinion, stating “ETYMOLOGY: From good, pious, holy (obsolete.)” Yet it is interesting that in the extensive entry for the word “good” in that same dictionary, there is not a single reference to its use meaning either “holy” or “pious!” And there are not abundant, unambiguous examples of such usage. Shakespeare uses “good father” for churchmen in many of his plays, but he uses “good” so often to describe so many different people in so many different stations that it is impossible to be sure he means “holy” or “pious” when addressing churchmen. So this explanation seems under-supported, though plausible.
Still others claim that the day is “Good Friday” because The Messiah suffered and died for the good of humankind. Though the day was dreadful, yet its result was good, runs this argument.
The explanation for the name “Good Friday” is therefore unresolved and, given the lack of a “paper trail,” is likely to remain so. Regardless of the name’s origins, it remains an crucial day in the calendars of Christendom.
Have a good Friday this Good Friday, and have a lovely Easter weekend as well, howsoever you frame your beliefs!
(The etymology of the name “Easter” is even more complex, and just about as much disputed. The Venerable Bede, our most extensive source for early English Church history explained that the name derived from the name of an Anglo-Saxon pagan goddess.)
Flower Mound, Texas
“And it was the third hour, and they crucified him.”
— Mark 15:25