The Psalm 22 Controversy

02/09/2016 00:30

The Psalm 22 Controversy, part 1 of 4


There seems to be two issues in dealing polemically with Psalm 22. One issue is whether v.16 should read "they pierced" as Christianity claims, or "like a lion" as Judaism claims. The second issue is the question of whether this Psalm is Messianic or not.

We will consider:

Part 1: Intro and Rabbinic Writings
Part 2: Rabbinic Writings (continued)
Part 3: Various Scholars
Part 4: Various Scholars (continued)

In this essay we will deal with both issues although, I will state right away that we should not let ourselves get veered off course by getting bogged down in the first issue because the Psalm so clearly speaks of crucifixion and because we have rabbinic writings that affirm that the Psalm is indeed Messianic.

Maybe it is just me but when I think of a lion I think of teeth, especially if a lion were in close proximity to my hands and feet. What else could "like a lion at my hands and feet" mean but that there is a grave danger of being bitten by the lion, of being pierced by its teeth? Then again it is not just me because Rashi agrees; in his commentary on Psalm 22:16 he writes, "[someone who's] hands and feet are as if they had been mangled in a lion's mouth."

The more I study this issue, the more I think that the translation of "pierced" instead of "like a lion" is a dynamic translation. A formal translation is a word for word translation which means that every word will be translated even if it makes it a little difficult to understand the meaning. A dynamic translation is a thought for thought translation which means that the translator is interested in making the sense of the writing clear even if every word is not necessarily translated. It seems that to say "pierced" is to take the intention of the text and defining it, like the Targums, which paraphrase the Scripture.

Authoritative Jewish writings affirm that the ancient sages interpreted Psalm 22 as a messianic Psalm and affirm the rendering of "pierced." Let us begin by considering a change in translation from "they are" to "[they maul]."

The 1917 translation by the Jewish Publication Society reads,

Like a lion, they are at my hands and my feet.1

The 1985 translation by the Jewish Publication Society reads,

like lions [they maul] my hands and feet.2

Some of the objections to a messianic application, to Jesus, of Psalm 22 are the following from an anti-missionary organization:

If J.c [Jesus Christ] was sinless it is not possible that this prophecy is about him for it says in verse seven 'But I am a worm, less than human, scorned by men, despised by people.'3

From Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan:

'Like a lion' in Hebrew is KeAri. The fundamentalist Christian interpretation actually changed the spelling of the word from KeAri to Kari. If one then totally ignores the Hebrew grammar, one can twist this to mean 'He gouged me.'
Then, as in the King James' Version, they make this verse read 'they pierced my hands and feet.' However, this bears no relation to the original meaning of the verse. Even with the change in spelling, it is a forced translation_Furthermore there is absolutely no evidence that this Psalm is speaking of the Messiah.

Now let us consider the facts of the matter.


Rabbinic Writings:

Pesikta Rabbati 36:1-2,

(At the time of the Messiah's creation), the Holy One, blessed be He, will tell him in detail what will befall him: There are souls that have been put away with thee under My throne, and it is their sins which will bend thee down under a yoke of iron and make thee like a calf whose eyes grow dim with suffering_
During the seven-year period preceding the coming of the son of David, iron beams will be brought and loaded upon his neck until the Messiah's body is bent low_It was because of the ordeal of the son of David that David wept, saying, My strength is dried up like a potsherd (Psalm 22:16).

  1. 1. The Holy Scriptures, According to the Masoretic Text; A New Translation with the Aid of Previous Versions and with Constant Consultation of Jewish Authorities (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1917)
  2. 2. Tanakh, The Holy Scriptures; The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text (Philadelphia, New York and Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985)
  3. 3. Project Truth, Response to Christian Missionaries
  4. 4. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Real Messiah? A Jewish Response to Missionaries (New York: National Conference of Synagogue Youth, 1976, New edition, 1985), p. 68


The Psalm 22 Controversy, part 2 of 4

Rabbinic Writings:

Pesikta Rabbati 37:1,

In the month of Nisan, in the year when the Messiah appears, the Patriarchs will ask him whether he is displeased with Israel because of the affliction he endured on their account. The Messiah will reply that all he did was for the sake of the Patriarchs and the children of Israel, that they might benefit from God's abundant goodness. Then God will cloak the Messiah in something of the splendor of His own glory_

The Patriarchs will arise and say to the Messiah: Ephraim, our true Messiah, even though we are thy forebears, thou art greater than we because thou didst suffer for the iniquities of our children, and terrible ordeals befell thee, such ordeal as did not befall earlier generations or later ones; for the sake of Israel thou didst become a laughingstock and a derision among the nations of the earth; and didst sit in darkness, in thick darkness, and thine eyes saw no light, and thy skin cleaved to thy bones, and thy body was as dry as a piece of wood; and thine eyes grew dim from fasting, and thy strength was dried up like a potsherd-all these afflictions on account of the iniquities of our children(1), all these because of thy desire to have our children benefit by that goodness which the Holy One, blessed be He, will bestow in abundance upon Israel.

Yet it may be because of the anguish which thou didst greatly suffer on their account-for thine enemies put thee in prison-that thou art displeased with them!_the Holy One, blessed be He, will lift the Messiah up to the heaven of heavens, and will cloak him in something of the splendor of His own glory_

He will be told: Ephraim, our true Messiah, be thou judge of these and do with them what thy soul desires_he will be shut up in prison, a time when the nations of the world will gnash their teeth at him every day, wink their eyes at one another in derision of him, nod their heads at him in contempt, open wide their lips to guffaw, as is said All they that see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head (Ps. 22:8);

My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my throat; and thou layest me in the dust of death (Ps. 22:16). Moreover, they will roar over him like lions, as is said They open wide their mouth against me, as a ravening and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is become like wax; it is melted in mine inmost parts (Ps. 22:14-15).

Footnote: (1) "_when Israel's sins exceeded all bounds, God first vented His wrath on the sticks and stones of the Temple (see Piska 2.6; Mteh 62:4 and 79:3; Tanhuma, Tazri'a, end of 9 [ed. Buber, 13]; Lam. Rabbah B 4:II, p. 148). It may be that after the Temple's destruction the Messiah, by the same token, became a divine whipping boy upon whom God's wrath was vented."

Ephraim in this case refers to a name used for the Messiah son of Joseph.
Proof that Psalm 22 (and Isaiah 53) is generally applied to the Messiah.

Yalkut Shimoni 687,

Many dogs have encompassed me-this refers to Haman's sons. The assembly of the wicked have enclosed me-this refers to Ahasuerus and his crowd. 'Kaari' my hands and my feet-Rabbi Nehemiah says, 'They pierced my hands and my feet in the presence of Ahasuerus.'

Talmud-Sukkah 52a,

What is the cause of the mourning [mentioned in the last cited verse]?(1)-R. Dosa and the Rabbis differ on the point. One explained, The cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph,(2) and the other explained, The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination. It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son;(3) but according to him who explains the cause to be the slaying of the Evil Inclination, is this [it may be objected] an occasion for mourning? Is it not rather an occasion for rejoicing?"

Footnotes: (1) Zech. XII, 12

(2) The precursor of the Messiah ben David, the herald of the true Messianic age (3) Zech. XII, 10

Midrash on Psalm 22,

For dogs have compassed me (Psalm 22:17) - that is, Haman's sons have compassed me; the assembly of the wicked have enclosed me (ibid.)-that is, Haman's hosts have enclosed me. My hands and my feet they made repulsive (1) (Psalm 22:17). According to R. Judah, Esther said: 'Though Haman's sons practiced sorcery on me so that in the sight of Ahaseurus my hands and feet were repulsive, yet a miracle was wrought for me, and my hands and my feet were made to shine like sapphires.'
But R. Nehemiah said: The verse is to be read At my hands and my feet he was favored with blessing (2), and conveys much the same meaning as with the verse 'The Lord hath blessed thee at my foot' (Gen 30:30). Thus Esther meant: Because of the work of my hands, blessing came to Ahaseurus.

Footnotes: (1) The word ka'ari, rendered in JV 'like a lion,' and in AV 'They pierced,' is taken by R. Judah to be derived from k'ar, 'ugly, repulsive.'
(2) Apparently, R. Nehemiah takes ka'ari as related to the Greek chara, 'favor,' or 'blessing.'

Edward M. Cook, The Psalms Targum: An English Translation Psalm 22:17,

Because the wicked have surrounded me, who are like many dogs; a gathering of evildoers has hemmed me in, biting my hands and feet like a lion.

  1. 1. Midrash on Psalm 22, William Braude, trans. (Yale University Press)


The Psalm 22 Controversy, part 3 of 4


Various Scholars:

Dr. Gleason L. Archer:

we find in the MT [Masoretic Text] of Psalm 22:17 (16 Eng.) the strange phrase 'like the lion my hands and my feet' (kaari yaday we raglay) in a context that reads 'dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men have encircled me-like the lion my hands and my feet!' This really makes no sense, for lions do not surround the feet of their victims. Rather, they pounce on them and bite them through with their teeth. Furthermore, this spelling of the word 'lion' (ari) is rendered more doubtful by the fact that in v.13 (14MT) the word 'lion' appears in the normal way 'aryeh. It is most unlikely that the author would have used two different spellings of the same word within three verses of each other. Far more likely is the reading supported by most of the versions: ka'ru (They [i.e. the dogs or evildoers] have pierced' my hands and my feet). This involves merely reading the final letter yodh as a waw, which would make it the past tense of a third person plural verb. This is apparently what the LXX read, for oryxan ('they have bored through') reflects a karu from the verb kur ('pierce, dig through'). The Vulgate conforms to this with foderunt ('They have dug through'). The Syriac Peshitta has baz'w, which means 'they have pierced/penetrated.' Probably the ' (aleph) in ka'ru represents a mere vowel lengthener that occasionally appears in the Hasmonean manuscripts such as 1QIsa and the sectarian literature of the second century B.C.1

Martin Abegg Jr., Peter Flint and Eugene Ulrich,

Psalm 22 is a favorite among Christians since it is often linked in the New Testament with the suffering and death of Jesus. A well-known and controversial reading is found in verse 16, where the Masoretic text has 'Like a lion are my hands and feet,' whereas the Septuagint has 'They have pierced my hands and feet.' Among the scrolls the reading in question is found only in the Psalms scroll found at Nahal Hever (abbreviated 5/6HevPs), which reads, 'They have pierced my hands and my feet'!2

Mitchell Dahood; Professor of Ugaritic Language and Literature at The Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome,

My strength is dried up like a potsherd, my tongue sticks to my jaws, And they put me upon the mud of Death. For dogs have surrounded me, a pack of evildoers encircle me, Piercing my hands and my feet.

Footnote: "Piercing my hands. Much-contested k'ry is here tentatively analyzed as an infinitive absolute from kry, 'to dig,' with the archaic ending -i, as in Gen. xxx 8, xlix 11; Exod xv 6. See W.L. Moran in The Bible and the Ancient Near East: Essays in Honor of William Foxwell Albright, ed. G.E. Wright (New York, 1961), p. 62; J.M. Sola-Sole, L'infinitif semitique (Paris, 1961), pg. 185b. The aleph would be intrusive as, e.g., in Prov xxiv 7, r'mwt for rmwt."3

Rev. Dr. A. Cohen, M.A., Ph.D., D.H.L., footnotes on Psalm 22:17 (22:16 in some Bibles),

like a lion, they are at my hands and my feet. The Hebrew is difficult, there being nothing to correspond with they are at. The Targum has 'biting like a lion my hands and feet.' A.V. and R. V. render they pierce, adopting the reading of the LXX [Septuagint], to accord with the Christological interpretation of the Psalm. Some Hebrew MSS. have vav instead of yod as the final letter of karri, and it suggests that the Targum offers guidance to the original text. This may have had both a verb and like a lion which were very similar in spelling. The sense would than be: 'like a lion they gnawed my hands and my feet.'4

Ibn Ezra on Zechariah 12 & 13,

And the heathen will look unto me to see what I will do to those who have pierced messiah, the son of Joseph.

Edersheim, Vol. 2, p. 434,

The earliest Talmudic reference to this Second Messiah (son of Joseph) dates from the Third century of our era, and contains the strange and almost blasphemous notices that the prophecy of Zechariah concerning the mourning for him whom they have pierced, refer to Messiah the son of Joseph, who would be killed in the war of Gog and Magog, and, that, when Messiah the son of David, saw it He asked life of God, who gave it to Him, as it is written in Psa. 2: 'Ask Me and I will give Thee,' upon which God informed the messiah that His Father David had already asked and obtained this for him according to Psalm 21:4-Sukka (52, a. and b)

Dr. James D. Price,

The Dead Sea Scrolls have a vav instead of a yod at the end of the contested word, ka'aru. The strength of the anti-missionary argument against the Dead Sea Scroll reading of pierced arrives in the point that the word contains an aleph, which according to Sigal, 'is not part of the root.' Dr. James D. Price, professor of Hebrew and the Old Testament at the Temple Baptist Seminary, however, states: 'Sigal gave the impression that the presence of the Aleph in the word 'ka'aru' prevented it from being derived from a Hebrew root which has no Aleph.

But the words 'ka'aru' and 'karu' being variant forms of the same verb (as explained by the lexicographers) is demonstrated by the following Hebrew words that have the same kind of middle Aleph and the same kind of relationship: bo'r, bor (pit, cistern) from the verb bur (dig); da'g, dag (fish) from the verb dug (fish for); la't, lat (secrecy) from the verb lut (be secret); m'um, mum (blemish); n'od, nod (skin); q'am, qam (he arose); ra'sh, rash (poor) from the verb rush (be poor); sh'at (contempt) from the verb shut (treat with contempt); also in Aramaic, da'er (dweller) from the verb dur (dwell); and qa'em (riser) from the verb qum (he arose).

These examples are sufficient to demonstrate that a middle Aleph frequently occurs in words and forms derived from middle Waw verbs as in this passage. His argument is convincing only to those who know little or nothing about Hebrew.5

  1. 1. Dr. Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p. 37,
  2. 2. Martin Abegg Jr. and Peter Flint and Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, p. 519
  3. 3. Mitchell Dahood, Psalms 1-50, The Anchor Bible, p. 137, trans. Psalm 22:16-17
  4. 4. Rev. Dr. A. Cohen, M.A., Ph.D., D.H.L., The Psalms (New York: The Soncino Press, 1985), p. 64
  5. 5. James D. Price, Ph. D. Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament Temple Baptist Seminary, Response To A Skeptic, Chazak!


The Psalm 22 Controversy, part 4 of 4

Various Scholars:

Risto Santala,

But what is meant by the phrase 'until Shilo comes'? Jewish scholars find meanings for the Hebrew word 'Shilo' which are unknown to Christian Theology. Some see in it the root shâlêv which means 'peaceable,' and from that can then be derived shalvâh, 'peace.' In other words, the Messiah is the Prince of Peace. Some scholars maintain that shilo in its original form was moshlô, 'their ruler,' making the Messiah the Ruler of the Nations. RaSHI-the leading OT and Talmudic exegete of the Middle Ages who also had a particular affection for the Targums-says of Shilo that, 'He is the Messiah-King and his (shelo) is sovereign power.

This is how Onqelos understood the matter. The Midrash explains it with the words shai loh, 'gifts for him,' because Ps. 76:12 says, 'Let them bring gifts to the One to be feared.'' [Mikraoth Gedoloth, corresponding section] And so the idea of the 'one to be feared,' MORAH, also became an epithet for the Messiah. The Gospels tell us here and there that those who heard Jesus were overcome with great fear. [Luke 5:26, 7:16, 8:25 and 37]1

Mark Eastman, M.D. and Chuck Smith,

The rabbis who wrote the Talmud and the Midrash interpret this entire passage as Messianic…In the Yakult Shimoni (#687), a commentary on Psalm 22 we read: ''Many dogs have surrounded me', this refers to Haman's sons. 'The assembly of the wicked have enclosed me. They pierced my hands and feet.' Rabbi Nehemiah says; 'They pierced my hands and feet in the presence of Ahasuerus.'' This commentary shows that the reading 'pierced' was accepted by rabbis of that time. Psalm 22 is also applied to the Messiah in the Midrash Pesikta Rabbati2 (Piska chapter 36:1-2)…

'The Patriarchs will one day rise again in the month of Nisan and will say to the Messiah: 'Ephraim, our righteous Messiah, although we are your ancestors, you are nevertheless greater than we, for you have borne the sins of our children, as it is written: 'Surely he has borne our diseases and carried our sorrows; yet we regarded him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our sins, bruised for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that makes us well, and through his wounds we are healed.'

Heavy oppressions have been imposed upon you, as it is written: 'As a result of oppression and judgement he was taken away; but in his day, who considered that he was torn from the land of the living because of the transgressions of my people?' [A reference to the vicarious death of the Messiah] You have been a laughing stock and a derision among the peoples of the world, and because of you they jeered at Israel, as it is written, You have dwelt in darkness and in gloominess, and your eyes have not seen light, your skin was cleaving to your bones, and your body withered like wood. Your eyes become hollow from fasting, and your strength was dried-up like a potsherd, as it is written [reference to Psalm 22:15-16]. All this happened because of the sins of our children, as it is written: 'And Jehovah laid on him the iniquities of us all.'3

David H. Stern:

The Septuagint has: 'They pierced my hands and feet,' implying the Hebrew word karu in its source text. The Masoretic Hebrew text, accepted as standard in traditional Judaism, has k'ari, and the line reads, 'Like a lion, my hands and my feet.'4

The Masoretic text may very well be accepted as standard in traditional Judaism, however, it is a much more recent manuscript than the one used by the translators of the Septuagint. The Masoretic text is dated circa 800-1000 AD. We do not know the date of the manuscripts used by the translators of the Septuagint but we know that they are at the very least about one thousand two hundred years older than the Masoretic. The translation of the Septuagint took place circa 285-246 BC. I am not bringing into question whether the Masoretic text is an accurate and reliable document. I am merle pointing out that there is as much evidence to prove that the text used to translate the Septuagint is equally accurate and reliable.

Moishe Rosen wrote:

The reference to pierced hands and feet is quite peculiar since that practice did not characterize any form of punishment prescribed in the Torah or practice in ancient Israel or any surrounding nations of the time. Only the later Roman savagery of nailing a man to a cross comes to mind as one reads David's words here. However, some of the words themselves are in dispute.

The early Greek, Syriac, and Latin translation of the Scriptures all read as we have it above ("They pierced my hands and feet"). The Masoretic text of the Hebrew, on the other hand, prefers "like a lion" in place of "they have pierced." This produces the unlikely reading, "Like a lion my hands and feet" which is constructed to mean "like a lion they were at my hands and feet."

We can probably best understand what happened when we realize that, in Hebrew, the phrase "they have pierced" is kaaru while "like a lion" is kaari. The words are identical except that "pierced" ends with the Hebrew letter vav and "lion" with yod. Vav and yod are similar in form, and a scribe might easily have changed the text by inscribing a yod and failing to attach a vertical descending line so that it would become a vav. The evidence suggests that this may be what happened since the Greek version of the Scriptures, rendered in Egypt before the time of Jesus, preserves the reading of "pierced."5

James C. VanderKam and Peter W. Flint note:

…in the Psalm scroll found at Nahal Hever (5/6HevPs), which is textually very close to the Masoretic Text. In line 12 of column 10 we read: "They have pierced my hands and my feet"! For the crucial word [Hebrew font in original] the Hebrew form is grammatically difficult; but it is clearly a verb, not a noun and means they have bored or they have dug or they have pierced.6

  1. 1. Risto Santala, Translated from Finnish by William Kinnaird, 1992, The Messiah in the Old Testament in the Light of Rabbinical Writings-ch. The Messiah Who Will Rule the Nations
  2. 2. Compiled in the ninth century, but based on writings from Talmudic times from 200 BCE-400 CE
  3. 3. Mark Eastman, M.D. and Chuck Smith, The Search for Messiah (Co-published by Joy Publishing, Fountain Valley, CA. and The Word for Today, Costa Mesa, CA., 1996), pp. 32-33 & 21
  4. 4. Translated by David H. Stern, Complete Jewish Bible (Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., Clarksville, Maryland, 1998), p. Introduction xxix
  5. 5. Moishe Rosen, Y'shua the Jewish Way to Say Jesus ( The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1982), pp. 45-46
  6. 6. James C. VanderKam and Peter W. Flint, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 127