Psalm 22 does not speak of death by crucifixion. In fact, the King James translators changed the words of verse 16 to speak of “piercing” the sufferer’s hands and feet, whereas the Hebrew text actually says, “Like a lion they are at my hands and feet.”
It is interesting to note that verse 16 is not quoted in the New Testament even though other verses from Psalm 22 are cited in the Gospels. This means that verse 16 was not the primary verse on which the New Testament authors focused. As to the allegation that the King James translators intentionally changed the meaning of the Hebrew text, their translation (“they pierced my hands and feet” versus “like a lion [they are at] my hands and feet”) actually reflects an ancient Jewish interpretation along with some important variations in the medieval Masoretic manuscripts. In other words, it’s as much of a Jewish issue as it is a Christian one! In any case, there really is no problem. With either rendering, the imagery is one of extreme bodily violence done to the sufferer’s hands and feet, corresponding to the realities of crucifixion.
Psalm 22 is the great psalm of the righteous sufferer, publicly mocked and shamed, brought down to the jaws of death in the midst of terrible suffering and humiliation, and miraculously delivered by God, to the praise of his name (see above, 4.24). It was quoted in the Gospels with reference to the Messiah’s crucifixion (see Matt. 27:35 KJV; John 19:24). In fact, Jesus himself drew our attention to Psalm 22 while hanging on the cross, using the familiar words of verse 1 in his prayer to his heavenly Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46 and parallels).
Interestingly, the very verse that is the subject of so much controversy (namely, verse 16) is a verse that the New Testament never quotes. Not once! Still, the charge is made that later Christian translators—specifically, the translators of the King James Version, the most influential and widely used English version in history—intentionally altered the meaning of the Hebrew text of this verse, introducing the word “pierced” in place of the Hebrew “like a lion.” To quote anti-missionary rabbi Tovia Singer once again:
Needless to say, the phrase “they pierced my hands and my feet” is a Christian contrivance that appears nowhere in the Jewish scriptures.
Bear in mind, this stunning mistranslation in the 22nd Psalm did not occur because Christian translators were unaware of the correct meaning of this Hebrew word. Clearly, this was not the case.242
Rabbi Singer does, however, note that this alleged “Christian contrivance,” this so-called stunning mistranslation, does not go back to the New Testament itself. He asserts,
It must be noted that the authors of the New Testament were not responsible for inserting the word “pierced” into the text of Psalm 22:17. This verse was undoubtedly tampered with years after the Christian canon was completed.
… The insertion of the word “pierced” into the last clause of this verse is a not-too-ingenious Christian interpolation that was created by deliberately mistranslating the Hebrew word kaari [the word found in Psalm 22:16(17) in most Masoretic manuscripts]… as “pierced.”243
Once again, Rabbi Singer is typical of the anti-missionaries, who not only take issue with quotations of Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament and with later Christian translations of the Bible but also claim that there has been willful mistranslation and premeditated, purposeful duplicity—accusations that are quite serious indeed.244 How should we respond to such charges? It is best to answer these charges in a dispassionate and calm spirit, simply weighing the evidence and asking the question, What is the verdict of honest, nonbiased scholarship? Following this method, it will quickly be seen that there is no substance to the anti-missionary polemic here.
We must also bear in mind that there is actually no need to try to defend or vindicate the translators of the King James Version or other Christian versions. The truth of the New Testament surely doesn’t rise or fall on the accuracy of translations completed more than fifteen hundred years later! That would be like questioning the reliability of the Hebrew Bible based on an alleged mistranslation of a particular passage made by a panel of rabbis centuries later. How does a mistranslation by later translators affect the accuracy or reliability of the original? Obviously, it does not.
“But that’s where I differ,” you say. “This type of falsification is common in Christianity. It’s the only way the New Testament authors can support their case, and it’s the only way later translators can support the whole argument.”
Hardly! The reason so many scholars, intellectuals, educated Jews, and thinking people of all faiths have put their faith in Jesus the Messiah is because the truth about Yeshua can withstand every kind of scholastic or emotional attack. In keeping with this, we will clearly demonstrate (see vol. 4, 5.1–5.5) that the New Testament authors showed great understanding and sensitivity in their use of the Tanakh. As for the honesty and integrity of later translators, I have no question that Christian translators display a Christian bias, while Jewish translators display a Jewish bias. It’s easy to document this practice on numerous occasions, and it has nothing to do with dishonesty or lack of integrity. Rather, it has to do with human beings trying to grapple honestly with textual and translation difficulties. Thus, if manuscript evidence for a certain reading is equally divided between two possible variants, and one reading is in harmony with “Christian” interpretation and the other reading is in harmony with “Jewish” interpretation, it is quite natural for the decision of the translators to reflect their particular religious background.
As for 22:16, almost all of the standard medieval Hebrew manuscripts (known as Masoretic) read kaʾari, followed by the words “my hands and my feet.” According to Rashi, the meaning is “as though they are crushed in a lion’s mouth,” while the commentary of Metsudat David states, “They crush my hands and my feet as the lion which crushes the bones of the prey in its mouth.” Thus, the imagery is clear: These lions are not licking the psalmist’s feet! They are tearing and ripping at them.245 Given the metaphorical language of the surrounding verses (cf. vv. 12–21[13–22]), this vivid image of mauling lions graphically conveys the great physical agony of the sufferer. Would this in any way contradict the picture of a crucified victim, his bones out of joint, mockers surrounding him and jeering at him, his garments stripped off of him and divided among his enemies, his feet and hands torn with nails, and his body hung on pieces of wood?246
“But you’re avoiding something here,” you argue. “Where did the King James translators come up with this idea of ‘piercing’ the hands and feet? That’s not what the Hebrew says.”
Actually, the Septuagint, the oldest existing Jewish translation of the Tanakh, was the first to translate the Hebrew as “they pierced my hands and feet” (using the verb oruxan in Greek), followed by the Syriac Peshitta version two or three centuries later (rendering with bazʾu). Not only so, but the oldest Hebrew copy of the Psalms we possess (from the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating to the century before Yeshua) reads the verb in this verse as kaʾaru (not kaʾari, “like a lion”),247 a reading also found in about a dozen medieval Masoretic manuscripts—recognized as the authoritative texts in traditional Jewish thought—where instead of kaʾari (found in almost all other Masoretic manuscripts) the texts say either kaʾaru or karu.248 (Hebrew scholars believe this comes from a root meaning “to dig out” or “to bore through.” ) So, the oldest Jewish translation (the Septuagint) translates “they pierced”; the oldest Jewish manuscript (from the Dead Sea Scrolls) reads kaʾaru, not kaʾari; and several Masoretic manuscripts read kaʾaru or karu rather than kaʾari. This is not a Christian fabrication. I have copies of the manuscript evidence in front of my eyes as I write these words.249
There is also an interesting notation made by the Masoretic scholars in the margin to Isaiah 38:13, where the Hebrew word kaʾari, “like a lion,” also occurs—the only other time in the Tanakh that kaʾari is found with the preposition k–, “like,” joined to this form of the word.250 In this instance, however, kaʾari occurs with a verb explaining the lion’s activity (“break”), whereas in Psalm 22:16 the meaning is ambiguous. As noted by Franz Delitzsch, “Perceiving this, the Masora [i.e., the marginal system of notation of the Masoretic scholars to the Hebrew biblical text] on Isaiah 38:13 observes, that kʾry in the two passages in which it occurs (Ps. 22:17, Isa. 38:13), occurs in two different meanings [Aramaic lyshny btry], just as the Midrash then also understands kʾry in the Psalm as a verb used of marking with conjuring, magic characters.”251 So, the Masoretes indicated that kʾry in Psalm 22 was to be understood differently than kʾry in Isaiah 38, where it certainly meant “like a lion.”
In light of this, Singer’s charges of deliberate and deceitful alteration of the text by Christians become all the more outrageous. Listen again to his words:
Notice that when the original words of the Psalmist are read, any allusion to a crucifixion disappears. The insertion of the word “pierced” into the last clause of this verse is a not-too-ingenious Christian interpolation that was created by deliberately mistranslating the Hebrew word kaari… as “pierced.” The word kaari, however, does not mean “pierced,” it means “like a lion.” The end of Psalm 22:17, therefore, properly reads “like a lion they are at my hands and my feet.” Had King David wished to write the word “pierced,” he would never use the Hebrew word kaari. Instead, he would have written either daqar or ratza, which are common Hebrew words in the Jewish scriptures. Needless to say, the phrase “they pierced my hands and my feet” is a Christian contrivance that appears nowhere in the Jewish scriptures.
Bear in mind, this stunning mistranslation in the 22nd Psalm did not occur because Christian translators were unaware of the correct meaning of this Hebrew word. Clearly, this was not the case.252
In reality, there is no stunning mistranslation, no Christian interpolation, no Christian contrivance to be found. Rather, the Christian translations vilified by the anti-missionaries simply reflect an extremely honest and valid attempt to accurately translate the Hebrew text based on ancient Jewish manuscripts and translations. Those are the facts.
242 Singer, <http://www.outreachjudaism.org/like-a-lion.htm#4ret>
244 As pointed out in the very useful Internet article mentioned in n. 241, above, Singer is especially vitriolic in his attacks. The following verbiage is noted from Singer’s article on Psalm 22 (there is some overlap here with my citations in the text, but I list them again in full for impact: “1. Christian translators rewrote the words of King David; 2. The insertion of the word ‘pierced’ into the last clause of this verse is a not-too-ingenious Christian interpolation that was created by deliberately mistranslating the Hebrew word kaari as ‘pierced’; 3. the phrase ‘they pierced my hands and my feet’ is a Christian contrivance that appears nowhere in the Jewish scriptures. 4. …this stunning mistranslation in the 22nd Psalm … 5. This verse was undoubtedly tampered with years after the Christian canon was completed. 6. The Bible tampering … 7. Why then did [the Christian translators] specifically target Psalm 22 for such Bible tampering? 8. This church revision of the 22nd Psalm … 9. The church, therefore, did not hesitate to tamper with the words of the 22nd Psalm.…10… . the stunning mistranslation in this chapter …” Sadly, such charges expose the serious lack of scholarship that is rampant in Rabbi Singer’s articles and tapes, as can be readily seen by comparing his comments with those of contemporary Jewish and Christian scholars who have written commentaries on Psalm 22.
245 It should be noted that the reading kaʾari, “like a lion,” is not without problems, since there is no verb in this clause. In other words, the Hebrew literally reads, “like a lion my hands and feet,” necessitating the addition of the words “they are at” in most contemporary Jewish translations. Thus, the NJPSV translates, “Like lions [they maul] my hands and feet” (with reference to Rashi and Isaiah 38:13 in the footnote). Cf. Rozenberg and Zlotowitz, The Book of Psalms, 122, 127. Stone translates, “Like [the prey of] a lion are my hands and my feet.”
246 This observation undermines the claim of Rabbi Singer that “when the original words of the Psalmist are read, any allusion to a crucifixion disappears” (<http://www.outreachjudaism.org/like-a-lion.htm#4ret>).
247 Cf. Martin Abegg Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich, eds. and trans., The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible: The Oldest Known Bible (San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1999), 519: “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’!”
248 In contrast with this, only one Masoretic manuscript reads kaʾaryeh (“like a lion”; ʾaryeh is a variant spelling for ʾari, “lion”). Delitzsch (Psalms, 1039) points out that the Masoretic scholars were aware of a textual variation in two occurrences of this same form, and he notes that “perceiving this [difficulty of the translation ‘like a lion’ in the context], the Masora on Isa 38:13 observes, that kʾari in the two passages in which it occurs (Ps. 22:17, Isa. 38:13), occurs in two different meanings, just as the Midrash then also undestands kʾri in the Psalm as a verb used of marking with conjuring, magic characters.”
249 The exact evidence as documented in the standard edition of Kennicot and de Rossi lists seven Masoretic manuscripts reading kʾrw, while three other manuscripts have the reading krw in the margins. It has also been pointed out by some scholars that the Hebrew word used for “lion” in Psalm 22:13 is the more common ʾaryeh, making it more doubtful that a different form of the word, namely, ʾari, would be used just two verses later. Yet this is what the normative reading in the Masoretic manuscripts would call for.
250 Note that Rashi pointed to this very verse in Isaiah to explain Psalm 22:17.
251 Delitzsch, Psalms, 1039; cf. also Glen Miller, “The Isaiah 7:14 Passage.”
252 Singer, <http://www.outreachjudaism.org/like-a-lion.htm#4ret>, my emphasis. His attack on the Septuagint is perhaps even more remarkable. Cf. the following selections, which either completely contradict the verdict of modern scholarship or drastically overstate the evidence: “It is universally conceded and beyond any question that the rabbis who created the original Septuagint only translated the Five Books of Moses and nothing more” (actually, there was no such thing as a “rabbi” at the time the Torah was translated into Greek). “This undisputed point is well attested to by the Letter of Aristeas, the Talmud, Josephus, the church fathers, and numerous other critical sources” (he fails to note that some of these sources preserve the legendary account of the origins of the Septuagint!). “… even the current Septuagint covering the Five Books of Moses is an almost complete corruption of the original Greek translation that was compiled by the 72 rabbis more than 2,200 years ago for King Ptolemy II of Egypt. … The Septuagint that is currently in our hands—especially the sections that are of the Prophets and Writings—is a Christian work, amended and edited exclusively by Christian hands. There is therefore little wonder that the Septuagint is esteemed in Christendom alone. In fact, in the Greek Orthodox Church, the Septuagint is regarded as Sacred Scripture.” (He closes by noting, “I have addressed the subject of the Septuagint more thoroughly in a previous article entitled ‘A Christian Defends Matthew by Insisting That the Author of the First Gospel Used the Septuagint in His Quote of Isaiah to Support the Virgin Birth.’”) For a detailed introduction to the whole issue of the text’s critical use of the Septuagint and other ancient versions, written by a leading authority in the field (currently a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem), cf. Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2001).
Brown, M. L. (2003). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 3: Messianic prophecy objections (122). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.