Psalm 22: Pierced v. Lion

I am a big fan of Rabbi Tovia Singer. He’s a winsome, intelligent, and charming man and a fabulous teacher. As my Jewish friends would say, he’s a mensch! I’ve not met him in person (yet), but I’ve watched a lot of his teachings online. One thing I love about his style is how he focuses his arguments like a laser-beam on the fundamental issues of a topic. Rather than playing around with secondary issues, Singer grounds his argument to the bedrock premises. Because of that, his teachings have never failed to force me to dig deep and learn new things. And that’s exactly what he’s done with the passage we’ll be looking at today. Singer recognizes Psalm 22:16 as a significant threat to Jewish theology because of its overtly Christological properties and has built his case against it on the two main pillars on which it rests: the accuracy of the English translation, and underneath that, the historical validity of the Septuagint.

In a new video (see below), Rabbi Singer begins building his case against a Christological interpretation of Psalm 22:16 by sharing a controversial theory. He claims that the Hebrews Scriptures were “raped” by the Christian Church in the second century:

The Jewish scriptures, the Hebrew bible—listen very carefully, this is going to be offensive—was raped—I selected that word—was raped by the Church. Not by these innocent, sweet Baptists from Arkansas. These young men and women have no idea this has been done.  It was altered by the Church in order to make it appear Christological. This was done in the second century, a very long time ago.”

Rabbi Tovia Singer

As an example of this claim, Singer points to Psalm 22:16 (22:17 in Jewish bibles) which, in the King James Version says:

For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.

According to Rabbi Singer, this interpretation is an intentional corruption of what the original Hebrew actually says.

The Hebrew Says…

In Psalm 22:16 the author, King David, is describing evil encircling him on every side. Singer points out that its the last three Hebrew words in this verse that are critical: ka’ari yadai v’ragelai. He then helps us define these Hebrew words:

  1. Ka’ari means “like a lion” (The word ari means “lion”)
  2. Yadai means “my hands”
  3. V’ragelai means “my feet”

Thus, says Singer, this phrase is properly translated, “Like a lion [at] my hands and my feet,” and not “they pierced my hands and feet.” Singer’s interpretation doesn’t seem unreasonable to me in context, but it reveals a troublesome discrepancy. Which is it, they pierced or like a lion? And how did we arrive at such different interpretations? Singer offers his theory:

“What did the Church do? It’s mind-blowing. Imagine you’ve got these words ‘like a lion my hands and my feet’ and you’ve got them in Microsoft Word. You select the words ‘like a lion’ so you now have white letters on a blue background. You tap your delete key, they disappear. And then you type in ‘they pierced.’ The text now is made to read ‘they pierced my hands and my feet.’”

Rabbi Tovia Singer

This somewhat scandalous claim leaves us with two important questions. First, what is the correct interpretation of this verse? Secondly, and more importantly, if there is a disagreement among translations, was it, as Singer charges, a willful “raping” of the original Hebrew text? If so, this would open a tremendous can of worms. We would need to ask what other passages in the Christian Old Testament (OT) are the product of textual corruption.

Scriptural data

Before we get too far down the road, I think it’s important to take a broad survey of the verse in question. Singer limits his protest to the King James Version of Psalm 22:16, which offers no footnotes or other commentary on its use of the word “pierced.” But the KJV was published in 1611. What do more modern translations say?

New International Version:
“Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce[a] my hands and my feet.”

[a] Dead Sea Scrolls and some manuscripts of the Masoretic Text, Septuagint and Syriac; most manuscripts of the Masoretic Text me, / like a lion
Christian Standard Bible:
“For dogs have surrounded me; a gang of evildoers has closed in on me; they pierced[b] my hands and my feet.”

[b] Some Hb mss, LXX, Syr; other Hb mss read me; like a lion

English Standard Version:
“For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet.”[c]

[c] Some Hebrew manuscripts, Septuagint, Vulgate, Syriac; most Hebrew manuscripts like a lion [they are at] my hands and feet

The newer translations above all acknowledge the alternate interpretations of the Hebrew source in their footnotes. So even if there was some sort of intentional mistranslation in the second century (as Singer asserts and I question), the proverbial cat has been let out of the bag; the record has been updated.

This made me curious whether the New King James Version (NKJV) would add anything to this verse, or leave the original interpretation unfootnoted, as the 1611 KJV did. The 130 translators that produced the NKJV (published in 1982) believed in faithfulness to the original Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew texts including the Dead Sea Scrolls.1 And it turns out they, too, chose to acknowledge this issue in the new translation of this verse:

New King James Version:
“For dogs have surrounded Me; The congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They[d] pierced My hands and My feet”

[d] So with some Heb. mss., LXX, Syr., Vg.; MT Like a lion instead of They pierced

And what about Jewish translations of the Bible? How would they render this verse? It’s interesting that the Orthodox Jewish Bible does not mention the “lion” alternative:

Orthodox Jewish Bible:
“For kelavim have surrounded me; the Adat Mere’im (congregation of evil men) have enclosed me; ka’aru yadai v’ragelai (they pierced my hands and my feet; see Isa 53:5; Zech 12:10 and medieval Hebrew Scripture manuscripts as well as the Targum HaShivim)”

And the Complete Jewish Bible prefers the “lion” interpretation and puts the “pierced” reference in the footnote:

Complete Jewish Bible:
“Dogs are all around me, a pack of villains closes in on me like a lion [at] my hands and feet.”[e]

[e] Or: “They pierced my hands and feet.” See Introduction, Section VIII, paragraph 6,2 and Section XIV, footnote 70.3

The Fine Art of Interpretation

There is a very interesting history behind the discrepancy in Psalm 22:16, and it’s not nearly as sinister as Rabbi Singer suggests. He claims that the difference between the two interpretations is the result of a willful “raping” of the Hebrew text by the Christian Church in the second century. He even provided a clever Microsoft Word analogy in which the original text “like a lion” was highlighted and deleted, and then the new, unrelated text “they pierced” was typed in its place with the intention of changing the meaning of the original text.

In actuality—and I would be surprised if the Hebrew-speaking Rabbi Singer did not know this—the difference between the phrases like a lion and they pierced in Hebrew is a single letter. In Hebrew, the phrase “like a lion” is ka’ari, as Singer pointed out, while the phrase “they have pierced” is ka’aru. These two words are nearly identical. The only difference is that ka’ari (lion) ends with the Hebrew letter yod, and ka’aru (pierced) ends with the Hebrew letter vav.

Using Singer’s Microsoft Word analogy, this looks a lot more like a typo than a deceitful edit. But of course, ancient translators did not use word processors. They were writing by hand and it turns out that the difference between a vav and a yod is slight:

As you can see in the image above, the letters are very similar in shape. This hardly seems a case of highlighting a phrase, deleting it, and re-typing something completely different. Its more akin to someone writing the English word “major” in cursive, and someone else, hundreds of years later, accidentally reading it as “mayor.” And given the alternate modern translations of this text that we looked at above, it seems to me much more plausible that what we see in Psalm 22:16 is the result of a scribal error, rather than the product of malicious editing for theological purposes.

The Way Back Machine

Unfortunately, we can’t check whether this word was supposed to be a vav or a yod because we do not have access to the original Hebrew text. There are two primary early sources; the Masoretic Text,4 which is universally accepted as the authentic Hebrew Bible and translates the Hebrew phrase in Psalm 22 as “like a lion,” and the collection of Greek texts known as the Septuagint,5 which render the phrase in question as “they pierced.”  

Rabbi Singer makes the point that, although the original Septuagint translation dates to two centuries before Christ, that version only contained the first five books of the Bible. The Psalms were not translated until the second century after Christ. Therefore, concludes Singer, the men who translated Psalm 22 into Greek as part of the Septuagint would have been motivated to (and, in fact, did) edit the text to make it more Christological.

Interestingly, the Masoretic text is open to a similar charge. Since work on the Masoretic text did not even start until the 6th century after Christ,6 one could argue that the Jewish scribes of the Masoretic texts were motivated to interpret Psalm 22 in a way that would render it less Christological.

To be clear, I’m not making that claim personally. I don’t know enough about the history of the Masoretic text’s translation of Psalm 22 to make so bold a statement. What I’m pointing out is that both historical sources came after Christ, which means that trying to determine the proper interpretation of Psalm 22:16 based on the historical relationship between the translation and the time of Christ is ineffective. In fact, history would seem to favor the Septuagint since it is hundreds of years closer to the original texts.

And as for religious bias, that too favors the Septuagint; many of the scribes that worked on the Septuagint translation were Jewish, whereas there were no Christians (as far as we know) who participated in the development of the Masoretic text.

Context is King

There is one last issue to consider when seeking the proper interpretation of Psalm 22:16, which is the context of the psalm in which the verse appears. When we consider the totality of Psalm 22, what is it telling or teaching us? When read in its entirety, one can’t help but notice the striking connection to the crucifixion of Jesus. Rabbi Singer naturally insists that, rather than containing prophecy, Psalm 22 is merely a present-tense Psalm written by King David about himself. Because of his rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, Singer is predisposed to such an interpretation. But on closer examination, I believe the scriptural evidence shows that this is, indeed, a Messianic psalm.

First of all, it’s opening lines—”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1a)—are the very words that Christ uttered on the Cross:

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

Matt 27:46 (See also: Mark 15:34)

Some believe that Jesus’ quoting of Psalm 22 was a visceral expression that came to His lips because of His deep familiarity with Psalms. That seems plausible to me. But I also believe, because He was so near the completion of the very mission for which He was sent, that Jesus measured His final words carefully and was quoting Psalm 22 to highlight its Messianic nature.  There are a number of other passages in Psalm 22 that suggest it is a prophecy that was fulfilled by Jesus.

Psalm 22 Prophecy New Testament Fulfillment
“All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. ‘He trusts in the LORD,’ they say, ‘let the LORD rescue him.'”
-Psalm 22:7-8
“The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
-Luke 23:35-39 (See also Matt 27:39-44)
All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.”
-Psalm 22:17-18
“Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.” This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled that said, “They divided my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” So this is what the soldiers did.”
-John 19:24 (See also: Matt 27:35, Mark 15:24, and Luke 23:34)
My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;”
-Psalm 22:15a
“Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”
-John 19:28

There is also the phrase at the end of verse 15 that says, “You lay me in the dust of death.” Neither poetry nor prophetic literature should be pressed too hard for a literal interpretation, of course. But if this is a Messianic psalm, this phrase could be referring to someone who will literally die and be buried. This is a reasonable inference since, in verse 29, we see the phrase “go down to the dust” paralleled with “cannot keep themselves alive,” indicating that the author is using the phrase to indicate physical death. 

Another clue that this could be a Messianic psalm comes near the end. After writing about God’s deliverance from suffering, King David concludes:

The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him

Psalm 22:26-27

If David were referring to himself, this passage would seem to imply that David’s own suffering will cause all the families of the nations to bow down and worship God. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. David’s suffering has not led to such an outcome among all the nations. The suffering of Jesus, on the other hand, has. People in every nation are coming to God through His work on the cross.

Moreover, theologian John MacArthur notes that Psalm 22, “was applied immediately to David and ultimately to the Greater David, Messiah. The NT contains 15 messianic quotations of or allusions to this psalm, leading some in the early church to label it ‘the fifth gospel.’” And the author of the NIV commentary tells us:

“No other psalm fitted quite so aptly the circumstances of Jesus at his crucifixion. Hence on the cross, he quoted from it (see Mt 27:46 and parallels), and the Gospel writers, especially Matthew and John, frequently alluded to it (as they did to Ps 69) in their accounts of Christ’s passion (Matt 27:35, 39, 43; John 19:23–24, 28). They saw in the passion of Jesus the fulfillment of this cry of the righteous sufferer. The author of Hebrews placed the words of v. 22 on Jesus’ lips (see Heb 2:12 and note). No psalm is quoted more frequently in the NT.”

Some may argue that the Psalms are not intended as prophetic literature. But that is not so.  Theologian Luke Wayne explains:

“King David commissioned a group of priestly musicians who were “to prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals,” (1 Chronicles 25:1). Among them was the household of Asaph who wrote 12 of the Psalms, Heman who wrote another, and Jeduthan who was involved in the composition of three. They were commissioned to prophesy through music, and from that came biblical Psalms. There is no contradiction between being a Psalm and being prophecy. Indeed, there is an important, positive relationship between the two . . . This being the case, it is clear that Psalms can and do point forward prophetically to future fulfillments, at least sometimes messianic fulfillments.”

Summary

It strikes me as odd that the early church translators would swap out the phrase “like a lion” for the phrase “they pierced” in verse 16, yet leave the other Messianic passages from Psalm 22 intact. Rather than malfeasance on the part of early Christian translators, I believe the weight of the evidence suggests a scribal error is at the root of this discrepancy. Thus, the way most modern translations acknowledge the alternate interpretations of this verse in the footnote is appropriate.

So which interpretation is correct? In the end, whether we interpret it pierce or lion does not really matter in terms of the overall scriptural case for Jesus’ Messiahship. There are hundreds of other passages and prophecies that reveal His messianic attributes, so the Christian case does not stand or fall based on Psalm 22:16. Personally, I think either interpretation fits the context of the psalm as a whole. And on that note, I will leave you with a compelling point made by Dr. Michael Brown (whose doctorate is in Near Eastern languages and literature), who notes:

“But let’s assume the correct translation is, ‘Like a lion at my hands and feet.’ What is the lion doing with the victim’s hands and feet—licking them? The renowned Jewish commentator Rashi says it means ‘as though they are crushed in a lion’s mouth.’ So the imagery is clear: the metaphorical lions are tearing and ripping at the sufferer’s hands and feet. This mauling and biting graphically portrays great physical agony. It’s entirely consistent with what occurs in a crucifixion. So either translation could be said to foreshadow the suffering of the Messiah.”7


[1] According to its preface, the NKJV uses the 1967/1977 Stuttgart edition of the Biblia Hebraica for the Old Testament, with frequent comparisons made to the Ben Hayyim edition of the Mikraot Gedolot published by Bomberg in 1524–25, which was used for the King James Version. Both the Old Testament text of the NKJV and that of the KJV come from the ben Chayyim text. However, the 1967/1977 Stuttgart edition of the Biblia Hebraica used by the NKJV uses an earlier manuscript (the Leningrad Manuscript B19a) than that of the KJV.
[2] Introduction, Section VIII, paragraph 6 of the Complete Jewish Bible reads: “In Psalm 22, verse 17 of Jewish versions reads, “Like a lion [at] my hands and feet,” while the corresponding verse 16 of Christian versions says, “They pierced my hands and feet.” If this passage prophesies Yeshua’s crucifixion, as Messianic Jews and Christians believe it does, the  prophecy is certainly clearer in the Christian versions, since the B’rit Hadashah reports that Yeshua’s hands and feet were nailed to the execution-stake (as the CJB calls the cross), but says nothing about lions at his hands and feet. How can two such different meanings arise from the same text? They don’t; the texts are different. The Masoretic text has the Hebrew word k’ari (“like a lion”); while the Christian versions make use of the Septuagint, where the Greek word implies an underlying Hebrew text with the word karu (“they pierced”). The differences – the presence in the Masoretic text of the letter alef and of the letter yud instead of vav – are both easily explainable as scribal errors (in one direction or the other). In this case, as in virtually all cases, the CJB adheres to the Masoretic text, but a footnote gives the alternative rendering and refers to this paragraph of the Introduction. There are hundreds of similar differences, although few are as important for Messianic understanding of the Bible. In general I have not indicated where these differences are, because that is outside the scope of my purposes in preparing the Complete Jewish Bible.
[3] Section XIV, of the Complete Jewish Bible contains a partial list of Messianic prophecies, along with the New Testament verses verifying Yeshua’s fulfillment of them. Footnote 70 says:
  • Prophecy: The Messiah must be seen by Israel as pierced
  • Source in the Tanakh: Zechariah 12:10; Psalm 22:17(16)
  • Fulfillment in the B’rit Hadashah: Luke 24:39; Yochanan 19:34-37; Revelation 1:7
[4] The Masoretic text is the version of the Hebrew Bible that is held as authoritative and used liturgically in most synagogues today. The earliest copies of the Hebrew Bible were written without vowels or accents. So to preserve traditional spoken readings, starting in the fifth century AD, a group of Jewish scribes known as the Masoretes carefully selected, copied, and annotated biblical scrolls, adding vowels and accents to the ancient Hebrew consonants in the process. Though the Masoretic scribes added these vowels to the ancient text long after it had been written, they were likely preserving traditional vocalizations that dated to much earlier times. The Masoretes produced several different systems of vocalization (writing in vowels) between 500 and 700 AD. Until the last few decades, most biblical scholars believed that the Masoretic biblical texts were, with some exceptions, the best witnesses to the most ancient Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible (what Christians sometimes call the Old Testament). Recent discoveries from the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, suggest that there were several different versions of many biblical books in the Second Temple period. (From: What Are the Earliest Versions and Translations of the Bible?)
[5] The Septuagint is the earliest translation of the Hebrew Bible into any other language outside the original Hebrew. This is a translation to Greek made in Alexandria, Egypt, for the use of the Greek-speaking Jewish community there. Technically speaking, there is no such thing as “the Septuagint.” When scholars use this term, it does not refer to a single text. Rather, it refers to a collection of Greek translations produced by numerous scribes, including Jewish scribes, over the course of several hundred years both before and after Christ. See: What is the Septuagint?
[6] Masoretic Text, Jewish Bible, Encyclopaedia Britannica.
[7] Commentary from the Case for Christ Study Bible; adapted from an interview with Dr. Alexander Metherell and Dr. Michael L. Brown

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