Rabbinic views on Psalm 22 – They pierced my hands and feet

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, of Jews for Judaism, suggests that Christians have deliberately mistranslated Psalm 22:17. He writes, “When read out of context and mistranslated as ‘They pierced my hands and feet,’ as appears in Christian versions, the passage intentionally conjures up thoughts of Jesus.” However, he fails to mention two important facts: Firstly, the Jewish scholars who translated the Scriptures into Greek more than two hundred years before Jesus was born, did so in the exact same way as is still quoted by believers in Jesus today and they can hardly be accused of intentionally conjuring up thoughts of Jesus. Secondly, there are also some Hebrew manuscripts in which the word is written as כארו (pierced) instead of כארי (like a lion), which changes the meaning by the smallest stroke of the pen.

Jesus said, “For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18).

What is a jot and a tittle?

The jot refers to the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet called the yod. It resembles an apostrophe in the English language. The tittle refers to the decorative spur found on certain Hebrew letters including the ‘yud’. Therefore Jesus was saying that not even the smallest letter, nor its decorative spur, would disappear from the law. The tittle can also refer to the small strokes on certain Hebrew letters that distinguish one letter from another. For example the ‘chet’ and ‘tav’ are distinguished by a small stroke at the foot of the latter. In our alphabet it could be likened to the difference between ‘q’ and ‘g,’ the side stroke distinguishing the one from the other, except that in Hebrew the strokes are much smaller. Obviously if one letter were mistaken for another it would alter the meaning of a word.

A case in point

In English translations of the Bible, Christian Scholars render Psalm 22:16, “They pierced my hands and my feet” whereas Jewish scholars render the same verse “Like a lion they are at my hands and my feet” or in a more recent translation “like lions [they maul] my hands and my feet.” How did this discrepancy arise?

The word that is in question is כארי which is ‘like a lion’ or כארו “pierced”. There are variant readings in the ancient manuscripts, which reflect this minor difference in the last letter at the end of the word (co-incidentally a ‘yud’) which changes the meaning accordingly. It should also be remembered that vowel points were not in the original manuscripts – these were only added later after the Hebrew language had been lost to everyday use and readers of the Hebrew Scriptures required help with the pronunciation. Vowel points also give variant meanings to the same word. It is impossible to be certain what the original rendering was but we do have one early completely unbiased witness and that is the rendering in the Septuagint. This was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which was completed more than two centuries before Christ. Here the word is rendered as a verb ‘to pierce’ or ‘to dig’, which supports the Christian translation. The prophet Isaiah (53:5) wrote prophetically of the Messiah saying, “He was pierced for our transgressions” and the prophet Zechariah (12:10) prophesied the words of the Lord saying, “They will look to me, whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn…”.

The Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia while giving the reading in psalm 22:17 as כארי ‘like a lion’ acknowledges the variant reading in the footnotes. Jewish translations adopt the rendering “like a lion” and some might say deliberately so, in order to avoid the vivid picture of the crucifixion scene that the Septuagint and Christian rendering brings to mind. Where the Jewish translators render the word ‘like a lion’ they are forced to add a verb to give sense to the sentence. The words [they maul] or ‘are at’ are supplied by the translator and do not appear in the Hebrew text.

What did Jesus have in mind when he quoted Psalm 22 as he hung upon the cross, his hands and his feet pierced by huge 6 inch spikes? By quoting the opening line of Psalm 22 he deliberately wanted to focus the attention of his followers to its fulfilment before their very eyes. It is beyond question that he had in mind the entire Psalm. As Walter Riggans points out, if someone were to quote the first line of Psalm 23 to even a moderately committed Christian or Jewish person the contents of the entire psalm would come to mind without even consciously trying to recall it. The whole of psalm 22 is a vivid prophetic picture of the suffering and crucifixion of the Messiah, including the disputed detail of the piercing of his hands and his feet.