Does Psalm 22 Prophesy the Crucifixion of Christ?

By Wayne Jackson

Recently a gentleman sent us the following message.

In the Bible you’re using, you have a serious, misleading mistranslation — “They pierced my hands and my feet …” The text should read: “Like a lion (Hebrew KeAri), they are at my hands and feet.”

The fundamentalists Christian interpreters actually changed the spelling of the word from KeAri (like a lion) to Kari. If one then totally ignores Hebrew grammar, one can twist this to mean “He gouged me,” then, as in the King James Version, they make it read: “They pierced my hands and feet.”

While we do not have the time to respond to every quibble offered by skeptical critics, this one, we felt, warranted consideration. It is clothed in just enough superficial “garb” to feign the appearance of credibility.

First, we must note that the writer’s theological perspective is perfectly transparent. That “fundamentalists Christian” appellation is a dead give-away. We have encountered a reader whose interest in the Bible is motivated by hostility, not honest investigation of the complete data.

In attempting to determine the proper meaning of the controversial phrase, “they pierced my hands and my feet” (v.16 – KJV, ASV, NIV, ESV), all available information must be taken into consideration — Hebrew manuscripts, other translations, the New Testament data, etc. Each of these must be given its appropriate weight.

Hebrew Manuscripts

Old Testament scholars concede that most of the Hebrew texts available today read “lion,” rather than “pierced.” In some of these manuscripts “pierced” is a marginal note. On the other hand, there are Hebrew texts that read “pierced,” with “lion” in the margin. The same variance is reflected in English translations, except that the vast majority of the English versions retain “pierced” in the text, with “lion” relegated to the footnote in some instances (see ASV, RSV, NIV, ESV).

The two words are strikingly similar in appearance in the original Hebrew text. The only difference between the word translated “like a lion,” and the one rendered “they pierced” is in the length of the upright vowel stroke on the latter word. The two might easily be confused. Since the Hebrew had no written vowels — only vowel sounds — some think the confusion may have resulted from a misunderstanding in pronunciation. Craigie offers this view and says that the “like a lion” rendition “presents numerous problems and can scarcely be correct” (196). Even the very liberal Interpreter’s Bible, which repudiates the passage as being prophetic of the crucifixion of Christ, says that “like a lion” does not make sense in the context (Sclater,120).

Brown, et al., represent the term in this fashion: “they have bored (digged, hewn) my hands and my feet” (468). Professor Baigent of the West London Institute of Higher Education suggests that the standard Massorite Hebrew text, reflecting “like a lion,” “seems to be corrupt” (614). Numerous other scholars concur.

In addition, we must note that in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which pre-date the common Hebrew texts by a thousand years, the term clearly is “pierced,” not “lion” (VanderKam / Flint, 124).

Ancient Versions

The ancient versions (translations of the Hebrew text into various languages) overwhelmingly support the reading “pierced.” This is the case in the Septuagint (Greek version), the Syriac, Vulgate, Arabic, and the Ethiopic. One must remember that the Massorite Hebrew text is from the second century A.D., while the Septuagint dates from the third century B.C. There is a very powerful point here, to which Kidner calls attention: “A strong argument in its [”pierced"] favor is that the LXX [Septuagint], compiled two centuries before the crucifixion, and therefore an unbiased witness, understood it so" (107).

So much for our critic’s assertion that “pierced” is a “fundamentalist Christian” contrivance!

There is another point worthy of consideration. In around A.D. 140, a scholar named Aquila, a native of Pontus, produced a Greek translation of the Old Testament, the design of which was to rival the Septuagint. Aquila was an apostate from Christianity who had converted to Judaism. In his translation he seems to have known nothing of the “like a lion” rendition (see Cook, IV, 223).

Supplementary Old Testament Support

It need hardly surprise us that the prophets would focus upon the manner of Jesus’ death inasmuch as the Savior had to die in some way by which his “blood” would be shed. The blood is the depository of “life” (Lev. 17:11). By our sins, we have forfeited the right to live (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). Accordingly, in the divine scheme of things, the Son of God was required to give his “life” (blood) if we were to live (Mt. 20:28; 26:28; Rom. 3:21-26) — which he voluntarily and lovingly did.

In view of this, consider two other Old Testament texts.

The prophet Isaiah declared: “But he was wounded [”pierced" — Delitzsch, II, 317-18] for our transgressions…" (53:5). Moreover, Zechariah announced, on behalf of the Messiah: “And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplication: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced” (12:10; cf. Jn. 19:37). As we shall note subsequently, the language of Psalm 22:16 is quite similar — but more specific even.

New Testament Evidence

Though the New Testament does not directly quote Psalm 22:16, there is strong circumstantial evidence that the phrase in this passage previews the crucifixion, thus containing an allusion to the method of Jesus’ death.

Only the very obtuse, and those with them who deny the authority of the New Testament writers, resist the conclusion that Psalm 22 has, as its general thrust, the mission of the promised Messiah.

The narrative begins: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” — a question agonizingly framed by the Savior from the cross (Mt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34). The treatment afforded Christ during his trial/crucifixion is graphically portrayed in verse 7-8.

“All they that see me laugh me to scorn: They shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, Commit thyself unto Jehovah; let him deliver him…” (cf. Lk. 23:35; Mt. 27:39,43). Verse 18 depicts the soldiers gambling for the Lord’s clothes. “They part my garments among them, and upon my vesture do they cast lots” (cf. Mt. 27:35). It is in the midst of this context that the controversial statement is found: “They pierced my hands and my feet.”

Additionally, compare this sentence with the references in the New Testament to the wounds of the Savior’s hands and feet (Lk. 24:40; Jn. 20:25). The connection is too obvious to miss if the student is honest.

It is worthy of note that Tertullian (cir. A.D. 160-220), one of the post-apostolic “church fathers,” who had access to evidence older than we possess today, quoted from Psalm 22 in one of his five books, Against Marcion. In Book III, which is designed to argue the Messianic identity of Jesus based on Old Testament prophecy, Tertullian says that the Lord was “prophetically declaring his glory” when he said, “They pierced my hands and my feet” (Sect. XIX).

We do not hesitate to say, therefore, that the preponderance of the evidence lies with our common English versions. Psalm 22:16 is an explicit prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. As George Rawlinson, Professor of Ancient History at Oxford, noted: “There are no sufficient critical grounds for relinquishing” the view that “pierced” is the correct term of the text (153).

Sources/Footnotes
  • Baigent, John W. (1979), The New Layman’s Bible Commentary, Howley,
  • Bruce, & Ellison, eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
  • Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; Briggs, Charles (1981), Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Lafayette, IN: Associated Publishers & Authors).
  • Cook, F.C. (1981), The Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker).
  • Craigie, Peter C. (1983), Word Biblical Commentary — Psalms 1-50 (Waco, TX: Word).
  • Delitzsch, F. (1978), Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
  • Kidner, Derek (1973), Psalms 1-72 (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-varsity Press).
  • Rawlinson, George (1950), “Psalms,” The Pulpit Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
  • Sclater, J.R.P. (1955), The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon).
  • VanderKam, James and Flint, Peter (2004), The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (San Francisco: Harper).
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.