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Science and the Psalms 22 Controversy

Psalms 22 poses a two-part controversy, unbeknownst to many, starting with Christian and Jewish Bibles translating one key verse very differently. That difference then plays a central role in part two of the controversy, whether Psalms 22 is a foreshadowing prophecy foretelling the crucifixion death of the Messiah.[1]

Christian Bibles are consistent with the New King James Version translation of Psalms 22:16. Appearing one verse later in Jewish Bibles, Psalms 22:17 translations are typically consistent with The Complete Jewish Bible:

“Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. (NJKV)

“For dogs have surrounded me; a band of evildoers has encompassed me, like a lion, my hands and feet.(CJB)

One tiny detail is the point of contention – the single character of one Hebrew word that completely changes its meaning. In digital text, the difference is somewhat visually easy to see:

כאריכארו

Handwritten on an ancient scroll, the difference is almost indistinguishable to the untrained eye. It is important to remember that Hebrew is written and read from right to left.[2]  Taking special care not to miss such distinctions was even a challenge for the Rabbi authors of the Talmud:

“R. Awira…as it is written [Prov. xxv. 21]: “If thy enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink; for though thou gatherest coals of fire upon his head, yet will the Lord repay it unto thee.”  Do not read ‏שלם‎ (repay it), but ‏שלים‎ (he will make him peaceful toward thee).[3]

In Hebrew, the slightest variation can alter the entire meaning of a sentence, even changing a noun to a verb.[4] In the case of Psalms 22:16 (17), the impact on the translation is striking:

כארו

(K’aru / Ka’aru) = they have bored / they have dug / they have pierced.

כארי

K’ari / Ka’ari) = like a lion my hands and feet

Jewish Bibles mostly translate the K’ari as “like a lion my hands and feet” although some read “like lions [they maul] my hands and feet;” others “like a lion they are at my hands and my feet.”[5] All are meaningfully different from the Christian Bible translation based on the word K’aru, “they have dug,” translated into either the word “pierced” or “pin.”[6]

Digging deeper, the root of the controversy lies with the source of the ancient Hebrew text.[7] In this case, one is over a millennium older than the other.

Septuagint LXX is the Hebrew-to-Greek standard translation dating to the period of 285-247 BC. According to Josephus, at the behest of Ptolemy Philadelphius, ruler of Egypt, the translation effort was performed by 72 Jewish scholars, 6 from each tribe, hence the Roman numeral “LXX”.[8]

Each translator was independently secluded until the end of the project. At the conclusion, the combined translation was presented for approval to all the priests, elders and the principal men of the commonwealth. Once approved, King Ptolemy ordered the finalized official translation to remain “uncorrupted.”

Jewish Bibles are based on two surviving Hebrew Masoretic texts (MT), the Aleppo Codex dated to 925 AD and the Hebrew Leningrad Codex c. 1008-10 AD.[9] About a third of the Aleppo text has been missing since 1947 when a riot broke out in Aleppo, Syria, where the text had been kept in a Synagogue.[10] Modern Hebrew translations now have a dependency on the more recent Leningrad manuscript to fill in the missing content.[11]

Masoretic Text is the culmination of many variations of textual sources, spelling changes, and interpretations compiled into a final text. Unlike the Septuagint, the MT lacked the benefit of a side-by-side comparison to the original “witnessing” Hebrew text. Menachem Cohen, Professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University of Israel and director of the Miqraot Gedolot HaKeter Project explained it this way: [12]

“…the aggregate of known differences in the Greek translations is enough to rule out the possibility that we have before us today’s Masoretic Text. The same can be said of the various Aramaic translations; the differences they reflect are too numerous for us to class their vorlage [original text] as our Masoretic Text.”

Professor Cohen’s project team, using the science of textual criticism, explains how the Masoretic text diverged from the 1250-year older Septuagint translation. The changes began at some point before the Roman’s destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 AD:[13]

“In any case, it seems that after the destruction the array of text-types disappeared from normative Judaism, and the Masoretic type alone remained.”

“During the same period, new Greek translations were being prepared in place of the Septuagint, which, by virtue of its becoming an official Christian text, was rejected by the Jews. These translations, especially that of Aqilas which was praised by the Sages, reflected the Masoretic text-type.[14]

A potentially game-changing scroll discovery was made in the 1950s at the Bar Kochba archeological site. A Jewish rebellion against Rome from 132-135 AD called the Bar-Kokhba revolt, was led by Simon ben Kochba, a rebel Jewish leader and military commander known for his strict adherence to traditional Jewish law.[15] Professor Cohen remarked:

“In the fifties, remnants of Scriptural scrolls used by Bar Kochba’s soldiers were found in the Judean desert (Wadi Murabba’at and Nahal Hever). They all show that Bar Kochba’s people used the same text which we call the MT, with only the slightest of differences.”

Nahal (Nachal) Hever scrolls, as they are now called, date to the years between 2 BC – 68 AD predating the Leningrad Codex Masoretic Text by about 1000 years, yet some 200-300 years after the Septuagint LXX translation. Essentially coinciding with the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth, the dating of these scrolls serve to dispel the charge of Christian manipulation of the Septuagint text to fit the Gospels written years after his crucifixion.[16]

One of the Nahal Hever scrolls surviving relatively intact is Psalms 22 where the potentially game-changing text of Psalms 22:16(17) uses the word K’aru (כארו).[17] A translation of Psalms 22:14-18 by Dr. Martin Abegg Jr., Dr. Peter Flint and Eugene Ulrich reads:[18]

“[I have] been poured out [like water, and all] my bon[es are out of joint.  My heart has turned to wax; it has mel]ted away in my breast.  [My strength is dried up like a potsherd], and my tongue melts in [my mouth.  They] have placed [me] as the dust of death.  [For] dogs are [all around me]; a gang of evil[doers] encircles me.  They have pierced my hands and feet.  [I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me.  They divide my garments among themselves and they cast lots for my] clothes.” * [19]

Archeological discovery and textual analysis of the Nahal Hever scrolls corroborate the much older Septuagint text of Psalms 22:16(17), both saying the subject in the passage was “pierced,” translated from כארו (K’aru). Do these scientific discoveries strengthen the position that Psalms 22:14-18 is a foreshadowing prophecy of the Messiah’s manner of death?

* The words appearing in brackets were missing from the manuscript and have been supplied from other texts, if available.  The words appearing in italics are those that differ from the later Masoretic text.

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REFERENCES:

[1] Davidson, Paul. “A Few Remarks on the Problem of Psalm 22:16.” Is That in the Bible?  2015. <https://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/a-few-remarks-on-the-problem-of-psalm-2216> “Psalm 22.”  Heart of Israel.  n.d.  <http://www.heartofisrael.net/chazak/articles/ps22.htm>  <http://web.archive.org/web/20171016070503/http://www.heartofisrael.net/chazak/articles/ps22.htm>   Barrett, Ruben.  “Bible Q&A:  Psalms 22.”  HaDavar Ministries.  27 May 2008.   Archived URL.  Archive.org.  23 Aug. 2012.   <http://web.archive.org/web/20120823025747/http://www.hadavar.net/articles/45-biblequestionsanswers/54-psalm22questions.html>
[2] Hegg, Tim.  “Studies in the Biblical Text – Psalm 22:16 – “like a lion” or “they pierced”?” Torah Resource. 2013. <https://www.torahresource.com/EnglishArticles/Ps22.16.pdf>
[3] The Babylonian Talmud. Rodkinson.  Book 4: Tracts Pesachim, Yomah and Hagiga, Chapter V.
[4] Fox, Tsivya. “Aleph, the First Hebrew Letter, Contains Depths of Godly Implications.” August 30, 2016. <https://www.breakingisraelnews.com/74824/adding-aleph-helps-bring-redemption> Benner, Jeff A. “Introduction to Ancient Hebrew.”  Ancient Hebrew Research Center.  2019. <https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/introduction.htm>  Benner, Jeff, The Ancient Hebrew Alphabet. 2019. <https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/introduction.htm>  Benner, Jeff A. “The Ancient Pictographic Alphabet.” Ancient Hebrew Research Center. 2019. <http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/6_02.html>  Benner, Jeff A. “Parent Roots of Hebrew Words.” Ancient Hebrew Research Center. 2019. <https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/introduction.htm>  Benner, Jeff A. “Anatomy of Hebrew Words.” Ancient Hebrew Research Center. 2019. <http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/vocabulary_anatomy.html> “Punctuation.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12441-punctuation>
[5] “Psalms 22.” The Compete Jewish Bible – with Rashi Commentary. <https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16243>  “TEHILIM (Book of Psalms) Chapter 22.” Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation. 1917. <http://www.breslov.com/bible/Psalms22.htm#17>  “Psalms 22.” Sefaria. <https://www.sefaria.org/Psalms.22?lang=bi>
[6] Bible Hub. “Psalms 22.” 2018. <https://biblehub.com/psalms/22-1.htm>  Bible.org. “Psalms 22.” 2019. <http://classic.net.bible.org/bible.php?book=Psa&chapter=22>
[7] “Psalm 22.”  MessianicArt.com. 2004.<http://web.archive.org/web/20120627010236/http://messianicart.com/chazak/yeshua/psalm22.htm>  “Psalms 22 Questions and Comments.”  JewishRoots.net. 2014. <http://jewishroots.net/library/prophecy/psalms/psalm-22/psalm-22-comments-from-hadavar-ministries.html> “”They pierced my hands and my feet” or “Like a lion my hands and my feet” in Psalm 22:16?” KJV Today. n.d. http://kjvtoday.com/home/they-pierced-my-hands-and-my-feet-or-like-a-lion-my-hands-and-my-feet-in-psalm-2216> Delitzsch, Franz. The Psalms.1880. pp 42-43, 317-320.<http://archive.org/stream/commentarypsalm01deliuoft#page/n9/mode/2up>  Benner, Jeff A. “Psalm 22:17 – “Like a lion” or “they pierced?”.” 2018. <https://www.patreon.com/posts/psalm-22-17-like-22030018>
[8] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XII, Chapter II.1-6. Trans. and commentary William Whitson. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>   “The Septuagint (LXX).” Ecclesiastic Commonwealth Community. n.d. <http://ecclesia.org/truth/septuagint.html>   “Septuagint.”  Septuagint.Net. 2018.  <http://septuagint.net>  “Septuagint.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2019. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Septuagint>
[9] Lundberg, Marilyn J. “The Leningrad Codex.” USC West Semitic Research Project. 2012. University of Southern California. 8 Jan. 1999. <https://web.archive.org/web/20170403025034/http://www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/wsrp/educational_site/biblical_manuscripts/LeningradCodex.shtml> Abegg, Jr., Martin G., Flint, Peter W. and Ulrich Eugene Charles.  The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible:  the oldest known Bible translated for the first time into English. “Introduction”, page x. (page hidden by Google Books). 2002. <https://books.google.com/books?id=c4R9c7wAurQC&lpg=PP1&ots=fQpCpzCdb5&dq=Abegg%2C%20Flint%20and%20Ulrich2C%20The%20Dead%20Dead%20Sea%20Scrolls%20Bible%2C&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q=Isaiah&f=false>  Aronson, Ya’akov.  “Mikraot Gedolot haKeter–Biblia Rabbinica: Behind the scenes with the project team.”  Association Jewish Libraries. Bar Ilan University. Ramat Gan, Israel. n.d. No longer available free online – available for purchase:  <http://www.biupress.co.il/website_en/index.asp?category=12&id=714>
[10] Ben-David, Lenny. “Aleppo, Syria 100 Years Ago – and Today.” 23/07/15. Arutz Sheva 7 | isralenationalnews.com.  <http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/198521> Ofer, Yosef. “The Aleppo Codex.” n.d. <http://www.aleppocodex.org/links/6.html>  Bergman, Ronen. “A High Holy Whodunit.” New York Times Magazine. July 25, 2012. <https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/magazine/the-aleppo-codex-mystery.html>
[11] Leviant, Curt. Jewish Virtual Library. 2019. “Jewish Holy Scriptures: The Leningrad Codex.” <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-leningrad-codex>  “Leningrad Codex.” Bible Manuscript Society. 2019. <https://biblemanuscriptsociety.com/Bible-resources/Bible-manuscripts/Leningrad-Codex>
[12] Cohen, Menachem. “The Idea of the Sanctity of the Biblical Text and the Science of Textual Criticism.” Eds. Uriel Simon and Isaac B Gottlieb. 1979. Australian National University. College of Engineering & Computer Science. <http://cs.anu.edu.au/%7Ebdm/dilugim/CohenArt>
[13] “Siege of Jerusalem.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2019. <https://www.britannica.com/event/Siege-of-Jerusalem-70>
[15] “Shimon Bar-Kokhba (c. 15 – 135).” Jewish Virtual Library. 2019. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/shimon-bar-kokhba> “Bar Kochba.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2019.< https://www.livius.org/articles/concept/roman-jewish-wars/roman-jewish-wars-8/>
[16] “Psalm 22.”  Heart of Israel.
[17] Hegg. “Studies in the Biblical Text – Psalm 22:16 – “like a lion” or “they pierced”?”
[18] Abegg, et. al. The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible. p xiv (hidden by Google Books).
[19] Abegg, et. al. The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible. p 518. (hidden by Google Books).

2 thoughts on “Science and the Psalms 22 Controversy

  1. Thank you Yosi (for those wondering if the link is safe, my experience – no cookies, pop-ups or software warning).

    While the translation interpretations of the ancient text will always be debated, what cannot be explained is the Catch 22 – if Psalms 22 was not prophetic, then why and how did Jesus have the presence of mind, while dying on the cross from the most excruciating forms of death, to quote from it? Was it another coincidence that the Romans threw dice to gamble for pieces of his clothing? Was it a third coincidence that onlookers were quoted mocking Jesus using the same words as Psalms 22? One more, was it yet another coincidence that the Psalms 22 description of torture mirrors that of a Roman crucifixion a 1000 years later? It all goes back to the premise of the TheOdds.website based on US Federal Law – what is the improbability of mere chance that all four of these things are just a coincidence? Each person must draw their own conclusions.

    For more information, check out the Blog entitled “The Catch 22 of Psalms 22 – a Crucifixion Prophecy?” (under the Prophecy Menu)

    • Thank you K.B.

      You ask regarding how Jesus had the “presence of mind” to quote from Psalm 22 while dying on the cross. You then proceed to list all of the fulfillment of Psalm 22 as a prophecy.

      The answers are quite simple. When you are looking at document a, and keeping it in mind as you compose document b, it is amazing how you can improve your odds of making two things resemble each other. Yes, I am claiming that Jesus was “painted into” psalm 22. How can I make such a statement? Well, thankfully, the NT authors were pretty sloppy when quoting Jesus on the cross. You see, it is highly doubtful that “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani” is what Jesus said up there. It is a mish-mash of Hebrew and Aramaic and were Jesus to quote that Psalm he would have quoted it correctly. This is a dead give-away that the NT authors needed to paint Jesus into that psalm.

      With that said, psalms are not prophecy. Period. Amen. Selah. This psalm is Davidic and autobiographical.

      As for the translation issues. Translations are commentary. I read the Hebrew and avoid translations whenever possible. I refuse to let some translator fiddle with my soul. Therefore, for me, these debates over translation are almost always a one-way street: Correct the bad ones.

      Thanks for taking the time to responed (and for watching my video!)

      G-d bless and take care,

      Yosi

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