Does Psalm 22:16 really predict Jesus' crucifixion?

Luke Wayne

Psalm 22 is one of the most powerful passages of the Old Testament that prophetically foreshadows the suffering of Jesus, the promised Messiah. One of the most striking portions of the text to many Christians has always been where the Psalm reads:

"For dogs have surrounded me; A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet," (Psalm 22:16).

Written centuries before crucifixion was even invented, this reference to pierced hands and feet has significantly bolstered Christian claims of the prophetic character of this Psalm and its specific fulfillment in Jesus Christ. However, there are a number of critical scholars, many Jewish Rabbis, and even some Christian experts who claim that this is not actually what the original Hebrew says. Likewise, The New World Translation of the Jehovah's Witnesses also denies the reference to the piercing of hands and feet. The reason for this is that the predominant reading in the Masoretic text, the family of Hebrew manuscripts that are the primary source from which the Old Testament is usually translated, does not say "they pierced my hands and my feet." Instead, it says "like a lion, my hands and my feet." By itself, this doesn't quite make sense, but due to the context it is usually translated something like, "like a lion, they are at my hands and my feet." Many accuse early Christians of willfully altering the text to force a prophecy of Jesus into a passage where there is none. This accusation is wholly untrue, both because there is very strong evidence that "pierced" is the original reading and also because the variant reading "like a lion" does not undermine the prophetic nature of the Psalm.

"Pierced" or "Like a Lion?"

While in English this seems like a rather significant difference, the Hebrew words are remarkably similar. Ka'ari means "like a lion," whereas ka'aru means "to bore through," or "to pierce." As mentioned above, the reading of ka'ari (like a lion) finds its support in the majority of the manuscripts in the Masoretic Text tradition. It is also supported by some Targum manuscripts (Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Scriptures.) The reading of Ka'aru (to pierce) however, is found in the oldest Hebrew manuscript of the Psalms, an ancient copy discovered at Nahal Hever and dating to about the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls.1 "Pierced" or "gouged"2 is also the reading found in the Septuagint3 (an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures produced by Jews prior to the time of Christ and often cited by the New Testament writers and by early Christians). Ka'aru, or pierced, is even found in a minority of Masoretic Hebrew manuscripts.4 The ancient Syriac translation also affirms this reading,5 though some consider this a weaker piece of evidence since it is unknown whether or not the Syriac Old Testament was translated by pre-Christian Jews or by the early Christians themselves. The Latin Vulgate contains the reading "pierced" as well.6 While this is certainly a Christian translation and therefore cannot entirely avoid the "Christian conspiracy" accusation, it is still worth noting that its translator went back to the Hebrew manuscripts of the day and was willing to depart from the Septuagint in ways that made it controversial in its day. Finally, the earliest Christians quoted the reading as "pierced" in multiple languages and locations. In the early second century, Justin Martyr regularly cited the verse this way in his writings to non-Christians (both Jew and Gentile)7 clearly assuming that they would find the reading in their own copies if they were to look. Tertullian, the earliest Christian leader to write in Latin, also cited the verse this way,8 as did other Latin writers such as Cyprian9 and Novatian.10 The simplest explanation is that the manuscripts these men were using already contained the word "pierced."

In summary, we find the reading "pierced" in:

  • The earliest Hebrew manuscript containing the verse
  • The earliest Jewish translation of the Psalms
  • Some Masoretic Jewish Hebrew Manuscripts
  • Other ancient translations from the ancient Hebrew Text
  • Very early Christian citations in multiple languages written to critical outsiders, making conspiratorial alteration unlikely

It is clear from the evidence that "pierced" is not a willful Christian corruption of the text. Indeed, there is very good reason to think that it is the correct version of the text. Having a far more ancient pedigree and far more diverse testimony for it, there is no objective reason to doubt the authenticity of the phrase, "They pierced my hands and my feet."

Would "Like a Lion" Rule Out Jesus?

Though it is highly unlikely, if the original reading was "like a lion," would that undermine the Christian understanding of this passage? No, not at all. Interestingly, while the New Testament clearly applies this Psalm to Jesus by citing verses like:

"They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots," (Psalm 22:18, see John 19:24).

And Jesus applied this Psalm to Himself when crying out from the cross:

"My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1, see Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34).

The New Testament writers never actually quoted verse 16, "They pierced my hands and my feet." The application of this Psalm to Jesus is based on the contents of the passage as a whole, not on this one verse. The suffering Davidic King cries out in anguish amidst an explicitly described torment and shame, and though it appears God has abandoned Him, in fact, God delivers Him. Indeed, this suffering and deliverance are so profound that:

"All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before You," (Psalm 22:27).

There is, indeed, no other man but Jesus Christ alone whose suffering and restoration have turned people of every nation and land throughout the world to worship the one true God. Indeed, two thousand years later, His death and resurrection are turning them still! Any reading of Psalm 22 and the Gospel accounts will show that the connections between the words of this passage and the suffering of Jesus Christ are profound, regardless of how verse 16 reads. If it did say "like a lion," that would be less direct and explicit, but would in no way contradict the overall connection. As one scholar observes of the verse:

"Rashi [one of the most important medieval Jewish Rabbis and commentators] says it means 'as though they are crushed in a lion's mouth.' Another prominent Jewish commentator, Metsudat, said, 'They crush my hands and my feet as the lion crushes the bones of the prey in its 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 portray great physical agony. Would this contradict the picture of a crucifixion? In no way. It is entirely consistent with what occurs in a crucifixion."11

So, though we can have great confidence that the more precise wording of "they pierced my hands and my feet," is indeed original, the application of the Psalm to Jesus does not hinge on this one phrase. The Psalm is littered with obvious foreshadowings of Jesus' suffering and victory, and the whole of it taken together could apply to no other person.

  • 1. Martin Abegg Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (HarperCollins Books, 1999) 519
  • 2. See Psalm 21(22) verse 16 in A New English Translation of the Septuagint (Oxford University Press, 2007)
  • 3. Martin Abegg Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (HarperCollins Books, 1999) 519
  • 4. ibid, see footnote 41
  • 5. Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? (B&H Publishing Group, 2010) 44
  • 6. ibid
  • 7. see First Apology, Chapter 35, 38; Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 97, 98, 104
  • 8. Tertillian, Five Books Against Marcion, Book 4, Chapter 42
  • 9. Cyprian, Testimonies Against the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 20
  • 10. Novatian, A Treatise Concerning the Trinity, Chapter 28
  • 11. Dr. Michael Brown, as quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus (Zondervan, 2007) 222