Did Christians Change Psalm 22?

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Today I am looking at a discussion between two Christian heavyweights, Dr. James White and Dr. Michael Brown. They are discussing the underlying word behind “they pierced” in Psalm 22:16 (or Psalm 22:17 in your Tanakh). But before I get to their discussion, it is important to point out that something that goes unmentioned in the video. The debate over which Hebrew word should be translated is separate and apart from which word is being translated. So first, I’m going to address the main question. Did Christians change Psalm 22? The answer is unequivocally yes. Here is the proof.

The ESV translates the Old Testament from the Masoretic Text/ However, from their own preface we can see that they did consult the Dead Sea Scrolls for their translation of “difficult cases”.

In exceptional, difficult cases, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Syriac Peshitta, the Latin Vulgate, and other sources were consulted to shed possible light on the text, or, if necessary, to support a divergence from the Masoretic text.

ESV Preface

So the question is, what word did they decide to translate in Psalm 22:16? They went with the MT “KaAri”. This word appears 33 times in the ESV and is translated as some variation of “lion” in every case other than Psalm 22, where it is translated “pierced.” So to be clear, the ESV did change Psalm 22. Nowhere in this video is the argument that “KaAri” means “pierced” presented, because that argument is untenable.

To see this changing of the text in action, click this link to read the interlinear of Psalm 22:16 over at Bible Hub. You will see that they use the Hebrew word KaAri, yet they translate it “pierced” as well. If you click the number “3738” above the word it will take you to the Hebrew word that they are defining here. However, the Hebrew word that they define is “karah” and has a different spelling from the word they used in the text. So again, clearly, they are changing the word.

Is KaAri the correct word to use here?

The argument being presented by Dr. Brown in this video is that KaAri isn’t the correct word to use here. To be clear, in arguing this he is going against the ESV, KJV, NIV, and many other translations. However, his argument deserves to be considered. What does he base it on?

Dr. Brown points to a Dead Sea Scroll which has the text KaAru, and the Septuagint which translates this passage as “they pierced” to defend the use of an alternative reading here. Both of these arguments are problematic for the following reasons.

KaAru could mean to dig through.

Dr. Brown tells us here what “KaAru” could mean. This might strike you as odd. Why does he word it this way? Because simply put, KaAru doesn’t have a meaning. It isn’t a word in Hebrew. Therefore, he is suggesting that by “KaAru” the scribe may have been trying to copy the word “karu”, which means “to dig.” This word appears in Psalm 57:6, “they dug (karu) a pit in my way. In Logos Bible Software we can click the word and see how it is translated everywhere else in the ESV. It appears 14 times in the Bible and is translated “dug, hewed, digs, cut, makes, open, or plots” but never “pierced”. However, if that is the word used here it is understandable that it would be translated differently in this context.

Consider Proverbs 16:27 where it says “a worthless man plots (karu) evil” and we see that “digs” or “opens” doesn’t really do the job here. While “plots” wouldn’t be a great translation of “karu”, here it better expresses what the man is doing than to say he “opens” or “cuts” evil. He plots it. Likewise, in Psalm 22 the author isn’t merely “opening” his hands and feet, and “dig” would be incoherent in English. Thus, they “cut, maul, or pierce” would be better. However, this is presuming that the word is “karu” and that isn’t the word in the Dead Sea Scroll as we shall see. But first, let’s consider his point on the Septuagint.

The Masoretic Text isn’t one text, it’s a family or tradition of texts.

Dr. Brown’s point is spot on here. He is entirely correct. The Masoretic Text is thousands of scrolls, from many different areas translated by many different people. Thus, there are variants between different readings in different scrolls. However, what he fails to point out here is that the same is true of the Septuagint. Here is what Logos Bible Software says on their academic blog about the LXX in an article by Dr. Tavis Bohlinger.

The best way to begin an essay on the Septuagint is with the statement that “there is really no such thing as the Septuagint.”

To further complicate things, the seventy (two) translators only produced the Pentateuch in Greek, as far as we know, while the rest of the Hebrew Bible was edited and revised anonymously over at least the next 300.

Dr. Brown goes on to express rabbinical criticism of the Septuagint inaccurately. It’s not that the Rabbis claimed that only the Torah was translated properly. Rather, it was only the Torah that was translated by these Rabbis. As Logos points out, the rest of Tanakh was “edited and revised anonymously” over the next 300 years. Therefore, who did it, when they did it, and what they intended in translating it is unknowable at this point.

The argument presented here is that the Septuagint is a Jewish translation, Christians merely used it.

This point is refuted explicitly in the preface to the Septuagint, which can be read online here. The producers of the Septuagint state the following.

In the third century, the great Christian scholar, Origen (184/85–254/55), keenly interested in the textual differences between the Hebrew and the Greek, set out to arrange the Church’s Old Testament in six columns: (1) the Hebrew, (2) a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew, (3) Aquila’s translation, (4) Symmachus’s translation, (5) the Septuagint (LXX), and (6) Theodotion. The volumes were compiled in Caesarea, probably between 230 and 240 CE, a project funded by Origen’s patron. The resultant work, called the Hexapla (“six-fold”), was massive, and has perished except for fragments. Origen was a very careful scholar, but he did not observe modern editorial conventions. His version of the LXX draws from several different manuscript families and embraces readings that bring the text closer to the Hebrew text of his day. Thus, this fifth LXX column, while establishing the first “standardized text” of the Christian Church, created problems for modern scholars who would seek to recover a pre-Christian version of the LXX.

Further recensions of the Greek text in the fourth century are attested. Hesychius (fl. 3/4th c.) is said to have created a recension for the Church in Egypt; Lucian (d. 312 CE), in Antioch. Some scholars posit other recensions from this period. Thus, we find some Greek Church Fathers quoting the same Old Testament texts, but in very different forms. There is no indication, however, that this troubled Church leadership. The insistence on letter-for-letter, word-for-word accuracy in the Scriptures was a feature that was not to emerge in Christian thought for many centuries, and only then after a similar insistence appeared in Judaism and Islam. As far as most early Christians were concerned, any Greek version of the Old Testament read in the Church merited the term Septuagint.

Emphasis added.

So we see here that when they say “the Septuagint says”, they merely mean “a Greek translation we have today reads.” But to present the Septuagint as a standardized text that had matching readings across the globe is just untrue. And furthermore, as the scholars who bring us the Septuagint today point out, there are “problems for modern scholars who would seek to recover a pre-Christian version of the LXX.” Thus, it is misleading to present the Septuagint we have today as the product of Jews in general, let alone the production of 72 rabbis 3 centuries before Jesus was born.

Checking the manuscript record.

Now, despite everything I just said, if the church had a copy of a Greek translation of Psalm 22 predating the Origin revisions, it would go a long way in making their argument. However, they don’t. Ivy League seminary University of Pennsylvania has a list of ancient LXX manuscripts that have been discovered, and it shows that Psalm 22 isn’t represented until the late 3rd Century. Origin died in the 255.

So what about that Dead Sea Scroll?

Above is a screenshot of the manuscript from Dr. White’s video. In the center is the word from the scroll. To the right is the word that they are suggesting the scribe was attempting to copy, “karu” while to the left is the word “KaAri” that the Masoretic texts generally agree upon. As noted, 12 of the Masoretic texts all have the variant seen on the scroll above, thousands have “KaAri” the word to the left.

In order for Dr. Brown to be right, consider what must have happened. First, the scribe copying the above scroll accidentally added an “aleph” into the word “karu.” This is certainly plausible. However, we would have to presume that 12 of the scribes copying the Masoretic scrolls made the exact same mistake in the exact same place. And to be clear, this isn’t a spelling error since they are copying and have the existing word in front of their eyes. 13 scribes all adding the exact same letter at the exact same place in the exact same word where it doesn’t belong? This seems highly unlikely.

Alternatively, what would be required for the mistake to have occurred while copying the word “KaAri” into the new scroll? Simply put, all that this would require is for the scribe to have drawn his “yod” down a little too long, turning it into a “vav”. This seems to me like a much more likely candidate for the error in question.

Why wasn’t Jesus saved from death?

To the credit of Dr. James White, he presents the problem of viewing Psalm 22 as a prophecy of Jesus death. Let’s look at the Psalm and see where this problem comes in.

Butt you, O LORD, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! 20  Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! 21  Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ps 22:19–21). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

So here, we see the person being discussed is rescued from death. Dr. Brown responds that Jesus dying and being resurrected is actually a better fulfillment. And from a Christian theological perspective, he is right. If you believe in the Christian view of the crucifixion and it’s theological significance, how can I argue with him? However, from a prophetic perspective he is dead wrong. A prophecy is best fulfilled by looking exactly like what was prophesied, not by looking different but better.

Couldn’t David have said “But you, O Lord, will allow me to die, then you will come to my aid. You will not deliver me from the sword, or my life from the power of the dog. You will allow me to fall into the mouth of the lion, but you will rescue me from the grave.” Then this would be the prophecy that Christians claim that it is. You would have no dispute from me.

However, Dr. Michael Brown objects to my reasoning, citing verse 27. “All the ends of the earth shall turn to HaShem, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.” No mere act of saving a man from death at the last minute would accomplish this according to Dr. Brown, and Dr. White expresses his agreement. But does David the Psalmist agree?

Where this all comes together.

46 This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, 47 and that all this assembly may know that the LORD saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give you into our hand.”

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Sa 17:46–47). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

These are the words of young David immediately before killing Goliath. He seems to think that this battle will cause all of the earth to worship God, but the parallels to Psalm 22 run even deeper. The enemy has lined up across from Israel. But for David, even his side is mocking him. He is completely encompassed. His brother tells him to go tend to his few sheep. Saul tells him that Goliath has been a warrior since his youth, and David is still a kid. Is it so hard to imagine that the Philistines who were jeering him were casting lots over his clothes? “When Goliath kills him, I want his slingshot. I’ll take his leather pouch. Anyone have dibs on his robe? Oh, you do? Let’s draw lots.” Everyone counted him as already dead. Even Goliath. But what does David say?

“The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Sa 17:37). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Compare to Psalm 22:21 cited above. “Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!” Foles, these are direct parallels. These lions aren’t metaphors. God has actually saved David from lions, and he will now deliver him from the company of evildoers. And, at least in David’s mind, this will result in all the earth recognizing the God of Israel who delivered him. Not in some metaphorical sense from some future hell, but in a very real sense from a physical enemy that was deemed unconquerable.

Psalm 22 is about David but applies to Jesus.

The Psalms are for everyone. Who amongst us hasn’t found safety and comfort in one of our favorite Psalms? Certainly on the cross Jesus felt abandoned by all, including God. How could he not have felt mocked and surrounded by enemies? I’m sure he prayed for deliverance, and perhaps found some comfort in the words of David. However, none of that means that David was prophesying about Jesus when he wrote these words. Likewise, when I find comfort in a Psalm of David that’s great, but I’m misguided if I think that he had me in mind when he wrote it.

The parallels to David’s battle a clear and striking. The language is almost a perfect match in places. In Psalm 22 the subject was rescued from death, whereas Jesus was not. And the clearest parallel to Jesus is “they pierced” which is derived from a spelling that is similar to another word. However, the most compelling argument against it is this.

No New Testament author quotes this line.

Psalm 22 is frequently quoted or referenced in the New Testament. In Mark’s Gospel, he uses several scenarios from this Psalm in describing the crucifixion. They mock him, they wag their heads at him, they divide up his garments, God has forsaken him. The list goes on and on. Yet the one thing that is unmistakably tied to Jesus in Psalm 22 is missing. Not once does Mark mention the hands and feet of Jesus being pierced. Why not? Did he see the parallel in “they wag their heads” but when he arrived at “they pierced my hands and my feet” that didn’t trigger anything in Mark’s imagination? C’mon now.

No New Testament author ever cited this line because it didn’t exist at that time. What the Gospel authors saw as a clear parallel, later Christians turned into a prophecy. And while Dr. Brown and Dr. White use what is unarguably a spelling error in a Dead Sea Scroll to defend this translation, they do so for one simple reason. Because no ancient Hebrew text says “karu” so they use “KaAru” to justify the translation. But how does this apply to the ESV, who is aware of that scroll but went with “KaAri” and still translated it “pierced”? How does this apply to the KJV which was translated long before this scroll was found in the 1940’s, yet they still used pierced? This is clearly a post hoc defense of a decision by translators, but it cannot apply here.

I’m not accusing Christians of doing something nefarious here. Most of them have no idea about the information I’ve presented here. Why? Because they take it on faith. But when you start asking questions and digging, the Christian argument for this translation evaporates under the weight of the evidence. While the hands and feet of Jesus were indeed pierced, it was in fact a lion at the hands and feet of the Psalmist. This much is clear.

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I was raised a Christian, turned atheist as a teenager, and became a Noahide in my 40's. Here I will share what I have learned, and look forward to what you can teach me. Thank you for stopping by Biblical Anarchy. Feel free to leave a comment.

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