Psalm 22: “They pierced” and the Septuagint

In “The lion dug the nail into my hand,” I examined the issue of whether the masoretic Hebrew verse 17 of Psalm 22 (verse 16 in the English translation) was the original text in classical times – circa 200 BCE, the period of the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew text. The earliest extent manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, the masoretic text, does not predate the 10th century. The masoretic text added vowels to the text, which made it easier to read for those learning Hebrew.


כִּי סְבָבוּנִי כְּלָבִים עֲדַת מְרֵעִים הִקִּיפוּנִי כָּאֲרִי יָדַי וְרַגְלָֽי׃

“For dogs encircled me, An evil congregation surrounded me; Like a lion my hands and my feet.”

In the Christian Bible, the same verse (verse 16) is translated as:

An evil congregation surrounded me;

They dug (pierce) my hands and my feet.”

The Greek Septuagint translation read the Hebrew word כָּאֲרוּ ka’aru, “they dug,” and not כָּאֲרִי ka’ari, “like a lion.” and thus they translated ka’aru with the Greek word ὤρυξαν oruxsan, “they dug” or “they pierced.”

21:17 ὅτι ἐκύκλωσάν με κύνες πολλοί συναγωγὴ πονηρευομένων περιέσχον με ὤρυξαν χεῖράς μου καὶ πόδας

The question is why would expert Hebrew scholars (70 of them, hence the Septuagint) translate the Hebrew word they understood to be oruxsan, if what they read in the Hebrew text “was like a lion.” If the word in question ended in a YOD כָּאֲרִי they would have translated “like a lion;” but they didn’t do that. The only way Jewish antagonists can get round that one is to claim that the Pentateuch was doctored. And by whom? The Christians? That, of course, is silly, because Christ was only born more than a century later. Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 are the two bugbears of Judaism. If only they could succeed in laying Jesus to rest in these two texts, they could arguably take a well-deserved rest from their anti-missionary activity. Jesus has indeed entered into His rest (Hebrews 4) but it’s not the sleepy kind of rest. He remains active with his two-edged short, cutting and thrusting; or rather, he has handed the sword over to his disciples to do the cutting and the thrusting. And the sword here is, of course, His Word. Some cut and thrust, others sharpen the sword, and the rare few do all three. I’d like to think that I’m more of a sharpener. But back to the YOD in the masoretic כָּאֲרִי ka’ari of Psalm 22:17.

The difference was whether the original word ended with a VAV or a YOD.” During the 700-year period 400 BCE – 300CE, Hebrew progressively decreased in use. The Jewish scholars of the period, though, retained their expertise in Hebrew. The most ancient translations of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) is the Greek Koine Septuagint (Koine “folk speech”) and the Latin Vulgate of St Jerome ( “vulgar” latin – vulgaris “folk speech”), which was translated from the Septuagint. The Septuagint was translated in Alexandria between the third and second centuries BCE. As I mentioned, some modern Jewish (and non-Jewish) scholars argue that the Septuagint is inaccurate. What is beyond doubt is that it was widely used by the common man and in the synagogues, which indicates that the Septuagint could not have been flawed; otherwise it would never have been used in the jot and tittle synagogues. When a Jew says jot and tittle, he means it literally. What is the “jot”? It is the YOD י . And the tittle? That’s the little thorny bit at the top of the י.

Now here’s a funny thing. When it came to translating Psalm 22:17, the Septuagint translators – Hebrew scholars Bar NUN – did with their linguistic skills what Joshua (Yehoshua) did with his sword; they liberated the Tanakh and made it accessible to all. But not – on their lives – at the cost of doctoring the text.

Mark Eastman writes:

“When we examine these ancient translations of the Tanakh we find that in each case the word in question is translated from Hebrew into the Greek, Syriac or Latin word equivalent to “pierced.” The ancient rabbis commissioned to translate the Tanakh into the Septuagint and the ancient Targums were apparently convinced that the word in question was indeed “pierced!” The fact that Christian translators (who translated the Hebrew Tanakh into the Latin vulgate) translated the same word as pierced, was not an issue at the time! They were simply following what the rabbis had done hundreds of years previously. However, since the “piercing” of Jesus of Nazareth, the translation of this word has become a major point of controversy. Not only do most contemporary rabbis deny the Messianic application of this verse, some have even stated that Christians fabricated the translation themselves! According to Samuel Levine: “That verse of ‘they pierced my hands and feet,’ which seems to point to Jesus, is a mistranslation, according to all of the classical Jewish scholars, who knew Hebrew perfectly. In fact, the Christians have invented a new word in the process, which is still not in the Hebrew dictionary” Mr. Levine is correct about one thing here. The ancient rabbis knew Hebrew perfectly well. But there is no doubt that the word translated as “pierced” was in their dictionaries because they rendered it that way in the Septuagint and the Targums! Both of these documents were translated some two hundred years before the birth of Jesus. The Hebrew word which translates as “pierced” is the word “karv,” and was certainly the word those ancient scholars translated. Modern Jewish Bibles translate the word in question as “like a lion.” Obviously these are two very different meanings for what should be the same word in the biblical text. So where does this radical difference in rendering come from? The Jewish Publication Society relies on the Massoretic Hebrew text for the translation of their version of the Bible. However, this text is dated to approximately 800-1000 CE The writers of the Septuagint, the Targums and the early Christian Bibles relied on much more ancient texts.”

I have put Eastman’s “karv” in bold, which I explain here. Eastman says: “The Hebrew word which translates as “pierced” is the word “karv.” he is trying to convey that the word ends in a V(av). The Hebrew is pronounced Ka’aru. How do you get a u from the VAV to give ka’aru? The “u” in ka’aru – the English sound “oo” – consists of the letter V(AV) and a dot, as in






The V with the dot gives an “oo” sound.

Mark Eastman asks:

“Was the rejection of Jesus’ Messianic claims by the first century rabbis the motive behind the changing of the text as well as its interpretation? We may never know.”

We may never know, but it does make you think back to those faithful Jewish Septuagint translators, and forward to the modern rabbis who are on a frantic mission  to prevent Christians from lionising the cross.

Here is the conclusion to the best article I’ve read on the “they pierced” controversy” (by Glenn Miller  – “Did the Christians simply invent the “pierced my hands and feet” passage in Psalm 22?):

In the article, one of the important things shown is that the Septuagint translated the whole Tanakh, and existed centuries BCE. As I argued in my article (with Hegg’s admirable help) “they pierced” was the translation of the Hebrew text that was in plain sight before the JEWISH translators eyes. Thus “they pierced” is not merely
JE(sus)WISHful thinking.

Here is the conclusion to Miller’s article:

So, where does this leave us on what the ‘original’ or ‘furthest back’ reading was [OF PSALM 22 – “like a lion,” “they pierced”]?

1. “Like a lion” is rejected for a number of reasons by scholars: makes no sense, MT manuscript evidence against it, all the earliest translations (not interpretive paraphrases) reject it, its highly unusual form (for the ‘like a lion’ expression), the conclusive existence of the verb reading at Qumran, and even ancient rabbinic rejection of the meaning.

2. The textual witnesses line up historically like this:

* The earliest is the LXX, which has “they pierced”
* The next witness is Qumran, which has “they pierced”
* The next witness is Aquila’s first edition, which is best explained as a transposition of letters from “they pierced”
* The next witness is the Peshitta, which has “they pierced”
* The next witnesses are A2/S/J, which have “they tied”, which can be seen as a ‘reasonable’ mis-understanding from “they pierced”
* We don’t get “like a lion” for centuries after these witnesses, and even then there are MT variants representing “they pierced”
* Later Jewish writers (e.g., Rashi) follow the MT (surprise, surprise), but one or two midrashic writers understand this as a verb, instead of “like a lion”

This sequence alone would make a strong case for “they pierced”.

3. Of the remaining two major candidates (i.e., ‘pierced’ and ‘tied’), ‘pierced’ is to be preferred since:

# It occurs in the earliest manuscripts we have (LXX)
# Its root is widely attested, whereas ‘tied’ does not even occur in all of existent Hebrew writing
# It is not a ‘strange’ way to say this–it is not to be rejected for its infrequency
# It provides a plausible basis from which to reconstruct (a) the midrashic/masoretic comments; (b) the MT textual variants; and (c) the Greek , non-LXX variants
# It makes more sense in the immediate context.

Accordingly, I have to conclude that “pierced” is the better reading of the alternatives–under the praxis of textual criticism.


But… (says Miller) my turn to ask a question of priority: why is anyone “arguing” much about this text?

It is not cited or alluded to in the New Testament anywhere, so there is no real ‘theological agenda’ here. [Certainly the biblical scholar and Church Father Jerome saw no problem with this being other than ‘pierced’.]

The ‘pierced’ quotations in the NT are from the Zechariah passage, NOT from this one. Psalm 22 is cited/alluded to a couple of times as messianic (of course), but not this verse. In fact, the strongest argument I can find against the ‘pierced’ understanding above is that it is NOT MENTIONED in the NT Passion Narratives (although it might be superfluous after Zechariah, which is a stronger messianic passage for the point of the New Testament). This question, accordingly, is a textual problem–not a theological one.


Leon  at the RoshPinaproject makes the following point out about the controversy: “And heck this doesn’t worry me anyway, because its not a verse ever referred to in the New Covenant.” Seems right.

Addendum 26 January 2018.

I have added this graphic in response to Alex’s comment:

Screenshot_2019-01-25 The Psalm 22 16 Controversy New Evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls - viewcontent cgi(1).png