Psalms 22: The Crucifixion Psalm

“Like a lion” or “Pierced”?

A few Psalms have been proven to be as controversial as this Psalm. Where some contend that this is an unequivocal reference to the suffering and death of Jesus the Messiah, others maintain that there can’t be a reference to Jesus since to get there one must deceptively and deliberately mistranslate the text. Claims like these are repeated like a beating drum throughout an article of one rabbi Tovia Singer, who is known for his unrelenting criticism of Christianity which he loves to smear with similar allegations claiming that Christians “manipulated, mis- quoted, mistranslated, and even fabricated verses” and “deliberately mistranslated the Hebrew word kaari” and “deliber- ately twisted their translations” and so on, you get the point. Muslims seem to have finally found Singer and seem to use his arguments more frequently to attack the New Testament of course with the goal to clear the path for their false prophet Muhammad. With this they use the tactic “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and it can hardly get any more ironic than the fact that they have embraced as a “friend” a thoroughly Zionist orthodox Jew, whom they wouldn’t otherwise trust for a second since he happens to be one of “al Yahood” (the Jews) that the Quran and Muhammad have been railing against so much in their sources. But even so, Muslims gladly and with gratitude use the work of Tovia Singer in whom they think to have found a companion in their Jihad against Christian apologetics.

We all know the descriptions of the suffering of Jesus in the New Testament. The words “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” speak to the heart of every Christian, form the lips of our Lord Jesus as recorded through the Gospels. Also the words in Psalm 22:9 “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” immediately call into remembrance Matthew 27:42-43. Also the words of Psalm 22:19 “they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” we find in Matthew 27:35. So there are more than enough links to be found in this Psalm that directly take us to Jesus of Natzereth. However, these verses are not the reason why this Psalm is so controversial. There is one verse that particularly has the interest of both anti-missionary Jews and Muslims alike. That particular verse tends to paint a stark resemblance of a crucifixion, which the Quran[1] vehemently denies ever happened – and thereby directly contradicts the historical record – and this is where Muslims thankfully cling to the work of Tovia Singer, thinking they have that silver bullet that has been eluding them for so long.

Psalm 22:17 (verse 16 in the translations)

For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet (ESV)

For dogs have encompassed me; a company of evildoers have encircled me; like a lion [they are at] my hands and feet (ESV)

It is this text specifically that paints the picture of a crucifixion and completes as a whole the entire picture as far as the fulfillment of the New Testament is concerned: Jesus calls to the Father with a loud voice “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” and the mockers surround him at the foot of the cross saying that God should rescue him because he has delight in Jesus, they shake their heads and ridicule him, divide his clothes and cast the lot over it, he is thirsty and his tongue cleaves to his jaw and in a climactic parallel to the Psalm they pierce his hands and his feet. But that is the entire point of dispute: Does this speak of a crucifixion at all? Is the translation correct or not? Does the text speak of being pierced or does it speak of a lion?

There are some variants in the Masoretic Text Tradition (MT) that speak of “pierced” but by far the majority of the Masoretic manuscripts read “like a lion”. The difference between the two is one letter:

     כארי   (ka’ari) Like a lion

     כארו   (ka’aru) they dug/bore through

As you can see, the difference is small but significant at the same time. Which is the correct reading? To help us find out we’ll have to look at other witnesses of this text. There so happen to be are older witnesses of the text that do not read as the majority of the Masoretic Text:


Ancient versions of Psalm 22:17
Source Text Translation
The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) כארו They dug/bore through
The Septuagint (LXX) ὥρυξαν ōruxan They pierced
The Peshitta They pierced
The Aramaic Targum נָכְתִין … כְּאַרְיָא They bite like a lion


Of these texts the DSS[2] and the LXX are ancient witnesses that speak for the translation “pierced/bore through” and prove that this translation is neither a Christian fabrication, nor have Christians “meticulously shaped and painstakingly retrofitted” or “tampered with” the text, as claimed by Tovia Singer. These are pre-Christian texts that existed long before there were any Christians on the face of the earth. Tovia Singer, as is true to form with this man, simply doesn’t inform his audience that there are different readings of this text. As one listens more often to Tovia Singer one learns that the crux of the matter is not so much in what he tells his audience, but that which he conveniently leaves out of his presentations is key.

As an example of what Tovia Singer doesn’t tell his audience and pretends he makes a strong case in demonstrating how manipulative Christians are being with their translations. Singer claims that Christians consistently translate the word כארי (ka’ari) as like a lion everywhere else it is used in the Tanakh. To prove this he uses Isaiah 38:13 as an example, where indeed the word כארי is translated as “like a lion” and says Psalm 22:17 is the only place in all of the Jewish Scriptures that any Christian Bible translates kaari as “pierced.” With this claim Tovia Singer does two things:

  1. He pretends without merit that ka’ari is the only reading of the text and that Christians take that word and translate it as “ka’ari”. But that is the entire dispute! Ka’ari is not even the only Hebrew reading of the text.
  2. He goes all the way to Isaiah to prove that ka’ari should be translated as like a lion. There is a reason Tovia Singer doesn’t stick to the Psalms to demonstrate his point, even though there are many other places where the Psalmist uses the expression like a lion.

As we have already seen the suggested reading from Tovia Singer is not the only reading of Psalm 22:17. As if the first point wasn’t devastating enough, the second point really takes it home and makes the case that the reading likely isn’t ka’ari, but rather ka’aru. The Psalmist often uses the phrase like a lion and Singer knows this, deliberately ignores it and doesn’t mention it for the following reason: everywhere the expression like a lion is used in the Psalms it is consistently used with a different spelling than we supposedly see in Psalm 22:17. The spelling everywhere else in the psalms is never כארי of ארי (aleph-resh-yod) as suggested by Singer, but always spelled as אריה (aleph-resh-yod-hey):

Psalms 7:2 reads כְּאַרְיֵה
Psalms 10:9 reads כְּאַרְיֵה
Psalms 17:12 reads כְּאַרְיֵה
Psalms 22:13 reads אריה
Psalms 22:21 reads אריה

So we are supposed to believe that the Psalmist never uses the spelling ארי (ari) in none of his writings, not even in the very Psalm itself (verses 13 and 21) and yet when it comes to verse 17 he all of a sudden deviates from the only spelling he has ever used to write ari instead of the habitual אריה (aryeh)? Is it possible? Anything is possible. But is it likely to the point that it merits Singer’s boastful claims? I repeat, Tovia Singer knows the Psalmist never uses his suggested spelling ארי (ari) but always uses the spelling אריה (aryeh), all the while pointing the finger at Christians being deceptive and manipulative while he himself keeps vital information from his own audience. Stone, meet Glass House! This is the reason Singer went to Isaiah 38:13, because he knows there was no example for his narrative in the Psalms. In fact the Psalms testify against his suggested reading and therefore the evidence as a whole testifies against Singer’s entire point that this should read as ka’ari. Especially given the testimony of the DSS and the LXX, which contain much older readings than the MT.

Another argument against the reading of Tovia Singer is that the reading he argues for doesn’t contain a verb. The text would read as follows:

  1. For dogs have encompassed me;
  2. a company of evildoers have encircled me;
  3. like a lion [??] my hands and feet

As one can see 17a and 17b both have a verb to complete the sentence. This verb is completely absent in 17c. Like a lion my hands and my feet… what exactly?? As shown in the table above the Aramaic Targum has כאריה (spelled in conformity with the rest of the Psalms) but is forced to add the verb to נָכְתִין (nakhtin) complete the sentence. This verb, however, is not to be found in the Hebrew text. The DSS and LXX do contain the verb:

  1. For dogs have encompassed me;
  2. a company of evildoers have encircled me;
  3. they pierced my hands and feet

the “Christian” reading is more complete, more consistent and older than the reading Tovia Singer is suggesting based on the majority of the Masoretic Text. Interestingly, the reading suggested by Tovia Singer is also utilized by the JPS (Jewish Publication Society) and in their translation they have the footnote on verse 17 reading “meaning of Hebrew uncertain”, doing the honest thing suggesting there are other readings of the verse. Everything considered it is clear that things aren’t as rosy as Singer portrays them to be to his audience.

Desperate attempts

Not being the ones to give up easily the “counter-missionaries” have a few other arguments against us that they think to be valid.

Counter argument 1: the word כארו (ka’aru) doesn’t exist. The correct conjugation of the verb כרה (kara) is כרו (karu).

The entire counter argument is that the aleph is added to the word where it doesn’t belong. Granted, the spelling כארו (kaaru) is unusual as the correct spelling is כרו (karu). However, the addition of the aleph as “mater lectionis” in Biblical texts is not unusual. Examples of this are פתאים instead ofפתים  in Psalm 116:6 and Prov 1:4; קאם instead of קם in Hos 10.14; ראמות instead of רמות’ in 1 Chron 6.65. This, in conjunction with the fact that all the extant ancient readings have a verb in 17c, speaks for the reading ka’aru, with mater lectionis, as the correct reading.

Counter argument 2: even if kaaru/karu is the correct reading, then still you don’t get a crucifixion, since the verb means to dig/bore through and not to pierce.

The verb kara has a range of meanings. Even if the literal meaning is to dig/bore through it can still be applied in different ways, even in the sense of making a hole in something or opening something. In fact, Psalm 40:7 the word kara is used for that exact purpose, with the meaning of piercing or making a hole in an ear as to open it:

In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have opened my ears (אָזְנַיִם, כָּרִיתָ לִּי).

This shows that the word has a wider range than anti-missionaries all of a sudden want to limit it to. Obviously the point of the text is not that God has dug ears for the subject, but that he has opened his ears. This reading is as valid in Psalm 40 as it is in Psalm 22 and it is entirely within reason to postulate that the Jewish translators of the LXX (again, made long before there were such thing as Christians) interpreted the word as such: as boring through the hands and feet.

Counter argument 3: the LXX is not a reliable witness because it is a Christian work. Only the Torah was translated by the 72 rabbis from which the Septuagint derives its name. the Psalms were not translated by those rabbis.

This is also an argument that rabbi Tovia Singer utilizes in his article about Psalm 22 and it is usually used as a Hail Mary to discredit the LXX as legitimate so that one doesn’t even have to consider it at all. If all else has failed, let’s just blow up the entire building. In his article Tovia Singer, in order to prove that the LXX is “completely corrupt”, argues that in the Talmud tractates Megila 9a and 9b it is explained how the 72 rabbis inserted a number of unique readings that are no longer found in the current LXX:

“Furthermore, even the current Septuagint of the Five Books of Moses is almost entirely a complete corruption of the original Greek translation that was compiled by the 72 rabbis more than 2,200 years ago at the request of King Ptolemy II of Egypt.9 This fact is well known to us because the Talmud10 records how these 72 translators distinctly rendered 15 phrases of the Torah in their translation. Of these 15 unique translations, only two are extant.11 It’s clear that the Septuagint’s version of the Torah is a corruption of the original translation made by the 72 Jewish scribes. In addition, the rest of the Septuagint is a translation by Christian scholars with a strong motive to twist the messages of the Jewish Bible”

And in the footnote below the article Singer writes:

“Of these 15 phrases which appeared in the original Septuagint (Genesis 1:1; 1:26; 2:2; 5:2; 11:7; 18:12; 49:6; Exodus 4:20; 12:40; 24:5; 24:11; Leviticus 11:6; Numbers 16:15; Deuteronomy 4:19; 17:3), only Genesis 2:2 and Exodus 12:40 are found in the current Septuagint.”

Anyone looking at these 15 references in the current LXX will see that they do differ from the readings as stated in the Talmud. And if we give Tovia Singer the benefit of the doubt and for argument sake accept the claims from the Talmud[3] as true then that this is a deviation from what the rabbis have translated into Greek. But the problem for Tovia Singer is that the alleged changes in the “original LXX” now read as we find them in the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT). So if the rabbinic translators translated the text as stated in the Talmud and the translation is amended to read like the MT and Singer holds that the MT is the original text, why then does he complain that the text of the LXX was adjusted to read more like the MT? Singer wants his cake and eat it to, it seems. He wants the world to know how rotten and corrupt the LXX is when he criticizes the New Testament (the New Testament extensively quotes form the LXX) because the LXX often doesn’t read exactly like the MT. He then uses that as evidence of how unreliable the LXX truly is. But now that the LXX supposedly is amended to read exactly like the MT Singer still wants to complain that this proves the LXX is “completely corrupt”? If anything one would think Singer would be thrilled the LXX now reads more like the MT. But, as expected, when it comes to Singer and the LXX it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

In addition, Singer commits a logical fallacy. It doesn’t logically follow that those 15 places where the current LXX differs from the Talmud are evidence of “complete corruption” of the LXX. Especially now that they read like the MT. It is only evidence if one takes the giant leap and regards the Talmudic account as accurate. However, it’s clear that the LXX is a pre-Christian translation that was widely used by Hellenistic Jews throughout the Roman Empire long before a single Christian existed. Yes it is true that the reports about the 72 rabbis translating the LXX only limit the scope to the Torah, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the LXX is an unreliable translation. If anything it is quite telling that the rabbinic revolt against the LXX only came about when Christians en mass started using the LXX.

Conclusion: whether Psalm 22:17 reads “like a lion” or whether it reads “pierced” one thing is clear from the text: something horrible is being done to the hands and feet of the subject in the Psalm. Whether this happens by people biting/boring through the hands and feet like a lion or whether people pierce the hands and feet is irrelevant since these are two different descriptions of the same thing. But if we do have to decide between the two readings and we look at all the available data before us, then the reading of the DSS and the LXX are likely the correct reading, not that of the MT. That said, the data also shows there can’t be any accusations of Christian mistranslation or deception either. The translation “they pierced my hands and feet” simply is a valid translation that does justice to the text.

[1] Surah 4:157 of the Quran

[2] The tekst of Nahal Hever. The word ka’aru is underlined with red and the waw at the end of the word underlined with yellow. You can clearly see that the word ends with a waw, which is ka’aru, and not with a yod, so not ka’ari. The following word starts with a yod (yaday – also underlined with yellow) there is a clear difference between the last letter of the red underlined word and the first letter with yellow underlining.


[3] The claims of the Talmud are so far-fetched that one may wonder if the original LXX was ever translated as claimed. For example, it is claimed in Megila 9a:

“In addition, they replaced the verse: “And Sarah laughed within herself [bekirba]” (Genesis 18:12), with: And Sarah laughed among her relatives [bikroveha]. They made this change to distinguish between Sarah’s laughter, which God criticized, and Abraham’s laughter, to which no reaction is recorded. “

The problem with this is that not only wasn’t there a reaction to Abraham’s laughter, there is nothing in the text that Abraham even laughed at all. Therefore the entire basis for this supposed change of the Greek translation doesn’t even exist. It’s completely absent. Another example is the following claim:

And they wrote for him: God created in the beginning [bereshit], reversing the order of the words in the first phrase in the Torah that could be misinterpreted as: “Bereshit created God” (Genesis 1:1). They did so to negate those who believe in the preexistence of the world and those who maintain that there are two powers in the world: One is Bereshit, who created the second, God.

This also doesn’t make any sense. The Greek translation would not contain the word “bereshit”, because that is a Hebrew word. The Greek translation would read as it reads now: ΕΝ ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ Θεὸς. Who would ever think that an entity called “En arche” (in the beginning)  could have been mistaken for the creator of God as the LXX reads now? Again, there is no basis whatsoever to change the order of the Greek sentence simply because a word from the original Hebrew language, that would even be used in the Greek translation in the first place, would have been mistaken for being the creator of God.