“They Pierced My Hands and Feet” – A Brief Reply to @Cato_37 on Psalm 22 and the LXX

Both of my readers know that I am a glutton for punishment. If I’m not wading into the waters of bad Christian apologetics or exegesis, then I’m drowning in the waters of bad atheist exegesis. Today’s post will be the former. 

On Twitter I followed an exchange between some atheists and a Christian with the handle @Cato_37. The thread to which this conversation belongs is weeks old and I don’t plan on recounting it here. What I want to discuss are these two tweets: 

Kevin Peter shifts the conversation onto the subject of Psalm 22:16 which he contends “Christians mistranslated to make it fit” their particular narrative about Jesus. Here is the verse: “For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled” (NRSV).[1] A footnote in the NRSV after the word “shriveled” reads, “Meaning of Heb[rew] uncertain.” By comparison, the ESV renders v. 16 as, “For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet.” A footnote after “feet” reads, “Some Hebrew manuscripts, Septuagint, Vulgate, Syriac; most Hebrew manuscripts like a lion [they are at] my hands and feet.” It is not my intention here to go over why there is such variation in translation. Rather, I want to focus in on Cato’s retort regarding the contested reading. He said, “The LXX and Dead Sea Scrolls, each of which predate the Masoretic Texts to which you refer by 1000 years, translate this word as ‘dug out,’ rather than ‘like a lion.’” 

I’m not sure on the reading in the DSS so I won’t comment on it. The LXX is, however, something I’m familiar enough with, and Cato is correct: the reading in Psalm 22:16 (21:17 LXX) is, “They pierced my hands and feet.” Now, Cato sees in this a reference to the crucifixion but none of the NT authors did which is quite telling given their propensity to find Jesus everywhere. Regardless, this text need not describe crucifixion at all since there are other ways one’s hands and feet can become “pierced.” Here’s Allen Ross in his commentary on the psalms: 

The expression “they pierced (punctured)” the hands and the feet fits the contextual description of scavenging dogs. They nip and bite, and in the process puncture the extended limbs.[2]

In other words, in its own context the reference to the piercing of the psalmist’s limbs makes sense given the imagery of the text. He’s as good as dead and the “dogs” are ready to have their fill of him.[3]

But let’s assume for a moment that it is about Jesus’ death and that the reading in the LXX to which Cato appeals is correct. What about v. 2 (v. 1 MT)? Here are the MT and the LXX side-by-side. 

Psalm 22:1 (MT)Psalm 21:2 (LXX)
ʾēlî ʾēlî lāmâ ʿzbtny rāḥōwq mîšûʿātî dbry šaʾăgātî῾O theos ho theos mou, prosches moi; hina ti enkatelipes me? makran apo tēs sōtērias mou hoi logoi tōn paraptōmatōn mou.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?O God, my God, attend to me. For what purpose did you abandon me? Far away from my salvation are the words of my transgressions.
(Lexham English Septuagint)

It should be apparent that the MT and LXX differ on a number of points, the most significant of which is the end of the verse. Whereas the MT speaks of “the words of my groaning,” the LXX refers to “the words of my transgressions.” This is problematic for Cato’s view.

In reply to Kevin Peter’s claim that the reason the NT writers didn’t quote Psalm 22:16 because “it doesn’t mean what [Cato is] claiming,” Cato responds by noting that “Jesus refers to the beginning of the chapter on the cross.” That is, even though the specific verse isn’t referred to (i.e. v. 16), because Jesus refers to the first part of the psalm then the whole psalm is clearly messianic and prophetic. But Cato also prefers the LXX’s reading over the MT. If he thinks the psalm is prophetic and about Jesus, then he must think that Jesus committed some kind of offense against God to warrant his death. Cato thinks Jesus is a sinner!

Or maybe Cato is just picking and choosing what he thinks fits and doesn’t on the basis of his Christocentric reading of the psalms, divorcing the language from its original context and imposing upon it a reading its original author and audience probably would not recognize. 

In other words, eisegesis.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all citations of scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011), 1:540.

[3] See the discussion in Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 115-116.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

11 thoughts on ““They Pierced My Hands and Feet” – A Brief Reply to @Cato_37 on Psalm 22 and the LXX

  1. The best treatment I’ve encountered on that verse is Paul Davidson’s. I think it’s fair to say that “pierced” is probably a poor choice for the translation.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I wish I had known about this post sooner! Thank you for sharing it!


  2. The irony here is that, like the NT authors like to do, one could borrow the Psalm 22 passage as a non-literal description of Jesus in retrospect rather than a literal prophecy forecasting details about Jesus. Psalm 22 is still the psalmist lamenting being surrounded by enemies who are harming him. Jesus was surrounded by enemies harming him. It actually works far better as something that was “fulfilled” by Jesus if you drop the insistence that the problematic details must be correct.

    One of my favorite demonstrations of this is Matthew 2:18, where the author says that the execution of infants in Bethlehem is a “fulfillment” of Jeremiah 31. The author does not change “Ramah” to read “Bethlehem.” He knows it’s a description of Israelite sons being taken captive into Babylon. He knows the text is not literally or directly about what the story he includes. But Israelite children being taken captive by an oppressive power as a prelude to national deliverance is something that Matthew sees happening with Jesus, and the author uses that text to explain Jesus to us because the overall meaning can be applied to explain what Matthew is sharing, not because it’s a detailed forecast of exactly what happens.

    If someone said to me that Psalm 22 can’t be a prophecy about Jesus because “pierced” is an unlikely translation, I wouldn’t argue that it’s actually the right translation; I’d argue that Old Testament prophecies virtually never work that way / are understood that way, even within their own proximate context.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is quite interesting, as you say, that the NT authors make no attempt to incorporate Psalm 22:17 LXX into the passion story. Don’t the evangelists only state that Jesus was “crucified”? The only thing he is actually pierced by is the Roman spear it seems.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. And there, in the Gospel of John, he quotes a passage from Zechariah, not the Psalms (“they shall look upon him whom they have pierced”). Bizarre!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. He was pierced for our transgressions only after he died! The Isaiah 53 doesn’t come up at the cross either, huh? Pretty weird.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. It’s kinda interesting how later Christians latched on to certain OT ‘prophetic’ texts that the NT authors were seemingly uninterested in. The binding of Isaac being the big one, but also the serpent striking Eve’s child in the heel in Genesis 3.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. It is. I think part of that is the early Greco-Roman philosopher-theologians’ distance from Jewish thought and concerns, and along with that was the active desire by some to wrest the Scriptures from Judaism altogether. Oh, the Akedah is important to your national self-consciousness? Welp, turns out it was just a shadow play about Jesus.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Yes. Although I could also see the author of John expecting the audience to connect the dots via images and allusions rather than straight up citations. Being stricken with the spear seems like a big deal to GoJ.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Well said. The NT writers were sophisticated readers–I think they understood types and the repeating of history. The way Christians tend to understand OT prophecy is incredibly limiting.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. The DSS does not say “they dug”, that would be כרו. Instead it says כארו, which isn’t a real word. If it were a verb כרו we’d expect the connector את to immediately follow: it doesn’t. So that eliminates that possibility of the scribe inserting an extra א. So likely he extended the terminating yud (י)to have a sloppy letter that appears to be a ו.

    I explain the DSS issue at: http://thenonapologist.com/psalm-22-dig-it/

    Liked by 1 person

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