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Many Christians believe Psalm 22 refers to Jesus of Nazareth. How have Jews historically understood Psalm 22 and interpreted it?

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4 Answers 4

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This article, by Prof. Rivka Ulmer, might answer some of your questions... She writes (pg. 108): "Prior to the attestation in the New Testament, there is no evidence of Psalm 22 being used in a Jewish messianic context... Jewish interpretations of the Psalm identify the individual in the Psalm with a royal figure, alternatively interpreted as King David, King Hezekiah, or Queen Esther." She discusses several early Jewish and Christian sources, including the ones cited above:

Megillah 15b (her translation):

And stood in the inner court of the king’s house (Esther 5:1). R. Levi said: When she reached the chamber of the idols,the Divine Presence left her. She said, My God, My God, why have You forsaken me? (Ps. 22:2). Is it possible that You punish the inadvertent sin like the presumptuous one, or one done under compulsion like one committed willingly? Or is it because I called [Ahasuerus] “dog,” as it says Save my soul from the sword, my only one from the power of the dog? (Ps. 22:21). She immediately retracted and called him “lion,” as it says, Save me from the lion’s mouth (Ps. 22:22).

She discusses many others, including Midrash Tehillim and its interpretation of this psalm as referring to David's life as a shepherd (which is too lengthy to type out here but you can read it in Esther Menn's article here), as well as how this psalm is (mis)translated and utilized in the Christian tradition. I hope this helps.

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Prof. Ulmer's DSS examples are better than the ones you alluded to from Megillah and Midrash Tehillim, if only because the latter two are post-Christianity, and therefore cannot be taken as evidence of pre-Christian Jewish exegesis (+1 though). – Shimon bM Jan 12 '13 at 7:50
This answer suggested Christian bibles mistranslate Psalm 22. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls, written before the time of Jesus, contain the very translation Christians use. See here: – Judah Himango Dec 16 '13 at 18:53
@NoamSienna. Nice work. Very clear and informative. Answered this question that I had as well. – Yochanan Michael May 5 '14 at 20:13
@JudahHimango, if the word is as written in the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is still not spelled correctly. It would make it an unknown Hebrew word (as Wikipedia elaborates), with no traditional support other than the LXX as to what it might mean. – Yishai Nov 18 '14 at 3:23
Yishai, the text in question, כארו, indeed contains the extra aleph. However, scholars have suggested it is merely an alternate spelling for כרו, "to dig" or "to pierce." What we are certain of is, since the recent discovery at Nachal Hever, the most ancient witness of the text demonstrates the word in question cannot be כארי ("like a lion"), as the last letter is visibly a vav, not a yud. My original point stands: the above answer wrongly implies a Christian mistranslation; the oldest extant copies of Ps 22 align with "to dig/pierce" rather than "like a lion". – Judah Himango Nov 18 '14 at 20:15

Rashi's commentary seems to indicate that it refers to the plight of the Jewish Nation in Exile.

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How old is Rashi's commentary? I was hoping to find something BCE. – Dan Jan 11 '13 at 20:47
It says, "Our Sages, however, interpreted it as referring to Esther (Mid. Ps. 22:1, Meg. 15b)." Where could I find these works. I do not know what the abbreviations are for. – Dan Jan 11 '13 at 20:59
Rashi is circa the 11th century CE. You will probably not find anything BCE - the earliest rabbinic commentaries began emerging around the end of the Second Temple period, in the first century CE. The abbreviations refer to Midrash Tehillim, an early medieval commentary on Psalms, and Megillah, a masekhet in the Babylonian Talmud. In a few minutes I'll post a comment with those sources. – Noam Sienna Jan 11 '13 at 21:01
@NoamSienna Thank you! If they are available online I would like to read them. I appreciate it! – Dan Jan 11 '13 at 21:10

A good place to look to find refutations of Christian messianic interpretations of the bible is Sefer Nitzachon, printed in Otzar Vikuchim by Dr. J. D. Eisenstein.

This is his answer to this specific case (p. 256): The Christian claim is that Jesus was crying to G-d, his father, "Why have you abandoned me?" at the time he was being executed. But according to Christian philosophy, Jesus wanted to go down to earth in flesh and blood in order to save all the sinners from hell through his death. If he really wanted to die in order to atone for mankind, why was he crying out why G-d abandoned him? Would he really say "I will call out but I am not answered" if he didn't want or intend to be answered? Furthermore, he refers to "our fathers" (v. 5) — but Christians claim he is the son of G-d, and if so how could he have multiple fathers? Would a representation of G-d on earth call himself a "worm"* (v. 7)? How can he refer to his brothers (v. 23) if an only son of G-d has no brothers? Why does he praise the descendants of Ya'akov and Yisra'el for honoring G-d (v. 24) if they were the ones killing him, the son of G-d?

This blog post quotes the Radak as challenging the Christian interpretations in pretty much the same words. (This challenge is censored from most current editions of his commentary.)

As for Jewish interpretations of this chapter, other answers have already preceded me. Targum Yonasan (online here, apparently translated into English here) is the oldest written rabbinic interpretation we have on it (c. 450 B.C. according to linked site). He reads it pretty much the same way as Rashi.

*There is a misprint in Otzar Vikuchim where he substitutes תועלת for תולעת. This is an obvious misprint, and תולעת is the version in the actual verse.

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I'm an interested party and while this is an interesting refutation of the Christian interpretation (and one I will think on), it doesn't really answer the question. Rather, as I understand it, the question is looking for positive interpretations. ("What does the Psalm mean?" rather than "What doesn't the Psalm mean?", in other words.) – Jon Ericson Jan 11 '13 at 21:51
I added a paragraph to address your concern. – b a Jan 11 '13 at 22:29
Awesome. Thanks! – Jon Ericson Jan 11 '13 at 22:35
@ba thanks for the update. I didn't want to edit your answer as it is a simple typo, but I believe you mean Targum Yonatan, not Yonasan ;) Thanks again for your response! I appreciate it! – Dan Jan 11 '13 at 22:46
@DanO'Day I typically write with traditional Ashkenazi transliteration, in which the letter ת when spelled without a dagesh (dot) is pronounced "s." – b a Jan 11 '13 at 22:48

In an old Jews for Jesus brochure I saved from my college days, there is a section that quotes several Biblical verses which they say foretell the life of Christ. One of these is Psalms 22:16 (verse 17 in our Bible), which they translate as "They pierced my hands and feet." This supposedly foretells the crucifixion of Jesus where his hands and feet were pierced by the nails that hung him to the cross. One problem, it doesn't work in Hebrew.

The Psalm describes the angst of the psalmist who is surrounded by enemies and asks why G-d has forsaken him (Rabbi David Kimchi (the Radak b 1160) said this refers not to a person, but to the Jews in the Babylonian exile). Psalms 22:17 says in Hebrew: "k'ari b'yadai v'raglai" ("Like a lion [the enemies] are at my hands and feet"). The disputed word here is "k'ari" which is spelled kaph - aleph - resh - yud. Most graduates of a Hebrew school education know that an ari is a lion, and that the use of the letter "kaph" before a word means "like" or "as." The Christians appear to have invented a new Hebrew word which they pronounce "koari" yet no such word exists in Hebrew with the same spelling. There is a similar sounding word to koari that is used to mean to dig, or perhaps bore (as in a hole), although there are better words for that. But the spelling is much different. In "koari" there is no letter aleph as there is in the word k'ari and no grammatical reason for dropping it.

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While the Masoretic Text (MT) upon which most modern Jewish bibles are based does indeed read כארי (k'ari, like a lion), the Dead Sea Scrolls, which predate the MT by nearly 1000 years, read כארו (ka'aru, they dug, they pierce). Scholars suggest this is an ancient alternate spelling of כרו, as the ancient text demonstrates the word cannot be k'ari, given the final letter is visibly a vav, not a yud. – Judah Himango Nov 18 '14 at 20:28

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