Few verses in the Bible have produced as much debate and commentary as Psalm 22:16: “For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.”1 The discussions center on the last character (reading right to left) of the Hebrew וראכ (“pierced/dug”), assumed to be the word from which the Septuagint Greek ὢρυξαν (“they have pierced”) was translated—assumed because the original Hebrew texts from which the Septuagint was translated are no longer extant. If the last character of the Hebrew word was a waw (ו), as the Greek seems to indicate, then the translation “pierced” is tenable. But a later Hebrew text called the Masoretic text has a yod (י) instead of a waw (ו), making the word יראכ, which translated into English reads “like a lion my hands and my feet.”2 Thus, two divergent possibilities have existed side by side for centuries, causing much speculation and debate. The controversy has often been heated, with large variations in modern translations into English, as evidenced by a brief survey of some important Bible translations:
“they pierced my hands and my feet” (King James Version)3
“they have pierced my hands and my feet” (New International Version and Revised Standard Version)4
“piercing my hands and my feet” (Anchor Bible)5
“they have hacked off my hands and my feet” (New English Bible)6
“as if to hack off my hands and my feet” (New Jerusalem Bible)7
“like a lion they mangle my hands and feet” (The Psalms for Today —R. K. Harrison)8
“like a lion they were at my hands and feet” (Tanakh, Jewish Publication Society)9
“my hands and feet have shriveled” (New Revised Standard Version)10
“they have bound me hand and foot” (Revised English Bible)11
“they tie me hand and foot” (Jerusalem Bible)12
Anciently, the debate was fought between Christians, who saw this verse as an indisputable prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and Jews, who denied the existence of prophetic references to Jesus in the Hebrew Bible. The battle continues in modern times between traditionalist scholars, who favor the ancient Christian interpretation, and some textual critics, who deny the existence of the prophecy of future events in the Bible.
Latter-day Saints should consider the debate in light of Joseph Smith’s claim that we “believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly.”13 Therefore, in studying the etymology of biblical passages, Latter-day Saints should use whatever tools of analysis are available to translate biblical texts correctly. One of these tools is to compare texts with similar texts and traditions in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Since the discovery of the Scrolls, scholars have been able to use them (mostly fragments of scrolls actually) to better understand the original meanings of Hebrew words and phrases. The same is true for the twenty-second Psalm. Evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls strongly supports the Septuagint translation “pierced” in verse 16.14
The Jewish translators of the Greek Septuagint in Alexandria, Egypt, about 200 BC surely had no idea what textual arguments they were engendering when they translated the Hebrew text of Psalm 22:16 into the Greek ὢρυξαν (“they pierced my hands and my feet”).15 Centuries later, the passage became a serious bone of contention between Jewish translators and Christian ones. Christian authors and apologists—who, up until the last few centuries, preferred the Greek Old Testament almost exclusively over the available Hebrew texts—have seen in the Greek an explicit reference to Christ and the crucifixion.16
Many centuries after the composition of the Greek Septuagint, the two sides of the controversy were so solidified that Jews and Christians could determine who had produced a Bible by turning to this verse. A story is told that one of the early rabbinic Bibles of the sixteenth century was originally to contain the reading of וראכ (“pierced/dug”) in Psalms 22:16. The Jew who was checking the proofs did not approve of this translation. He told the printer—the famous Daniel Bomberg—that if he did not restore יראכ (“like a lion”), no faithful Jew would ever buy copies of his translation.17
With the advent of modern textual criticism, יראכ (“like a lion”) has continued to have strong support, especially because many scholars have viewed with distrust any text that clearly fits a Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, suspecting textual tampering. The arguments against these types of texts are often circular. If a person does not believe that prophecy exists, any text that would appear to predate an event of which it speaks is disallowed and is believed to have been added after the actual event. To these scholars, the phrase “they pierced my hands and my feet” should be rejected, especially because it does not seem to fit the context of the verses around it: a victim surrounded and tormented by his enemies. The solution of these scholars has been to make educated guesses as to what textual gloss or error could have crept into the text and what the most likely original Hebrew reading was.18 On the other side, scholars who support the Septuagint reading have continued to make arguments in its support notwithstanding this and other objections. They argue that “pierced” fits the context without difficulty as long as the possibility of prophecy is not disallowed, pointing out that alternative proposals are even less satisfying.19
The Septuagint and Supporting Documents
From the advent of textual criticism until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint was recognized as reflecting one of the earliest textual traditions of the “proto-text” of the Hebrew Bible. Scholars strongly value the Septuagint because it was translated by Jews before the Jewish/Christian controversies. However, some evidence exists that the Septuagint was subjected to changes after its initial translation, and those changes could have been influenced by the later Jewish/Christian debates.20 While many well-known revisions beginning early in the second century ad reflect the state of the Septuagint text at that time,21 a small window of time remains from the beginning of the Jewish/Christian controversy until the appearance of later changes—a period of time in which the text could have been modified. This caution in regards to the Septuagint, combined with a modern distrust of scribal transmission in general, has caused many scholars to suspect that Christians tampered with the text in order to obtain the prophecy of Jesus.
In the case of Psalm 22:16, however, sufficient early witnesses show that, at least by the beginning of the Jewish/Christian controversy, the Septuagint text was solidified. For instance, the Peshitta, or Syriac version of the Old Testament, translated in the late first and second century ad, is believed to have been a Jewish translation directly from Hebrew, although in places the Septuagint appears to have been consulted.22 Whether from the Septuagint or from Hebrew manuscripts, the christological interpretation of the verse was greatly strengthened by the Peshitta’s rendering “they have pierced.”23
Thus, the Greek word ὢρυξαν (“they have pierced”) was accepted long ago as a third-person plural verb (instead of a noun), although disagreement as to the interpretation of that verb remained (it could mean dig, bury, gouge, or bore, as with a horn, pick, or sharp tool). Indeed, two important Jewish translators from the second century AD—Aquila and Symmachus—employed a third-person plural verb in this location, although they differed as to the meaning of the verb. Aquila’s first revision read ᾕσχυναν (“they have disfigured”). His second revision was given as ἑπέδησαν (“they have bound”).24 Symmachus translated the text in the late second century AD as ὥς ζητοῦντες δῆσω (“like those who seek to bind”).25 These two translations were given after the beginning of the Jewish/Christian controversy and thus were likely influenced by it. Even so, both translations support the existence of a third-person plural verb in the Septuagint, although they disagree as to how the verb should be translated.
The Masoretic Text
The grouping of the biblical books that came to comprise the canon of the Hebrew Bible (which was adopted and labeled by Christians as the “Old Testament”) is considered to have been chosen around AD 90 at the earliest. However, most evidence points to the existence of large textual variations within this collection until the end of the third century AD, with some continuing variations until the end of the fifth century AD.26 Sometime around the end of the second century AD the word יראכ (“like a lion”) as opposed to the third-person plural verb וראכ (“pierced/dug”) appears in Hebrew manuscripts. Eventually, יראכ came to be the majority Masoretic reading, and accordingly the less-well-attested וראכ appears as a variant reading in the Masoretic notes.27 יראכ definitely appears to have been in place by the sixth century AD, as it is supported by a Cairo Genizah palimpsest of the Hexapla, which reads ὥς λέων.28 The Targum, probably written in the third or fourth century AD, reads “They have opened their mouths at me, like a tearing and roaring lion.”29 In support of the argument that the יראכ (“like a lion”) reading in the Masoretic text had not shown up before the end of the second century AD, one can point not only to the Jewish translators Symmachus and Aquila, who do not follow it, but also to the second-century Christian apologist Justin, who frequently reproached the Jews for introducing textual changes to support their arguments but who says nothing about this particular passage.30
Evidence from Parallel Biblical Texts
One objection to the translation “pierced” given by modern scholars is that the traditional meaning for הרכ (the root from which וראכ derives) is “to dig” or “hollow out,”31 which does not seem to fit the piercing of the body by nails. However, Franz Delitszch, in support of the translation “pierced,” has appealed to a parallel Hebrew verb, רחנ, which is known to have the double meaning of “to dig” and “to bore,” as into the body (Judg. 16:21; 1 Sam. 11:3; and Job 30:17). Delitszch thus surmised that the parallel הרכ could easily have this same double meaning as well. The best parallel Hebrew text for the verb הרכ in the Old Testament is Psalm 40:6, where it is used to refer to a body part and can be interpreted as “pierced” or “opened.” It reads, “Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; my ears hast thou opened.” Indeed, the Septuagint translates הרכ in Psalm 40:7 exactly the same as it does in Psalm 22:16, adding considerable support to this interpretation of both verses. Finally, theological dictionaries and lexicons point out that this verb is generally used for digging wells and cisterns.32 With this context of boring into the ground until water springs forth, the concept of piercing a hand until blood issues forth does not seem terribly out of place.
It is important to note that although the Christian Fathers relied heavily on Psalm 22:16, it was never quoted in the New Testament. Other passages from Psalm 22 were quoted in the passion narratives, but not verse 16. Some have argued that this absence indicates that Psalm 22:16 read differently in the original Septuagint text and went through a revision after the writing of the passion narratives. That silence carries some weight, although it can be offset by the first-and-second-century-AD Peshitta translation of “pierced.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls, written from 300 BC to AD 68, have done much to affirm that the Septuagint preserves an early reading of the Hebrew scriptures. A few of the Hebrew texts used by the translators of the Septuagint were likely very similar to biblical manuscripts discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially where the Septuagint differs from the Masoretic. This may indicate that the Scrolls are a window to the Hebrew texts from which the Septuagint was translated.33 In the book of Psalms in particular, lists of verses have been compiled in which the Septuagint disagrees with Masoretic text but agrees with the Dead Sea Scrolls.34 The Scrolls that have a bearing on the discussion at hand date to the middle of the first century AD before the Jewish/Christian controversy was under way.35 This makes the Dead Sea Scrolls the oldest extant textual witness of the Psalm, although the original translation of the Septuagint—which is largely preserved in later, although altered, versions—predates it.
One of the Dead Sea Scrolls fragments contains Psalm 22:16. This fragment, published in 1997, was discovered in a cache of Scrolls at Naḥal Ḥever in Israel during the early 1950s. Significantly, the 5/6 Ḥev–Sev4Ps Fragment 11 of Psalm 22 contains the crucial word in the form of a third-person plural verb, written וראכ (“pierced/dug”).36 While it can often be difficult to distinguish between a waw (ו) and yod (י) in the Dead Sea texts, the editors of the most authoritative edition of the scrolls, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, confirm this reading in its transliteration and in two notes: “Although the photograph . . . is very faded, most of the letters are clearly identifiable under magnification,” and regarding וראכ the editors conclude, “with waw (ו) and yod (י) clearly distinguishable in this hand . . . this important variant [וראכ] reading is assured.”37
Nevertheless, in 2004, Kristin Swenson continued to argue for the translation יראכ (“like a lion”). In doing so, she discounts the evidence of this fragment, stating in a footnote, “Peter Flint records it as וראכ [‘pierced/dug’] . . . However, the facsimile reveals a badly faded text that is nearly impossible to read.”38 The photograph of this fragment, however, which is published here from the clearest images available (fig. 1), confirms that Flint was correct and that, accordingly, Swenson’s arguments should be reevaluated.
The discovery of the text of Psalm 22:16 at Naḥal Ḥever strikes at the heart of the controversy. This important text adds strong support to the Septuagint’s translation, which has stood in conflict with the Masoretic text for so long. This new evidence from the Dead Sea wilderness shows that the Hebrew rendering of וראכ (“pierced/dug”) was not a late change introduced into the manuscripts of the Psalms in support of Christian theology, but rather that it existed before the Jewish/Christian controversy began.39
Having revisited the translation of Psalm 22:16 in light of the recent evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, we see that “pierced” remains the best possible interpretation. Even if individuals accept “pierced my hands and my feet” as the correct translation, they are left to determine whether or not this phrase points to Jesus.
For Latter-day Saints, the Book of Mormon provides a witness to prophecies of the Savior in the Old Testament, including prophecies of crucifixion. Nephi spoke of the words of Neum, who prophesied that the very God of Israel would “be crucified.” Nephi, Jacob, and Benjamin shared this prophetic view.40 Perhaps they drew some of their knowledge of the crucifixion from the original Hebrew text of Psalm 22.
Christ’s words to the Nephites are definitive of his crucifixion: “Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world” (3 Ne. 11:14). One of the satisfying reminders of the Book of Mormon is that it serves to strengthen the Bible’s witness of Christ as the Gospel narratives are confirmed by other words that have come forth in recent times. God declared that this would happen in 2 Nephi 11:3: “Wherefore, I will send [the Book of Mormon’s] words forth unto my children to prove unto them that my words [the Bible] are true. Wherefore, by the word of three, God hath said, I will establish my word. Nevertheless, God sendeth more witnesses, and he proveth all his words” (italics added). In this particular case, the Dead Sea Scroll fragment of Psalm 22 helps translators to cut through the fog that has been created by centuries of intellectual debate. This text serves to strengthen and prove the Bible’s and Book of Mormon’s testimonies of Christ as the crucified Lord, he who was “pierced” and “wounded for our transgressions, [and] bruised for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5).