The phrases of Psalm 22 have long been thought to be prophetic of Jesus’ crucifixion. Even Jesus’ recitation of verse 1 while on the cross (see Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34) would have reminded people standing nearby of this psalm. They would have recalled phrases such as “they pierce my hands and my feet” (Psalm 22:16), “people stare and gloat over me” (Psalm 22:17), and “they … cast lots for my garment” (Psalm 22:18).
Some people have tried to cast doubt on the Messianic nature of this psalm and the gospel accounts by attacking the crucifixion story. For instance, an article in the Harvard Theological Review concluded many years ago that there was “astonishing little evidence that the feet of a crucified person were ever pierced by nails.” Instead, the article said, the victim’s hands and feet were tied to the cross by ropes.
But archaeology has now established that the use of nails was historical, although there may have been times that ropes were indeed used. In 1968 archaeologists in Jerusalem found the remains of about three dozen Jews who had died during the uprising against Rome around A.D. 70. One victim, whose name was apparently Yohanan, had been crucified. And sure enough, they found a seven-inch nail still driven into his feet, with small pieces of olive wood from the cross still attached. This was excellent archaeological confirmation of a key detail in the Gospels’ description of the crucifixion.
A few critics have charged that the word “pierce” in Psalm 22:16 is an incorrect translation that Christians later imposed to make it look like the verse foreshadows the crucifixion. The proper rendering of the Hebrew, they claim, should be, “Like a lion, they are at my hands and feet.”
Dr. Michael Brown, whose doctorate is in Near Eastern languages and literatures, disputes that claim. “The oldest Jewish translation—the Septuagint—translates it as ‘they pierced,’ ” he said. “The oldest Hebrew copy of the Psalms we possess, dating back to the century before Jesus, uses the Hebrew word ka’aru, which comes from the root meaning ‘to bore through’—not ka’ari, which means ‘like a lion.’
“But let’s assume the correct translation is, ‘Like a lion at my hands and feet.’ What is the lion doing with the victim’s hands and feet—licking them? The renowned Jewish commentator Rashi says it means ‘as though they are crushed in a lion’s mouth.’ So the imagery is clear: The metaphorical lions are tearing and ripping at the sufferer’s hands and feet. This mauling and biting graphically portrays great physical agony. It’s entirely consistent with what occurs in a crucifixion. So either translation could be said to foreshadow the suffering of the Messiah.
“The bottom line is there’s no Christian tampering with the text, just honest efforts to accurately translate the Hebrew, where only one character determines the difference between ka’aru, or ‘pierced,’ and ka’ari, or ‘like a lion.’”
Adapted from interview with Dr. Alexander Metherell and Dr. Michael L. Brown