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Psalm-22-questions and comments

These Questions And Comments Are Reprinted With Permission From

Question: Christian Bibles record Psalm 22:16 to say "they pierced my hands and feet" while Jewish versions say "like a lion are my hands and feet." Which one is correct?

Answer: Actually, the text has been debated for over 2000 years and the issues are larger than merely Jewish vs. Christian interpretation. It is primarily a question of textual criticism, or what words did the Psalmist write. If the Psalmist wrote the phrase KA'ARI (as has been handed down to us), then the Jewish translations are more accurate, but if he wrote something else, then the traditional Hebrew text is corrupt and the Jewish translations are wrong. Finding the truth on this issue is not easy though, as it may mean laying aside tradition and calling into question the accuracy of dictionaries or the integrity of scholars. As is fitting in such a case, I must say that it is largely an academic issue and belongs in such journals.

Due to demand though, I here submit my basic summary of the issues and my conclusion on the matter, written for anyone to understand. Do keep in mind that this article only deals with the transmission and translation issues, not the interpretation issue which is separate. While I'm not arrogant enough to claim that I have the final word on the matter, I do find convincing reasons to believe that the Hebrew text in this place is corrupt, that it most likely originally said karu (not ka'ari) and that it should most likely be translated as "they have dug [at] my hands and my feet."

The Modern Jewish English Versions:

The Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) that has been handed down to us reads ka'ari yadai v'raglai, which is literally translated "like the lion my hands and my feet."But given the awkwardness of the grammar (no verb) and the lack of sense, even Jewish versions vary in how they render the phrase (items in bold below are not in the original Hebrew of the MT).

"like a lion, they are at my hands and my feet" (JPS 1917 & Soncino)
"like lions [they maul] my hands and feet" (JPS Tanakh)
"like [the prey of] a lion are my hands and my feet." (Stone Edition)

Ifka'ari is the phrase the Psalmist intended and wrote, then the issue ends here at the translation level, and we would only be debating how to best make sense of this grammatically awkward sentence. But when we consider how differently the ancient versions rendered the passage, and that the Masoretic Text itself records other variant readings, the evidence suggests that the original phrasing of this passage was something other than ka'ari (like the lion).

Ancient Versions:

Ancient versions are those translations that were common in antiquity, and studying them helps us understand how ancient peoples read Scripture. For example, none of the Greek versions (both Jewish and Christian) rendered this passage as "like the lion." But If the Hebrew Bible of their day said ka'ari, since these were common words, they should have easily been translated into other languages as "like the lion."

It is also interesting to note that both Aquila (a convert to Judaism) and Jerome (a Christian) both offered two versions of their Psalter. Aquila, translating from Hebrew to Greek, rendered the phrase "they have disfigured" in his first edition, but "they have bound" in his second. Jerome, translating into Latin, rendered it "they have bound" when working from the Hebrew, but "they have dug" working from the Greek.

The Septuagint, or Greek Old Testament, originally translated by seventy Jewish scholars(1) (the first 5 books), has the reading "they have dug." Only the Peshitta, a Syriac version, reads "they have pierced." With all of these versions, why are they so different? And why don't any of them have "like the lion"?

Language Version Reading
Greek LXX (Septuagint) They have dug
Greek Aquila (1st ed.) They have disfigured
Greek Aquila (2nd ed.) They have bound
Greek Symmachus Like those who seek to bound
Latin Gallican Psalter They have dug
Latin Hebrew Psalter They have bound
Syriac Peshitta They have pierced

The most likely answer is that the base text from which these versions were translated did not have "like the lion" but instead had another phrase that was prone to scribal error or difficult to translate. Scholars across time, both ancient and modern, have wrestled with this passage, coming to three main possible conclusions:

1). There is no error. Although its grammar is awkward, the Hebrew ka'ari is more easily explainable than a series of scribal errors and mistranslations. Therefore, the Hebrew text that has been handed down is to be considered genuine and translated as "like the lion." This traditional reading is supported by over 1000 years of text tradition, one ancient version (the Aramaic Targum), and possibly by Symmachus (the reading listed above has been debated as a possible scribal error that should have matched the MT).

2). Since the oldest version (LXX) reads "they have dug" (ορυξαν), the Hebrew must have been karu or ka'aru (they have dug). The spelling ka'aru would be a later spelling variation due to the influence of Aramaic on Hebrew, but the original would have been karu. The spelling variation is easily explainable, as is the scribal error of confusing the final letter (yod/vav or i/u). These spelling variations are attested to by scribal notes in the Masoretic Text and at least one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the meaning is confirmed by the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, and loosely by the Syriac Peshitta.

3). Aquila, Symmachus, and Jerome all worked from the Hebrew and translated the Hebrew as "they have bound." Therefore, it must have originally been asru (they have bound), and the change from asru to ka'ariis explainable by a series of scribal errors.

Whether ancient or modern, all translators seem to have reached these three main possible conclusions over the years, with the first two options being the most common.

The Hebrew Text:

If indeed the MT reading ka'ari is corrupt, how did it get that way? For the non-Hebrew reader, it may seem impossible. But by looking at the Hebrew, one can easily see how such a mistake could be made. In Hebrew, ka'ari (like the lion) is written as כארי, and ka'aru (they dug) as   כארו. Scribes could easily misread this word if the letter vav (ו) was not written at its proper length. Confusing it for the letter yod ( י ) the newly copied psalm was likely written as כארי (ka'ari) instead of כארו (ka'aru). Notice the similarities:


But what about this word ka'aru (כארו )?  What is its root and what does it mean?  The long-standing consensus has been that ka'aru is the Hasmonean-era spelling of the Hebrew word karu (כרו), which means "they have dug."At this time in history, spelling was not standardized, and Hebrew was heavily influenced by its sister language Aramaic, which could introduce the letter aleph. Hence the word karu could have been spelled ka'aru, then mistaken for ka'ari.











they have dug 


they have dug 


 like the lion


While this view has its weaknesses and certainly its critics, it still remains that it was Jewish translators prior to the Christian era who chose to translate the Hebrew into Greek for the Septuagint. These ancient scholars chose the Greek word oruxan (ορυξαν), which means "they have dug," as they obviously understood the Hebrew to be the karu/ka'aru scenario as detailed above. If this evidence weren't strong enough, it is interesting that among the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, the Nahal Hever manuscript 5/6HevPs has the ka'aru spelling as above. These pre-Christian texts indicate that we should best read Psalm 22: 16 (17 in the Hebrew) as ka'aru yadai v'raglai or "they have dug [at] my hands and my feet."

The Christian Versions:

Now that we understand the history behind this debate, let's consider today's modern Christian English versions:

"they pierced my hands and my feet."-KJV,ASV,NIV,NASB,RSV,NKJV,Webster's,NLT
"my hands and feet are shriveled" - NRSV
"they have dug my hands and feet" - Douay Rheims 1899
"they made wounds in my hands and feet" - The Bible in Basic English
"So wasted are my hands and feet" - New American Bible
" if to hack off my hands and my feet" - New Jerusalem Bible

As can be seen, not all Bibles agree on how to best translate this phrase, but most are in agreement that "they have pierced my hands and feet" is the most appropriate. It certainly is the most common, but is it the most accurate?

The Translation Issue:

Hopefully it is now clear why the karu/ka'aru scenario is most plausible. With that in mind we now turn to the translation issue. How do we render it in English? Since the word literally means "they dug" should we translate it literally or treat it as an idiom? Idioms do not translate very well from one language to another. For example, "break a leg" should be translated as "hurry up", or even better, "move quickly."

In every case but one, both the Hebrew and Greek forms of this verb always mean "to dig" as in digging dirt. Only in Psalm 40:6 do we see it used as an idiom, and that is clear. If our Psalm 22 passage is rendered as an idiom or figure of speech, then perhaps the "pierced" translations may have some merit, but since it makes sense taken literally, I am unconvinced. Also, the only ancient witness to the "pierced" reading is the Syriac which (though its origins are debated) is most likely a translation of a translation.  With that in mind, as well as the Psalm's context of being attacked by animals, I believe that the passage should be taken literally as "they have dug [at] my hands and my feet."


There are pros and cons for every possible solution to the Psalm 22:16 controversy. Yet no matter how one translates it, the plain sense is unaffected. This psalm speaks of God's afflicted one, who in spite of his agony, declares God's name and calls Israel to be faithful to Him. In the passage in question, he is the victim of evil men who have him at the point of death. They do something to his hands and feet, though the nature of what's done is the crux of our discussion. Whether these hands and feet were bound, chained, disfigured, pierced, chewed on, or hacked off is irrelevant. The point is that God...

"has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help."
(Psalm 22:24 NIV)

So I humbly offer this summary of the matter, along with my own conclusion, not to belittle those who disagree, but to inform my readers about the complexity of the issue. To that end, I hope that this article has served its purpose well.


1) The Septuagint is sometimes referred to as the Greek Old Testament. The original 5 books of the Torah (Genesis - Deuteronomy) were translated by 70-72 Jewish scholars depending on the source. After that, others helped with translating the rest of the Old Testament into Greek.

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