"Christians have mistranslated the Hebrew Scriptures in order to prove that Jesus is the Messiah"

An irate rabbi once phoned to scold me for telling Jewish people about Jesus. “You don’t even know Hebrew,” he said. When I told him that I did, he challenged me to prove it, so I quoted Genesis 1:1 in Hebrew. “So you think you know everything do you!” he replied.
A classic objection to the gospel is that Christians have mistranslated the Hebrew Scriptures in order to prove that Jesus is the Messiah. Christians, they say, don’t understand Hebrew and force the Old Testament text to say what they want it to. A prime and prickly example of this claim is the controversy over Psalm 22:16 (verse 17 in the Hebrew text).

A comparison of “Christian” translations of the Old Testament and Jewish translations reveals two different readings of Psalm 22:16. The translations with which Christians are familiar read, “They have pierced my hands and my feet”. However the translation published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1985, for example, reads, “Like lions [they maul] my hands and feet”.

The issue is complicated by the fact that the Hebrew of Psalm 22:16 is notoriously difficult. The majority of Hebrew manuscripts have the word kaari (“like a lion”) while a minority have karu (“dug through/pierced”). Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures, such as the Septuagint, follow the minority Hebrew reading by translating karu as oruxan, meaning “to dig a hole” or “to pierce”.

The fact that the pre-Christian Septuagint supports the Christian argument should solve the problem but Isaiah 38:13 appears to set a precedent for Jewish scholars to translate Psalm 22:16 as “like a lion”. In Isaiah 38:13 kaari is translated, “Like a lion, so he breaks all my bones”. Here, “k” means “like” and “ari” means “lion”.

The standard Hebrew word for lion is areyeh, a word that appears twice in Psalm 22, in verses 14 and 22. From those verses, we can see that King David knew how to spell “lion” correctly, so why would he spell it differently in verse sixteen? Some Christian translators have suggested that the “k” in kaari is not a preposition but is actually the first letter of the word, and that the last letter yod should be a vav but that it was mis-copied by a scribe, thus making the word kaari instead of karu.

Are you confused? I told you it was complicated. But it is so easy to get lost in the details that we miss the larger picture. Ultimately, the sense of Psalm 22 does not depend on whether the word in verse 16 is kaari or karu. Even if Psalm 22:16 should be translated as “like a lion [they are at] my hands and my feet”, the meaning of the verse remains the same because of the context in which it is set. Evil ones and dogs have surrounded a helpless victim and, like a lion, are at his hands and feet.

What would a lion do to your hands and feet if he got at them? Lick them?

This is a lion, not a pussy cat!
This article first appeared in the December 2005 edition of the Herald

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