Psalm 22 (LXX 21) and the Crucifixion of Jesus

Mark George Vitalis Hoffman



"And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means, `My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'" At this climactic moment just before his death, Mark and Matthew record that Jesus recited the opening words of Psalm 22 (LXX 21). Even though Luke and John do not include this cry as part of their Passion narratives, it is nonetheless evident that Ps 22 played a prominent role in each of the Gospel accounts. For example, in Mark 15:29-32; Matt 27:39-44, and Luke 23:35-39, the description of the bystanders as they mock Jesus on the cross uses the language of Ps 22:7-9. In all four Gospels—Mark 15:24; Matt 27:35; Luke 23:34, and John 19:23-24—the division of and casting of lots for Jesus' garments correspond to verse 19 of the psalm.

While it is an easy matter to pick out such parallels, it has been far more difficult for scholars to agree upon the significance of the references to Ps 22. Basically the problem is that no pre-Christian evidence has been found which shows that Ps 22 was interpreted messianically. Scholars throughout Christian history, therefore, either have tried to demonstrate how this psalm could have been understood messianically or have pointed in other directions to suggest why it should be appropriate for understanding the death of Jesus. The result has been a plethora of arguments involving matters of historicity, theology, typology, `midrashic' word links, eschatological concepts, `Righteous Sufferer' paradigms, etc. Part of the problem, I believe, is due to an approach which begins with the issue of Ps 22's meaning in the NT, a problem I hope to circumvent by beginning with a survey of the entire history of the ancient interpretation of Ps 22. A substantial portion of this dissertation is devoted, therefore, to illuminating the Biblical context which shaped the interpretations of Ps 22 and to identifying how Ps 22 was used in documents before it was employed by Christians in telling the story of Jesus' death. By also examining the discussions involving Ps 22 in the writings of the early Church Fathers and in the rabbinic corpus, a better understanding of how these ancient exegetes were grappling with the psalm is obtained as well.

This dissertation will provide a firmer basis, therefore, for answering the question, "How did the early Christians find Ps 22 to be meaningful in understanding the crucifixion of Jesus?" It additionally provides some new insights into the NT usage of particular details from Ps 22 and also yields some cautions about how Ps 22 is not to be interpreted or construed as having been used by the NT authors. While my research does produce some valuable conclusions about how Ps 22 was found useful, but it also suggests that no unequivocal answer is possible for determining why Ps 22 in particular became so crucial. Aspects of the psalm which connect it to traditions about a son of God, an heir of David, a servant (of the Lord), a prophet, or a righteous person will be highlighted. It is these various traditions, I believe, which provided the potential pathways for Ps 22 to become meaningful among early Christians in narrating and understanding the crucifixion of Jesus as Messiah. Specifically, the potential ways of understanding Ps 22 were explored by early Christians in order to claim that this psalm—which rightly could be and was read as being a psalm about a Davidic heir and a son of God—was about the Son of God, the Davidic heir acknowledged to be the Messiah.

My work proceeds as follows. In chapter 2, a survey of the scholarship dealing with the use of Ps 22 in the NT will highlight the problems and questions which have prompted this dissertation. In chapter 3, the next step will be to provide a survey of ancient textual traditions of Ps 22. In chapter 4, I then shall consider the interpretations of Ps 22 in pre-Christian and other ancient Jewish literature. At the same time, I also shall describe how Ps 22 ended up being used by early Christian writers outside the NT as well as by the Jewish rabbis. Having described both the pre-Christian readings of Ps 22 and the post-New Testament uses of it, I then shall turn to what is the primary interest of this dissertation: a consideration of how Ps 22 is interpreted in the NT. In chapter 5, I shall summarize how the individual verses of the Psalm were employed in the NT, and then in chapter 6, I shall give an overview of how each author regarded Ps 22 as a whole. With this approach, reliable statements about the use of Ps 22 by the NT authors in understanding the crucifixion of Jesus finally may be made.