Psalm 22 (LXX 21) and the Crucifixion of Jesus

Mark George Vitalis Hoffman



The focus of this dissertation has been on the interpretation of Ps 22 and its relationship to the NT narratives about the crucifixion of Jesus as Messiah. In Chapter 2 I expressed my dissatisfaction with most of the modern treatments of this issue which locate the primary significance of Ps 22 in the psalm's plot and do not take seriously the way Biblical texts were read and interpreted in antiquity.

My approach to the issue of Ps 22's significance began in Chapters 3 and 4 by surveying the history of the interpretation of the psalm in antiquity. This survey included a consideration of textual traditions of the psalm, its relationship to other texts within the Hebrew Bible, its influence upon intertestamental literature (where special attention was given to the Qumran writings, to the Syriac Apocryphal Psalms 152 and 153, and to the Wisdom of Solomon), and its interpretation in the patristic and rabbinic literature.

I believe that the material in Chapters 3 and 4 which survey the history of the interpretation of Ps 22 is of itself an important resource which will be valuable for future scholarship. Besides the overall contribution of this part of my study with its awareness of the ways Biblical texts were exegeted in antiquity, I would identify some specific aspects of it which I believe are particularly interesting, significant, or pioneering, namely: A) the conclusion that there probably was a pre-Masoretic Hebrew text which did include the phrase "give heed to me" in Ps 22:2a (cf. 4.4.3), B) the description of the relationship of Ps 71 to Ps 22 (summarized in 4.16.4) and its importance as the first written, sustained reflection on Ps 22, C) the description of the relationship of the Syriac Apocryphal Psalms 152 and 153 to Ps 22, especially in their use of titles and their treatment of verse 2a (cf. 4.17), D) the description of the relationship of Wis 2:12-20 and 5:1-8 to Ps 22, especially the Wisdom of Solomon's description of the protagonist and the observations on its treatment of Ps 22, Ps 89, and the so-called "Servant Songs" of Deutero-Isaiah (cf. 4.18), E) the study of the treatment of Ps 22 in the rabbinic corpus and especially the conclusion that the application of the psalm to Esther is likely a critical, post-NT response to its Christian application to Jesus (cf. 4.19), and F) the comprehensive survey of the patristic interpretations of Ps 22-Justin Martyr and Eusebius in particular-which runs throughout Chapter 4.

On a more general level, the work in Chapter 4 was important for locating Ps 22 within Israel's Scripture and identifying potential readings which were being derived from it. Among the important trajectories of interpretation which I identified were the attribution of the psalm to David as its author and the various designations of the psalm's protagonist as a "child / servant (pai~j) of the Lord" whose father is God, a "son of God," "righteous," a "chosen one," a "devout one," a "poor one," a "needy one," and a "servant" (db(). Nowhere in the pre-Christian documents was Ps 22 ever interpreted as a messianic text. In the patristic literature, however, the Davidic authorship of Ps 22 was emphasized, its messianic character was affirmed, and the significant aspects of the potential readings of the psalm were explored. Two other observations also were made which provide cautions about overvaluing the role of Ps 22. First, it is significant that the potential application of Ps 22:17c to Jesus' crucifixion was not attempted until Justin. Second, verses 23-32 (except for the reference to "brothers" in v. 23a) were virtually ignored until Eusebius.

Having described both the starting points of the trajectories of interpretation of Ps 22 as well as their eventual outcomes in the patristic and rabbinic literature, I turned in Chapters 5 and 6 to see how the NT uses of Ps 22 fit in between them. While pursuing this larger goal, I again made some observations which are noteworthy, namely: A) recognizing that Luke's description of the "eclipse" at Jesus' death was his radically reinterpreted presentation of the cry of Ps 22:2a recorded in Mark (or Matthew; cf. _6.4), B) describing the function of the reference to "hands and feet" in Luke 24:39 and how it relates to Ps 22:17c as well as its possible implications for historical reminiscences that Jesus had not been nailed in both his hands and feet (cf. 5.11.2), C) demonstrating that the references to "brothers" in Heb 2:11-12, Matt 28:10, and John 20:17 are all part of a tradition reflecting on Ps 22:23a in the context of Jesus' resurrection (cf. 5.13.1), D) observing how 2 Tim 4:16-18 relates an appropriate and broadly acceptable interpretation of Ps 22 which is notabe for its non-messianic application at such a late date in the NT corpus (cf. 6.9), and E) observing an increasing attention to and valuation of Ps 22 as it is presented in Matthew and Mark, in Luke, in John, and finally in Hebrews (cf. 6.10).

Closer to the overall focus of this dissertation, the results from chapters 5 and 6 indicated that Ps 22 was not a significant text for Christological reflection in the earliest, Pauline documents of the NT, and that even later on (as in 2 Timothy) it was not interpreted solely as a messianic text. Details associated with Ps 22 were, however, part of the early narrative recollections of the crucifixion of Jesus, but only in some of the later NT writings (John and especially Hebrews) do we find the kind of exceptional applications of the psalm to Jesus that would become more detailed and more typical in the patristic period.

Where Ps 22 was applied to Jesus in the Gospels and Hebrews, it occurred in contexts that included various designations of Jesus as "son of God," "the Christ (of God)," "the Chosen One," "the King of Israel," or "the King of the Jews." An important determination of this dissertation is that these titles, perhaps even the title Christ, could be and were derivable from Ps 22 if they were understood as applying to a son of God, a chosen one, or even a (Davidic) king. Even within the NT itself we have evidence, 2 Tim 4:16-18 specifically, for the persistence of such a generic application of the psalm. What is innovative about the interpretation of Ps 22 in the the Gospels and Hebrews is that Ps 22 is uniquely applied to Jesus who is exclusively confessed as the Son of God, the Chosen One, the (Davidic) king of Israel who is the Christ.

I hasten to point out that such conclusions regarding the subject of Ps 22, even in the generic sense, are not directly evident from the psalm itself. Instead, they are conclusions reached through a careful study of Scripture which attends to shared words and phrases to link Ps 22 with such passages as Ps 89 which speaks not only of the lamenter's status as son of God but also describes the reproach of the Messiah, those passages in Deutero-Isaiah which describe the suffering of God's servant / child, and the passages in Jeremiah which highlight the uniquely called and chosen nature of God's agent. While these conclusions are available though not inevitable, to claim that Ps 22 applies exclusively to Jesus who fulfills all these titles in a unique way requires some other presupposition or external impetus.

All these factors lead me to conclude: A) that it is not likely that Ps 22 provided the initial frame around which the pre-Gospel Passion narratives were developed and B) that Ps 22 was not likely to have been inserted into the crucifixion narratives because of its pre-established Christological or theological significance. Ps 22 simply was not regarded as a messianic text nor was it unequivocally interpreted as being the psalm of someone who was necessarily righteous in the pre-Christian period. Furthermore, some of the textual difficulties left the interpretation of the psalm open to dispute and caused the psalm to be more a source of contention than of consensus.

But if Ps 22 was not particularly attractive as a source for the construction of the Passion narratives, it was valuable as a resource for reflection on the Passion of Jesus. As I have noted in the previous paragraphs, there were a number of possible pre-Christian interpretations of Ps 22 which had significant implications about the person to whom the psalm applied, but none of them made unique claims about that person. I believe, however, that it is these potentially valuable interpretations of Ps 22 which encouraged it to be included and preserved in the passion narratives, and it was such potential readings that were later explored by Christian exegetes who made increasingly more adamant claims about its unique application to Jesus. That is, if one begins with the presupposition that Jesus is the Messiah and that Ps 22 applies to Jesus, the psalm becomes an enlightening resource for reflecting on the Scriptural necessity of the suffering and mocking which must be endured by one who is confessed to be the Son of God, God's Chosen One, righteous, or the Messiah King of Israel.[1]

[1] One other possible avenue into a messianic reading of Ps 22 might be through the identification of "the Son of God" (which is a more certain implication derived from Ps 22) being extended to imply "Messiah." This dissertation is not the place to explore this possibility, but cf. the comments by Juel (Messianic Exegesis, 68); John J. Collins, "A Pre-Christian `Son of God' Among the Dead Sea Scrolls," BR IX.3 (1993) 34-38, 57; and Richard N. Longenecker, The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity (London: S.C.M., 1970) 93-99.

A Concluding Postscript

What I have accomplished in this dissertation, therefore, is to indicate how someone could read Ps 22 as a messianic text, but I have not yet determined why someone should read it so. I have explained how Ps 22 could be helpful in clarifying or supporting a messianic reading, but I have not demonstrated why someone should turn to it rather than to some other Scripture. To put it yet another way, an ancient reader of the Hebrew Bible would not likely choose descriptions of suffering from Ps 22 to demonstrate that the speaker was a distinguished and unique character. But if that reader were directed to search in Ps 22 for some distinctive characteristics which could pertain to the psalm's subject, it would be possible according to the rules of ancient Biblical exegesis to find them. The most distinctive characteristic that would likely be claimed is that the psalmist was a son of God in light of traditions shared with Ps 89 and Deutero-Isaiah.

The problem is that there needs to be some other stimulus to direct early Christian attention to Ps 22 as a text which can help clarify the death of Jesus as the Messiah. At this point, I find myself forced to consider `what really happened,' even though I have tried to avoid this issue from the outset. It seems to me, however, that the simplest and most reasonable explanation for why Ps 22 came to play an important role in the Passion narratives is that Jesus actually cried out Ps 22:2a shortly before he died. More precisely, some follower of Jesus who was an eyewitness to his crucifixion was convinced that he or she heard Jesus speak these words. Despite their initial, seeming unsuitability as the dying words of the one confessed to be the Messiah, early Christians were forced by this conviction to search the Scriptures and determine its implications. That the evangelists would bother to record the incident about the parting of Jesus' garments or describe the mockery he endured in terms shaped by Ps 22 indicates the strength of this conviction. To restate my claim, there is no outstanding reason for highlighting Ps 22 in Jesus' passion except that it should have actually happened, and there is no outstanding reason for preserving details related to Ps 22 except that the psalm has the potential for being understood as a text pertaining to a son of God. Because of the presupposition that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the only innovative, interpretive claim made by the early Christians was that Ps 22 was about the Son of God, and this claim was made as an article of faith and exegetical possibility, not as an article of exegetical necessity.

It is impossible to `prove' this argument of historicity, and there are numerous obstacles which need to be overcome to make it more plausible, but I nonetheless think that it is the simplest accounting for the presence of Ps 22 in the Passion narratives. Still, even if it could be historically verified that Jesus did indeed cry out Ps 22:2a just before he died, we still could not presume to know what Jesus was actually thinking of or intending when he said those words. Perhaps he only was using a customary or proverbial saying to express his suffering. Perhaps he only was expressing a sense of abandonment and used a phrase from Scripture without intending anything further. Perhaps he was trying to indicate his solidarity with all those who share in his suffering. Perhaps he merely provided an excuse for a lengthy dissertation! Or perhaps Jesus intentionally was citing words from Scripture in order to direct his followers to search those Scriptures and reflect on what it might mean for him to die as the crucified Messiah.