Did Jesus Really Misquote Psalm 22:1?

Denis Giron

Today I visited Paul Williams’ Blogging Theology site, and saw an interesting article by Eric bin Kisam, titled Eli Eli lama sabachthani – a case of misquoting Psalms? The article focuses on what can be inferred from the Semitic phrase attributed to Jesus on the cross by the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. That happens to be a subject I am interested in[1], so I wanted to share some thoughts.

Before getting to the meat of Eric’s article, I want to touch on some comments he made in passing, which he himself noted may receive fuller treatment from him in future articles.

First there is Eric’s position that the statement made by Jesus would entail that Jesus felt abandoned by God. This of course begs the question, did He in fact think He was being abandoned by God? Much of Eric’s own article relates directly to the position, taken by many, that Jesus was actually quoting (or paraphrasing) the opening of the 22nd Psalm, and that provides us with an alternative view. If I were to read aloud (or paraphrase) the relevant verse before others, that would not entail that I actually believed God had abandoned me at that point. Analogously, if Christ was calling the relevant Psalm to mind, then His quoting from it need not entail He actually felt abandoned by God.

It is worth noting, here, that some Jewish sources record a tradition which sees the relevant Psalm as referring to a Messianic figure suffering on behalf of others.[2] In light of the relevant Jewish tradition, it is at least possible that Christ was subtly drawing the attention of those familiar with the Psalm towards the conclusion that, while it might have looked like the end for Him, there was still more to the story, so to speak.

Second, there is Eric’s passing remark about the difference between the quote in Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46 (Ελωι vs Ηλι). I would certainly agree with Eric that this apparent quotation in variant form is an interesting subject. Regarding that difference, it is worth noting that the 22nd Psalm itself, at least in its Masoretic version, transitions from Eli, in the opening, to Elohai in the verse which immediately follows (and, while the possessive suffixes are not employed, it may nonetheless be worth comparing 2 Samuel 22:32 to Psalm 18:31, which employ El and Eloh, respectively).

Moreover, it seems worthwhile to point out that, for specifically Muslims who explore this subject, apparent quotations in variant appear in the Qur’an as well.[3] The value in pointing this out is that the explanations Muslims provide may in turn be applicable, here. For example, some might argue that variant quotations are fine if the meaning remains the same (also analogous, here, is surat al-Qari`a(t) 101:5 having `ihn in some readings and suf in others, both meaning “wool”).

However, I personally have encountered other Muslims who have posited that some seemingly repetitious Qur’anic texts are actually giving fragments of discussions which actually employed a semblance of repetition. So for example, when Iblis did not prostrate to Adam, God asked him variations of the same question: ma laka ala takuna ma`a l-sajidin [15:32] and ma mana`aka an tasjuda [38:75]. I confess that I would be reluctant to propose such is the case for the cry on the Cross, but if such a phenomenon is possible, then one might argue, hypothetically, if Christ employed both versions –one with elohai and the other with eli– that at least could explain why some wrongly thought He was invoking Eliyah (though of course such a concept is speculative in the extreme).

Moving on from that to the more salient point of Eric’s article, he wonders aloud whether the phrase is Hebrew or Aramaic. The employment of the verb lishboq generally makes one lean towards Aramaic, but it is worth mentioning that in Rabbinic literature (from the Talmuds to the writings of Hasidic sages) one finds numerous examples of practically effortless switches between Hebrew and Aramaic, sometimes in the same single sentence. I mention such to propose that Christ may have been quoting the text in a form of Aramaic which was very close to Hebrew.

Eric goes on to set up what, with all due respect to him, I feel borders on constituting a false dilemma. He asks if Christ was quoting the Masoretic Text or the standard Targum to the verse (that of Yonatan). Eric does so because the quote attributed to Christ differs from both (in precise wording, though not in meaning). It is true that there is no extant Hebrew or Aramaic version of Psalm 22 which reads exactly like the statement implied by the Gospels.

Nonetheless, I would think it entirely plausible that Christ quoted/paraphrased the verse in a way which was popular among people in that time and place. In an environment where many Jews were illiterate and/or primarily Aramaic speakers, it is probable that literate persons would quote the Scriptures in Hebrew and explain them in Aramaic. Within such a paradigm, an oral form popular among certain people could have easily reflected the wording implied by the quotes in the Gospels. A similar phenomenon exists among Jews, to this very day, where popular oral translations don’t reflect more official text translations which are extant. For example, among some Hasidic Jews (especially Lubavitchers), in recent years it has become popular to render the words she’ol and geyhinom as “purgatory”.[4]

Eric went on to note that Targum Yonatan employs metul ma instead of lama. In all fairness, however, these terms are essentially synonymous (insofar that their respective semantic ranges overlap). The former literally means “because of what,” while the latter means “why”. Targum Yonatan to the Psalms employs lama in other places (for example when Psalm 2:1 asks why the gentiles/nations rage, Yonatan reads l’ma mitragshin `ammaya. With that in mind, there is nothing which precludes an Aramaic rendering of Psalm 22:1 from employing lama.

With the exception of those orthodox Jews who insist that the historical Yonatan ben `Uziel is the sole translator of the corpus (or corpora) we now call “Targum Yonatan,” just about everyone familiar with the subject would agree that the relevant targum post-dates the time of Christ. Therefore, there is no requirement for an Aramaic rendering of Psalm 22:1 employed by Christ to be limited to texts which came after Him. In no way, therefore, are we required to conclude (somewhat anachronistically) that Christ “misquoted” such texts.

 

NOTES

  • For a very light example, I briefly explore the Matthean text, here.
  • Some discussion on the Pasiqta Rabati can be found here. That should be read together with this post, about how some Orthodox Jews actually interpret the relevant Rabbinic text as referring to the Davidic
  • Exempli gratia, compare the discussion between God and Iblis, in in surat al-Hijr 15:28-38 and Sad 38:71-81. So too the discussion between Mary and the angel, in surat Al `Imran 3:45-49 and sura Maryam 19:17-21.
  • For example, see this Facebook post by a Lubavitcher shliach in Japan, which takes a phrase from the Babylonian Talmud, esh echad mi-shishim li-Geyhinom (fire is one-from-sixty to Gehinom) and renders it “fire is one sixtieth of Purgatory”. That social networking site post reflects an oral translation popular among Lubavitchers, but it won’t be reflected in official translations of the Talmud (including translations which Lubavitchers themselves have worked on, like that of Artscroll).
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