Sunday, November 29, 2015

Psalm 22:17, Hebrew Text, "Like A Lion". Determining Who's Original And Who's Lion? Nahal Hever Fragment

1. Introduction of the Issue

Ya know BerNIVdo, I try, I really try
      Most Christian Bible translations present Psalm 22:17 (22:16 in the Christian Bible) as:

Dogs(A) surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce[a](B) my hands and my feet. (NIV).

NIV adds the following note:
 [a]Psalm 22:16 Dead Sea Scrolls and some manuscripts of the Masoretic Text, Septuagint and Syriac; most manuscripts of the Masoretic Text me, / like a lion
Every assertion in this note is wrong:

1) The Dead Sea Scrolls do not have a Hebrew word for "pierced"  here.
2) No Manuscripts of the Masoretic Text have a Hebrew word for "pierced" here.
3) The "Septuagint" (this word is commonly used to refer to Jewish Greek translations of the Jewish Bible but it's difficult to distinguish an early Jewish translation from an early Christian translation) transmission evidence shows that "pierced" was not original to it.
4) The Syriac evidence for the original word is unclear. 

What everyone does agree on is that the overwhelming majority of Hebrew texts have "like a lion" here.

Here is Psalm 22:17 written in modern Hebrew and English: 

The offending word is highlighted in Hebrew and English. The related Textual Criticism question is if the Hebrew word for "pierced" is not found anywhere in Manuscripts, Rabbinic Commentary and Scribal comments for 22:17 than why are most Christian English translations using it?

2. Discussion

One Long Yod Writes Away 

First, let's take a look at the exact same word that the Masoretic Text has for Psalm 22:17, "like a lion", at Isaiah 38:13:

This is from the The Great Isaiah Scroll:

"Pieces of the Isaiah Scroll have been carbon-14 dated at least four times, giving calibrated date ranges between 335-324 BC and 202-107 BC; there have also been numerous paleographic and scribal dating studies placing the scroll around 150-100 BC.[2]"
Note that the Hebrew letter yod here, the last letter, is about the same length as the letter before it. Everyone agrees that here the letter is a yod and the meaning of the word here is "like a lion". 

Christian translations claim that an important piece of evidence supporting "pierced" as likely original to Psalm 22:17 is that a Hebrew fragment including the offending word of Psalm 22:17 from Nahal Hever has the same letters except for the final letter being a vav instead of a yod, which word these Christian translations than translate as "pierced". 

  Here is the fragment from Nahal Hever, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert XXXVIII, Plate XXVII Fragment #9 which is the official photograph:

 Unfortunately the text of the fragment is as faded as it looks here.

Now here is the word in question from the fragment plus the following word:

 Although all letters are difficult to read, everyone would agree on the first three letters, reading Hebrew right to left, kof which looks like a backwards c, aleph which looks like two intersecting diagonal lines and resh which looks like a backwards r. 

The fourth letter from the right is the letter in question. Everyone agrees that it is the final letter of the word consisting of it and the three letters to its right. Even though all letters here are badly faded, that fourth letter does looks remarkably similar to the fourth letter above for "like a lion" from The Great Isaiah Scroll (and again, everyone agrees that that word is "like a lion"). In both words this letter is primarily a vertical line which is about the same length as the letter resh to its right. Both letters also tilt some to the left but letters as a whole vary in tilting in these fragments without any apparent intentional design. 

These two sources are both ancient with The Great Isaiah Scroll c. 200 BC and Nahal Hever c. 75. Continuing with the best source of evidence, our own eyes, if you are able to read Hebrew you will notice that for the Nahal Hever fragment above, the length of the yod seems to have some relationship to its position in the word. When it is the first letter of a word it tends to be shorter. When it is the last letter it seems to be longer. You can see this in my image above of the offending word and the word that follows. The following word consists of a yod, a daled and a yod. Note that the first yod is relatively short while the final yod appears to be just as long as the final letters of the offending word and what appears to be the exact same word above in Isaiah 38:13 from The Great War Scroll.

The next best source of evidence is the eyes of others. Regarding the length of yods circa the Nahal Hever fragment, every claimed expert on both sides that I'm aware of explains/confesses that at this time yods were longer, were sometimes about the same length as vavs and were difficult to distinguish from vavs:

Moshe Schulman (counter-missionary) = A characteristic of a yod at that time was that it was elongated, especially when the last letter of a word.

Fred Miller (Christian DSS scholar) = "The second variation is the scribe's interchange of waw and yod. This is frequent. Where one expects to find a yod a waw is written and where one expects to find a waw a yod is written. We will not cite these but these occurrences, because of their frequency, can be seen by a general reading of the text."

Brent Strawn (Christian) = ""...the picture of it [the fragment] so faint as to be unreadable. Comparison of other fragments from XHev/Se4 on photographs of PAM 42.190 reveals that Y and W are quite similar, though generally distinguishable in this manuscript."

Kristin Swenson (Christian)  =  ""4 By Vall’s admission, Aquila’s Vorlage may well have been very close to the MT; the instances in which it differed commonly involved “the confusion of similarly shaped letters” such as w and y (Vall, “Psalm 22:17B,” 56). This supports retaining the MT and undermines Vall’s argument"

F. M. Cross (Christian DSS scholar) = "the leading expert on DSS palaeography, has discussed waw/yod confusion many times. In his article, "Palaeography and the Dead Sea Scrolls" in vol. 1 of Flint and Vanderkam ("The Dead Sea Scrolls after 50 Years"), he discusses how the two characters were virtually indistinguishable during the early Herodian period but in the late Herodian period were increasingly distinguishable. In the back of the book are some nice plates showing the evolution of the script. Plate 10 line 9 shows the biblical hand from the Nahal Hever Psalms scroll. The waw is somewhat longer than yod" 

And lastly, scholarly commentary on the relative quality of transmission of the Hebrew Bible text:
Fred Miller (Christian DSS scholar) = "The Qumran texts that I have translated (1QaIsa) and (1QpHab) are dialects of Hebrew and not the Hebrew of the Tanach. Preservation of the original Hebrew letter for letter text was the role played by the Rabbis of the "main stream" in Jerusalem and Babylon (Sura, Nahardea and Pumbidita) and they had a special class, an office called Scribes, who carefully copied manuscripts then kept the new and destroyed the old. The Essenes were not and did not claim to be copyists of the same genre." 

3. Conclusion

But when I see deliberate mistranslations of the Hebrew Bible...I just go beserk!

The main points from the above are:

1) For the word in question from Psalm 22:17 everyone would agree that the Hebrew Manuscript tradition shows a dominant reading of a final letter of yod which gives an English translation of "like a lion". 

2) Christian translations of Psalm 22:17 mostly reject the final letter as yod and claim as a key piece of support for doing so that the Nahal Hever fragment had instead a final letter of vav. 

3) All Bible scholars cited above agree that regarding ancient Hebrew script, at times yods and vavs were indistinguishable, generally they were about the same length, gradually vavs were a little longer and sometimes yods and vavs were mistakenly substituted for each other.

4) Per F.M. Cross above:
"the two characters [yod and vav] were virtually indistinguishable during the early Herodian period but in the late Herodian period were increasingly distinguishable." The Nahal Hever fragment appears to be contemporary to this period.

5) The Nahal Hever fragment is very faint. The combination of similar sized yods and vavs at the time and specifically in this fragment, especially with final letters, and the problem with legibility create uncertainty as to what the final letter of the offending word was intended to be written as. 

6) The Nahal Hever fragment was part of a Transmission process that was inferior to the official scribal process in the major cities.

7) In the late Herodian period copyists would have had exemplars from the early Herodian period with yods and vavs that looked identical.

8) The earliest known Greek translations of the Jewish Bible sometimes confused yods and vavs.

  We have two possibilities for the last letter of the offending word at Nahal Hever:

1 - The last letter is a yod. Conclusion = Supports "like a lion" as likely original to Psalm 22:17.

2 - The last letter is a vav. Considerations:

A) This would be contradicted by the superior Masoretic transmission text. 

B) The meaning of the resulting Hebrew word would be unknown and this word is not found anywhere else.

C) Yods and vavs of the time were very similar and some exemplars of the time probably had identical yods and vavs. A reasonable possibility is that the Nahal Hever fragment mistakenly, either intentionally or unintentionally, had a vav written, where the tradition previously had a yod. 

D) The Nahal Hever fragment in general and specifically for this letter is very difficult to read. 

Choosing between the two possibilities, whether the last letter here was a yod or a vav, considerations A), B), C) and D):

1) The superior Masoretic transmission clearly prefers yod.

2) The meaning of the word with a vav would be unknown.

3) Yods and vavs of the time were very similar in script

4) The fragment is very difficult to read

indicate that it is more likely that the Nahal Hever fragment was written with a yod as the final letter of the offending word. 

Even if the final letter of this word here is vav, a reasonable explanation for all of the same reasons above, is that the author mistakenly confused a vav for a yod due to vavs and yods being indistinguishable in exemplars. Conclusion = Evidence against "like a lion" as likely original to Psalm 22:17 but not strong enough to outweigh the Masoretic tradition due to a reasonable explanation for use of the vav here in error.




JoeWallack said...

At Paul Davidson's blog:

there are related comments from David Instone-Brewer who is a member of the NIV translation Committee. The NIV is probably the most popular Bible translation in the world. My exchange with David:

"Thanks for pointing out that the footnote refers to this text from Nahal Hever as one of the “Dead Sea Scrolls”. I don’t think the NIV ever makes this distinction which most readers would regard as very subtle. Even Abegg, whose “Dead Sea Scrolls Bible” you cite appears to count it among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Nahal Hever manuscripts are, as I’m sure you know, much closer to the Standard text (known later as the Masoretic tradition) than those at Qumran, which makes the presence of this variant at Nahal Hever much more significant than it if had occurred in one of the Qumran manuscripts.
Thank you also for confirming that there is no early manuscript that contains the reading “like a lion”. I wasn’t aware of that. The Masora Gedolah also notes the strange pointing of the form in Ps.22. All this gives more weight to the conclusion that a scribe has mistaken a vav for a yod (see the photo at
I think the ball is now in the court of those who want to defend the strange verbless reading “like a lion”."

"Hi David. I notice that in the above comment and I believe in all your comments here, you never say that this word at Nahal Hever has a meaning of “pierce”. So for starters, is it your position that this word at Nahal Hever has a meaning of “pierce”?

I have a related article up at my blog now regarding this Nahal Hever fragment:"

Steve said...

Hi Joe,

Interesting article about Psalms 22. I'm sympathetic to your argument, but the resulting sentence:

"...a band of evildoers has encompassed me, like a lion, my hands and feet."

doesn't seem to make grammatical sense.

Something like these would make more sense:

1. "...a band of evildoers has encompassed me, like a lion, piercing my hands and feet." This would make the connection between the lion and the hand and feet.

2. "...a band of evildoers has encompassed me, binding my hands and feet." This omits the mention of the lion, but makes the connection between "encompassed me" and hands and feet.

Note that I'm not saying there is any evidence for these, but that they make grammatical sense, while the translation you propose is confusing. Maybe it makes sense in the original language?

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this point.


JoeWallack said...

Hi Steve. I agree that it is a grammatical problem. In the Jewish Bible as a whole, there are a few instances of the equivalent of a sentence with no explicit verb but an implied verb (usually "at"/"near" which would be the implied verb here). But this is rare. And in the Psalms I'm not aware of any sentences lacking a verb.

Regarding the overall evidence though the Manuscript evidence is overwhelming for "like a lion". I'm also not aware of any Rabbinic evidence against it:

"like a lion, my hands and feet: As though they are crushed in a lion’s mouth, and so did Hezekiah say (in Isa. 38: 13): “like a lion, so it would break all my bones.”

The Internal evidence outside of the lack of a verb also strongly supports "like a lion":

1) Lions have already been invoked.

2) There is a general use of wild animals.

3) A lion here completes a chiastic structure of animals.

4) In the entire Psalm the speaker is only threatened, never physically harmed. The basic theme is to save the speaker from physical harm.

5) The Psalm is poetry, not narrative, and poetry is more likely to bend the rules of grammar.

Further strengthening "like a lion" is that there is no reasonable alternative supported by a minimum of evidence.

As far as The Difficult Reading Principle:

while it is probably the most important criterion for Textual Criticism of The Christian Bible that is not the case for The Jewish Bible:

1) We can not demonstrate this criterion for Jewish manuscripts.

2) Rabbinic commentary seems more interested in wondering why there are unusual words than in wondering if they should be some other word.

3) Jewish scribes often indicate that the meaning is uncertain.

4) Jewish tradition inventoried (preserved) textual variation rather than eliminate it.

Thus the Jewish style is to recognize the evidence against "like a lion" rather than ignore it. But when you add up all the evidence there are numerous good reasons to prefer "like a lion" and no good reason for any specific alternative.


Steve said...

Thanks for that elaboration Joseph. That grammar rules
are more likely to be bent in poetry is one I had not
ever considered.