One day in June, I was driving around listening to one of the local Bible radio stations. There was a sermon being preached about the time leading up to and including Jesus' death on the cross; the Passion. The preacher made a reference to Psalm 22, in that how it had so accurately described Jesus' experiences leading up to and including the crucifixion. I was immediately intrigued, as the few Old Testament (OT) passages that I had read which were supposed to be prophesying of Jesus seemed to be a tenuous connection at best. I thought that, while a more obvious and direct prophesy of Jesus would not necessarily prove anything, a more blatant prophesy would at least provide better understanding of the claim that the OT had really been prophesying Jesus all along.
As an atheist, I have often taken pernicious delight in finding evidence in life and in the Bible itself that seem contradict the existence of an omniscient, all-loving, mistake-free God that had been presented to me in my youth. But at the same time, I know there is something deep within me that really wants to believe. I was reminded of this deep seated desire when I read the Passion texts of Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19, and then read Psalm 22. Because as I studied Psalm 22 and the Passion texts, my heart ached and I felt a great sorrow in coming to the understanding that there is evidence of contriving the text of the New Testament (NT).
(Note that when I quote verse numbers, I will do so based on the New International Version (NIV) numbering. Literal Hebrew translations of the Psalms will often be one number higher due to including the instruction to the choir leader in the beginning as a verse.)
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Both Matthew and Mark record these to be Jesus' last words, or at least among His last words. This was not just some uninspired rambling from Jesus, but it is actually in scripture in the first verse of Psalm 22. This could be just coincidence. However, when we read Psalm 22, there are too many similarities to Jesus' Passion to be just a coincidence. The similarities are:
- Psalm 22:1 Jesus quotes from this first verse. (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33)
- Psalm 22:6-8, 17 Jesus is scorned and mocked, with people saying essentially let God save Him. (Matthew 27:27-31, 27:39-44, 27:47, 27:49, Mark 15:16-20, 15:29-31, 15:35-36, Luke 23:35-39, John 19:1)
- Psalm 22:9-10 Jesus was implicitly devoted to God since the day He was born.
- Psalm 22:12-13,16 Jesus is surrounded by people wishing to do Him harm. (Matthew 27:20-23, Mark 15:13-14, Luke 23:18-23, John 19:6-15)
- Psalm 22:15 Jesus said he was thirsty (John 19:28), and God has put Jesus in this situation according to God's plan. “...You lay me in the dust of death.” (Matthew 12:39-40, 16:4, 16:21, 17:9, 20:17-19; Mark 8:31, 10:32-34, 10:38, 10:44-45; Luke 5:34-35, 9:22, 11:29-30, 18:31-33; John 2:19, 3:13-17, 4:34, 6:32-58, 10:11-18, 12:23-28, 13:31-33, 14:28-31, 16:5-11, 17:1-5)
- Psalm 22:16 Jesus' hands and feet are pierced. (However, note that a literal Hebrew translation of this verse is written “like a lion, they are at my hands and my feet” instead. But if the Hebrew version is truly the literal interpretation, I would tend to believe that the pierced hands and feet is just a biased translation.) (Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, Luke 23:33, John 19:23)
- Psalm 22:18 They cast lots for Jesus' clothes. (Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, Luke 23:34, John 9:23-24) John 19:24 even goes so far as to specifically mention that this happened in order to fulfill the scripture of Psalm 22:18.
Also, depending on your interpretation, you could easily say that Psalm 22:27-29 is describing the Second Coming.
Wow! This prophesy of Jesus in the OT is truly amazing in its accuracy! Well, ... amazing until you look at it while examining the full context of Psalm 22.
Psalm 22 is structured in two parts. The first part is describing the plight of the protagonist and his request to have his life saved by God. The second part is describing what the protagonist will do if he is saved, and what possible after-effects this may have on the community, and even the whole world. The Passion parallels are all contained in the first part, yet you can't find anything which could be directly construed as a prophesy until the second part. It is difficult to fulfill a prophesy that is not prophesy, so we must believe that the first part is an implied prophesy due to John's account. (Although John is the only one to specifically say that Jesus' clothing was divided by lots in order to fulfill scripture, the facts that Matthew and Mark record the matching words from the beginning of this Psalm, that Matthew, Mark, and Luke also record this distribution of Jesus' clothing by lots, and that there are many parallels to the Passion, all support the case that Psalm 22 is supposed to be a prophesy of Jesus.)
Unfortunately, there issues are there with the accuracy of this implied prophesy when it is examined with the full context of the text. The first issue is minor, and perhaps circumstantial, beginning with the manner of manifestation of Psalm 22 itself. It is a Psalm of David. David did not write the Psalm with any text leading us to believe that this was a prophesy from God, revealed in a dream, a vision, or any direct or indirect communication from God. It certainly would have been easy and prudent to include such words, especially since the fulfillment of such a prophesy would further demonstrate the sovereignty of God. Given the lack of such language, the Psalm is likely based on either David's own experience or the experience of a well known contemporary of David. Given the second part of the Psalm, we can assume the protagonist has already made such proclamations to the congregation. Of course, other options are that this was based on a fictional character or someone else in earlier scripture; a legend. So the Jewish people singing this Psalm would probably not be thinking of prophesy at all, but rather of the experience of the real protagonist or the legendary character.
Now from within the Psalm text itself, there are accuracy issues too. John claims that the division of Jesus' clothing by lot fulfills the scripture in Psalm 22:18. Psalm 22:18 is written from the first person perspective, as is the way the rest of the Psalm is written and is exactly how John quotes it. So essentially Jesus is speaking through David in this Psalm, making Jesus the protagonist. Here we go, point by point through the inaccuracies of the Psalm 22 prophesy, assuming Jesus is the protagonist:
- Psalm 22:1 Jesus knows exactly why He is being crucified. He knows it is integral to God's/His own plan. (Matthew 12:39-40, 16:4, 16:21, 17:9, 20:17-19; Mark 8:31, 10:32-34, 10:38, 10:44-45; Luke 5:34-35, 9:22, 11:29-30, 18:31-33; John 2:19, 3:13-17, 4:34, 6:32-58, 10:11-18, 12:23-28, 13:31-33, 14:28-31, 16:5-11, 17:1-5) Asking why shows ignorance to these plans, unless the words were specifically used to point us in the direction of Psalm 22. Critical Thinking Question: For what purpose would we be directed to Psalm 22?
- Psalm 22:2 Jesus claims God/Himself is not answering His cries, by day and by night. But Jesus was not on the cross at nightfall. Perhaps one can defend the reference to pleading in the night by turning to Jesus prayers at Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:42), in which case this becomes another point of accuracy of the prophesy.
- Psalm 22:6 Jesus certainly was not just a man, but He was hardly a worm. While Jesus did humble Himself in certain ways, such as eating with the sinners and being willing to wash the feet of even Judas, He never humbles Himself in the sense of who He is by claiming He is not worthy of salvation, is insignificant, or is not the Son of God. The connotation of the words “I am a worm and not a man” implies someone that is not worthy of the being saved, or at the very least, someone that is insignificant. It's hard to imagine that Jesus would plead to His Father in that way, and there is no case where Jesus does pray this way in the NT.
- Psalm 22:14 All of Jesus' bones were not out of joint. Maybe some of them were, like if you are to believe that metal stakes were driven through Jesus' hands and feet in a way such that not a single bone was broken (John 19:36), you'd have to believe the metacarpals and metatarsals were quite dislocated. Perhaps this is just free use of artistic language to conjure up the image of just how broken of a man Jesus was. There is certainly a lot of artistic language in the Psalm, and such language is in this verse too, like the melted heart. Such language makes it rather difficult to divide out what is art and what is prophesy.
- Psalm 22:17 Someone that could count all their bones would likely be extremely emaciated from starvation or malnutrition. There is no account to say Jesus had this appearance. In fact, a carpenter would be somewhat of a burly guy in those times. Perhaps you could say Jesus could “count all [His] bones” due to the severe scourging He reportedly received if it was brutal enough to reveal the bones in His rib cage. But this would hardly account as being able to see all of His bones, especially since the bones would be exposed on His back, making them extra difficult to see in the first place.
- Psalm 22:20 Jesus life was not at risk from the sword, unless, of course, you are speaking figuratively of the Word of God as a sword. This metaphor is used elsewhere in the Bible. If that is an accurate interpretation, then this becomes another point of accuracy of the prophesy.
- Psalm 22:1-2, 20-21 Jesus is pleading to keep present His life, without a humble mention letting it be according to God's will. We see in the Gospels that Jesus knew the plan for Him to be tortured, to die, and to be resurrected according to God's will. Pleading against this death is pleading against the will of God (also an issue with Jesus' prayers at Gethsemane). Taking an example from Jesus' own teachings, desire in one's heart which is against the will of God is just as bad as actually making the physical transgression against God's will, as in the case of being angry with someone as opposed to actually murdering them (Matthew 5:21-22). Intrinsically, if Jesus really wanted to keep the life He had, which He knew was against God's will, then He has sinned. And furthermore, it is in direct contradiction to what Jesus reportedly said in John 12:27 specifically in regards to Jesus' imminent death; “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.” (This verse also seems to contradict Jesus' prayers at Gethsemane.)
- Psalm 22:22-25 If Jesus knew God's/His plan, and fully understood the great need there was for Jesus' own blood to be shed to save the elect, simply proclaiming God's goodness to the congregation in return for sparing Jesus' life would be a very poor, and laughable exchange.
- Psalm 22:28 This speaks of God ruling over all nations. The NT prophesy is that Jesus would rule over all nations (Revelation 20:4). Sure, God and Jesus are the somewhat the same being, but still I would think that there would be some distinction here. When read in context, however, this is obviously an indirect ruling as opposed to an actual leadership by God. I'll discuss this in the next point.
- Psalm 22:30 If Jesus incarnate is the one to be ruling the nations, there would not be a need to tell future generations about God.
- Psalm 22 There is no mention of a death and resurrection (of the protagonist), of the cross, or a Day or Judgement of the wicked. Not that such a silence falsifies the prophesy, but it is a strange silence comparatively.
While the parallelisms to Jesus' Passion are startling within Psalm 22, the contradictions are just as stark. It is not possible to objectively say that Psalm 22 is prophesy in its entirety. Furthermore, there is no clear distinction as to where the lines of prophesy are relative to the lines of historical or fictional account. Even from the first verse, the meaning of the words do not match the speaker, if that speaker is Jesus. It seems that the fulfillment of the prophesy is done by picking and choosing certain versus from this Psalm, and not necessarily considering their contexts.
There is a Catch 22 with regard to the prophesy of Psalm 22. If Psalm 22 is prophesy, as explicitly stated by John 19:24, and implicitly stated through Matthew 27:45 and Mark 15:33 recording Jesus saying the first words of the Psalm as well as through the mention of casting lots for Jesus' clothing in Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, Luke 23:34, and John 19:23-24 and all the above listed similarities, then the prophesy is marred with inaccuracy and the OT is not infallible. If Psalm 22 is not prophesy, then the NT is not infallible. Ultimately, it is a lose-lose situation.
The OT is used extensively to support the belief that Jesus was the Messiah being prophesied. If the OT is fallible, or more specifically, if the prophesies of the OT are errant, their credibility becomes substantially decreased. They become likened to the writings of Nostradamus, where the text is scrutinized for a myriad of meanings and interpretations until similarities between some past or present event can be found, and then are claimed by some scholars to be accurate. It is critical for the OT to be credible and accurate in order for Jesus to be the prophesied Messiah because Jesus quotes from and defends the OT, is claiming to be that prophesied Messiah, and is claiming to be directly related to the God of the OT, as well as the fact that the Apostles use the OT for support of the claim that Jesus is the Messiah. With the OT being the foundation of Christianity, we must assume that the OT is infallible in order for the NT to have a chance at being credible.
The NT books, and the Gospels specifically, are essentially the only detailed record of the life of Jesus. The four Gospel accounts were written, or at least finalized, decades after Jesus reportedly ascended to Heaven after the resurrection. So the Gospels had to be written from memory, research (Luke 1:1-4), and divine inspiration. All four Gospels record the division of Jesus' raiment by lots. Since Apostles were present at the Passion, research would not be required for this Psalm 22 tie-in. Three of the four report a secondary Psalm 22 reference. John reference records the fulfillment of the scripture of Psalm 22, requiring either divine inspiration or research of the OT. Matthew's and Mark's reference is the Jesus saying the beginning of Psalm 22, requiring either memory or divine inspiration. Since it was Jesus that reportedly said it, the Matthew and Mark reference come back to being divinely inspired regardless of if Mark and Matthew were recording from memory. From the study above, we can see that Psalm 22 has many parallels with the Passion, but it definitely contains some stark contrasts as well, making it inaccurate and errant prophesy as a whole. According to scripture, God Himself does not err, making it impossible for God to make a reference to an inaccurate prophesy. So this Psalm 22 reference must instead come from man. And given that it is recorded in all four Gospels, it means that men, the early church founders and writers or editors of the Gospels, have contrived this reference.
Back to the Critical Thinking Question: For what purpose would we be directed to Psalm 22?
I suspect that in recording the story of Jesus, there was a need to strengthen the relation between David and Jesus. While there was a forged background lineage that could be used to tie Jesus to David, this was not perfect. Jewish society was starkly patriarchal. The inheritance from lineage was passed down from father to son, and primarily from the father to the first son. This is further exemplified by the Law in cases where a man dies before providing an heir, the man's brother is to have sex with the dead man's wife, and the first male child with the dead man's wife is to be the dead man's heir, not the brother's heir (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). So the bottom line is that if Jesus' real dad is God, then Jesus' inheritance from lineage comes from God only, not from Joseph or Mary (and through their lineage on to David).
So the founders of the Christianity poured over the scriptures for some sort of prophesy or verbiage from David that could be used to tie into the Jesus story. They came across Psalm 22 penned by David, which had a lot of material which could be used to describe a greatly suffering prophet which had been prophesied elsewhere in the OT. So, in the tradition of Jewish Midrash of recasting scripture for a contemporary meaning or explanation, certain elements of Psalm 22 were recast into Jesus' Passion. Just so no one would miss the link, they record Jesus as actually saying words from the first verse of the Psalm. With such parallelisms to Jesus' suffering, it would enforce the idea that David not only shared a link of lineage with Jesus, but was close enough with God and Jesus to partially reveal Jesus' coming and the experiences Jesus was to have, and perhaps even to have shared in similar experiences.
And so we have one piece of the Jesus story puzzle. Now even if this puzzle piece is as I suspect, it does not preclude the idea of Jesus being God and man, and dying for our sins. Rather it just suggests that some early church fathers placed higher importance on winning people to the church than sticking to the truth. Sure, it's a little morally corrupt, but God clearly finds telling falsehoods acceptable at times, such as with Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12:10-20 saying they were brother and sister, where God punishes the believers of the lie for behaving according to the lie, and the midwives in Exodus 1:13-20 lying about why they had not killed the baby Hebrew boys, where God rewards the midwives with families for their actions.
There are two factors that make the Psalm 22 Catch 22 particularly virulent to the foundation of Christianity. One factor is from the viewpoint of historicity. A defense of the historicity of the Gospels is often the “fact” that Jesus' preaching, teaching, prophesying, and performance of miracles have been recorded by four independent witnesses, and, in that respect, is supposedly more credible than many other single-source historical accounts. Yet here we have rather strong evidence that suggests at least part of a story unanimously recorded in all four Gospels is contrived. This begs the question of what other unanimously recorded events in the Gospels have been altered or even made up completely, and throws even more suspicion on the events that are less than unanimous. The second factor is that the Psalm 22 prophesy is so closely interwoven into a story which is an essential tenet of Christianity; the unjust torture and crucifixion of Jesus. If the stories of Jesus feeding thousands with a handful of fish and a little bread (Matthew 14:13-21, 15:29-39, Mark 6:30-44, 8:1-10, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-14) were found to be embellished, or even completely fictional, they could be blotted out from existence without much, if any, disturbance to Jesus' message and the creeds of Christianity. But with Psalm 22 deeply interwoven within the fabric of the Passion, purging out the parts tainted by contriving without harming this tenet of Christianity is difficult, if not impossible, especially since we can not rely on the unanimous accounts as providing the most reliable information. And if this creed is fabricated, either partially or wholly, the other creeds must be treated as suspect and should be closely and skeptically scrutinized as well to maintain intellectual honesty and integrity. At some point you have to ask: How much could be removed from the NT and still maintain that Christianity is a God-inspired and truth-based religion?