How was Psalm 22 understood by Jewish tradition before the birth of Jesus? Was it interpreted messianically? What pre-Christian sources discuss Psalm 22?
This question was just asked over at the Judaism site, so I'll repost my answer from there here.
In general it is difficult to find pre-Christian rabbinic commentary, since the earliest rabbinic commentaries began coalescing around the end of the Second Temple period, in the first century CE. So while early midrashic collections like the Sifra and Mekhilta do contain early (Tannaitic) material it is difficult to know what material, if any, predates their final redaction in the first centuries CE.
This article, by Prof. Rivka Ulmer, will likely be helpful in what you're looking for... She writes (pg. 108): "Prior to the attestation in the New Testament, there is no evidence of Psalm 22 being used in a Jewish messianic context... Jewish interpretations of the Psalm identify the individual in the Psalm with a royal figure, alternatively interpreted as King David, King Hezekiah, or Queen Esther." She discusses many early Jewish and Christian sources, including the following citation from the Babylonian Talmud (circa 500 CE), which relates this psalm to Esther:
Megillah 15b (her translation):
She discusses many others, including Midrash Tehillim (an early medieval compilation of allegorical commentary on Psalms) and its interpretation of this psalm as referring to David's life as a shepherd (which is too lengthy to type out here but you can read it in Esther Menn's article here), as well as how this psalm is (mis)translated and utilized in the Christian tradition. Her article is worth a read because it goes into many more sources and critically analyses each one. I hope this helps.
I asked about this question at the Judaism.SE site and was told that it is difficult to find pre-Christian Rabbinic sources. It seems that the current understanding of Psalm 22 within Judaism deals with the plight of the Jewish Nation in Exile.1 However, Rashi's 11th-century commentary states that
Another response over at Judaism.SE mentioned an article by Rivka Ulmer that states that "Psalm 22 is rarely cited in rabbinic literature," but acknowledges that
Pesiqta Rabbati was written approximately in the mid-9th century A.D., so long after Christianity had been established. Ulmer goes on to say,
Ulmer translates from the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 15b (part of the Mishnah which dates to approximately 200 A.D.) concerning the application of this Psalm to Esther:
An alternate understanding found in the Midrash Tehillim (approximately 11th century) is that of David's life as shepherd.5 Another response over at Judaism.SE mentions the Targum, which appears to be the oldest available source, dating to at least the 1st century A.D. (the Jews claim it is much older but that it was not allowed to be written, passed on only by oral tradition since 450 B.C.). This interpretation is similar to Rashi's.6Sources
1 Avroham Yoseif Rosenberg, ed. "The Complete Jewish Bible With Rashi Commentary," http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16243/showrashi/true (accessed January 11, 2013).
2 Rivka Ulmer. "Psalm 22 in Pesiqta Rabbati: The Suffering of the Jewish Messiah and Jesus," http://www.bibleinterp.com/PDFs/Psalm_22.pdf (accessed January 11, 2013), 106.
3 Ibid., 108.
4 Ibid., 109-10.
5 Esther M. Menn. "Prayerful Origins: David as Temple Founder in Rabbinic Psalms Commentary," in Of Scribes and Sages, Vol 2: Early Jewish Interpretation and Transmission of Scripture, ed. Craig A. Evans (New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 77-89.
(I managed to access Menn's article through Google Books. If the link doesn't work just search for "midrash tehillim psalm 22" on Google Books and select the search hit in the above book and it should work).
6 Targum Yonatan, http://targum.info/pss/ps1.htm#_ftnref115 (accessed January 11, 2013).
The first and most important clue is found in the annotation of the Psalm:
"Of David" can mean that it was written by, about, or in the style of David. Since the Psalm is written in the first person, any way you look at it, the subject must have originally been David. Nothing in the Psalm particularly points us to anything but this being a poetic description of David's struggle with his enemies and thanksgiving for being rescued.
This the only pre-Christian commentary that I've been able to find.
We might be able to find references to traditional interpretations in post-Christian sources. Now it gets tricky because whenever David is mentioned, there's a chance that the Messiah might be involved. Modern Jewish interpretations downplay the connection:
I've seen a number of references to Esther in relation to this Psalm such as the Being Jewish website:
I've also seen references to Rabbinic sources that take the Psalm as messianic. [This link is to a Christian website, however.]
First, it is true, most of the rabbinic commentaries that survive were either taught late in the Second Temple period, or somewhat after the Temple's destruction. So I can't give you a rabbinic interpretation. But I'll give you a textual analysis that I think is convincing.
The Christian link to Psalm 22 is rooted in their shocking mis-translation of verse 16 (verse 17 in some versions) as "They pierced my hands and feet." This supposedly foretells the crucifixion of Jesus where his hands and feet were pierced by the nails that hung him to the cross. One problem, it doesn't work in Hebrew.
The Psalm describes the angst of the psalmist (I think David) who is surrounded by enemies and asks why G-d has forsaken him. Psalms 22:16 in Hebrew says "k'ari b'yadai v'raglai" ("Like a lion (the enemies) are at my hands and feet"). The disputed word here is "k'ari" which is spelled kaph - aleph - resh - yud. An ari is a lion, and that the use of the letter "kaph" before a word means "like" or "as." The Christians appear to have invented a new Hebrew word which they pronounce "koari" yet no such word exists in Hebrew with the same spelling. There is a similar sounding word to koari -- karah spelled kaph - resh - heh -- that is used to mean to dig, or perhaps bore into the ground (as in a hole) (cf Gen. 26:25; Ex. 21:33; Num. 21:18; Jer. 18:20; Ps. 7:16, 57:7). But the spelling is much different; it is an entirely different word root. In "koari" there is no letter aleph as there is in the word k'ari and no grammatical reason for dropping it.
If the psalmist wanted to describe piercing of the body, he could have used rats'a (to pierce) (Zech. 12:10, Is. 13:15), or nakar (to pierce, bore or perforate) (2 Kings 18:21). Nakar would be the best choice. In 2 Kings 18:21 it is used this way: "It [the reed] will go into his hand and pierce it."
The other linkage with Ps. 22 I see Christians use is Jesus' own use of the first verse on the cross, where he asks G-d why He had foresaken him. I find his use of the quotation as very appropriate only if he is not the Messiah and certainly if he is not G-d incarnate.
The Psalm is written by David, and therefore is about David. This is the primary reading of the text. However, there is a clue in Psalm 22:16 which suggests a secondary reading --
That is, it is not only David who is being pierced, but the "Promised Seed" is also the one who is pierced. This "Promised Seed" is the descendant of David, or the Anointed One.
Kindly allow me to explain.
In this verse, David is both surrounded and encompassed (or overwhelmed) by the "dogs" who pierce him. In Psalm 139:11, David is both surrounded and encompassed (or overwhelmed) by darkness. The Hebrew verb in Psalm 139:11 is שׁוּף, which is the SAME Hebrew word in Gen 3:15, where the serpent will pierce the foot of the "Promised Seed." That is, שׁוּף in Psalm 139:11 should be translated "overwhelmed" (as also in Job 9:17 incidentally), but in Gen 3:15 the SAME word in Hebrew means to pierce, because the serpent overwhelms the Promised Seed through the sting of death, which pierces his foot.
David is overwhelmed by "dogs" (image of unclean animals) who surround him, and who pierce his hands and feet. This is the primary meaning of Psalm 22, but there is now a secondary meaning relating to the "Promised Seed", who is pierced and therefore overwhelmed by the darkness of death through an unclean animal (the serpent in Gen 3:15).
If you are not familiar with the "Promised Seed" in the Hebrew Bible (in both the collective and singular sense of the word seed), then kindly click here for a quick overview. In this graph, please note that the "Meshiach" is David's descendant (the "Anointed One"), who is also the "Promised Seed" of Abraham, who is also the "Promised Seed" of Eve. It was revealed to Eve that the "Promised Seed" would be pierced on the foot.
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