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Psalm 22 and the Crucifixion

by Stephen Hebert on Tuesday - 10 April 2007

in Biblical Studies, New Testament, Old Testament

This past weekend was Easter which naturally brings with it contemplation of the cross and the resurrection.

A good friend of mine was asking me about Psalm 22 and the Crucifixion. In Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46, Jesus utters the following question while on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (NB: Matthew and Mark are very slightly different).

Most Bibles will note that this is an Aramaic translation of Psalm 22:1. My friend asked me whether or not I thought that this should be understood as a quotation of the entire psalm, or just the first line.

Allow me to explain a little further. Often in ancient literature, a quotation of a familiar text was identified by writing just a few lines. This was probably because writing materials (e.g., papyrus) could be quite expensive. It was basically a paper-saving technique.

How does the reading of this text change if we take Jesus to be quoting the entire psalm, rather than just the first verse?

I actually don’t feel like the reading changes much, in fact, I feel like its a strong position. What may be bothersome is for people to take the hope evoked by Psalm 22:19ff. and twist it into saying that God had not forsaken Jesus while Jesus was on the cross. I find this position untenable.

Paul’s Position on “Forsaken”

If we look at Paul, I think we’ll find that his attitude is in accordance with the concrete meaning of these verses in Matthew and Mark. Jesus was in fact forsaken, separated, from God.

For our sake he made him who knew no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:21)

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Gal 3:13–14)

In both of these verses, it appears that Christ experienced separation from God. First, in 2 Corinthians, Paul says that he was made to be sin. We know that sin and God cannot coexist. The two are oil and water and do not mix. At the crucifixion, Jesus took the sin of the world upon him, at which point he was separated from God by his filthiness.

In the second quotation, Paul refers to Jesus as “cursed.” This too shows a separation from God. How can a curse be wholly God? Just as I explained above, at the moment of the crucifixion, God indeed turned his back on Jesus.

What’s Hebrews 2:9 Got to Do With It?

Here is how the ESV translates Hebrews 2:9:

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

This seems pretty innocuous at first. However, lurking underneath this text is textual variant that alters the theology of this statement. The crux of the matter is the idea that “by the grace of God” Jesus died. There is strong textual evidence to support this reading: “so that separated/apart from God he might taste death for everyone.” I have written rather extensively about this particular topic in a paper called “Hebrews 2:9: Separated by Grace”.

If my argument is correct, if “by the grace” should be replaced with “separated” this would make rock solid the understanding that Jesus did indeed die separated from God.

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