A Jewish midrash (creative interpretation) imagines Prophet Esther (who according to the rabbis was one of seven Jewish female prophets) reciting Psalm 22 the moment before she was about to enter King Ahasuerus’ inner court.
Were some rabbis responding to the Christian Passion Narrative, in which Messiah Jesus, in his final moments, recites this Psalm 22 lament on the cross? The Qur’an tells us that Messiah Jesus did not actually die on the Roman cross because he was replaced by someone else, but he could have suffered (passionately) on the cross before being uplifted.
Dr. Abraham J. Berkovitz, who teaches at the Reform Judaism Rabbinical school HUC-JIR in New York, has written a profound study of the Christian-Jewish dispute over the last words Jesus uttered on the cross. This essay is an abridged version of an article by Dr. Abraham Jacob Berkovitz, “Jewish and Christian Exegetical Controversy in Late Antiquity: The Case of Psalm 22 and the Esther Narrative,” in Ancient Readers and their Scriptures: Engaging the Hebrew Bible in Early Judaism and Christianity, eds. Garrick V. Allen and John Anthony Dunne (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 222–239 Also see Times of Israel March 7, 2022. I use the titles Messiah and Prophet Jesus that the Qur’an uses.
Early Christian authors saw Prophet Jesus as the primary interpretive possibility for the troubled voice within Psalm 22, and in some Christian circles, the psalm became the centerpiece of liturgy on Good Friday, a day on which Christians commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion. This understanding of Psalm 22 became so entrenched that Jerome (349–407), a central church father who authored the standard Christian translation of the Bible into Latin known as the Vulgate, chastised anyone who would read the psalm as pertaining to a figure other than Christ: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jerome wrote “Impious are those who think the psalm was voiced by David or Esther or Mordecai, for by the very testimony of the evangelist, passages from Psalm 22 are understood to be about (Jesus) the savior: “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots,” “They have pierced my hands and feet” (Commentary on Matthew 4.27.46, completed on March 398).
While understanding the psalm as voiced by (Prophet) David would have been natural for anyone, Christian or Jew, who considered Prophet David to be the author of the psalm, Jerome’s comment about Prophet Esther and Mordechai is aimed specifically at Jews, and is important early evidence for the Jewish use of Psalm 22 in relation to the main characters of the Esther scroll.
And Jerome knew much about Jews and Judaism. Over the course of his life, he studied with many Jewish teachers. He lived in Bethlehem and took much delight in his part-scholastic and part-pugilistic interactions with Jews and their traditions. (Jerome believed) It was the Jews who “impiously” understood Psalm 22 in light of Esther and the Purim narrative.
The Hebrew Bible Book of Esther 5:1 states: “On the third day, Esther put on royal apparel and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, facing the king’s palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace.”
Dr. Berkovitz points out that the Babylonian Talmud offers a midrashic (creative interpretation) interpretation of Prophet Ester’s royal apparel (Megillah 15a): “Does it need to tell you about her royal apparel? Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Chaninah said: “This teaches you that she donned the Holy Spirit.”
Although Esther enters the palace with the holy spirit, it soon disappears (Talmud Megillah 15b):
Says Rabbi Levi (ca. 200, Israel): When she [Queen Esther] came to the house of idols palace, the divine presence (Shekinah/Sakina) departed from her. She said: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Ps 22:2)
In the Biblical text, Prophet Esther’s hesitation to enter the palace is clear; entering the king’s inner court uninvited is a capital offense, unless the king extends his golden scepter (Esther 4:11). The midrash sees her pause as a reaction to loosing the divine spirit, to which she responds by chanting the lament of Psalm 22.
Reading Psalm 22 as a reference to Prophet Esther seems very forced; nothing in the text suggests that the woeful lament belongs to Queen Esther. Why demand her presence? The answer lies in the early Christian use and understanding Psalm 22.
Dr. Berkovitz points out that each of the four canonical gospels draws on Psalm 22 in narrating the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. In describing Jesus’ last moments, the Gospel of Mark, the earliest canonical gospel, writes: Mark 15:34 “At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (NRSV Bible translation). The Christian tradition counts the superscription as part of the opening verse, and not a separate verse on its own, and thus the numbering in Christian Bibles for this psalm is always one less than from the Jewish numbering.
Messiah Jesus uttered the following words as he was hanging on the cross, as recorded in both Matthew’s gospel 27:46 and Mark’s gospel 15:34. This is the quote from an Aramaic Targum translation of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken/abandoned me? These departing words of Messiah Jesus were so well known in Jerusalem that they appear in the Greek New Testament in the original Aramaic.
According to Mark’s gospel, Prophet Jesus’ final words were a quote from the opening passage of Psalm 22, though in a Hebrew/Aramaic vernacular adaptation—his native language—instead of in the psalm’s original Hebrew.
A nearly identical account appears in Matthew 27:46, which likely used Mark as a source. For Christians a number of other incidents surrounding Jesus’ death come from Psalm 22. Mark 15:17 says “And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 15:18 And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 15:19 They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. Mark and Matthew allude to these verses in the passage describing passers by insulting Jesus on the cross and shaking their heads.
Dr. Berkovitz says that the pervasiveness of allusions to Psalm 22 leaves no doubt that Mark, followed by the other gospel authors, constructed the passion narrative (they wrote) with Psalm 22 in mind. Justin argues that since nobody pierced the hands and feet of King David Psalm 22 must be voiced by Prophet Jesus, who was pierced (crucified) by Roman soldiers.
While Jerome is responding to the Jewish interpretation of Psalm 22, which clearly existed already in the 4th century, this Jewish interpretation was likely a response to the Christian reading of the psalm as having been recited by Jesus during the passion. The need to respond to the Christian reading of Psalm 22 likely spurred Jewish interpreters to find an alternative reading, which they did by associating the psalm with Queen Esther and the Purim story.
So this Jewish surprising interpretation was not born in a vacuum. Jews and early Christians were neighbors; they did business together, and were both curious neighbors and sparring partners. Jews and Christians frequently – and publicly – debated with one another about the truth of their religion. As Psalm 22 was a mainstay in the Christian arsenal, it was bound to come up in any inter-religious dispute.
The interpretation of Psalm 22 in Late Antiquity provides a window into the perennial war of words between Jews and Christians. Psalm 22 became a locus of heated controversy. Christians understood the poem as a prophetic pronouncement of Prophet Jesus’ crucifixion and used their reading as evidence for the truth of their religion. Jews countered with their own reading of the psalm: They linked it with the Purim narrative and argued that the suffering voice in the psalm does not belong to Messiah Jesus, but to Prophet Esther.
I would add that unfortunately most Christians totally rejected the Qur’an version of the Crucifixion and most Jews just ignored it. Jews could not use the Qur’an’s insight into the Crucifixion in Christian states, even though Jews like Muslims did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God who was tasked by God to die on a Roman cross.
Christians did not see that the Qur’an’s use of the title Messiah for Prophet Jesus was a major recognition that Jews were not offering to Christians. “And We gave Jesus son of Mary clear explications, and We confirmed him with the Holy Spirit.” (Quran 2:253)
And Muslims did not see Queen Esther as one of seven the Jewish female prophets that the Rabbis mentioned in Talmud Megillah (14a), “Our Rabbis taught: Forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses prophesied to Israel.”
These disagreements are all the will of God as the Qur’an states: “Once all humans were but a single (Polytheistic) community; then (when Monotheistic Messengers came) they disagreed. Had it not been that your Lord had already so ordained, a decisive judgement would have been made regarding their disagreements.” (10:19)
“If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you. (5:48) and “If your Lord had pleased, He would have made all people a single community, but they continue to have their differences.” (11:118–19)
Yet if one believes that there is only one God, who is revealed by many different inspired prophets, then we should be able to learn more about God’s will by gaining insights into our own unique revelation, from other revelations of that one God. Since all monotheistic scriptures come from the one and only God, we should view other scriptures as potentially enriching our understanding and appreciation of our own scripture.
If we all can live up to the ideal that religious pluralism as the will of God. we could help fulfill the 2700 year old vision of Prophet Isaiah: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.”…(Isaiah 19:23-5)