God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Case of Mistaken Piercing in Zechariah 12:10 and John 19:37

A question on the About page concerns what appears to be a misquotation of Zechariah 12:10 in John 19:37:

Why does John, in John 19:37 CHANGE Zechariah 12:10 from “they shall look upon ME whom they have pierced: and they shall mourn for HIM” to only: “they shall look upon HIM whom they have pierced”?

It’s a great question with an important lesson behind it.

It’s hard to find an accurate printed translation of Zechariah 12:10, both because the verse is so theologically charged and because the Hebrew is complex.

The NRSV translates, “And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one* whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn” (my emphasis).

The footnote for “look on the one” in the NRSV advises that the Hebrew means “look on me.” This is the crux of the issue, because John 19:37 is clear: “And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.'”

The question is why John appears to misquote Zechariah. (Another good question is why so many translations hide this fact.)

The answer actually comes from John 19:36, where the important technical word plirow introduces two OT quotations. The first is “none of his bones shall be broken” (perhaps a rephrasing of Psalm 34:20 [aka 34:21 aka 33:21]). The second is our verse.

I’ve pointed out before (here: “What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?“) that, in spite of common translations, plirow doesn’t mean “fulfill.” Rather, that Greek verb introduces something called a “proof text” — which, despite the name, has nothing to do with what we would now call “proof.”

In this case, the proof text is a passage from the OT that matches the new text in the NT. (In the case of Jewish texts from the same time period, the proof text is also from the OT, but the new texts are usually prayers or something called “midrash,” and they are often introduced by Hebrew that means “as is written,” “as is said,” etc.)

The point of a proof text is to lend textual support to a new idea, but not in the scientific way that we now think of as “proof.” The support indicated by plirow has to do with the text itself, not what it means. That’s why I translate plirow as “match.”

Here, the point is that John 19:37 matches Zechariah 12:10. Both have to do with piercing. The details of the original meaning — who gets pierced, under what circumstances, etc. — are irrelevant.

This is a surprising way for most modern, scientific readers to look at text, but it was the norm in the period of time that gave us the NT. So the question is not “why did John misquote Zechariah?” but rather “How does John’s text match Zechariah’s?” And the answer, of course, is that they match quite closely. (I have more examples of this kind of matching in my longer explanation of pilrow, including perhaps the most famous: the non-virgin/virgin of Isaiah/Matthew.)

There’s one final interesting detail, and here we return to Hebrew grammar.

The Hebrew word for “upon me” is eilai, spelled Aleph-Lamed-Yud. That common word also spells the poetic word elei, which means just “upon.” So even though the text of Zechariah is clearly, “look upon me, whom they have pierced” it could be purposely misread as “look upon the one they have pierced.” (A similar kind of word play in English might turn “atonement” into “at-one-ment.”)

This is what originally made the text of John here so compelling: It takes an OT quotation and reinterprets it to apply to a new context.

Unfortunately, translations that change Zechariah to match John hide the ingenuity of the text, and make it all but impossible for English readers to understand how the NT quotes the OT.

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November 20, 2012 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , ,

12 Comments »

  1. Joel, if you are arguing that (the author of) John “purposely misread” Zechariah, you are arguing anachronistically. When John’s gospel was written there was no written distinction between elei and elai, as vowel points had not been added to written texts. Arguably John was purposely misrepresenting the text as he had heard it read in the synagogue or wherever. But perhaps more likely he simply read the unpointed text in a different way from how the Masoretes later understood it – which may or may not have been the same as the reading tradition at the time John was written.

    What it comes down to is that there are (at least) two equally valid ways of reading the consonantal Hebrew in this place. In cases like this the Masoretic text may preserve an unbroken tradition of pronunciation and understanding reflecting the author’s originally intended reading. On the other hand, the MT may also be corrupt. In this case we have a textual witness from a period long before the Masoretes, i.e. John’s gospel, supporting an alternative reading. I don’t have to hand details of any other early witnesses to the text at this point. But fundamentally this is an issue of textual criticism – although complicated by the possibility of theologically motivated changes by Christians or by Jews. So the matter needs to be resolved by the tools of textual criticism, not by making cheap shots like “purposely misread”.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | November 20, 2012 | Reply

    • Peter,

      I think you’re right in general: it’s a mistake to assume that the MT pointing (from nearly a millennium after the NT was written) is necessarily right. In this case, I don’t see two equally valid ways of reading the text. One jumps out as the obvious choice. But I could be wrong.

      More importantly, though, “purposely misread” is by no means a “cheap shot.” Purposeful misreading was a standard way of reading text in Jesus’ time. We see it throughout the NT, the DSS, the Midrash, and more.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 20, 2012 | Reply

      • I’m interested in the earliest available readings. I checked the Dead Sea Scrolls for Zechariah 13:7, for example, and right where I need to read, Zechariah has lacunae! I say it should read: “Strike, O Shepherd that the sheep may be shattered [or broken to pieces]” not “Strike the Shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered”, which I say is Christianization, like Peter mentioned above. The original, I believe, is a mystic allegory for transformation, well known in the Eastern traditions such as the one I follow.

        An what of the pronouns in 12:10? Why the change from first to third person, ‘look on me’ to ‘mourn him’? That’s even more interesting than whether it is “look on me” or “look on the one”. And doesn’t the RSV change the OT from ‘look on me’ to ‘look on him’ to harmonize John 19:37? That’s to me really suspicious. When are these translations made? Christian era. Are there none pre-Christian that shed light?

        Comment by Sahansdal | November 20, 2012

      • I must say I would disagree on which is the obvious choice, at least if we are looking at what makes sense in the context. Are you really suggesting that an Israelite author would have talked about people piercing YHWH? It makes sense from a Christian perspective, of course, but not from a Jewish one. Indeed I’m rather surprised it wasn’t corrected into something less apparently blasphemous, as has happened elsewhere.

        Or are you suggesting that the sequence of words elei et asher would be so grammatically anomalous that it cannot be the correct reading? I would take that point, but isn’t the MT elai et asher also anomalous?

        Somewhat ironically, I would suggest that here it is the MT reading, and not that in John, which has been influenced by the Christian understanding of the text.

        Comment by Peter Kirk | November 20, 2012

      • My understanding is that the phrase is not elai et asher, but rather, hibitu elai (“they looked to me”) followed by et asher dakaru (“regarding the one they slew”). This is both the obvious and straightforward way to read this Hebrew. Except for the dakaru/rakadu mix-up that gives us “dance over” in Greek, the LXX agrees.

        I think the JPS translation is on the right track here: “and they shall lament to Me about those who are slain, wailing over them as over a favorite son and showing bitter grief as over a first-born.” (I’m not sure why they insist on “those / them” when the Hebrew in the second case is clearly singular.)

        Comment by Joel H. | November 21, 2012

      • Joel, thanks for the clarification of how you understand this passage. I misunderstood you as accepting the meaning of what “the text of Zechariah is clearly, “look upon me, whom they have pierced””, which at least in English unambiguously identifies the pierced one with “me”. Theological and contextual considerations apart, would that not be a more likely way of reading the MT Hebrew? Or is this kind of use of et as “concerning” common?

        Also please note that I deliberately avoided the word “phrase” and wrote “sequence of words”, because I realized that the status of this sequence as a phrase was debatable.

        Comment by Peter Kirk | November 21, 2012

  2. Joel,

    Also, I want to hear your comment on what I asked originally in the other thread, about Zechariah 12:10. I believe that what we are reading is mystic allegory, dressed in history:

    The person speaking is THE LORD, the one who “stretcheth forth the heavens”. It wasn’t Jesus. Why does John, in John 19:37 CHANGE Zechariah 12:10 from “they shall look upon ME whom they have pierced: and they shall mourn for HIM” to only: “they shall look upon HIM whom they have pierced”? I say to make people think that both parts are about Jesus, instead of the Lord, the one “they pierced through to” and mourned. Joel, I am especially interested in your comment on the full verb form for ‘pierced’ — Hebrew, “daqaru” — as ‘pierced through to’. If it is possible, I am sure I am right in saying that this is a reference to meditation on the Lord.

    Comment by Sahansdal | November 20, 2012 | Reply

    • I think I’ve misunderstood what you’re asking, because it seems to me that I’ve already answered it: The “change” that you’re focusing on was a case of the standard way of reading texts at the time. (I have more examples and a detailed discussion here: “What Happens to Prophecies in the New Testament?.”)

      I think the goal was to read this line from Zechariah in a new context without destroying the old one.

      Here’s yet another example, this time from Jewish tradition. The “attributes of God” from Exodus 34:6-7 made their way into the Jewish prayer service, ending with the phrase v’chata’a v’nakeh, roughly “forgiving iniquity.” But anyone who knows the original knows that the Rabbis who quoted this text left some words out. The original says, v’chata’a v’nakeh lo y’nakeh, roughly, not forgiving iniquity.” The Rabbis completely changed the meaning of the text.

      Our modern, scientific approach sees this as a misquotation, because the Rabbis changed the meaning.

      For the Rabbis, this was a valid way of infusing the liturgy with Scripture, because they used a direct reference to Exodus.

      I think the Zechariah/John pair here, along with many, many more examples, work similarly. The goal was to infuse the NT with the words of the OT.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 21, 2012 | Reply

      • The context for the Rabbi example may be legitimate, but not so Zechariah/John. You mistakenly say ‘daqaru’ is “slew”. It is not, and John makes the same assumption. This is MYSTICISM veiled as history, Joel. I have studied mysticism since I was a teenager (I’m 59). The sense here is the devotee “piercing through” to the inner vision of the Lord who appears there in his “second coming” — the Messiah ben Aaron of the Dead Sea sect, the “Comforter” sent to Jesus’ disciples. It has nothing to do with spears in sides, or ‘stabbing’ anyone. Just as the Shepherd Master (the ‘Good’ Shepherd) of Zechariah 13:7 is ‘striking’ his devotees for their own transformation (“Strike, O Shepherd” is poetically demanded, too, as you say in general in your book of certain biblical forms, cf. Zech. 11:1-2, Isaiah 1:2, and Numbers 24:3, where the form is a doublet: “Arise, O sword” & “Strike, O Shepherd”), this is similarly misconstrued by all as an “attack” on someone. The author, the Lord, of Zechariah 12:1, is saying they will ‘pierce through’ to Him (“Me”, capital ‘M”) in inner vision, but they will mourn “him”, because the perspective has changed from the Lord to the devotee, who are sad at having been blind for so long. This theme is ubiquitous in Eastern mystic lore. It really suffuses all their scriptures — pining for the Lord.

        My question to you was: Is “daqaru” to be used for “pierced through to”, as I say it is?

        I’m telling you: as soon as the Western Academic Establishment (church prelates, Bible scholars) discover the Eastern wisdom is as soon as we in the West will understand the scriptures of the Middle East.

        Comment by Sahansdal | November 21, 2012

      • Joel and Peter:

        Just look at 13:1 for the proper context: “On that day there shall be a fountain opened [outpouring of His Spirit] for the house of David [devotees of the Lord] …” This is all allegory for the awakening devotees and how they feel about themselves (‘mourn’ = remorse at being apart so long). “Wounds between the hands” in 13:6 is very spiritual, as the hands are held to the forehead in meditation (see Apocalypse of Peter, “lift up your hands and listen”), and they cover the single eye (Matt. 6:22) where the Word or “Voice of the Lord” is heard. The hearing of His Voice “wounds” the penitent devotees.

        Comment by Sahansdal | November 21, 2012

      • —From time to time I had pondered the significance of the piercing in the crucifixion without success, thanks for shedding some light on that. I recognized that the event had that sort of meaning, because another metaphor with a similar meaning is also used. Namely, the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.
        —I hope you don’t get frustrated by the lack of understanding out there, that just seems to be the nature of things. As I am sure you realize it is best to share only the simplest spiritual things. Matthew 7:6 warns us to be careful with our pearls of wisdom, because they will just trample them under their earthly understanding and accuse you of heresy or stupidity or whatever.
        —It is hard to know what is proper to share and what is not. You seem to have found a reasonable balance. If it were not for others that took a chance with sharing, maybe my eyes would not have been opened, at least not to the Bible’s way of teaching the truth. I am pretty sure I would still have recognized the spiritual truth in the eastern traditions.
        —Too much truth at once doesn’t work. That is why more than a days worth of manna spoiled, right? Somewhere in NT a distinction is drawn between bread and manna. If milk is the simplest spiritual teaching then manna would be between milk and bread as a level of teaching? I guess maybe the literal law, not milk, is the simplest level of teaching, appropriate for those whose eyes are not yet opened.

        Comment by Caleb J. | December 31, 2012

  3. I no longer think it is “pierced through to” in Zech. 12:10, but idiomatic “reviled” as they reviled the Lord but regretted doing so and then “mourned” him, the Master. “me: is the Lord, speaking, on behalf of his Messenger (that’s the Qur’anic word for the Spirit/Messiah). Source is chatbible.com note 1865 for Zech 12:10, “daqaru”.

    Comment by Robert Wahler | April 12, 2013 | Reply


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