Why have you forsaken me?

A discussion of Mark 15:34 and Psalm 22.

This article was originally written in reply to a particular person, but it has general application to the critics of Christianity who read the saying of Jesus from the cross, "My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?" as an expression of failure and despair. This text has been updated since its original appearance on the talk.religion.misc newsgroup.

The fundamentalist Christian often interprets this saying as marking the point at which Jesus took upon himself the sins of all mankind requiring God (who they say cannot look upon evil) to turn away. I strongly disagree with this idea also, but that is another discussion for another article.

Earlier this afternoon, my pastor called up and asked me to bring some t.r.m articles to church tomorrow so that we might discuss them in Sunday School. As I have been away on a business trip for several days, my news reader downloaded over 700 articles. Even so, it's been a task finding articles of general interest, not over quoted and expressing complete thoughts ;-).

Here's one I selected:

Eddy wrote:

"Jesus was citing Psalm 22" This is always the excuse that christians give for these words that have been attributed to Jesus as he hung close to death on the Roman cross. With no proof what so ever for this claim, the christian simply say that this was from Psalm 22!

The fact of the matter is that they know no such thing. These words, "My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?" could have just as well been the cry of a desperate man after coming to realizing that his God was not there for him then and had never been there! It is possible that Jesus had finely come to realized, while hanging there close to death, that all of his ministry was for nothing. These words, If, in fact, they were spoken by Jesus at all, could have just as well been a desperate cry from a desperate man and nothing more.

As a matter of fact there is so little known about the real facts of Jesus' death we can't even be sure that these words were spoken at all. Two of the gospels, even though they go to the trouble to cite Jesus' last words as he hung on the Roman cross, do not even mention these words at all! So...For Kevin to say, "Jesus was citing Psalm 22 here.", It is an effort to twist and manipulate the scripture.

For Kevin to just come out and say; "Jesus was citing Psalm 22 here." Is very inaccurate! He doesn't know that any more then he knows what happened to Jesus' body.

Either the Gospels are literally accurate accounts of what Jesus said and did (in which case Jesus walked on water, healed the sick, shared the mind of God, rose from the dead and bodily ascended into heaven) or the Gospels may contain elements from the Christian tradition that illustrate the divinity of Christ (but aren't literal history).

If the former is the case, then Jesus did not die in vain, but did indeed freely take upon himself the sin and guilt of all of mankind and willingly died on the cross knowing in advance that he would rise from the dead triumphantly. If this is the case, then what Jesus said is hardly despair because he knew better.

If the latter is the case, then it is very likely that the Christian writers of the Gospels would have taken care not to write anything which would tend to make Jesus look bad. That is, if a biased pro-Jesus Gospel author understood Jesus' saying to be one of despair, then he would have omitted it from his book.

In either case, the words of Jesus from the cross are not ones of despair.

What I believe is that the only correct interpretation of the saying is in relation to Psalm 22--either Jesus is citing the verse (the opening words of Psalm 22) or the Gospel writer is putting the words in Jesus' mouth for the purpose of referring the reader to Psalm 22.

The first evidence of citation is simply that the text is identical.

In Jesus' time, the Psalms were not numbered as they are in our Bibles today. So Jesus could not refer to a Psalm by saying "Remember Psalm 22". The Psalms were referenced by their opening lines. So we would expect that anyone in Jesus' time speaking the opening line of a Psalm to be most likely citing the entire Psalm by its title.

It is also plain that the New Testament writers understood Jesus' execution as a direct fulfillment of Psalm 22, as I will show.

Parts of the Gospel account of Jesus' execution are right out of Psalm 22; for example:

Psalm 22

New Testament

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? [Ps: 22:1b NRSV] My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? [Mark 15:34b NRSV]
They stare and gloat over me [Ps: 22:18a]


Those who passed by derided him [Mark 15:29a]


they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots [Ps 22:18b] And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take [Mark 15:24]
They pierced my hands and my feet [Ps: 16:22 KJV] Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands...[John 20:25]
(Psa 22:7-8 NRSV) All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; {8} "Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver-- let him rescue the one in whom he delights!" (Mark 15:35-36 NRSV) When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "Listen, he is calling for Elijah." {36} And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down."
(Psa 22:15 NRSV) my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. (John 19:28 NRSV) After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty."

None of this was lost on the author of John's Gospel who described the casting of lots and said "This was to fulfill what the scripture [Psalm 22:18] says", and he further points to Psalm 22:15 in John 19:28. Indeed, one Bible commentary [Harper's] points to 13 New Testament (9 in the Passion narrative) references to Psalm 22.

Perhaps an even more telling saying of Jesus is found in Hebrews 2:11-12 (this will be red in your red-letter Bible):

Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters saying, "I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee"

But you will see this text attributed to Jesus in none of the Gospels, but you will find it (ta da!) in Psalm 22:22.

So in conclusion the three points of evidence are:

  1. Identical wording
  2. Partisanship of the author
  3. Other citations of Psalm 22 in the passion narrative and elsewhere in the New Testament.

Kevin (kevin@davnet.org)

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