Inscription on Jesus’ Cross
In determining the exact inscription written on the Cross of Jesus it is necessary to consider all Gospel writings. Both Luke and John tell us the inscription on the Cross was written in three languages, Greek, Latin and Hebrew. It would therefore be practical that three of the Gospel writers chose to quote different languages, and that one writer chose to quote the words common to the other three. Matthew gives us “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS”; Mark says “THE KING OF THE JEWS”; Luke in close step tells us “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS”; and lastly John writes “JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS”.
It was the custom of the Romans to use gypsum lettering on rough a board affixed to a cross to proclaim the reason why a person was being executed. Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire, Greek was the international language of culture, and Hebrew was the religious language of the Jews. A likely scenario is that the Roman governor, Pilate, dictated the title in Latin and the centurion in charge of the execution implemented the declaration and its translation into the other languages. The words ‘King of the Jews’ were a public sneer at the Jews by Pilate, and this was compounded by his additional taunt that their ‘king’ came from Nazareth.
Because John is the only Gospel writer who mentions Pilate or Nazareth, or who refers to the inscription as a ‘title’, it is abundantly evident that John is quoting the Latin which read: IESUS NAZARENVS REX IVDAEORVM. (Latin used ‘I’ and ‘V’ where English uses ‘J’ and ‘U’.) That this is the Latin is further confirmed by the fact that the Early Church adopted as a symbol the Latin letters ‘INRI’, which are the first letters of this specific inscription, and this symbol, appears in many early paintings of the crucifixion.
Luke was a highly educated man and he addressed his Gospel to a Greek nobleman. It is therefore reasonable to presume that Luke gives us the Greek inscription: OUTOS ESTIN O BASILEUS TWN IOUDAIWN. Matthew wrote for the Jews and used many quotations from the Old Testament to show that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. It is therefore most likely that Matthew quotes the Hebrew inscription. This leaves Mark, whose Gospel is shorter than the other three, and who gives us a somewhat abbreviated account of the life of Jesus. True to his style, Mark abbreviates the inscription to the words common to the three languages used, namely ‘THE KING OF THE JEWS’.