The Sign On The Cross (by Judith Green, Hebrew University Of Jerusalem)

The ninth station of the cross, Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem. In the background you can see the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion.

“Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews. Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.” (John 19:19-20)

An intriguing passage in the Gospel of John, describing the crucifixion in great detail, including the sign written by Pilate himself and affixed to the cross. The official charge against Jesus seems to have been his challenging the authority of the Romans in Judaea by proclaiming himself, or being proclaimed, “King of the Jews”. It is quite plausible that there was such a sign, proclaiming the crime of the man being punished, as we know of this practice from other Latin historical sources of the period in which criminals are described as wearing signs around their neck, or above their bodies, describing their crime and punishment.

In fact, all four of the Evangelists mention the sign on the cross, but only in John is the sign, called the titulus in Latin, reported as being in three languages. While the discussion rages about what language Jesus himself spoke (maybe more than one?), this verse makes clear the tri-lingual nature of his Palestinian environment. The fresco below, by the Italian Renaissance painter, Fra Angelico, from a Dominican Monastery in Fiesole (1434), illustrates the languages of the inscription itself on the crossbar of the cross. This careful depiction reflects the new interest in ancient languges during the Renaissance. The Latin version mentioned in John, IESUS NAZARENUS REX IOUDAEORM, gives us the acronym INRI, an abbreviation which is found over the cross in so many images. The Greek, Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ Βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων = Jesus the Nazaraean, the King of the Jews, gives rise to an argument between the Jews and Pilate in the following verses in John:


Fra Angelico, from a Dominican Monastery in Fiesole (1434)

“So the High Priests of the Jews kept saying to Pilate, ‘Do not write The King of the Jews, but He said I am King of the Jews.’ But Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.” (John 19:21-22)

What upsets the High Priests? Here is a point of Greek grammar! In English, there is a difference between saying “the book” and “a book”. “The” is called the “definite article”, and it indicates one particular, definite, book. Whereas “a” is the “indefinite article”, and it indicates any book, not yet specified. In Greek, there is also a definite article and it is used in Pilate’s inscription, referring to The King of the Jews, an absolute title. Of course, the High Priests don’t accept this title for Jesus; they are only willing to accept the fact that he could have called himself A King of the Jews, perhaps one of many people taking this title upon themselves. It is very insightful of John, both in terms of Jewish psychology, the Palestinian linguistic environment, and in his understanding of Greek grammar! Again, he is set apart from the synoptic gospels in this description of the cross. The Hebrew version given by Fra Angelico is also quite correct: ישוע הנצרי ומלך היהודים = Jesus the Nazarite and the King of the Jews. (hard to see these on the reproduction, but believe me!).

The Pilate Stone

The Pilate Stone

The final illustration is a unique Latin inscription. It is called the Pilate Stone and it is a block of limestone with a carved inscription attributed to Pontius Pilate, prefect of the Roman-controlled province of Judaea during the life of Jesus. The stone was found in 1961 by a team of Italian archeologists and is unique because it is the only universally accepted archaeological find with an inscription mentioning the name “Pontius Pilatus” to date – look at the end of the second line. It was found in the ancient theater built by Herod the Great, in the present-day city of Caesarea, which was the capital of the Province of Judaea at the time that Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor.

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  1. gustavo vargas angel

    Dear Prof. Eli:
    I am ok with the idea of Jesus speaking more than a language, it means at least two: aramaic and hebrew(resident in a place where aramaic was the language), and because the long time of romanic domination, also latin, and greek, because the travelers in that area(where He lived), at least several words, as to understand some question and give an answer.

  2. Julie-Ann

    Why is the term Palestine used when clearly the land was still Israel?

    1. judith green

      Good question! Ancient Greek and Hellenistic authors, starting with Herodotus in the 5th c., generally use the term “Palestine” for the area between Phoenicia and Egypt. Also Greek and Latin authors in the Roman period continue this usage. It only became the official name of the Roman Province, Syria Palestina, in the year 135 CE, combing Judaea, Galilee and the area around Ashkelon. It is very interesting to note that the expression “Land of Israel” only occurs once in the NT, Matt. 2:20: εἰς γῆν Ἰσραήλ, when the angel commands Joseph, in a dream, to return from Egypt! This may be a resonance of the exodus of the Children of Israel (with the bones of Joseph!).

  3. Kat

    Perhaps I am missing something in translation, but King of the Jews reads differently to me than King of Israel (Mark 15:32).

    1. Eric de Jesús Rodríguez Mendoza


      Shalom Kat!

      Untill today, Yisra’el is a synonym for Jew. So, in the Mishnah says: All Yisrael, there is for THEM a part in the coming world… Here and in other many places, Yisra’el = Jews, as American stays for USA-inhabitants, while America is North, central and south…

      1. Kat

        Shalom Eric, thank you.
        I understand the word Yisra’el to mean “wrestle with God”. This is why I was having difficulty understanding.

        1. Eric de Jesús Rodríguez Mendoza


          Shalom Kat!

          Indeed the name Yisra’el means:
          אל ‘El (God) will put the שר (Sar) prince (this is, The Messiah).

          ישראל = Yisra’el 🙂

          1. Kat

            Eric, I can’t tell if we are saying the same thing 🙂 This is where I get my understanding from the word Israel Gen 32:28.

            Genesis 32:28 (KJV)
            28 And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.

            Jesus is Messiah King of Israel (those who prevail or overcome)

          2. Eric de Jesús Rodríguez Mendoza


            Shalom Kat

            You can take this name as a prophecy… you will be the prince… 😉 Pesher Style!

  4. Stephen Aldridge

    I had heard of the YHVH description but when I went to the Hebrew text – I could not see the vav and was surprised. So this discussion captures my attention.
    The interesting thought is, that Pilate instructed this sign to be put on the cross. Did he understand what he was writing? Did he have a “God given moment” where he was having a dig at the religious leaders? Was Pilate acknowledging who Jesus was? (Remembering the dream that Pilates’ wife had).
    The acronym is so close but not there in the translation, which makes the whole discussion worthwhile. Is this a coincidence? But then, I have heard that coincidence is not a kosher word.

  5. Andreas Stutz

    Hello. Where did the “and” come from? In the Greek NT it has no και (nore is there a “et” in the Vulgate). Also is there (according to NA27) no textual Variant which supports such a Reading. The grammatical Explanations about the definite Article don’t argue for a waw (ו) in the Inscription. The Hebrew Translation of the Greek Ιησους ο Ναζωραιος ο βασιλευς των Ιουδαιων is ישוע הנצרי מלך היהודים.
    Kind Greetings.

    1. Eric de Jesús Rodríguez Mendoza


      yes, your arguments are correct. There is not a Kαι in Greek “supporting” the Hebrew ו but, they are so different languages that they have “different necesities”. In some “styles” of speech, it is possible to substitute the “And” for a “comma”… this is called: Histerology. Indeed, the Greek word “και” has the value of “this is…” as an explanation. in the sense of: “this implies this”. If we read: Jesus the branch and the king of the jews, makes sense, and is the same if we say: Jesus the branch, the king of the Jews…
      The question is very interesting.

      1. Andreas Stutz

        שלום גם לך
        Hello also to you

        In this case it stays a Hypothesis, since, as you correctly noted, “possible”. Since we don’t have it in the Greek (or in the Peshitta), even though it would be (also in the Greek!) linguisticaly possible – I see no reason, to insert it.

        By the way: נצרי doesn’t mean here “root” because the Romans are not making here a biblical statement. Rather they are naming his Origin (Nazarene, see John 1:45-46).

        Kind Greetings

        (Sorry for my bad English)

        1. Eric de Jesús Rodríguez Mendoza


          Shalom Andreas!

          What I trying to put here, is the fact that there are “bad vias” in Greek for Hebrew words. For example: The Hebrew name: בצרה Botzrah, was transcribed in Greek as Bosorra, Bossorra, (See LXX Gn 36:33, 1Chr. 1:44, Is. 63) or Bosrá/Bosor Is. 63:1. I also said that the word was not Notzri, but Netzer, and so, is the way by which is possible to explain the presence of a Qeri = “Don’t read so, but so…”. Don’t read Natzrat but Natzra’ = Hanétzer

          Cf. Mt 2:23:
          “καὶ ἐλθὼν κατῴκησεν εἰς πόλιν λεγομένην Ναζαρέτ· ὅπως πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τῶν προφητῶν ὅτι Ναζωραῖος κληθήσεται”.
          and come, he lived in (a) city said “Nazarét”. As to fulfill which was said though the prophet, that He would called Nazoreos.

          What prophet and where, said he would be called with the demonym of “Nazareth”?? Is not better to think of Nazoreos as Hanetzer/Natzra?

          1. Eric de Jesús Rodríguez Mendoza


            The Targum of Is 11:1 says:

            ויפוק מלכא מבנוהי דישי ומשיחא מבני בנוהוי יתרבי

            And will go out THE KING among the sons of Yishay, and THE MESSIAH will “(self-) grow” among the sons’ sons.

            Taken from the Targum in the Rabinic Bible of Jacob ben Hayim.

          2. Eric de Jesús Rodríguez Mendoza


            Notice, that the Hebrew “hoter” (חוטר, “Shoot”) stands for Malka'(the King), and “Nétzer” (נצר, “branch”) for Meshicha’ (The Messiah).
            Read now: Yehoshúa’ the Messiah, and the King of the Jews!! Amazing! 🙂
            Yehoshúa’ the Messiah, this is, the King of the Jews!!
            I’m thinking of a subliminal paralelism… between Hebrew sounds and aramaic significancess.. 🙂

          3. Andreas Stutz

            Shalom Eric,

            This is realy a very interesting Parallel, which I didn’t know yet. But why shoult the Romans care for it? Why should the Romans care for Is 11:1? And why should the pagan Romans make such a Statement? Why should the Romans at all know Jonathan (ben Uzziel)? I see the nice similarity… but it seems to me that you try to force on a gentile, pagan Inscription a theological meaning. Don’ forget that the Inscription wasn’t written by Jonathan but by Romans.
            When the Greek text is plain makes sence, why not keeping along with it?


          4. Eric de Jesús Rodríguez Mendoza


            Shalom Andreas! your question was expected! 🙂

            Here, we need to decide if the text of the Sign in the Gospel of John, is a theological statement of the writer, or the textual content of it hand writen by Pilatus, which in such case, doesn’t require the knowledge of Pilatos about targums or another thing alike (Cf. John 11:51, the case of the High priest).

            I want to call your attention over the different versions of the sign:

            Mark 15:26
            ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων = The king of the Jews

            Luke 23:38
            ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων οὗτος = The king of the Jews, this (is).

            Mathew 27:37
            οὗτός ἐστιν Ἰησοῦς ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων = This is Jesus, the King of the Jews

            John 19:19-20
            Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων = Jesus the Messiah, the king of the Jews…

  6. Kingsley Fulbrook

    I think that there is something in the Hebrew inscription being a deliberate blasphemy on the part of Pilate. And also his reply to the priests’ objections seems the same: ‘what I have written I have written’, a rather pathetic play on ‘I am who I am’: so he is saying in effect, as far as you are concerned I am God.
    This unpleasant episode is entirely consistent with what we know of Pilate’s character from other sources.

    1. jzmazzola

      This is so insightful to me. The psychology of the man, Pilate, and the social-psychology of his encounter w/the High Priests of the Jewish people. I would even take it a step further, that Pilate was insinuating, “not only your god, but I am my own god…and have written.”

      1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

        Interesting insight.

  7. Linda Brimigion

    Is it true that the words, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” when translated into Hebrew read such that the first letters of those Hebrew words are “Y” “H” “V” “H”?

    1. Eric de Jesús Rodríguez Mendoza


      Shalom Linda!

      It’s possible.. a possibility 🙂 what do you think?

    2. Lita Minor

      I believe that because the acronym was YHVH, that may be what upset them so much. Zechariah 9:9 says Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout for joy, O daughter of Y’rushalayim! For Behold, your king will come to you, righteous and victorious is he, a humble man riding upon a donkey, upon a foal, a calf of she donkeys. During Sukkot, in the synagogue, I see the Torah elevated and the procession of my brethren circling the bimah, me included and I think upon Y’shua coming into Y’rushalayim…the palm branches in the lulav being the highest standing branch. How can one not think of the palm branches being waved if one believes John 1:1. He is the Alef and the Tav that was in the beginning

  8. judith green

    Thank you, Eric, for your response. This is indeed what Fra Angelico has on his sign, though I assume he didn’t now Hebrew and I have no idea from where he took the letters. The original sign would not have had a “vav” in the middle, “and” king of the Jews, This makes no sense and is unrelated to the Greek of John, or the Latin. I translated the words on the painting, but didn’t mention this. I know some have even interpreted this as a blasphemous acronym which was the cause of the Jews anger, but I think this is unlikely. The protest was against his being called The King of the Jews. The Israel Bible Society Version has ישוע הנצרי מלך היהודים.

    1. Eric de Jesús Rodríguez Mendoza


      Shalom. I thought of this you are saying Dr. Judith, but I think is possible that the cause of HIS death, had (not: would not have) the letter Waw (vav) ו; = “and”.
      How is it possible?
      I think there is a problem with the word Hanotzri (הנצרי), because the demonym of Natzrat (נצרת) is Natzrati (נצרתי), not “Notzri”. Then, I think the real subyacent word in hebrew for the Greek Nαζοραιος (Nazôrêos) is indeed, Nétzer (נצר) the “branch” of Is. 11:1. So,

      Yehoshúa’ Hanetzer umélech Hayhudiyim = יהושע הנצר ומלך היהודיים = Jesus the branch, and the King of the Jews.

      If was refered to the demonym, you are right, if not, I think is reasonable the use of the Vav.

  9. elijahworkz

    Eric, that is amazing! Is it possible that objections that the rulers had had to do with this as well as the definite article?

    1. Eric de Jesús Rodríguez Mendoza



      Yes Elijah, I think this possibility it’s heavy, heavenly! 😀

  10. Eric de Jesús Rodríguez Mendoza



    it’s so exciting to find a reference to the possibility of reading via Notariqón, acrostic, the hebrew expression ישוע הנצרי ומלך היהודים as equal to: יהו”ה = YHW”H !!!
    Yeshua’ Hanotzri Wmelej Hayhudim :O amazing!
    It’s a jewish tradition to remember things through accrostics and in this case, YHWH in a Cross, sounds amazing! :O

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Eric, I agree with you that the “vav” is intriguing possibility that was also noticed by the author of the painting. Is it linguistical possible? ABSOLUTELY! When the Hebrew “V” gets translated it has all kinds of ways to express or NOT to express itself. (So here it could work as “;” so to speak) without any problem.

      I disagree with the comment by Judith that it makes no sense in John. I think in John in particular (that has HIGH Christology) it makes perfect sense!!!! And yes I can see how that could have been the Pilates play with the Ioudaioi he deeply resented (YHWH/I am that I am vs. I wrote that I wrote).

      But since we only have the GREEK of what it said in Hebrew we can only say that it is possible and intriguing, but not more than that. We have lots of interpretive possibilities in the Bible. Let’s keep thinking together!

      1. Andreas Stutz

        But in V. 21 the chief priests don’t mention this. They have problems with the Term: “King of the Jews”. That’s why they say (NIV): “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews”. If the priests would suspect some kind of blasphemy it would be recorded as such… or not? Not John and not the priests are linking to the Tetragramaton… which would be expected, if it would be there. Just because it’s “nice” and more “christological” it doesn’t mean, it has to be there.
        Yet there is a Theology in the Sign: Jesus is the King of the Jews. Telling this today would bring not less problems than in the Time of the NT (as Israeli would be l be problem). נכון?

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          Andreas, hi. It does not say Jesus is the King of the Jews. But something like
          “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews/Jesus of Nazareth; the king of the Jews”. To change the phraseology (as per Ioudaioi’s request) would have meant to change the spelling of the alleged achronim (if indeed there was one). But as I said it is an interpretive possibility only.

        2. Eric de Jesús Rodríguez Mendoza


          Shalom Andreas!

          The purpose of changing the sign (as is writen in John) was (as I have been saying) to reorder the phrase and abolish the accrpstic or Notariqon.

          If we pass to other version of Gospel (such as I put), the problem was with the word “KING”, a parallel/synonym of Messiah according to the Targum of Is. 11:1. Maybe Pilatus didn’t knew, but the Leaders of the Ioudaioi (Iudei), did.

          So is if we read: Don’t write: The Messiah of the Jews but: He claimed to be the Messiah.