What was the Inscription on the Cross?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
Controversy has surrounded the death of Christ on the cross for almost two millennia. In the days of the apostle Paul, it served as a “stumbling block” to the Jews and “foolishness” to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23). Throughout the past 2,000 years, men and women of all ethnicities have rejected—for many objectionable reasons—the story of the crucified, resurrected Savior. Sadly, for some today, even the physical cross itself has become a stumbling block. Because of an alleged contradiction surrounding the actual words written on the cross of Christ, some believe that the message of the cross once preached by John, Paul, Peter, Philip, and others simply cannot be trusted. According to skeptics, the Gospel writers disagreed regarding what the title read that appeared on the cross above Jesus’ head.
Matthew: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (27:37).
Mark: “The King of the Jews” (15:26).
Luke: “This is the King of the Jews” (23:38).
John: “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews” (19:19).
Question: Did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John disagree on what was written on the cross, or did these four independent writers record trustworthy statements?
Before answering the above question, consider the following illustration. Tonight after getting home from work, I inform my wife (Jana) about an accusation I read on a billboard on the way home regarding one of our friends who is running for city council. I proceed to tell her that the accusation read: “John Doe is a thief.” The following day, our niece (Shanon) comes by the house and mentions to Jana that she just saw a billboard (the same one that I had mentioned a day earlier) that read: “City council candidate John Doe is a thief.” Finally, the next day, a friend (Rhonda) visits Jana and informs her about the same sign, saying it reads: “Montgomery City Council candidate John Doe is a thief.” Question: Would anyone have justification for saying that Shanon, Rhonda, and I disagreed regarding what the billboard said? Certainly not! We all three reported the very same accusation (“John Doe is a thief ”), except that Shanon mentioned the fact that he was a “city council candidate,” and Rhonda added that he was a candidate from “Montgomery.” All three of us reported truthfully the allegation we saw on the billboard. Similarly, the accusation above Jesus on the cross is the same in all four narratives—“the King of the Jews.”
Matthew: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (27:37, emp. added).
Mark: “The King of the Jews” (15:26, emp. added).
Luke: “This is the King of the Jews” (23:38, emp. added).
John: “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews” (19:19, emp. added).
The only variation in the inscription is in the personal name of Jesus. This alleged contradiction is easily explained by acknowledging that John recorded the full inscription, while the other writers assumed all to understand the personal name, and therefore simply focused on the accusation on which the crucifixion was based. The accusation was not that this man was Jesus of Nazareth, since there was no controversy regarding His name, nor His hometown. It was a known fact that the man crucified between the two thieves was indeed “Jesus of Nazareth.” Somewhat like the controversial accusation mentioned above regarding John Doe, the key charge leveled against Jesus was that He was “the King of the Jews,” and this title was mentioned by all four Gospel writers.
Also involved in this alleged problem regarding the accusation that appeared on the cross is the fact that the superscription was written in three different languages, and translation may have been involved in some instances. According to John, the title was “written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin” (John 19:20; cf. Luke 23:38). Pilate is said to have written the inscription (John 19:19), and he (or whomever he ordered to write the inscription—cf. John 19:1) could have written a slightly different wording in each of the languages according to his proficiency in each language, or according to how much time he wanted to spend writing each one. Furthermore, as Bible commentator Albert Barnes noted: “One evangelist may have translated it from the Hebrew, another from the Greek, a third from the Latin, and a fourth may have translated one of the inscriptions a little differently from another” (1997).
The inscription on the cross of Christ mentioned by all four Gospel writers proves yet again, not that the Bible contains discrepancies, but that the narrators wrote independently. They did not rely upon one another to ensure that their facts were exactly correct. Rather, their accurate accounts of Jesus’ life stand solidly upon the “inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Barnes, Albert (1997), Notes on the Old and New Testaments (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).