I.N.R.I.: The Inscription on the Cross
What was written on the inscription above Jesus on the cross? Matthew wrote, "This is Jesus, the king of the Jews (27:37)."; Mark wrote, "The king of the Jews (15:26)."; Luke wrote, "This is the king of the Jews (23:38)."; and John wrote, "Jesus of Nazareth the king of the Jews." The difference between Matthew and Mark's account is that Mark did not bother to write, "This is Jesus" before "king of the Jews." There is no contradiction here, just an elimination of part of the phrase Matthew quoted. There does seem to be a contradiction, however, between Matthew, Luke, and John's account. The only element common to all is "King of the Jews."
This is not the only occurrence of this type of "contradiction." When the four writers of the gospels tell the same story, many times each will record Jesus' words a little differently. The ways in which they quote Jesus are almost identical, containing only slight variations. This is easily explained by understanding the fact that Jesus most likely spoke in Aramaic (a form of Hebrew) as His regular dialect of speech, while the New Testament was inspired in Greek. It is impossible to give a word-for-word translation when you translate from one language to another. There are even different ways in which one can translate the language. There are different words that one translator could use to explain the foreign words, while another translator might use different words to convey the same basic meaning. Both would be understood nearly the same, and when combining the two translations together, one will get a more precise meaning of what the original speaker meant when he said what he said in his native language. This is what the authors of the Bible did. Each used the word order and word choice they thought accurately conveyed the meaning and intentions of Jesus' words.1
It is also helpful to understand that each gospel was directed toward a certain group of people. Matthew was written mainly for Jewish believers; Mark for the Romans; Luke for the Greeks; and John for Gentiles in general (John 20:31). We know the accusation on the cross was written in three different languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Each reading, then, because they were in different languages, would read slightly different because of the different word choices and grammar of each language. Not only this, but it might also be considered that when Pilate wrote the three versions, he would have made each a little different so that the length of the phrases would be similar, or so that all three translations would fit on the place of transcription.
It is plausible then, that since Matthew wrote to Jews, he would have chosen to translate the Hebrew wording into the Greek language because that would have been the phrase the Jews would have read when they saw Jesus on the cross. Mark might have chosen to translate the Latin phrase into Greek since he was writing to those who would have read the Latin version of Jesus' accusation on the cross. Since Luke wrote his gospel to the Greeks, he might have written the Greek version of Jesus' accusation. John did not seem to focus on any certain ethnic group, but rather wrote his gospel so that all men would believe that Jesus was the Son of God. The rendering he chose might have been a paraphrase of all three, or one of the versions.
Even if none of the gospels recorded the exact wording of what was written over the cross, it really does not matter. The gospel writers were not concerned with the exact wording, but were concerned with the exact meaning. We must not impose modern standards of recording history, or quotations, and apply them to the ancient world. They simply were not so much concerned with an exact account or account, but were more concerned with the exact meaning. Whatever the wording on the cross was, we can be assured that the gospel writers have preserved the meaning for us today.
1. Remember that although the Holy Ghost divinely inspired the Scriptures, it was not at the expense of overriding the author's literary style, vocabulary, etc. <back>
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