Pilate's inscription on the Cross

Pilate's inscription on the Cross

Andrew Sholl

I.N.R.I. How often we see this inscription on a Cross, yet do we really consider what it's all about, or do we just take it for granted?

When Jesus was crucified by the Romans in about 30 AD, the Procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus, or "Pilate" in English, had a titulus (a board with the accusation on it) attached at the top of the cross, above Jesus' head, as per John 19:19-20.

This was normal procedure in Roman times. The inscription was as follows, and was in three languages:

In Hebrew, the language of the local Province of Judea, at least at the level of the intelligentsia, while the vernacular of the ordinary people was Aramaic, which greatly resembled it, at least in its western form or dialect. It went as follows, and was, of course, written from right to left, like all Semitic languages:

YESHUA Ha-NOTZRI MELECH Ha-YEHUDIM ("Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews").

In Latin, the official language of the whole Roman Empire, and went as follows:

IESUS NAZARENUS REX IUDAEORUM ("Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews"). This is the one we use in the Catholic Church in the acronym form, I.N.R.I.

In Greek, the administrative language of the eastern part of the Roman Empire, in which Judea was located, went as follows:

YESOS NAZARENOS VASILEVS TIS YUDEIOS ("Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews).

Interestingly enough, in English we tend to say "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews"..

But, what to me lends a good deal of authenticity to the Gospel account is that  it corresponds to the titulus found in Jerusalem, together with the authentic Cross, by St. Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine.

Some have questioned the authenticity of these relics which can be seen now in the Church of Santa Croce ("Holy Cross") in Rome, but it was strongly defended by a highly respected Biblical scholar, Professor Carsten Thiede, who died in 2004. Professor Theide was not a Catholic.

What do we know of the man who wrote the inscriptions on the titulus? First, he was obviously a Jew. How do I know this? Unlike a Greek or Roman Gentile, he could write in Hebrew, which very few non-Jews at the time could do: right to left, of course.

However, when I saw the Latin and Greek inscriptions at Santa Croce in 1965, I was stunned: why? Because they were both written from right to left! To me, there was no doubt that this man was only used to writing in Hebrew and Aramaic!

Hebrew liturgy

The final comment I would like to make as a Hebrew Catholic and a survivor of the horrors of the Holocaust at age 4½ to 5½  [I'm now 75], is about the much-maligned Pope Pius XII, who according to well- authenticated Jewish sources, is credited with saving hundreds of thousands of Jews from almost certain death. No other single individual can claim such honour! May he be beatified and canonised at the earliest!

Now it was this Pope whom Fr.Elias Friedman OCD of our Association of Hebrew Catholics (which he co-founded with me in 1979), personally consulted about the possible liturgical use of Hebrew, i.e. for the Mass and Sacraments.

As is well known, it was the liturgical reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s, after Pius XII's death and the election of Pope Saint John XXIII and Blessed Paul VI, which allowed the Latin or Western Church to use the vernacular in every country of the world in the Mass and Sacraments.

But there was an exception made for Hebrew and Greek: why?

When Father Elias asked Pius XII for a special dispensation to allow him and other Hebrew-speaking priests (like my friend Fr.Daniel Rufeisen OCD, a Polish-Jewish patriot in Nazi-occupied Poland) to minister as Catholic priests in Israel, to the Hebrew-speaking community in Israel, the Pope told him that in fact such a dispensation was not required, since the titulus on the Cross of Jesus was, as Scripture says, in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, apparently rendering all three languages as the official languages of the Catholic Church!

Naturally, for Father Elias, as for all other Hebrew Catholics, this made perfectly good sense – years before Vatican II.

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