The gospel account in John, chapter 19 records what would seem like a trivial detail of Jesus’ crucifixion. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, had ordered an inscription to be posted over the head of Jesus on the cross. In English it reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. The Jewish leaders of the day were upset enough about these words that they demanded that it be removed. So what’s the big deal?
On the face of it, Pilate was simply doing what custom often dictated: posting the crime of the criminal for all to see. Jesus had been reputed to the the king of the Jews. Pilate had even questioned Jesus about this claim and Jesus had admitted it. The Jewish leaders themselves had requested that Jesus be executed with the words, “We have no king but Caesar!”, implying that they knew about Jesus’ claim and rejected it. So, it does seem logical to post this inscription. Pilate is simply saying, This man is being executed as “the King of the Jews”. So, why the uproar?
Clearly, Pilate is getting some of his own back in doing this. He felt blackmailed by the Jewish leadership into executing Jesus, whom he considered to be innocent of any Roman capital offense. His conscience was bothering him, so he got a bit of revenge on them by wording the inscription in a way that would anger them. Notice that he didn’t say, “This man claimed to be king of the Jews”, but that “He is the king of the Jews”. Not only this, but Pilate was also insulting the Jewish people as a whole by saying in effect, “Look at what Rome can do to your king.” But despite the urgent demands, Pilate refused to be manipulated, sticking to his guns and saying, “I have written what I have written. Period.”
But there may be something else here. The inscription was in three languages: Latin, Greek and Aramaic. Aramaic was the language of the people of Judea at the time and can be similar in some ways to biblical Hebrew. If the inscription were to have been written in Hebrew, it probably would have read: Yeshua haNazarei, v’melech, haYehudim (Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews).
There was a school of thought within Judaism in those days (just as there is today) that there is a pattern of finding the divine name and other interesting sacred words scattered as the first letters of various portions of biblical text. This is one avenue of study within what is known today as kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. Here is the point: the initial letters in a Hebrew version of this inscription would spell YHVH: the tetragrammaton, or sacred name of God.
It could be that the leaders were aware of how such an inscription would read in Hebrew, and that its initial letters would spell the name of God and further confirm Jesus claims, not only to being the king of the Jews, but the Son of God as well. That would certainly lead to the kind of indignation they expressed to Pilate. In Pilate’s refusal, we may very well see the ironic justice of God in testimony to Jesus’ real identity as he died for the sins of the world. Shalom!