Words Inscribed on the Cross


General Information

Many paintings of the Crucifixion of Jesus include the letters INRI somewhere on or near the Cross. People often ask what that means.

The Bible actually tells us. Matthew 27:37 says that, on the Cross, over the head of Jesus, was a sign that said "This is Jesus the King of the Jews." (KJAV) Mark 15:26 and John 19:19 say essentially the same thing.

Keep in mind that the Romans had crucified many thousands of people in the 70 years before the Crucifixion. They had established patterns for much of the procedure. It was common for those who were about to be executed / crucified to be part of a procession, moving from the court in the city to the place of crucifixion outside of the city. As part of the procession, one of the guards commonly carried a sign that announced the crime that the person was condemned for. In the case of Jesus, no actual crime had been determined, so His official crime was in claiming to be the King of the Jews, even though He never actually made that claim.

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In any case, it appears that that sign was then affixed to His Cross, and that is the source of those words.

The painters who painted the Crucifixion worked more than a thousand years after the fact. Therefore, they each had a substantial amount of artistic freedom in expressing the scene. At that time (the Middle Ages), all (Roman Catholic) Church Masses were conducted in Latin, and nearly everything associated with Christianity was written and spoken in Latin. VERY few books existed (before the printing press was invented) and only the Church and government normally had them, so virtually no people in a Congregation had any books, including the Bible. However, a number of Christian phrases WERE commonly known by the people, and one was Jesus' official crime, commonly referred to by four Latin words, IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDAEORVM

Since anyone who would actually see the paintings of the Crucifixion in the Middle Ages (inside a Church) would then already be familiar with the phrase (in Latin), the painters all apparently chose to simplify their paintings by only including the initials of the four Latin words, I N R I. The early Church had also apparently used that abbreviation.

Luke 23:38 also mentions the sign on the Cross, and he mentions that the sign was written in three languages, Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Scholars then chose to follow the wording presented in John, as it is more complete by including the reference to Nazareth, and as it might be presenting the Latin version of the text on the Cross. In all three languages the first word was Jesus, but since Greek and Hebrew don't use the letter J, His Name was spelled beginning with an I. The Roman (Latin) spelling followed that, (IESVS) even though their language included a J. The second word represented Nazareth, or Nazarene, N. The third word represented king, which in Latin (REX) begins with an R. The fourth word represented Jews, (IVDAEORVM) again spelled beginning with an I. You can see that the INRI then says "Jesus Nazareth King Jews".

So the actual Latin words were: Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm. Latin did not include a 'u' and 'v's appear where we would read 'u's.

In Greek, the four actual words were: Iesous Nazoraios Basileus Ioudaios

There does not presently seem to be solid documentation for the precise Hebrew text. Opinions exist on what the wording was, but they vary. Modern Hebrew is somewhat different from the Hebrew that was used in the time of Jesus, so a modern back-translation would probably be close but possibly not precise.

The wording of the Latin seems solid due to the fairly early creation of the Vulgate (Latin) Bible by Saint Jerome. The wording of the Greek seems solid due to the New Testament Books all having originally been written in Greek, and those texts were used as the sources for the translations into several languages of Bibles (which still exist), so comparison should assure accuracy of the original wording.

Another Important Thing to Note

Many (hopefully, most) Christians acknowledge that the Bible is "inerrant", that is, it contains NO errors. The reason for this belief is obvious. If one accepts that God participated in the writing of the Bible, it is beyond possibility that He would either intentionally or unintentionally permit errors or misleading statements to have been included in it.

Most Christians make an incorrect assumption that modern English translations are therefore inerrant. They are not, even though their various translators make enormous efforts to try to make them inerrant.

There are several reasons for this. In both the case of the Old Testament and the New Testament, the contents of many of the Books were originally passed down from generation to generation VERBALLY. Most people of the time were illiterate, but books as we know them were extremely rare anyway. Virtually no one other than governments and wealthy people had any. Keep in mind that a "book" had to be created in a very difficult way. The papyrus or parchment had to first be created, along with the ink. Then a person had to copy an existing book, letter by letter, to create a new book. And a 'book' was not the convenient thing we imagine. It was generally a collection of rolls of papyrus or parchment which unrolled to strips that were many feet long. Given all this, it is pretty obvious why the great majority of people gained essentially ALL of their knowledge verbally.

By the time the words were actually committed to papyrus or parchment, therefore, a number of generations of verbal description, and human memories, were involved. Where the ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPTS were certainly inerrant, these written copies could possibly have contained some minor flaws.

Next, consider that writing materials have a limited lifetime before they fade or disintegrate. At regular intervals, it was necessary for scribes to copy the entire texts, letter by letter, to make a new copy. Of course, all the scribes were extremely careful, but keep in mind that our full Bible contains 773,746 words, or over three million individual characters! Scribes generally had to work from the most recent copy. The result is that by around 900 AD (the oldest common documents that still exist of the Bible), those texts are copies of copies of copies. If a single character of those three million was mis-copied by any scribe, all later scribes would unknowingly copy that flaw.

Another complication arose when the texts were translated from one language to another, and eventually to English. Most words in nearly every language have several possible meanings. A translator is faced, for nearly every single word, with selecting the "best" translation. Different translators make different choices, which has resulted in our variety of modern Bible translations, all of which generally agree (since they were all created from the same source texts) but which have minor differences due to the translating choices. How would you translate the English word 'shift'? As an action when driving a car? As a key on a computer keyboard? As an eight-hour work period? As what you do when you slightly move in a movie theater seat? See the problem? A translator needs to determine the context of the text, to determine just which translation is most correct. Therefore, individual human judgment is unavoidably involved in the translation process.

The point being made here is that, even though the ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPTS were certainly inerrant, having been directed by God Himself, our modern Bibles can have minor flaws. This is mentioned here because the sign over Jesus on the Cross obvious had some single specific wording. However, the four Gospels vary slightly on exactly what is said.

Matthew 27:37
This is Jesus the King of the Jews

[Hebrew] (symbols that cannot be displayed here)
[Greek] houtos esti Iesous basileus Ioudaios

Mark 15:26
The King of the Jews

[Greek] basileus Ioudaios

John 19:19
Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews

[Latin] Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm
[Greek] Iesous Nazoraios basileus Ioudaios

Luke 23:38
This is the King of the Jews

[Greek] houtos esti basileus Ioudaios
also sometimes given as:
[Greek] outos estin o basileus twn ioudaiwn

None of those languages used spaces between words. Since the Latin language was that of the official government, it was almost certainly presented at the top, which gives extra cause for INRI later becoming the (Latin) abbreviation regarding the Crucifixion. That means the top line on the sign would have had 26 letters and no spaces, in Latin.

Regarding the Greek, Luke's probable Greek text is already around 26 letters long, which might explain why no reference to Nazareth or even Jesus is included, to fit on the width of the sign.

If Matthew gives us the Hebrew text, it only involves 19 Hebrew characters, so there is a potential mystery as to why Nazareth was not included. However, only the Latin text was legally appropriate, so both the Greek and Hebrew might have been appended, to make sure that the local people would certainly understand the "crime" of Jesus.

Yes, this seems like an irrelevantly minor point! We all know what the sign meant! And there is the possibility that each of the four Gospel writers might have actually phrased it in these various ways. Some modern students feel that the precise wording of the three languages were slightly different on the sign, and that John was referring to the 'official' Latin; Luke, writing to a Greek Nobleman (Theophilus), was referring to the Greek; Matthew generally wrote for the Jews, and might have been referring to the Hebrew; and Mark just presented a brief overview. But still, the actual sign had some specific wording, and so three of these (modern translations) might be at least technically incorrect or incomplete.

I choose to believe that the four ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPTS each precisely and correctly expressed the exact wording, and that the various effects mentioned above have resulted in the four slightly different current wordings. Where some Christians want to believe in the precise inerrancy of the King James or other modern Bible, such evidence suggests that that might be inappropriate. Modern Bibles are certainly very close, and they certainly get all the main Lessons correct, but on minor items, the possibility exists that they are flawed. In the case of the King James, after its original 1611 publication, there were a number of "revised" Versions which corrected many such small flaws that had been found. But with over three million characters in it, even today, the most carefully checked KJAV Bible still must contain flaws. Even though the Original Manuscripts didn't!

Also, see:
Seven Words On The Cross

Arising of Jesus

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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