Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

226. The King of the Jews (Matt. 27:37; John 19 :19-22; Mark 15 :26; Luke 23 :38)*

On Pilate's instructions there was fastened over the head of Jesus a description of the man and his crime: "Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews." It was one of the few opportunities Pilate had to score in a small way over these chief-priests who had so astutely bullied and blackmailed him into compounding their felony. He knew it would rankle. He meant it to. But it is not impossible that Pilate appointed that inscription believing it. Jesus had made a deep impression on him, and this may have been his way of saying: "I'm sorry, but I had to."

Whose inscription?

As anticipated, the inscription was greatly resented, and protest was made immediately. From which fact springs an interesting inference, that either the chief priests made a special journey back into Jerusalem to seek audience and so register their protest, or else Pilate was there at the crucifixion in person. The first alternative is a measure of the high degree of priestly indignation; the second of Pilate's abiding concern about this man Jesus.

The little word "also", which comes in the original text here (see RV) and has been somehow ignored by King James' translators, seems to imply that, foreseeing difficulties, the priests had already prepared an inscription of their own to put over the cross of Jesus. But Pilate would have none of that.

This protest by the priests was a gross impertinence: "Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews" (observe the subtle dropping of the definite article)). These men must have been flushed with the success that had attended their handling of both Pilate and Jesus, or they would surely have never presumed thus to dictate to their governor.

However, Pilate would not budge. Although later on (Jn. 19 :31,38) he was accommodating enough, just now regarding this he was conceding nothing. "What I have written, I have written." And nothing through the centuries has been able to alter it. Jesus must be king of the Jews one day. This was Pilate's unwitting prophecy. Luke uses the word grammata, which in 2 Tim. 3 :15 means "the Scriptures." It ranks with his earlier prophecies: "Behold, the man," and "Behold your King," and with that of Caiaphas when he said: "It is expedient that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not."

Variant readings

Much discussion has raged over the fact that whilst all four gospels record the inscription, no two records read exactly alike. Explanation can be sought, maybe, in the added detail that it was written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew (Aramaic, the language of Palestine). According to this, Matthew, Mark and Luke each quote the inscription as it appeared in the language of the people they were writting for—Matthew in Aramaic, Mark in Latin, and Luke in Greek-whilst John combines them all. A small difficulty still remains in the addition by John of the words "of Nazareth." It would be a mistake to overlook this, for here is a reminder of how the early days of Jesus in Nazareth were themselves an indirect fulfilment of the words of the prophets: "He shall be called a Nazarene" (Mt. 2 :23). Nazareth means "Branch". In his crucifixion Jesus was the Branch of David grafted on to the dead wood of human nature, making it a Tree of Life. Isaiah had foretold (11 :1) that Jesus would be "the Branch out of the stem of Jesse," the King-Priest who, filled with the spirit of the Lord, will diffuse the knowledge of God everywhere, and (after his resurrection) rally the Gentiles to himself.

The three languages also proclaim the universality of the gospel of the Cross: "And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me" (Jn. 12 :32) —not all without exception, but all without distinction of race or station, the true Catholicism (cp.Jn. 11:52).

"Nigh to the city"

This witness of Pilate's to the kingship of Jesus had the widest possible publicity, "for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city." What John may have meant here, even more emphatically, is: "for the Place (i.e. the Holy Place, the Temple) of the city . . . was nigh at hand" (so RVm). In other words, few out of those massive crowds going to the Temple on Passover day could miss seeing and knowing about Jesus of Nazareth.

More than this, by "the Place . . . nigh at hand" John is steering his readers yet again to Moses' law about a man found murdered (Dt. 21:3). In that scripture, except they be washed, elders, judges, and priests were accounted responsible.

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