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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Title on the Cross

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TITLE ON THE CROSS.—The technical word τίτλος is found only in John 19:19; Matthew 27:37 has αἰτία, Luke 23:38 ἐπιγραφή, and Mark 15:26 ἡ ἐπιγραφὴ τῆς αἰτίας. Again, as regards the wording of the titulus, no two Gospels agree exactly. Mt. has οὖτός ἐστιν Ἰησοῦς ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; Mk. ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; Lk. ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων οὗτος; and Jn. Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων.

The only important variation is in the case of Lk., where the Textus Receptus reads οὖτός ἐστιν ὁ β. τ. ., probably from assimilation| to the form given by Mt. The form above given (Luke 23:38) is found in אBL [Note: L Bampton Lecture.] , and is supported by the Latin of D [Note: Deuteronomist.] : rex Judœorum hic est. The so-called Gospel of Peter, taking the words as an insult to Jesus on the part of the Jews, reads: οὖτός ἐστιν ὁ β. τοῦ Ἰσραήλ.

It was customary at Roman executions, at least in the case of remarkable prisoners, for the charge under which the prisoner was suffering to be written briefly on a tablet (σανίς) covered with gypsum (γύψῳ ἀληλιμμένος, Suidas; cf. titulus qui causam pœnœ indicavit [Suet. Cal. 32], and μετὰ γραμμάτων τὴν αἰτίαν τῆς θανατώσεως αὐτοῦ δηλούντων [Dio Cassius, liv. 3]). This was usually hung round the neck of the criminal, or carried before him to the place of execution (prœcedente titulo [Suet. Cal. 32]). It was afterwards hung from, or fixed to, the top of the cross.

Other words for this tablet are πίγαξ and λεύκωμα. The letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons, preserved by Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica v. 1), gives an instance of such a titulus in the case of one of the martyrs. The words are: πίνακος αὐτὸν προάγοντος, ἐν ᾧ ἐγέγραπτο Ῥωμαϊστί, οὖτός ἐστιν Ἄτταλος ὁ χριστιαγός. This agrees exactly with the form of the title as given by Mt.

The Synoptists merely mention the fact that such a title was placed over the cross of Jesus. St. John, who writes as an eye-witness, adds some interesting particulars—(1) that Pilate wrote the title; (2) that it was written Ἑβραϊστί, Ῥωμαϊσγί, Ἑλληνιστί (the similar words in the Textus Receptus of Lk. are merely an interpolation from Jn.); (3) that Pilate, in spite of the expostulation of the chief priests, scornfully refused to alter the form of what he had written. With reference to (1) Westcott (on John 19:19) remarks: ‘The Roman governor found expression to the last for the bitterness which had been called out in him by the opposition of the Jews … the heathen governor completed the unwilling testimony of the Jewish priest’ (John 11:49 f.). The three languages of the τίτλος—Hebrew (i.e. Aramaic), Latin, and Greek—represent, as Westcott remarks, the national, the official, and the common dialects respectively. The true reading, therefore, preserves the more natural order.

Bilingual and trilingual inscriptions such as this were naturally common in the East under the Roman Empire. Grotius (on Matthew 27:37) mentions the case of the inscription on the tomb of the Emperor Gordian, which was written in no fewer than five languages; the five being the three above mentioned, together with Persian and Egyptian.

The wording of the title differs in all the four Gospels, as above remarked, and many attempts have been made to harmonize or explain the variations. Wordsworth (on John 19:19) has even supposed that the title really ran thus: ‘This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Such an attempt at harmonizing the variations is absolutely unnecessary. All four Gospels agree in giving the important words which were offensive to the chief priests, viz. ‘the King of the Jews.’ Others have supposed the variations to be due to slight differences in the form of the title in the three languages. This, as a general idea, is possible, even probable; but, as regards detail, agreement seems to be nearly hopeless. The uncertainty appears greatest as to the Latin form, which Edersheim finds in Mt., Cook (Speaker’s Com.) in Mk., Farrar in Lk., Grotius and Swete in John. In the case of the other two languages the more general consensus of opinion finds the Greek in Mk. and the Hebrew, or rather Aramaic, in John. It can be said with some confidence that it is more natural that ὁ Ναζωραῖος should represent the word of the Aramaic inscription, as this method of description would have little point for those who would read the Greek or the Latin (cf. Sadler on John 19:19). We have seen above that the form given by Mt. agrees with that of the Latin titulus mentioned in the letter of the Churches of Gaul. Assuming, then, that Jn. gives the Aramaic form and Mt. the Latin, the Greek must be looked for in Mk., as Lk. agrees with Mt. in retaining the word οὗτος. We may suppose, then, that the various forms were somewhat as follows:

Aramaic: יֵשׁוּ הַנּוֹצְרִי מַלְכָּא דִיהוּרָאֵי

Latin: Hic est Jesus Rex Judaeorum.

Greek: ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων.

This view agrees with Edersheim (Life and Times, ii. 591 n. [Note: note.] ), except as regards the order. He supposes the Latin to have been at the top and the Aramaic last; but this is contrary to the only evidence we have. He is certainly right in his attempt to give the Aramaic form of the inscription in words which are really Aramaic. It is strange to explain Hebrew to mean Aramaic and then to give the words in their Hebrew form (cf. Geikie, quoted in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iv. 781, and Farrar’s St. Luke).

It may be, as Alford writes, ‘hardly worth while’ to comment on, and endeavour to explain, ‘the variations in the Gospels with regard to the Title on the Cross; but one can hardly forbear to remark, what has been so often noticed before, how the three great languages of the world of the time bear witness to the Saviour of Mankind.’ ‘The three representative languages of the world at that time,’ says Plummer (on John 19:19)—‘the languages of religion, of empire, of intellect—were employed. Thus did they tell it out among the heathen that the Lord is king (or reigned from the tree. Psalms 96:10 LXX Septuagint ).’ These three languages, Westcott writes, ‘gathered up the results of the religious, the social, and the intellectual preparation for Christ, and in each, witness was given to His office.’ These modern writers expand slightly the more expressive words of Grotius: ‘Ille enim erat cui cedere debebat religio judaica, eruditio graeca, robur latinum’ (cf. also some little known words of Priscillian [Tract, i. p. 30]: ‘In omni littera sive hebraea sive latina sive graeca in omni quod videtur aut dicitur, rex regum et dominorum dominus est, in quibus linguis etsi titulus crucis ponitur, divinum tamen deo testimonium litteratur’). ‘Thus the three languages represent not only three races, but their qualities and tendencies. Wherever these exist—where there is an eye to read, a hand to write, a tongue to speak—the cross has a message and the King a kingdom. The “Title” is, in St. John’s view, the witness of language to the King of the Jews, who is also the King of humanity’ (Alexander, Leading Ideas of the Gospels, pp. 277, 278).

Literature.—The Comm., esp. Swete on Mark 15:26, Plummer and Farrar on Luke 23:28, Grotius on Matthew 27:37; art. on same subject in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , vol. iv.; and Edersheim, LT [Note: T Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Edersheim].] ii. pp. 590–591.

J. M. Harden.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Title on the Cross'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/t/title-on-the-cross.html. 1906-1918.

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