John 19:19
And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(19) Comp. Notes on Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38. St. John speaks of the title placed over the cross. This was the common Roman name for an inscription of the kind, which was meant to give information of the crime for which the sentence of crucifixion had been given. St. Matthew calls it the “accusation;” St. Mark, “the superscription of the accusation;” St. Luke, “the superscription.” (Comp. Luke 23:38.) The inscription varies in word, though not in sense, in each of the narratives; i.e., the Evangelists, in dealing with a written inscription, in which there could have been neither doubt nor difficulty, have not been careful to give us the exact words. The fact is significant, as bearing upon the literary characteristics of the Gospels, and upon the value which the writers set upon exact accuracy in unimportant details. The reason of the variations may, of course, be traced to the fact that one or more of the accounts may be a translation from the Hebrew inscription.

John

AN EYE-WITNESS’S ACCOUNT OF THE CRUCIFIXION

THE TITLE ON THE CROSS

John 19:19
.

This title is recorded by all four Evangelists, in words varying in form but alike in substance. It strikes them all as significant that, meaning only to fling a jeer at his unruly subjects, Pilate should have written it, and proclaimed this Nazarene visionary to be He for whom Israel had longed through weary ages. John’s account is the fullest, as indeed his narrative of all Pilate’s shufflings is the most complete. He alone records that the title was tri-lingual {for the similar statement in the Authorised Version of Luke is not part of the original text}. He alone gives the Jews’ request for an alteration of the title, and Pilate’s bitter answer. That angry reply betrays his motive in setting up such words over a crucified prisoner’s head. They were meant as a savage taunt of the Jews, not as an insult to Jesus, which would have been welcome to them. He seems to have regarded our Lord as a harmless enthusiast, to have had a certain liking for Him, and a languid curiosity as to Him, which came by degrees to be just tinged with awe as he felt that he could not quite make Him out. Throughout, he was convinced that His claim to be a king contained no menace for Caesar, and he would have let Jesus go but for fear of being misrepresented at Rome. He felt that the sacrifice of one more Jew was a small price to pay to avert his accusation to Caesar; he would have sacrificed a dozen such to keep his place. But he felt that he was being coerced to do injustice, and his anger and sense of humiliation find vent in that written taunt. It was a spurt of bad temper and a measure of his reluctance.

Besides the interest attaching to it as Pilate’s work, it seems to John significant of much that it should have been fastened on the Cross, and that it should have been in the three languages, Hebrew {Aramaic}, Greek, and Latin.

Let us deal with three points in succession.

I. The title as throwing light on the actors in the tragedy.

We may consider it, first, in its bearing on Jesus’ claims. He was condemned by the priests on the theocratic charge of blasphemy, because He made Himself the Son of God. He was sentenced by Pilate on the civil charge of rebellion, which the priests brought against Him as an inference necessarily resulting from His claim to be the Son of God. They drew the same conclusion as Nathanael did long before: ‘Rabbi, Thou art the Son of God,’ and therefore ‘Thou art the King of Israel.’ And they were so far right that if the former designation is correct, the latter inevitably follows.

Both charges, then, turned on His personal claims. To Pilate He explained the nature of His kingdom, so as to remove any suspicion that it would bring Him and His subjects into collision with Rome, but He asserted His kingship, and it was His own claim that gave Pilate the material for His gibe. It is worth notice, then, that these two claims from His own lips, made to the authorities who respectively took cognisance of the theocratic and of the civic life of the nation, and at the time when His life hung on the decision of the two, were the causes of His judicial sentence. The people who allege that Jesus never made the preposterous claims for Himself which Christians have made for Him, but was a simple Teacher of morality and lofty religion, have never fairly faced the simple question: ‘For what, then, was He crucified?’ It is easy for them to dilate on the hatred of the Jewish officials and the gross earthliness of the masses, as explaining the attitude of both, but it is not so easy to explain how material was found for judicial process. One can understand how Jesus was detested by rulers, and how they succeeded in stirring up popular feeling against Him, but not how an indictment that would hold water was framed against Him. Nor would even Pilate’s complaisance have gone so far as to have condemned a prisoner against whom all that could be said was that he was disliked because he taught wisely and well and was too good for his critics. The question is, not what made Jesus disliked, but what set the Law in motion against Him? And no plausible answer has ever been given except the one that was nailed above His head on the Cross. It was not His virtues or the sublimity of His teaching, but His twofold claim to be Son of God and King of Israel that haled Him to His death.

We may further ask why Jesus did not clear up the mistakes, if they were mistakes, that led to His condemnation. Surely He owed it to the two tribunals before which He stood, no less than to Himself and His followers, to disown the erroneous interpretations on which the charges against Him were based. Even a Caiaphas was entitled to be told, if it were so, that He meant no blasphemy and was not claiming anything too high for a reverent Israelite, when He claimed to be the Son of God. If Jesus let the Sanhedrim sentence Him under a mistake of what His words meant, He was guilty of His own death.

We note, further, the light thrown by the Title on Pilate’s action. It shows his sense of the unreality of the charge which he basely allowed himself to be forced into entertaining as a ground of condemning Jesus. If this enigmatical prisoner had had a sword, there would have been some substance in the charge against Him, but He was plainly an idea-monger, and therefore quite harmless, and His kingship only fit to be made a jest of and a means of girding at the rulers. ‘Practical men’ always under-estimate the power of ideas. The Title shows the same contempt for ‘mere theorisers’ as animated his question, ‘What is truth?’ How little he knew that this ‘King,’ at whom he thought that he could launch clumsy jests, had lodged in the heart of the Empire a power which would shatter and remould it!

In his blindness to the radiant truth that stood before him, in the tragedy of his condemnation of that to which he should have yielded himself, Pilate stands out as a beacon for all time, warning the world against looking for the forces that move the world among the powers that the world recognises and honours. If we would not commit Pilate’s fault over again, we must turn to ‘the base things of this world’ and the ‘things that are not’ and find in them the transforming powers destined to ‘bring to nought things that are.’

Pilate’s gibe was an unconscious prophecy. He thought it an exquisite jest, for it hurt. He was an instance of that strange irony that runs through history, and makes, at some crisis, men utter fateful words that seem put into their lips by some higher power. Caiaphas and he, the Jewish chief of the Sanhedrim and the Roman procurator, were foremost in Christ’s condemnation, and each of them spoke such words, profoundly true and far beyond the speaker’s thoughts. Was the Evangelist wrong in saying: ‘This spake he not of himself?’

II. The Title on the Cross as unveiling the ground of Christ’s dominion.

It seemed a ludicrous travesty of royalty that a criminal dying there, with a crowd of his ‘subjects’ gloating on his agonies and shooting arrowy words of scorn at him, should be a King. But His cross is His throne. It is so because His death is His great work for the world. It is so because in it we see, with melted hearts, the sublimest revelation of His love. Absolute authority belongs to utter self-sacrifice. He, and only He, who gives Himself wholly to and for me, thereby acquires the right of absolute command over me. He is the ‘Prince of all the kings of the earth,’ because He has died and become the ‘First-begotten from the dead.’ From the hour when He said, ‘I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Me,’ down to the hour when the seer heard the storm of praise from ‘ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands’ breaking round the throne, every New Testament reference to Christ’s dominion is accompanied with a reference to His cross, and every reference to His cross merges in a reference to His throne. The crown of thorns was a revelation of the inmost nature of Christ’s rule. The famous Iron Crown of Milan is a hard, cold circlet within a golden covering blazing with jewels. Christ’s right to sway men, like His power to do so, rests on His sacrifice for men. A Christianity without a Cross is a Christianity without authority, as has been seen over and over again in the history of the Church, and as is being seen again today, if men would only look. A Christ without a Cross is a Christ without a Kingdom. The dominion of the world belongs to Him who can sway men’s inmost motives. Hearts are His who has bought them with His own.

III. The Title as prophesying Christ’s universal dominion.

The three tongues in which it was written were chosen simply to make it easy to read by the crowd from every part of the Empire assembled at the Passover. There were Palestinian Jews there who probably read Aramaic only, and representatives from the widely diffused Jewish emigration in Greek-speaking lands, as well as Roman officials and Jews from Italy who would be most familiar with Latin. Pilate wanted his shaft to reach them all. It was, in its tri-lingual character, a sign of Israel’s degradation and a flourishing of the whip in their faces, as a government order in English placarded in a Bengalee village might be, or a Russian ukase in Warsaw. Its very wording betrayed a foreign hand, for a Jew would have written ‘King of Israel,’ not ‘of the Jews.’

But John divined a deeper meaning in this Title, just as he found a similar prophecy of the universality of Christ’s death in the analogous word of Caiaphas. As in that saying he heard a faint prediction that Jesus should die ‘not for that people only, but that He might also gather into one the scattered children of God,’ so he feels that Pilate was wiser than he knew, and that his written words in their threefold garb symbolised the relation of Christ and His work to the three great types of civilisation which it found possessed of the field. It bent them all to its own purposes, absorbed them into itself, used their witness and was propagated by means of them, and finally sucked the life out of them and disintegrated them. The Jew contributed the morality and monotheism of the Old Testament; the Greek, culture and the perfected language that should contain the treasure, the fresh wine-skin for the new wine; the Roman made the diffusion of the kingdom possible by the pax Romana, and at first sheltered the young plant. All three, no doubt, marred as well as helped the development of Christianity, and infused into it deleterious elements, which cling to it to-day, but the prophecy of the Title was fulfilled and these three tongues became heralds of the Cross and with ‘loud, uplifted trumpets blew’ glad tidings to the ends of the world.

That Title thus became an unconscious prophecy of Christ’s universal dominion. The Psalmist that sang of Messiah’s world-wide rule was sure that ‘all nations shall serve Him,’ and the reason why he was certain of it was ‘for He shall deliver the needy when he crieth.’ We may be certain of it for the same reason. He who can deal with man’s primal needs, and is ready and able to meet every cry of the heart, will never want suppliants and subjects. He who can respond to our consciousness of sin and weakness, and can satisfy hungry hearts, will build His sway over the hearts whom He satisfies on foundations deep as life itself. The history of the past becomes a prophecy of the future. Jesus has drawn men of all sorts, of every stage of culture and layer of civilisation, and of every type of character to Him, and the power which has carried a peasant of Nazareth to be the acknowledged King of the civilised world is not exhausted, and will not be till He is throned as Saviour and Ruler of the whole earth. There is only one religion in the world that is obviously growing. The gods of Greece and Rome are only subjects for studies in Comparative Mythology, the labyrinthine pantheon of India makes no conquests, Buddhism is moribund. All other religions than Christianity are shut up within definite and comparatively narrow geographical and chronological limits. But in spite of premature jubilations of enemies and much hasty talk about the need for a re-statement {which generally means a negation} of Christian truth, we have a clear right to look forward with quiet confidence. Often in the past has the religion of Jesus seemed to be wearing or worn out, but it has a strange recuperative power, and is wont to startle its enemies’ paeans over its grave by rising again and winning renewed victories. The Title on the Cross is for ever true, and is written again in nobler fashion ‘on the vesture and on the thigh’ of Him who rides forth at last to rule the nations, ‘KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.’

John 19:19-22. And Pilate wrote a title, &c. — The governor, as usual, put a title or writing on the cross, signifying the crime for which Jesus was condemned. This writing probably was in black characters on a whitened board. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS — Here, as Bengelius has observed, John gives us the very words ordered to be written by Pilate, (and without doubt the same in the three languages,) although the other evangelists do not express them at large. This title then read many of the Jews — Who came up to the feast of the passover; for the place was nigh to the city — Lying but just without the gates; and, that the inscription might be generally understood, it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin — So that it might easily be read by Jews, Romans, and most other foreigners. It was written in Latin, for the majesty of the Roman empire; in Greek, for the information of the Hellenists, who spoke that language, and came in great numbers to the feast; and, in Hebrew, because it was the language of the nation. The inscription set up in the temple, to prohibit strangers from coming within those sacred limits, was written in all these three languages. It is remarkable, that, by the influence of Providence, the cross of Christ bore an inscription in the languages of those nations which were soon to be subdued to the faith of it; for not only the Jewish religion was to give place to it, but likewise the Grecian learning, and the Roman strength. Then said the chief priests, Write not, The King of the Jews, &c. — “When the priests read this title, they were exceedingly displeased; because, as it represented the crime for which Jesus was condemned, it intimated that he had been acknowledged for the Messiah. Besides, being placed over the head of one who was dying by the most infamous punishment, it implied that all who attempted to deliver the Jews should come to the same end. Wherefore, the faith and hope of the nation being thus publicly ridiculed, the priests thought themselves highly affronted, and came to Pilate in great concern, begging that the writing might be altered. But he, having intended the affront, because they had constrained him to crucify Jesus, contrary both to his judgment and inclination, would not hear them, but rejected their application with some warmth, and with that inflexibility which historians represent as part of his character.” — Macknight.

19:19-30 Here are some remarkable circumstances of Jesus' death, more fully related than before. Pilate would not gratify the chief priests by allowing the writing to be altered; which was doubtless owing to a secret power of God upon his heart, that this statement of our Lord's character and authority might continue. Many things done by the Roman soldiers were fulfilments of the prophecies of the Old Testament. All things therein written shall be fulfilled. Christ tenderly provided for his mother at his death. Sometimes, when God removes one comfort from us, he raises up another for us, where we looked not for it. Christ's example teaches all men to honour their parents in life and death; to provide for their wants, and to promote their comfort by every means in their power. Especially observe the dying word wherewith Jesus breathed out his soul. It is finished; that is, the counsels of the Father concerning his sufferings were now fulfilled. It is finished; all the types and prophecies of the Old Testament, which pointed at the sufferings of the Messiah, were accomplished. It is finished; the ceremonial law is abolished; the substance is now come, and all the shadows are done away. It is finished; an end is made of transgression by bringing in an everlasting righteousness. His sufferings were now finished, both those of his soul, and those of his body. It is finished; the work of man's redemption and salvation is now completed. His life was not taken from him by force, but freely given up.See the notes at Matthew 27:32-37.19-22. Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross … Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews … and it was written in Hebrew—or Syro-Chaldaic, the language of the country.

and Greek—the current language.

and Latin—the official language. These were the chief languages of the earth, and this secured that all spectators should be able to read it. Stung by this, the Jewish ecclesiastics entreat that it may be so altered as to express, not His real dignity, but His false claim to it. But Pilate thought he had yielded quite enough to them; and having intended expressly to spite and insult them by this title, for having got him to act against his own sense of justice, he peremptorily refused them. And thus, amidst the conflicting passions of men, was proclaimed, in the chief tongues of mankind, from the Cross itself and in circumstances which threw upon it a lurid yet grand light, the truth which drew the Magi to His manger, and will yet be owned by all the world!

See Poole on "Matthew 27:37".

And Pilate wrote a title,.... Luke calls it a superscription, Mark, the superscription of his accusation, and Matthew, the accusation itself; it contained the substance of the charge against him, and was written upon a table or board, and nailed to the cross, as Nonnus suggests; to this is the allusion, Colossians 2:14. The form of it was drawn up by Pilate, his judge, who ordered it to be transcribed upon a proper instrument, and placed over him:

and put it on the cross; not with his own hands, but by his servants, who did it at his command; for others are said to do it, Matthew 27:37. It was put upon "the top of the cross", as the Persic version reads it; "over him", or "over his head", as the other evangelists say; and may denote the rise of his kingdom, which is from above, the visibility of it, and the enlargement of it, through the cross:

and the writing was; the words written in the title were,

Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews: Jesus was his name, by which he was commonly called and known, and signifies a Saviour, as he is of all the elect of God; whom he saves from all their sins, by bearing them in his own body on the cross, and of whom he is the able and willing, the perfect and complete, the only and everlasting Saviour: he is said to be of Nazareth; this was the place of which he was an inhabitant; here Joseph and Mary lived before his conception; here he was conceived, though born in Bethlehem; where he did not abide long, but constantly in this place, till he was about thirty years of age; this title was sometimes given him as a term of reproach, though not always: "the King of the Jews"; which both expresses his accusation, and asserts him to be so.

{6} And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.

(6) Christ, sitting upon the throne of the cross, is publicly proclaimed everlasting King of all people by the hand of him who condemned him for usurping a kingdom.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
John 19:19-20. Ἔγραψε] Not a supplemental statement: he had written (De Wette, Tholuck), but: he wrote (caused to be written), whilst the crucifixion took place without; and when it had taken place, he caused the τίτλος (solemn Roman expression for a public inscription, particularly for the tablets, naming the criminal and his offence, see Lipsius, de cruce, p. 101, and Wetstein) to be placed on the cross. He himself was not present at the crucifixion, Mark 15:43-44.

ὁ βασιλ. τῶν Ἰουδ.] Consistent bitterness in the designation of Jesus. John 19:20. τῶν Ἰουδαίων] of the hierarchic party.

ἐγγὺς ἦν κ.τ.λ.] See on Matthew 27:33.

καὶ ἦν γεγραμμ., κ.τ.λ.] No longer dependent on ὅτι, since τῶν Ἰουδαίων, John 19:20, unlike John 19:19, is not to be taken in a general sense. It rather attaches to the first circumstance, on account of which the ἀρχιερεῖς made their proposal, John 19:21, to Pilate (τοῦτονἸουδαίων, John 19:20), a second assigning a reason therefor, namely: it (that which ran on the τίτλος) was written in three languages, so that it could be read by everybody, including foreigners. For an inscription, even in four languages, on the tomb of Gordian, see in Jul. Capitolin. 24.

John 19:19. Ἔγραψε δὲ καὶ τίτλον ὁ Πιλάτος. “And Pilate wrote a ‘title,’ also, and set it on the cross.” The “title,” αἰτία, was a board whitened with gypsum (σανίς, λεύκωμα) such as were commonly used for public notices. Pilate himself, meaning to insult the Jews, ordered the precise terms of the inscription. καὶ τίτλον, “a title also,” in addition to all the other insults he had heaped on them during the trial.

19. a title] Better, a title also. It was common to put on the cross the name and crime of the person executed, after making him carry it round his neck to the place of execution. S. John alone tells us that Pilate wrote the title himself. The meaning of the ‘also’ is not quite clear; perhaps it looks back to John 19:16. S. John uses the Latin term, titulus, in a Greek form, titlos. S. Matthew has ‘His indictment’ (Matthew 27:37); S. Mark, ‘the inscription of His indictment’ (Mark 15:26); S. Luke, ‘an inscription’ (Luke 23:38).

the writing was] Literally, there was written (see on John 2:17). The other three give the inscription thus;—S. Matthew, ‘This is Jesus the King of the Jews;’ S. Mark, ‘The King of the Jews;’ S. Luke, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

John 19:19. Ἔγραψε, wrote) not caring what would he likely to please the Jews.—Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων, Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews) Mark expressed the predicate alone, the King of the Jews; Luke also the same, prefixing, This is [See my note, Luke 23:38]; Matthew, This is Jesus the King of the Jews. John expresses the actual words of Pilate, which without doubt were the same in the three tongues.

Verses 19-22. - (b) The title on the cross Verse 19. - The evangelist turns to an event of which the synoptists say little, and quietly attribute to the Jews themselves. John, from the special access which he had to information about the high priest and the court of Pilate, says, Now Pilate wrote a title also (the Latin technical word τίτλον is used in preference to the Greek word ἐπιγραφή, "superscription"), and he put it, by the hands of his own soldiers, on the cross. We cannot translate ἔγραψε as a pluperfect, and therefore it becomes probable that after the procession had gone howling and cursing away to Golgotha, he had had the τίτλον, prepared. And there was written upon the parchment, or the tablet, in letters all could read, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS, thus Pilate resolved to sting these murderous Jews to the last point of exasperation, in harmony with the character given him by Philo-Judaeus; but perhaps this motive was also stimulated by another - though he sought to punish their pride with scorn and scoff at their hypocritical charge, he may have had some strange irresistible conviction that there was reality in the royal supremacy of this marvelous Being, who throughout was conspicuously triumphant in his patient dignity. He seems muttering to himself, "Let him be Chief of malefactors, but he is and will be King of the Jews nevertheless, and I do not ignore the memories of either David or Solomon, Zerubbabel, Hyrcanus, or Idumaean Herod." The title differs slightly in its phrase in the four evangelists, yet they all preserve literatim the central fact of the change, "the King of the Jews." John alone mentions the circumstance, which may explain the minute differences (so Gresswell, 'Diss.,' 42.), viz. that it was written in three languages,

(a) the vernacular, or "Hebrew;"

(b) the official, or "Latin;"

(c) the speech generally understood by all strangers, or "Greek."

The minute differences may be represented by Matthew using the Hebrew, Mark the Latin, and Luke and John the Greek, the latter simply adding the personal name of the crucified. Whether this hypothesis explaining the "this is" of Matthew, the "Rex Judaeorum" of Mark, the "this" of Luke, and the fuller statement of John, which gives what was contained in one of the languages, be verified or not, it should be observed that the four evangelists agree as to the verbatim form of the αἰτία, John more abundantly supplementing the information by recording the full τίτλος. Even Strauss does not regard these differences as discrepancies. John 19:19Title (τίτλον)

Only here and John 19:20, in the New Testament. John uses the technical Roman term titulus, a placard or notice. Used for a bill or notice of sale affixed to a house. Thus Ovid, of a heartless creditor: "She sent our household goods under the placard (sub-titulum);" i.e., put the house and furniture up for sale ("Remedia Amoris," 302). Meaning also the title of a book; an epitaph. Matthew has αἰτίαν, accusation; Mark, ἐπιγραφὴ τῆς αἰτίας superscription of the accusation; Luke, ἐπιγραφὴ superscription. John alone mentions the fact that Pilate wrote the inscription.

Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews

The wording of the title is differently given by each Evangelist.

Matthew: This is Jesus the King of the Jews.

Mark: The King of the Jews.

Luke: This is the King of the Jews.

John: Jesus the Nazarene the King of the Jews.

The essential element of the superscription, King of the Jews, is common to all. It expressed, on its face, the main intent of Pilate, which was to cast contempt on the Jews. "In the sense of the man Pilate, it meant: Jesus, the King of the Jewish fanatics, crucified in the midst of Jews, who should all be thus executed. In the sense of the Jews: Jesus, the seditionary, the King of the rebels. In the sense of the political judge: Jesus, for whose accusation the Jews, with their ambiguous accusation, may answer. In the sense of the divine irony which ruled over the expression: Jesus, the Messiah, by the crucifixion become in very truth the King of the people of God" (Lange).

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