INRI – Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews…
Pilate had a message pinned to the cross, often abreviated as INRI:
The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” -Mark 15:26, NAB
The Gospel of St. John details what the sign read in greater detail:
Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews.” Now many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that he said, ‘I am the King of the Jews.'” Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.” -John 19:19-22, NAB
Why would Pilate have this inscription placed on the cross? Did he believe that Jesus was really the King of the Jews? No. It was a message. All crucifixions, in essence, were a message. They showed Rome’s power over the people. Anyone who violated Rome’s laws was publicly executed to warn others not to do the same.
The inscription took this message a step further. Jesus’ crime was that He proclaimed to be the King of the Jews – a threat to Roman power. By nailing this sign to the cross with Jesus, Pilate was showing that anyone who tried to lead the people against Rome would have a similar fate. By translating it to three different languages, he was ensuring that everyone in the region could read it. No one would misunderstand what it meant.
Why, then, do paintings and other Christian art show INRI on them, instead of the full inscription in three languages (as we learn from St. John’s Gospel)? Well, imagine trying to paint that inscription on a small painting – three times, no less. INRI was used as an acronym to say the same thing.
The letters INRI stand for Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum in Latin. The I in Latin represents a J in English. The abbreviation has become commonplace on many pieces of religious art as a way of representing Pilate’s inscription. For many Christians, it has become a symbol of our belief that Jesus is the King of the Jews, the Messiah.
Many Christians can recognize the sign and know what it means. We have taken what Pilate intended for evil and used it as a bold statement of faith. The sign was meant to instill fear into the people; instead, it has come to represent the faith and hope that we find in Jesus Christ. It’s amazing how four letters can mean so much to so many.