There are many pictures of the crucifixion which show a board inscribed with the four letters INRI: Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews (in Latin). But as John’s Gospel makes clear the notice pinned above Jesus was actually in multiple languages:
Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. 21The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”
Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”
In an excellent blog post, Paul Helm demonstrates the importance of this small and often unremarked incident.
This remarkable feature of the Crucifixion makes it clear that language, including writing, is at the heart of the Christian faith. Geerhardus Vos once said that without God’s acts the words would be empty and without His words the acts would be blind. Here’s an explicit case of that: a death by crucifixion together with the words that tell us whose was the agony. As both Pilate and the chief priests no doubt thought, it marked the end point of the career of this particular ‘king’…
… Pilate’s refusal to modify what he had written is more likely to have been a response born of exasperation than the resolve of a disciple of Jesus to stand up and be counted, don’t you think? For as a matter of fact Pilate is more likely to have agreed with the chief priests that what he had written was what Jesus was willing to call himself rather than something that was objectively true. Yet the result of his refusal was that in putting up the inscription Pilate said more than he knew, like someone else in John’s Gospel.
Do we always have to have an exact grasp of Scripture’s literal sense, the sense intended by the writer, in order to grasp what it means? No, we do not. In this instance, the chief priests proposed some modification to the inscription. They wanted it made clear that Jesus was not the king of the Jews but the ‘king’ of the Jews. The inscription as it stood looked official, an official title, it had an abiding meaning, and thus it was capable of expressing an abiding truth, even a ‘timeless truth’. That was too much for the priests to bear. They wanted to change the force of the inscription, to make an official inscription into a mere expression of opinion.
As language is at the heart of the Christian faith, so is translation. Hardly a word of the Aramaic of Jesus’ teaching has come down to us. His direct teaching is given to us in Greek translation. ‘The King of the Jews’ was written in Aramaic, in Latin and in Greek. Christianity was from the first an international religion, foreshadowed by the Abrahamic covenant, implied in the Great Commission, witnessed to at Pentecost, realised in dramatic fashion by what was inscribed on the Cross itself.
Translations, we are led to believe, are inherently unsatisfactory, for they do not convey every nuance of what is translated. There is a sense in which ‘The King of he Jews’ means something different for an Aramaic-speaker than for a Greek-speaker or a Latin-speaker, because for each of these it may carry separate associations, literary and personal vibes, and different capacities for rhyme and rhythm, than each one carries for the others. Translation is less than perfect, it misses things that are in the original, and maybe it suggests things that are not there as well. It is not easy to move the gospel from one context to another. So, at least, we are told.
But the translated title atop the Cross rather undermines this approach. The Greek of the New Testament, particularly of course the Greek of the Gospels, contains translations of Jesus’ words which, being inspired by the Spirit, are adequate for the task of conveying his teaching, more than adequate. Indeed, since Jesus’ words were inspired, and the translations of his words as we have them in the Gospels are inspired, it is possible to have two inspired teachings, one of which is a translation of the other. And here also, at the Cross, the very epicentre of our faith, there is the report of an inspired (or Spirit-guided) statement, together with two translations of it.
Here at least, at the heart of our faith, the imperfections that accompany even the most faithful translation evidently do not matter. Why is that ? Because it is possible, in translation, despite all its limitations, to convey the meaning of one sentence in another language. That Jesus is the King of the Jews has the same essential meaning in a faithful presentation of it in Aramaic, in Greek and in Hebrew. And in English. Not of course true in just another language, but true also in that other culture that each of these languages express and are part of. That’s an enormous blessing, surely. The meaning of Scripture is Scripture. Scripture has the same meaning in diverse languages, in diverse cultures.
This is an excellent piece of work and should be read by anyone interested in Bible translation. The full article is here.