There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of he Jews’, but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews’”. Pilate answered, ‘What I have written, I have written’.
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’.
What was Pilate’s intention in writing the inscription? It is hard to say. Maybe it was intended as an act of mockery, a joke in very bad taste. Maybe Pilate had a political motive, to insult the Jews, to underline Roman superiority. The only king that the Jews could manage to have was a pathetic, dead king. Whatever Pilate's intention, we can be sure that it was hardly intended to offer support to Jesus’ cause. Yet whatever the intention, the inscription was factually accurate, as far as Pilate was concerned, for this was indeed what Jesus claimed to be. (Mark 15.2) What this shows is that (despite what the pundits say) within certain limits it may not matter that we do not know what a writer’s intention was, even if John's intention in recording this incident for us is consistent with his avowed aim for writing his Gospel. (John 21.30)
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.
But if it is possible to convey the meaning of the original in a translation, even though there are nuances and so forth of the original that are lost in the translation, what is the meaning that is conveyed? It is the cognitive meaning. We might put it this way. The translation of ‘The king is dead’ into French is ‘Le roi est mort’. How do we know that it is a good translation? Because it passes this test: ‘The roi est mort’ is true only when ‘The king is dead’ is true, and only when ‘The king is dead’ is true is ‘Le roi est mort’ true. They are cognitively equivalent. Applying that test we see that ‘Le roi est mon ami’ is a bad translation of ‘The king is dead’. As the prominence of translation in the internationalising of the faith of Abraham shows – it is equivalence in truth conditions that matters. What is important in the translation of the Gospel is truth, for the Gospel is God’s truth. Where the Gospel is expressed in the same truths, it is the same Gospel.
But how if ‘The King of the Jews’ is a title, or a description, of the one hanging there, can it express a proposition? Maybe, without distorting things, we could form a proposition from it, as presumably Pilate intended. The chief priests certainly thought that it was a proposition, or at least could easily be made into one, one that is equivalent to ‘I am the King of the Jews’, or ‘The one hanging below is the King of the Jews’, for they wanted to neuter the force of the original inscription by enclosing it within the safety of inverted commas, to be understood for a few days as nothing but the personal opinion of a troublesome, failed rabbi. Mercifully, for whatever reason, Pilate pulled rank. What he had written he had written, and what he wrote is true, true forever, in Greek, in Aramaic, in Latin, in English, in every natural language rich enough in nouns, pronouns and verbs to construct its truth-equivalent.
One thing that this shows to us is that the prevalent Post-Conservative obsession with context, part of its anti-Enlightenment animus, is gross exaggeration. Of course there are such things as differences in context, but in the mercy of God they may not matter very much, and they most certainly don’t matter as much as the post-Conservatives reckon. At the last, men and women out of every nation will cry ‘Worthy is the Lamb’.
There are several lessons for us here. But for the present this one will suffice: Is awareness of context important for the understanding and communication of the Christian faith? Yes and no. Of course it matters. ‘To the Jews became I as a Jew’. Does it matter supremely? No, it does not. Here, on the very Cross itself, is a truth expressed by a context-transcending statement, one expressed in different languages. From it we see that truth is translatable. It conveys the same cognitive meaning in these other languages, and these cultures, and these contexts. The knowledge that Jesus is the king of the Jews may become saving knowledge for souls in every nation, and people, and tribe and tongue.