The Meaning of “INRI” On the Cross of Jesus

02-22-2023From the desk of Fr. Villa

In Exodus 20.2 God reveals his name to Moses: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt". The word translated with “the Lord” is the famous Tetragrammaton (Greek for “four-letter”) that the Jews cannot even pronounce and Christians should reverence: “YHWH“, vocalized in various ways including “Yahweh“. The four Hebrew letters that compose it are these: “יהוה “, yod-he-waw-he. Remember that Hebrew is read from right to left.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 19 verses 16-22, we read: They took Jesus and he, carrying the cross, went towards the place called the Skull, in Hebrew Gòlgotha, where they crucified him and two others with him, one from a side and one from the other, and Jesus in the middle. Pilate also composed the inscription and had it placed on the cross; it was written: «Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews». Many Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; it was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews then said to Pilate: "Do not write: 'The king of the Jews', but: 'He said: I am the king of the Jews'". Pilate replied: "What I have written, I have written". Although the passage in question is very famous, the scene that took place in front of the crucified Jesus must have been a little different from how we have always imagined it. St. John perhaps tried to emphasize it, but if the reader does not know the Hebrew language, He would be unable to understand the real meaning: The inscription John speaks of is the famous acronym "INRI", still depicted today above the crucified Jesus. The acronym, which stands for the Latin "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum", means precisely "Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews". But John specifies that the inscription was also in Hebrew. Not only that: in such an important moment, the evangelist seems to dwell on apparently insignificant details: 1) the fact that many Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; 2) the chief priests who turn to Pilate to have the inscription changed; 3) Pilate who refuses to change it. Pontius Pilate, who was Roman, probably did not understand that, without meaning to, he had created a bit of embarrassment – if we want to define it that way – to the Jews who observed Jesus crucified with that inscription above his head.

Henri Tisot, an expert in Hebrew, turned to several rabbis to ask what was the exact Hebrew translation of the inscription compiled by Pilate. He talks about it in his book "Eva, the woman" on pages 216 to 220.He discovered that it is grammatically obligatory, in Hebrew, to write "Jesus the Nazarene and King of the Jews". With Hebrew letters we get “ישוע הנוצרי ומלך היהודים “. Remember to read from right to left. These letters are equivalent to our “Yshu Hnotsri Wmlk Hyhudim” vocalized “Yeshua Hanotsri Wemelek Hayehudim“. Thus, as for the Latin we get the acronym “INRI“, Iesus Nazarenum Rex Iudaeorum Jesus the Nazarene King of the Jews but for the Hebrew we get acronym “יהוה “, “YHWH“.

This explains the attention that John reserves for the situation that takes place under the crucified Jesus. At that moment the Jews saw the man they had put to death, who had claimed to be the Son of God, with the name of God, the unpronounceable Tetragrammaton, engraved above his head. It could not be good that YHWH was written there, visible to all, and they tried to convince Pilate to change the engraving. Here the phrase of the Roman prosecutor "What I wrote, I wrote" acquires a much deeper meaning. Sounds amazing? Think that Jesus had prophesied exactly this moment. In John 8:28 we find written: "Then Jesus said: "When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that “I Am". By "lifting up" Jesus means the crucifixion. “I Am” alludes to the name that God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, "I am who I am!" And he added: So you will say to the Israelites: "I-Am has sent me to you"