18 There they crucified him… 19 Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Ioudaioi (traditionally translated as “the Jews”).” 20 Many of the Ioudaioi read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 So the chief priests of the Ioudaioi said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Ioudaioi,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Ioudaioi.’” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” (John 19:16b-22)
Pilate rightfully felt that the Judean leaders had manipulated him into ordering Jesus’ execution (John 19:12). As a result, he wanted to get back at them, hitting them where it hurt the most. Pilate understood that the Temple leaders had falsely used the “Son of God” argument against Jesus, so he turned their manipulation back on them when he recorded his criminal charge against Jesus.
The text of the inscription about Jesus’ “crime” was placed on a sign to be nailed above his head. A painting by Fra Angelico (1434) suggests an interesting speculation about this inscription. Fra Angelico had a lifelong fascination with the written word. The accuracy of his Greek, Latin, and Hebrew inscriptions reveals his participation in the linguistic studies that flourished in Florence and Rome in the first half of the fifteenth century. In this crucifixion painting, he reconstructed what might have been the original Hebrew written on that sign.
The inscription in the painting reads in Hebrew, ישוע הנצרי ומלך היהודים. This translates as, “Jesus the Nazarite and the King of the Jews.” Fra Angelico added “and” because grammatically it was very possibly (if not probably) the way the original text appeared.
So, how did Pilate return the favor to the Temple rulers who forced him into condemning Jesus to die? He did so by writing the statement of Jesus’ guilt in Hebrew in such a way that it actually portrayed Jesus as YHWH (יהוה) Himself!
Here is the sentence “Jesus of Nazareth and the King of the Jews” in Hebrew. Remember, Hebrew is read from right to left. I’ve highlighted the first letter of each word.
(ישוע הנצרי ומלך היהודים).
The acrostic formed by taking the first letter of each word of the sentence “Jesus of Nazareth and (“ו”) the King of the Jews” is “יהוה” (YHWH) – the covenant name of Israel’s God! This is why the Temple leaders were so unhappy with how Pilate versed his charge.