By Jean McCurdy Meade
Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ βασιλεύς τῶν Ἰουδαίων
שוע הנצרי ומלך היהודים.
Americans don’t like the idea of a monarchy; we may watch The Crown but we do not want to have a king or a queen. The declaration, “All men are created equal” has been taken to mean that there is to be no royalty or nobility, hereditary or otherwise, in our country. And it took a bloody revolution for Americans to detach themselves from the rule of George III, King of England.
That was not the idea in most of the ancient world. The divine right of kings was part of the religion of most of the world at the time of Jesus. One major exception, however, was the Romans. They hated the word king (rex in Latin). The Romans were proud that they were a republic; they got rid of their last hated king, Tarquin the Proud, in 509 B.C. The republic was governed by the Senate and the people, as the insignia on their battle standards proclaimed: SPQR – Senatus Populusque Romani” (The Senate and the People of Rome.) Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C. by senators because they feared he was going to allow the people to make him king. When Octavian became the sole ruler of Rome after the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. he did not call himself “king” but took the last name of his kinsman, Julius Caesar, and thus set the example for all subsequent rulers of Imperial Rome.
Octavian, who became known as Caesar Augustus, ruled the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’s birth, and his successor Tiberias Caesar, who ruled at the time of the crucifixion, were referred to as princeps, the first man or leader. The title Imperator, given in wartime by the legions to a general after a glorious victory, was also a title given to Octavian and his successors. But neither they nor any of their successors were ever called rex or king. However all-powerful these later Caesars became, Romans still called themselves a republic, and the Senate still met, if only to ratify Caesar’s decrees.
Caesar could, however, give the title king to one of the subject rulers of a conquered territory, as Octavian did with Herod the Great. A country declaring a king or a person declaring himself king without Caesar’s permission would be guilty of treason.
So the inscription Pilate ordered to be nailed to the cross over Jesus’s head was both sarcastic and serious. According to John he had it written in Latin, the legal charge of treason against Jesus or “titulus”; in Greek, the language understood by almost everyone; and in Hebrew, the sacred language of the Jews, and thus a deliberate stab at those elders and leaders who were insistent that he crucify Jesus even when he said he found no fault in him and wanted to release him.
Jesus never assumed the title king for himself, nor ever allowed the crowd or his disciples to use it. His accusers, however, say to Pilate “ he calls himself the Messiah — a king,” knowing that would be a capital offense. Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God. When Pilate asks him if he is a king he replies, “You have said so,” and later, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And when Pilate asked the crowd, “Shall I crucify your king?” They shouted, “Crucify him… We have no king but Caesar.”
We have, however, heard him referred to as King of the Jews before this. Remember the question of the Magi when they arrived in King Herod’s court, “Where is he who is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.” But remember, the wise men got it wrong too because they went to the court of King Herod the Great to ask where the child was. They erred when they looked for a child born in a royal court, but they did get the right directions from Herod’s scholars — to go to Bethlehem of Judea according to Micah’s prophecy. Their mistaken understanding of Jesus’s kingship, however, inadvertently set in motion the jealous rage of King Herod, resulting in the slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt to save the infant Jesus’s life.
These Gentile astronomers reverently gave Jesus the title “King of the Jews” at his birth, and now a Gentile ruler, Pilate, the Roman Procurator, sarcastically gives it to him again in his shameful death as a criminal.
The formal charge against Jesus, “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews,” is thus true in a spiritual sense, and false in the literal sense. Ruling all the kingdoms of the world was one of the temptations of the devil, as we recall. Jesus’s victory over death, which we celebrate every Sunday, confirms the one ultimate kingdom which he preached — the Kingdom of God!
The sign on the cross was the only thing ever written about Jesus during his lifetime, and ironically, Pilate’s sarcastic “titulus” became the very first written confession of our faith, “Jesus is King!” of Jews and of Gentiles! He showed us the way into that kingdom by his life, death, and resurrection; and as we remember the steps in our own lives both towards and away from that kingdom, we give thanks that he has paid the price for all of us and that he welcomes us, like the thief on the cross beside him, just as we are.