Q: #174. What do the letters INRI stand for that I see on top of some crosses?
A: When Jesus was crucified, the Bible says that a sign was placed above His head on the cross (Mt 27:37)(Mk 15:26)(Lk 23:38)(Jn 19:19). While the Gospel accounts differ slightly as to what this sign said, the INRI letters come from the account given by John:
(Jn 19:19) And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.
(Jn 19:20) continues by saying that Pilate wrote this sign in Hebrew (the Jewish language), Greek (the universal language), and Latin (the Roman language). The Latin for what Pilate wrote is: IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDAEORVM (in Latin, I’s replace J’s and V’s replace U’s). INRI comes from the first letter of each word.
According to history, it was commonplace to put a sign like that above the head of each person that was crucified on a cross. It was to state the person’s name, and their crime. In Jesus’ case, His “crime” was that He was, “the King of the Jews.” Obviously, this was not a crime at all. Pontus Pilate, before whom Jesus appeared at trial, also knew Jesus had committed no crime. At one point, he asked Jesus, “Art thou the King of the Jews?” When Jesus did not deny this, Pilate said, “I find no guilt in Him” (Jn 18:33-38)(NASB). Later, Pilate even restated this a second (Jn 19:4) and third (Jn 19:6) time. (Also see: Lk 23:1-25)
Matthew even tells us that Pilate knew that the Jewish leaders had handed Jesus over out of “envy” for Him (Mt 27:13). Pilate was also warned by his wife that she been shown in a dream Jesus was innocent (Mt 27:19). However, Pilate finally gave in to the demands of the Jewish leaders, and allowed a man he knew to be innocent to be put to death.