The initials INRI appear on crucifixes around the world. The use of crucifixes is an ancient tradition most prevalent in the Catholic Church, so that’s where most people see it for the first time.
People are naturally curious about the meaning of these letters.
So what does INRI mean on the cross?
INRI is known to scholars as the “titulus crucis” which is Latin for Title of the Cross.
It refers to the plaque at the head of the holy cross, with the abbreviation INRI on it in artwork seen mostly in churches.
It’s an acronym of the Latin inscription Jesus Nazarenus Rex Judaeorum, meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
It appeared above the head of Jesus Christ as a written charge against him when the Roman soldiers nailed him to the cross.
But wait: The inscription above actually spells out the acronym JNRJ. The letter J was added to the English language in the 14th century AD.
Before that, the inscription read:
“Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” or INRI.
And Jesus is not only the King of the Jews. He is the King of Kings.
But there’s a deeper and more mysterious way to understand what INRI means. More on that very soon.
Latin -the language of the Roman Church- was also the official language of the Roman Empire.
It was the Romans who had the authority to enforce capital punishment at the time of Jesus Christ.
Many people find this inscription fascinating and want to know what the letters I N R I stand for above the cross of Jesus. According to John’s Gospel (see John 19:19-22) the full inscription was written out in three languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.
INRI comes from the first word of each letter of the inscription in Latin.
These were the three dominant languages that were part of the ancient tradition of that place and time. The English language didn’t even exist then.
So even though Latin was the official language, Hebrew and Greek were also very important languages, and they were very common there.
If you were an artist preparing a crucifix (a cross with Jesus hanging on it) -centuries later in Europe- you wouldn’t want to try to write out the full Latin phrase above Jesus’ head in any one of these languages, let alone all three of them.
It would have been very difficult to do, because these three different foreign languages were not in common use in Medieval Europe when all these paintings were being made.
And your audience might not read any of those languages in later times.
Even if you were successful at writing it out, who would be able to read it?
The artists came up with a solution.
They used the initials of the four Latin words, and then it was easier to train the viewer what the letters INRI stand for.
Somebody could tell the viewer the meaning of INRI so they would know the Gospel of Jesus Christ by what was written on the cross!
If that was all there was to the story, it wouldn’t be very interesting.
But there’s a back story to this that is really fascinating!
Consider these fascinating facts:
This isn’t the first time Jesus is referred to as King of the Jews.
The Magi (Wise Men from the East) also called Jesus King of the Jews when they asked to see the baby Jesus in Matthew 2:2.
But the record of Jesus coming from Nazareth comes all the way from the Old Testament where it was prophesied hundreds of years ahead of time!
You can read more about the prophetic significance of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth in Jonathan Cahn’s “The Book of Mysteries” (page 41) that you can get on Amazon.
John the Baptist said “Behold the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” using words from Old Testament Messianic prophecies to introduce Jesus.
The INRI inscription doesn’t represent a proclamation, but an accusation.
According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Pontius Pilate ordered the inscription as an accusation, or a charge. (see Matthew 27:37, Mark 15:26 and Luke 23:38)
It was common in the time of Jesus Christ to place the charge on the cross above the head of the accused.
But how incredible it is that by leveling this against the Messiah, Pilate’s charge was actually confirming his identity as the true King!
When the Rabbis -the Jewish leaders-saw the INRI inscription Pilate ordered on the cross of Jesus, they objected in John 19:21.
Why did they object?
Because they knew the Messiah would have the scepter (Genesis 49:10).
In other words, the Messiah would be acknowledged as the One with authority and would be hailed as King.
We learn from Psalm 2:1-2 that Messiah would be called God’s son -or Son of the Father.
And Psalm 118:25-29 says he would be acclaimed.
Isaiah 53:3 calls him Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
There are many places in the New Testament where Jesus claims to be God and you can read about them here. But Muhammad never claimed to be God, and you can read about the difference between Jesus and Muhammad here.
Jesus himself said “the son of man must be lifted up.”
When Jesus said “lifted up” he was foretelling his own crucifixion.
The bronze serpent in the wilderness was lifted up on a wooden pole -just as would later happen to the Son of Man.
But the serpent had it coming.
He deserved the punishment for deceiving Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
And Man deserves the punishment for following the serpent instead of following God.
The serpent was bronze because bronze is the Biblical metal of judgment. And the serpent deserved judgment.
When the perfect God-man Jesus hung from the cross, he took the punishment for us -so that if we would believe in him and repent from our rebellion against him, we would be able to spend eternity with him in great joy!
To read more on this fascinating story see this other article: “The Strange Story of Moses and the Bronze Serpent in the Wilderness”
The Old Testament scriptures tell us Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but then Matthew tells us in Matthew 2:23 that Jesus would be called a Nazarene based on what the OT prophets said.
Interestingly, Matthew doesn’t refer to a specific prophet, and scholars have never identified a single prophet who said that.
But Isaiah 11:1 says “There shall come forth a rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.”
“Neser” is the Hebrew word for branch, and it sounds a lot like Nazareth. Is this what Matthew meant? (source-Guzik)
What Does INRI Mean in Hebrew?
Some people suggest that if you translate INRI into Hebrew words it means YHWH, (the tetragrammaton) that expresses the ineffable name of God.
They further say this is why the Rabbis objected to the inscription of I.N.R.I. in John 19:21.
But don’t forget that the Biblical inscription of John 19:21 is the entire accusation, which in itself was more than enough to annoy the Rabbis.
The abbreviated INRI came along much later, so it wouldn’t have been a factor during the actual event, because INRI came along centuries later.
INRI actually never appears in the Bible. It’s just used in artwork as an abbreviation of the entire phrase at much later dates.
Here are some of the Bible verses that apply to this particular part of the passion story of Jesus:
Matthew 2:2 “saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose (in the East) and have come to worship him.”
John 19:19-22 Pontius Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it above the head of Jesus 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 the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”
So we can clearly see from the Gospel of St. John that Jesus of Nazareth was proclaimed King of the Jews.
Matthew 27:37 And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
Psalm 2:1-2 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying…
Isaiah 9:6-7 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
John 8:28, ESV “So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.