Jesus, King of The Jews

In the New Testament, Jesus is referred to as the King of the Jews (or of the Judeans), both at the beginning of his life and at the end. In the Koine Greek of the New Testament, e.g., in John 19:3, this is written Basileus ton Ioudaion (βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων).[1]

Both uses of the title lead to dramatic results in the New Testament accounts. In the account of the Nativity of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, the wise men (i.e., Magi) who come from the east call Jesus the “King of the Judeans”, causing King Herod to order the Massacre of the Innocents. Towards the end of the accounts of all four Canonical Gospels, in the narrative of the Passion of Jesus, the title “King of the Judeans” leads to charges against Jesus that result in his crucifixion.[2][3] The name Judea is a Greek and Roman adaptation of the name “Judah”, which originally encompassed the territory of the Israelite tribe of that name and later of the ancient Kingdom of Judah.

The initialism INRI (Latin: Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum) represents the Latin inscription (in John 19:19), which in English translates to “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews”, and John 19:20 states that this was written in three languages—Hebrew, Latin, and Greek—during the crucifixion of Jesus. The Greek version of the initialism reads ΙΝBΙ, representing Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ Bασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων.[4]

Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (Jésus tenté dans le désert), 1886-1894. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, Image: 8 7/8 x 13 5/16 in. (22.5 x 33.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.51 (Photo: Brooklyn Museum

The title “King of the Jews” is only used in the New Testament by gentiles, namely by the Magi, Pontius Pilate, and the Roman soldiers. In contrast, the Jewish leaders use the designation “King of Israel”.[2]Although the phrase “King of the Jews” is used in most English translations,[5] it has also been translated “King of the Judeans” (see Ioudaioi).[6]

Use in the Nativity

The Conversion of Saint Paul, a 1600 painting by Italian artist Caravaggio (1571–1610)

In the account of the Nativity of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew the Biblical Magi go to see King Herod the Great in Jerusalem and in Matthew 2:2 ask him: “Where is He that is born King of the Judeans?”[7]

The question troubles Herod who considers the title his own, and in Matthew 2:7–8 he attempts to trick the Magi to reveal the exact location of the newborn King of the Jews. However, once the Magi depart without informing Herod of the location of Jesus, Herod orders the execution of all young male children in the village of Bethlehem, in the episode known as the Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16) to avoid the loss of his throne to the newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi.[7][8] Mary, mother of Jesus, escapes Bethlehem with her newborn son and husband, Joseph, to nearby Egypt, where they take refuge beyond Herod’s jurisdiction.

Use in the Passion Narratives

In the accounts of the Passion of Jesus, the title King of the Judeans is used on three separate occasions. In the first such episode, all four Gospels state that the title was used for Jesus when he was interviewed by Pilate and that his Crucifixion was based on that charge, as in Matthew 27:11, Mark 15:2, Luke 23:3 and John 18:33.[9]

Acronyms for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” written in three languages (as in John 19:20) on the cross, Ellwangen Abbey, Germany.

The use of the terms King and Kingdom and the role of the Jews in using the term King to accuse Jesus are central to the discussion between Jesus and Pilate. In Mark 15:2, Jesus confirms to Pilate that he is the King of the Jews and says nothing further. In John 18:34, he hints that the King accusation did not originate with Pilate but with “others” and, in John 18:36, he states: “My kingdom is not of this world”. However, Jesus does not directly deny being the King of the Jews.[10][11]

In the New Testament, Pilate writes “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Judeans” as a sign to be affixed to the cross of Jesus. John 19:21 states that the Jews told Pilate: “Do not write King of the Jews” but instead write that Jesus had merely claimed that title, but Pilate wrote it anyway.[12] Pilate’s response to the protest is recorded by John: “What I have written, I have written.”

After the trial by Pilate and after the Flagellation of Christ episode, the soldiers mock Jesus as the King of Jews by putting a purple robe (that signifies royal status) on him, place a Crown of Thorns on his head, and beat and mistreat him in Matthew 27:29-30, Mark 15:17-19 and John 19:2-3.[13]

The continued reliance on the use of the term King by the Judeans to press charges against Jesus is a key element of the final decision to crucify him.[3] In John 19:12 Pilate seeks to release Jesus, but the Jews object, saying: “If thou release this man, thou art not Caesar’s friend: every one that maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar”, bringing the power of Caesar to the forefront of the discussion.[3] In John 19:12, the Jews then cry out: “Crucify him! … We have no king but Caesar.” This is a violation of Deuteronomy 17:15 which states “You shall surely set a king over you whom the LORD your God chooses, one from among your countrymen you shall set as king over yourselves; you may not put a foreigner over yourselves who is not your countryman.” and a violation of Exodus 23:2 which states “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd.”

The use of the term “King of the Judeans” by the early Church after the death of Jesus was thus not without risk, for this term could have opened them to prosecution as followers of Jesus, who was accused of possible rebellion against Rome.[3]

The final use of the title only appears in Luke 23:36-37. Here, after Jesus has carried the cross to Calvary and has been nailed to the cross, the soldiers look up on him on the cross, mock him, offer him vinegar and say: “If thou art the King of the Jews, save thyself.” In the parallel account in Matthew 27:42, the Jewish priests mock Jesus as “King of Israel”, saying: “He is the King of Israel; let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe on him.”

King of the Jews vs King of Israel

In the New Testament, the “King of the Jews” title is used only by the gentiles, namely by the Magi, Pontius Pilate, Roman soldiers. In contrast the Jewish leaders prefer the designation “King of Israel”, as in Matthew 27:42, Mark 15:32. But from Pilate’s perspective, it is the term “King” (regardless of Jews or Israel) that is sensitive, for it implies possible rebellion against the Roman Empire.[2]

In the Gospel of Mark the distinction between King of the Jews and King of Israel is made consciously, setting apart the two uses of the term by the Jews and the gentiles.[14]

The INRI and ΙΝΒΙ acronyms

Eastern Orthodox crucifix, displays the lettering in Greek: ΙΝΒΙ (Trapeza of Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece).

The acronym INRI represents the Latin inscription IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDÆORVM (Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum), which in English translates to “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” (John 19:19).[15] John 19:20states that this was written in three languages: Hebrew, Latin and Greek and was put on the cross of Jesus. The Greek version reads ΙΝΒΙ.[4]

Devotional enthusiasm greeted the discovery by Cardinal Pedro González de Mendoza in 1492 of what was acclaimed as the actual tablet, said to have been brought to Rome by Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine.[16]

Western Christianity

In Western Christianity, most crucifixes and many depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus include a plaque or parchment placed above his head, called a titulus, or title, bearing only the Latin letters INRI, occasionally carved directly into the cross and usually just above the head of Jesus. In the Eastern Church “King of Glory” (τῆς Δόξηςtês Dóxēs) may be used.[4][17]

Eastern Christianity

In Eastern Christianity, both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Eastern Catholic particular churches sui iuris use the Greek letters ΙΝΒΙ, based on the Greek version of the inscription Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων (Iēsûs ho Nazōraêos ho basileùs tôn Iudaéōn). Some representations change the title to “ΙΝΒΚ,” ὁ Bασιλεὺς τοῦ κόσμου (ho Basileùs tû kósmu, “The King of the World”), or to ὁ Bασιλεὺς τῆς Δόξης (ho Basileùs tês Dóxēs, “The King of Glory”), not implying that this was really what was written but reflecting the tradition that icons depict the spiritual reality rather than the physical reality.

The Romanian Orthodox Church uses INRI, since abbreviation in Romanian is exactly the same as in Latin (Iisus Nazarineanul Regele Iudeilor)

The Russian Orthodox Church uses ІНЦІ (INCI, the Church Slavonic equivalent of ΙΝΒΙ) or the abbreviation Царь Славы (Carĭ Slavy, “King of Glory”).

Versions in the gospels

  Mark Luke Matthew John
Verse Mk 15:26 Lk 23:38 Mt 27:37 Jn 19:19-20
Greek Inscription ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων οὗτος οὗτός ἐστιν Ἰησοῦς ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων
Transliteration ho basileùs tôn Iudaéōn ho basileùs tôn Iudaéōn hûtos hûtós estin Iēsûs ho basileùs tôn Iudaéōn Iēsûs ho Nazōraêos ho basileùs tôn Iudaéōn
English translation The King of the Jews This is the King of the Jews This is Jesus, the King of the Jews Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews
Languages [none specified] Hebrew, Latin, Greek [none specified] Hebrew, Latin, Greek
Full verse in KJV And the superscription of His accusation was written over, THE KING OF THE JEWS. And a superscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. And set up over His head His accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.


  1.  SCM Studyguide: The Books of the New Testament by Ian Boxall, 2007, ISBN0-334-04047-7, page 125.
  2.  The Gospel of Matthew by R. T. France 2007 ISBN0-8028-2501-X page 1048
  3.  Studies in Early Christology by Martin Hengel 2004 ISBN0-567-04280-4 page 46
  4.  Metamorphosis: the Transfiguration in Byzantine theology and iconography by Andreas Andreopoulos 2005 ISBN0-88141-295-3 page 26
  5.  See range of translations assembled at [
  6.  Robbins, V. K.,Mark 15: Honor, accessed 26 June 2017
  7.   The Gospel of Matthew by R. T. France 2007 ISBN0-8028-2501-X pages 43 and 83
  8.  Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey by Craig L. Blomberg 2009 ISBN0-8054-4482-3 page 244
  9.  Introduction to the New Testament Christology by Raymond E. Brown, 1994 ISBN0-8264-7190-0 pages 78-79
  10.  The Names of Jesus by Stephen J. Binz 2004 ISBN1-58595-315-6 pages 81-82
  11.  John by H. A. Ironside 2006 ISBN0-8254-2915-3 page 454
  12.  The Gospel and Epistles of John by Raymond Edward Brown 1988 ISBN0-8146-1283-0 page 93
  13.  The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew by Donald Senior 1985 ISBN0-89453-460-2 page 124
  14.  Theology of the New Testament by Georg Strecker, Friedrich Wilhelm Horn 2000 ISBN0-664-22336-2 pages 375-376
  15.  Arthur de Bles, 2004 How to Distinguish the Saints in Art by Their Costumes, Symbols and AttributesISBN1-4179-0870-Xpage 32
  16.  Roberto Lanciani, Storia degli scavi di Roma, vol. i, 79, noted by Roberto Weiss, The Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity 1969:102.
  17.  The Incarnate God: The Feasts of Jesus Christ by Catherine Aslanoff 2005 ISBN0-88141-130-2 page 124

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