Jesus’ Kingly Appearance

What did Jesus look like? We have no portrait of his likeness. We have no bust showing his facial features.1

What we know is that Jesus was born in a manger—that it was as a baby he came into our world. Though we don’t know much about his childhood, we can read about him as a twelve-year-old in the Temple (Luke   2:41-52), providing amazement to the teachers there (Luke 2:47). But, again, we don’t know what he looked like: his facial features, build, etc.

Yet we can state with some confidence what Jesus didn’t look like. Almost certainly, he resembled nothing like some images of Him, portrayed as a fair-skinned, fair-featured European. On the contrary, Jesus had Middle Eastern Jewish ancestry. Accordingly, he was likely olive-skinned with dark or brown hair, in keeping with others hailing from the Judean area. But as regards any specific physical characteristics, the New Testament (NT) is silent.

We might be able to infer that Jesus was an average looking man by analyzing some NT scenes. For example, Judas Iscariot pointed Jesus out to the soldiers marshalled to arrest him (Matt 26:47-49; Mark 14:43-45; Luke 22:47-49).2 This might suggest Jesus had no special physical qualities to make him stand out amongst the others. But, then again, it was dark, and the light from the torches may have distorted the faces of Jesus and the disciples such that an insider like Judas could more easily identify him. Or, it could be that at least some in the group were in the dark as to what Jesus looked like in the first place.

This Jesus a King?

Perhaps more compelling, Pilate showed apparent surprise upon meeting Jesus. Was he expecting someone more kingly, more ‘regal’ looking? All four Gospels are unanimous in how they record Pilate’s question, which can be phrased either “You are the king of the Jews?” or “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Matt 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3; John 18:33). By the phraseology (syntax) of the Greek, emphasis seems to be on “you” here.3 But there is no specific wording in the context with which to find a substantive answer as to what exactly provoked Pilate’s response.

However, viewing the description of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 may provide a glimpse. Of Isaiah 53:2 J. Alec Motyer observes and opines:

[H]e looked unimpressive (no beauty . . . to attract). To such an extent was he but a man among men that the ordinary tests of beauty (‘looks’), majesty (‘unimpressiveness’) and appearance could be applied—with negative results.4

From this we might conclude that the earthly Jesus was an average looking man. No striking features. But it is possible the physical description here strictly relates to Jesus’ battered body hanging on the cross.5 Yet, even if Isaiah 53 is specifically about the Atonement, the description in verse 2 cannot be ruled out as simultaneously providing a description of the earthly Jesus in a general sense.  Whichever the case, this passage, on its face, cannot be used to definitively determine Jesus’ physical features.

Motyer’s statement above may prompt another possible avenue for inquiry. If we consider the example of Saul’s selection as king, we may find a more solid basis upon which to accept Isaiah 53:2 as providing a description of the earthly Jesus. This, in turn, may provide some substantiation for understanding Pilate’s surprise as pertaining to Jesus’ physical characteristics.

To be more specific, recall that one of the apparent reasons Saul was selected king was because he was tall and handsome (1 Sam 9:2; 10:1,23-24). In other words, the Jews seemed to have selected Saul, at least partly, because he ‘looked like’ a king, in their eyes. In comparison, using the same criteria, the Suffering Servant described in Isaiah did not ‘look like’ a king. Thus, if Isaiah 53:2 describes Jesus, Pilate may have been bewildered upon seeing him, for he may have been expecting someone more ‘regal’ in appearance.

A basis for such thought finds itself in the pseudo-science of physiognomy, as detailed in the work of Mikeal C. Parsons.6 This term reflects the idea in the idiom ‘judging a book by its cover’. To some even the converse is true: judging a cover by its book. In this latter view, by knowing a person’s character, one can determine corresponding physical characteristics even before first sight.

Returning again to Motyer’s statement, observe his final words, “with negative results.”  It appears the author here understands some sort of physiognomic connection.

Parsons notes the presence—and the possible presence7—of the practice of physiognomy in the Old Testament (OT), using the selection of King Saul as but one example. 8 Extra-biblical Jewish texts from this time period evidence this same outward/inward connection.9 All this could point to the lack of physical descriptions of Jesus in the NT—if indeed he was an average man in terms of earthly physical characteristics, such as the description in Isaiah 53:2.

In other words, the Gospel writers’ silence on this issue may be quite purposeful. Knowing the contemporary tendency towards judging outward characteristics as the bases for determining inner qualities, the writers may have been dissuaded from describing Jesus’ physical form in any way. They may have been concerned that readers might make a caricature of him.

A stronger connection of this practice of physiognomy rears its ugly head in contemporary Hellenistic (Greek) culture.10 It “permeated the Greco-Roman thought world.”11 This thought may have emanated from the prominent anthropological and philosophical notions centering on a separate soul and body:

[S]oul and body react on each other; when the character of the soul changes, it changes also the body, and conversely, when the form of the body changes, it changes the character of the soul.12

The Hellenistic version of physiognomy encompassed a wide range of criteria, differing a bit according to the eye of the beholder. These include color of hair, eyes and skin; shape and size of forehead, nose, ears, cheeks, hands, etc.; size of head; sizes of features relative to others; asymmetry/symmetry; size of physique generally; as well as gait and other movements.13

An example of a negative imagining of Jesus’ physical features based on this pseudo-science is found in Cook’s The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism.14 In this work Celsus described Jesus as “small and ugly and ignoble”.15 Celsus apparently arrives at his conclusions on Jesus’ physical features based on distorted understandings of Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection, which thereby informed Celsus’ view of Jesus’ morality.16 Since the crucifixion was reserved for criminals, Jesus’ death ‘confirmed’ his supposed “base origins and unworthy character”.17 In other words, a person of such ‘lowly’ character—according to Celsus’ misconstruals—surely was correspondingly “small and ugly”.18

Celsus sarcastically critiques Jesus in his mock-questioning of an imagined Jesus: Upon learning of the child king Jesus, Herod slaughtered innocent children (Matthew 2:3-16),

“lest you should reign instead of him after you were grown. Why then, when you were grown did you not reign? But you, ‘child of God’, ignobly beg in this manner [cf. Matt 10:9-11], poking about in fear and wandering up and down in ruin.”19

Celsus’ apparent awareness of the Gospel accounts of Jesus carrying neither food nor money20 likely contributed to his scathing judgment as “ignoble”.21 In accordance with such a view,

‘Evangelical poverty’ was unimpressive to Celsus. The title ‘king’ for such an impoverished individual is ridiculous to Celsus. Jesus never became a ‘king’ in the sense of the word that Celsus takes for granted.22

Considering all the above, isn’t it possible, perhaps even probable, the silence in the NT regarding Jesus’ earthly physical form is, in fact, by design? And could this account for why there are no direct NT quotations of the physical features portion of Isaiah 53:2?

Appropriating Jesus’ words in John 8:15, “You judge according to the flesh” (cf. 7:24).

Yes, Jesus is King!

Some use Psalm 45:2 to support the idea of a handsome Jesus. But this is probably best understood—if applicable to Jesus at all—as reflective of the post-earthly Jesus, his glorified form.23 And while the NT is silent regarding Jesus’ physical features during his earthly ministry, a few NT texts feature descriptions of a post-glorified Jesus.

We catch a glimpse of Jesus’ glory in the Transfiguration scene (Matt 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). But John the Revelator describes Jesus in his post-earthly glory. In the first chapter of Revelation, John witnesses:

13 someone like a son of man, dressed in a foot-length robe and girded with a golden wrap around his chest, 14 his head and hair white like wool—white as snow—and his eyes like flames of fire, 15 his feet similar to fine bronze polished in a furnace, and his voice as vibrant as voluminous waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth a sharp double-edged sword proceeds. His face shines like the sun in its full force.

What a description!

With the words “like a son of man” (homoios huios anthrōpou), John evokes the human-like figure in Daniel 7:13 (hōs huios anthrōpou).24 To explain, “son of man” is a rendering of the Hebrew idiom ben Adam, which translates as son of Adam, and is understood to mean human.25 Thus, “son of man” also means human. Comparatively, the particularized the Son of Man, used by Jesus in self-reference throughout the Gospels, refers solely to him. Accordingly, without the attached to “son of man” in both Rev 1:13 and Daniel 7:13,26 this conveys that the figure coming on the clouds (Dan 7:13; Rev 1:7) is human-like in appearance—though, of course this figure is King Jesus at the Second Coming, the parousia. In other words, in Rev 1:13 John is not using the Son of Man, because this term represents Jesus in his earthly ministry. Therefore, the context here (and Dan 7:13) is best understood as referring to King Jesus in his suprahuman, glorified form—like a human.

John provides another magnificent description of King Jesus in Revelation 19:

11 Then I saw heaven standing open, and behold! A white horse! The one riding it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like flames of fire, and on his head are many diadems. A name has been written upon him, which no one knows except him. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and he has named himself THE WORD OF GOD. 14 The armies in heaven follow him on white horses, wearing pure white linen. 15 Out of his mouth proceeds a sharp sword with which he may strike the nations/people. He will shepherd them with an iron staff. And he tramples the winepress of the furious wrath of Almighty God. 16 And upon this robe, where it rests on his thigh, a name is inscribed: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.

To use a term that has been diluted in popular culture due to persistent misuse, but here meant in all its original splendor: AWESOME! The verbiage appears to be figurative to some degree, yet we can see points of contact with 2Thessalonians 2:8:

And then the lawless one will be revealed—whom the Lord Jesus will cast away with the breath of His mouth and extinguish by the radiance of his coming/arrival (parousia).

The “breath of his mouth” seems to be a rephrasing of both Rev 1:16 and Rev 19:15 (cf. Isaiah 11:4). The “radiance of his coming” is similar to the final portion of 1:16, though it is implied in the whole context of 19:11-16.27

Come soon King Jesus!

_________________________

1 For possible reasons why, see the section titled Use of ΙΧΘΥΣ in early Christianity in Fishers of Persons article.
2 John’s Gospel portrays this scene a bit differently (John 18:3-5).
3 The Gospels are uniform here, to include word order: Σὺ εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων, Su ei ho basileus tōn Ioudaiōn, You are the king of the Jews? This would be the word-for-word rendering, and the one I prefer here. Since Greek finite verbs encode person and number, a pronoun is not necessary unless the subject is unclear in the context. In this case the referent is obvious: the 2nd person singular encoded in the present tense-form “are” (εἰ̑, ei) can only refer to Jesus. Thus, the presence of the Greek pronoun “you” (σὺ, su) here is unnecessary, for the question can just as easily stand without it: Εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων (You are the king of the Jews?). The reading of the text per all four Gospels could even possibly be rendered: You? You are king of the Jews? (see Bernard and Evans just below). This would be in keeping with the context. For these reasons, I deem the use here emphatic.

Though not the consensus, this view of su as emphatic is far from rare. Cf. Charles L. Quarles, Matthew, EGGNT, Andreas J. Köstenberger & Robert W. Yarbrough, gen. eds. (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), p 333: Σύ is emphatic and may imply a mocking tone . . .; Joel Marcus, Mark 8—16, The Yale Anchor Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2009), p 1033: . . . the sarcastic tone of Pilate’s initial question . . . [is] because the Jewish authorities have reported his royal pretensions and/or reputation…however, such pretensions seem outlandish, since . . . Jesus’ bound condition is the opposite of the unfettered power associated with kingship; Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27—16:20, Word Biblical Commentary [WBC] (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001), p 478: The emphatic pronoun carries with it a touch of mockery, perhaps suggesting Pilate had anticipated meeting someone more impressive (i.e., “You? You must be kidding!”); B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John, Westcott’s Commentaries on the Gospel of John, Ephesians, Hebrews, and the Epistles of John; Accordance electronic ed. version 2.8 (Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, 2006), para 5147: The form of the sentence . . . suggests a feeling of surprise in the questioner: “Art thou, poor, and bound, and wearied, the King of whom men have spoken?”; J.H. Bernard, The Gospel According to St. John, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary; ed. Samuel Rolles Driver, Alfred Plummer, and Charles A. Briggs; Accordance electronic ed. version 2.8 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928), para 15345: “Thou! (σύ is emphatic) art Thou the King of the Jews?” Evidently Pilate did not believe that Jesus was a revolutionary leader . . . There was nothing in His appearance or His demeanor to make such a charge plausible.; Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, The Anchor Yale Bible; (New Haven: Yale UP, 1974), p 2.851: In the question Pilate asks, it is possible the ‘you’ is emphatic . . . expressing incredulity. Pilate . . . may have been amazed at the mien of Jesus who has been accused of claiming the title.; Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), p 768: “Thou” is emphatic. “Art thou the King of the Jews?”; Murray J. Harris, John, EGGNT (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015), p 305:If Pilate’s question is formal, σύ will be without emphasis…but if he is being sarcastic, σύ will have the sense, “Are you, of all people, the king of the Jews?”

Some commentators supporting no emphasis tend to see a direct parallel between Pilate’s question (Su ei . . . ) and Jesus’ response (Su legeis . . . ), therefore construing that if emphasis (“You!”) is understood with Pilate, then Jesus was similarly snarky in return, which is then deemed untenable; however, as Lidija Novakovic remarks (John 11—21: A Handbook on the Greek Text, BHGNT [Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2020]) regarding Jesus’ response: σὺ [su] is contrastive, distinguishing Pilate from others . . . (p 239).  (Novakovic is non-committal regarding su in John 18:33 [p 238], though.) In all those supporting emphasis there are slight variations as to the reasoning, but most agree Pilate’s surprise relates to fathoming Jesus as king. There is the possibility that Pilate was expecting—at least in part—an individual with more striking physical features, such as being taller in height, handsomer, etc., which then elicited his surprise. See below.
4 J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p 377.
5 That is, the description here could provide a graphic description of the ‘slain Lamb’ of Revelation 5:6 (cf. John 1:29) instead of the earthly Jesus in his usual appearance. See, e.g., G. K. Beale & Sean M. McDonough, “Revelation” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007): The Isa. 53 background especially highlights the atoning aspect of the lamb’s sacrificial death and also applies the metaphor’s “root” (cf. Rev. 5:5) and “lamb” to the sacrificial victim. In fact, “root” also occurs in Isa. 11:1, 10 (alluded to in Rev. 5:5), which may have inspired attraction to the same metaphor in 53:2 (p 1101). Cf. Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew” in Beale & Carson, who describes, the servant’s disfigured appearance (p 31).
6 Mikeal C. Parsons, Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006 / Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2011). The Baylor appears to be a straight reissue of the Baker. All references below will refer to the original Baker issue. (See my review of this work here.) Parsons’ main thesis is that Luke/Acts illustrates the reversal of physiognomic thought as “Luke presumes physiognomic principles only to overturn them by story’s end” (p 15).
7 Here Parsons references Lev 21 and its requirements for both sacrifice and priest (p 40), noting how some construe the lack of corresponding moral requirements to go with the physical in Lev 21:16-18 as implying “a connection between the outward and the inward” (p 41).
8 Parsons, pp 39-40. The author also uses King David (1 Sam 16:12) and Absalom (2 Sam 14:25) as examples (p 40).
9 Parsons, pp 42-45.
10 Parsons, pp 17-37.
11 Parsons, p 17.
12 Parsons, p 14. I note that this is not foreign to modern culture, as evidenced, e.g., in the band Talking Heads’ track “Seen and Not Seen” (from the 1980 Remain in Light), in which the narrator wishes to change his facial features by consciously adapting his thoughts, assuming others shared this same ability.
13 Parsons, 18-37.
14 John Granger Cook, The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002).
15 Cook, p 35.
16 I draw these inferences from the way Cook frames some of his statements (p 35, 48), but particularly his quote of Celsus—which follows in the main text above—as viewed through the lens of the pervasive influence of physiognomy.
17 Eugene V. Gallagher, Divine Man or Magician: Celsus and Origen on Jesus (Chico, CA: Publishers Press, 1982), p 122, as cited in Cook, p 48.
18 See the corresponding verbiage in the main text of note 15, and see note 16 and its corresponding text.
19 Cook, p 35. Though Cook does not place child of God in quotes, I understand Celsus’ use here as sarcasm, since it is obvious he deemed Jesus unworthy to be a son of god or a king; and, therefore, my quotes are to indicate this cynicism. See also the comments relating to Origen’s Against Celsus in Claudio Moreschini and Enrico Norelli’s Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature: A Literary History: Volume One (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005): Celsus . . . criticized the idea of a descent (future for Jews, past for Christians) of a Son of God to earth, for this contradicts the very nature of God by attributing a change to him (p 291). Given such an a priori view (mistaken as it is), Celsus clearly does not grant ‘Son of God’ status to Jesus.
20 Cook, p 35.
21 This is my extrapolation of Cook (p 35) here given his earlier quote of Celsus’ “ . . . and ignoble” (see content referenced at note 15 above).
22 Cook, p 35.
23 Psalm 45:2 is variously translated in the English versions; however, the first part of the verse, which includes “handsome” in some versions, is not quoted or alluded to in the NT—as far as I’ve determined. The latter part of the verse (with “grace” or “gracious”) may be alluded to in Luke 4:22, though. Thus, I infer the possibility of this pertaining to Jesus only insofar as the citing/allusion to other verses in Psalm 45 (6-7) in the context of Hebrews 1:8-9 (See George H. Guthrie, “Hebrews” in Beale & Carson, pp 937, 939). And even if it does apply to Jesus, then it must be post-resurrection, as per the Hebrews context (1:3ff).
24 The words homoios and hōs are synonymous; in fact John uses the latter quite a bit in vv 13-16. John also uses homoios huios anthrōpou in Rev 14:14.
25 For more explanation on this, see ‘Son of Man’ in the LXX here.
26 In other words, these lack both Greek articles—one before huios (“son”) and one before anthrōpou (“man”), in comparison with the other occurrences in the NT where Jesus self-references as the Son of [the] Man during his earthly ministry. Relatedly, I have argued extensively that this same non-particularized huios anthrōpou in John 5:27 is meant to indicate “son of man”, aka “human” in that context in order to tie it to Daniel 7:13 and Rev 1:13; 14:14: see The Son of God Given Authority to Judge Because He is ‘Human’: A Study in John 5:27, pt 4 and pt 5.
27 And the latter part of 19:16 is parallel to 14:14, and 19:11-16 has other points of contact with 14:14-20.

Today an Eternal Present was Unveiled in the City of David

Merry Christmas!

10 . . . The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen closely, for I proclaim to you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 Today your Savior—Who is Christ the Lord—was born in the city of David.”1

This is the day we celebrate the birth2 of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,3 Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.4

Joy to the world! / The Lord is come! / Let earth receive her King. / Let every heart prepare Him room / and heaven and nature sing.

A bit over two millennia ago, the eternal Word5 became the eternal-temporal Theanthrōpos,6 the God-man.7 Deity came in humility, clothed in humanity, born in Bethlehem. God the Father loved the world so much that He provided His one, unique Son8 as a sacrifice for us all, by ‘lifting Him up’ on the cross,9 so that everyone who believes in Him would not  perish, but would gain eternal life,10 adopted as God’s children.11 This entrance into eternality begins the very moment of initial belief12 and will remain for the overcomers—those enduring until the end.13

This day we should, in reverential awe, commemorate this glorious, eternally present,14 eternal gift.15 We should remember this selfless, sacrificial gift16 every day—but especially today. Those temporal gifts we give and receive—largely in celebrations overshadowing the true meaning of this season, this day—those temporal gifts we exchange, some by compulsion, will perish. But not this gift. This gift, available to all, has already been given—at such cost!17 The Giver of this gift is Himself the Gift,18 Who seemingly perished forevermore after being crucified.19 Yet He rose again!20 And He lives yet still.21

But this gift is more of an exchange—though a very one-sided one at that. To receive the gift of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement22—in which He has already paid the due penalty for all mankind’s sins past, present, and future23—one must repent,24 turn to Jesus as Lord and Savior,25 and then ‘take up one’s cross daily’.26 This means obeying Jesus’ commandments27 and following His path, to the point of physical death, if necessary.28 However, even if following Christ directly results in temporal death (which is an inevitable eventuality whether following Him or not) one receives the much more valuable eternal life. Yet, even more, as part of this exchange one receives God’s indwelling Spirit29—the Holy Spirit, the paraklētos,30 the Spirit of Truth31—in Whom one possesses both the navigational compass and the strength to endure His pathway.

Yet Jesus’ requirements are not burdensome.32 When the Christ-follower inevitably sins33—and one easily does so when living by one’s own strength rather than by and in the Spirit34—He is quick to forgive the penitent.35

To those who believe in and follow the Messiah, His Resurrection guarantees this eternal present;36 but, it was the conception37 and subsequent birth38 of the Eternal-temporal39 providing the necessary precursor. As Christians, as Christ-followers, let us remember this day for the momentous and joyous occasion it was and is: the arrival of the Gospel in the Gift wrapped in strips of cloth lying in a manger.40 To those with opened eyes He was unveiled.41 To the blind He remained veiled, but to those blind subsequently receiving sight He was revealed.42

Let us not be side-tracked by the temporality of contemporary glitz and glamour. Let us not take this day for granted. Let us take it to heart. Let us take its inherent message to the outer extremities.43 Let us be God’s instruments through which this Gift is unveiled, blind eyes opened.

The world awaits.44

——–

(If you think you might be experiencing a case of déjà vu, you are not exactly wrong. This is a lightly revised and slightly expanded version of an article I posted on Christmas day last year.)

__________________________

1 Luke 2:10-11, my translation.
2 It is very unlikely, though, that December 25 is the actual day Jesus was born. See When was Jesus Born?
3 Luke 2:10-11; Matthew 1:25; cf. Micah 5:2.
4 John 1:41; 4:25.
5 John 1:1.
6 From Theos = God, anthrōpos = man.
7 John 1:14.
8 John 1:14; 3:16.
9 John 3:14 (cf. Numbers 21:8-9); John 12:32-33.
10 John 3:16-17; Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:4; 1John 4:9-10.
11 John 1:12.
12 John 5:24-25.
13 Matthew 24:13; Revelation 2:7, 10-11, 17, 26-28; 3:5, 10-12, 19-21; 14:12.
14 John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:2-3.
15 Revelation 13:8; cf. Revelation 17:8. There is ambiguity in the syntax of the Greek in 13:8. Is it that the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world (KJV, NIV, e.g.), or is it that certain names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world (ESV, NASB, e.g.)? [This implies there are yet others who were written in the book of life from the foundation of the world (cf. Rev 3:5).] One could harmonize this with the words whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world from 17:8 to resolve this, yet it seems difficult to have a book of life without the Life Giver’s substitutionary atonement (Hebrews 2:17) having been provided first. So maybe both are true? Resolution is not even found in John the Baptizer’s words in John 1:29 regarding the “Lamb of God” (cf. Rev 5:6-14), for the verb airōn, takes away, is a present active participle, which grammatically indicates durative action (imperfective aspect), but the temporal reference is unclear. Is it yet-future from the Baptizer’s words (in then-current context looking forward to the cross), or is John stating that it is already in effect? Relatedly, this verb airō can connote being taken ‘up’ as well as taken away, which can provide a bit of—likely intended—double entendre, polysemy. In other words, sins are taken up/away as He is taken up/away. This double meaning likely applies—unknowingly by the speakers and in ironical fashion with the benefit of hindsight—in John 19:15 when “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi) responded to Pilate’s statement “Here is your king!” with aron aron, staurōson auton, “Take up/away, take up/away; crucify him!” Their command resulted in Him being glorified (John 12:23; 13:31-32; 17:1) and thereby receiving the name above every name (Philippians 2:9-11; cf. What Did Pilate State in John 19:22?: Conclusion).
16 Philippians 2:5-8.
17 Hebrews 2:9-18; 4:15. Each and every one of us—at and beyond the age of accountability, at the least—has played his/her part in lifting Him up on that cross.
18 John 11:25; 14:6.
19 Matthew 27:48-50; Mark 15:36-37; Luke 23:36; John 19:28-30.
20 Matthew 28:1-15; Mark 16:1-8[20]; Luke 24:1-49; John 2:19-22; 10:17-18; 20:1-31; 1Corinthians 15:1-4.
21 Revelation 1:18.
22 Hebrews 2:14-18.
23 Romans 3:25-26; Hebrews 9:11-15, 26-28; 10:12, 19-24.
24 Matthew 4:17; Luke 3:8-14; Acts 2:38; 3:19; Romans 2:4.
25 But this cannot be done in one’s own strength; see the words of Jesus in John 6:44: No one is able to come to Me unless the Father, the One Who sent Me, draws him[/her].
26 Matthew 10:38-39; 16:24-26; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23-24; 14:27; John 12:25-26.
27 Matthew 4:17; 22:37-39; Mark 12:30-31; John 8:31-32; 13:34/15:12; 15:10; James 2:8-11; 1John 5:3.
28 Matthew 16:24-26. See What did Jesus mean when He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me”?
29 John 3:3-8; 14:17; Romans 8:15-17; 1Corinthians 2:12; 3:16; 6:19; 2Corinthians 6:16.
30 John 14:15-16:15; Acts 1:8; 2:1-39; 1John 4:1-6. See also Who is the Holy Spirit?
31 John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1John 4:6; 5:6.
32 Matthew 11:28-30; 1John 5:3.
33 1John 1:8-10.
34 Galatians 5:16-26; 1John 1:6-8.
35 Hebrews 10:22-23; 1John 1:9-2:2.
36 1Corinthians 15:20-23.
37 Luke 1:34-35.
38 Luke 2:1-7.
39 John 1:1, 14.
40 Luke 2:10-12.
41 Luke 2:8-20.
42 John 9:1-41; 2Corinthians 3:14-18.
43 Matthew 28:19-20.
44 John 3:16-21, 31-36; Romans 8:18-27.

Christmas Came Early!

Who can forget the part in A Charlie Brown Christmas when Linus recites Luke 2:8-14 (KJV)? This captures the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. This captures the meaning of Christmas.

But, arguably, the story of Christmas comes a bit earlier than that. Before the Virgin Birth was the Virginal Conception. This is found in Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:18-24.

Yet the implication of Jeremiah 1:5 shows that Christmas came even earlier:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you came out of the womb, I sanctified you and appointed you a prophet to the nations.

If God assigned Jeremiah’s role before forming him in the womb, then he surely knew Jesus’ assignment before His miraculous birth! Can we know how early?

We know from John chapter 1 that Jesus predates His earthly existence as “the Word” (Logos).

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… (John 1:14).

The first portion “And the Word became flesh” can be understood as either the Virginal Conception or the Virgin Birth. I think it means the former. Whichever the case, strictly speaking, “the Word” predates Jesus of Nazareth. That is, before John 1:14 “the Word” existed without human flesh. In fact, a careful reading of John 1:1-3 illustrates that “the Word” predates creation, for He was the Agent of all creation:

1 In the beginning the Word existed, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (by nature). 2 He [the Word] existed in the beginning with God. 3 Through Him [the Word] all things came to be…

While God is the Creator (see Rev 4:11, e.g.), “the Word” was the Agent by which all things were created. Thus, when “the Word became flesh” the uncreated Agent of all creation became part of all creation!

Yet we still haven’t answered the question of whether or not we can know how early Jesus’ assignment was. The book of Revelation implicitly provides the answer!

Depending on which Bible version you have (the Greek syntax here can be construed two different ways), the implication of Revelation 13:8 (cf. 17:8) is such that either: {a} names were placed in the Book of Life before the foundation of the world (NIV, ESV, NASB, HCSB) or {b} the Lamb (Jesus) was slain before the foundation of the world (KJV, Douay-Rheims, ISV, YLT). In either case, this indicates salvation was worked out before creation.

Thus, Christmas came VERY early!

Traversing the Via Dolorosa with Shostakovich, Vasks, and Schnittke

Different people grieve differently. Some busy themselves with busyness. More productively, some write. Some write music. Some listen to music that some have written as catharsis for their pain.

And some enjoy listening to such heart-rending music—even when not necessarily in distress. That would describe me. When grieving, I concurrently feel the composers’ agony. When I’m not, it’s as if I’m empathically sharing in their burdens (Galatians 6:2).

One of my favorite ECM New Series releases, Dolorosa features—as the title suggests—themes of death, sorrow, and lamentation. It includes one work each by Dmitri Shostakovich, Pēteris Vasks, and Alfred Schnittke—all from the former Soviet Union. The title of the release appears to be truncated from Vasks’ own “Musica Dolorosa”, with perhaps a nod to the Via Dolorosa (Latin for “sorrowful way”), Jesus’ route to crucifixion. I make these speculations since it is convention to use doloroso (“o” instead of “a” at the end) in musical direction.

Dolorosa

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dolorosa – Shostakovich / Vasks / Schnittke
Dennis Russell Davies, cond.; Stuttgart Chamber Orch.

 

These three works for string orchestra are appropriately somber, though at times dramatic, adequately expressing the subjects’ range of emotions.

The disc begins with Rudolf Barshai’s (1967) adaptation of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. The composer himself approved of Barshai’s arrangement, agreeing to rename it Chamber Orchestra op. 110bis. I much prefer the orchestral version to the quartet, as it adds weightiness to the original, better conveying its inherent bleakness. Shostakovich dedicated the composition “[t]o the memory of the victims of fascism and war”. At the time the original quartet was written (summer 1960), the composer had succumbed to persistent pressures to join the communist party, causing great inner turmoil, according to musicologist Isaak Glikman, as per the accopanying liner notes. Apparently the composer’s dedication included himself as a victim.

At just under 25 minutes, this rendition is one of the longest. DRD conducts the second movement, Allegro molto, slower than all other versions I’ve heard (3:38 long), which I find more appropriate, given the inscription and the overall tenor of this arrangement.

The impetus for Vasks’ “Musica dolorosa” was the death of the composer’s sister Marta. Vasks’ grief evidences itself in the climactic section beginning at around 5:50 of the single movement piece. The pain conveyed becomes almost unbearable until about 8:00 when the discordance begins to subside, seguing into a dark melancholy. This subsequently gives rise to what seems to be a reluctant acceptance of this tragedy. As much as I like the Shostakovich, this is my favorite piece on the disc.

Closing the set is Yuri Bashmet’s orchestral arrangement of Schnittke’s String Trio (1985), rebranded Trio Sonata (1987). This work is the least somber of the three, for the Alban Berg Foundation commissioned the original string trio for the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Berg’s birth. However, within a few weeks of the string trio’s premiere, the composer would suffer his first of many strokes, thus curtailing his activity for the remainder of his days. Of the piece, Gerard McBurney opines in the liner notes: “It is music which strongly suggests an elegiac farewell to the past, as though the composer knew he were facing impending and radical change…” Schnittke would die one year after this disc was released.

Listening to this recording can be cathartic, as it is for me many times. I suppose, though, that the listener’s experience would pale in comparison to the emotions felt by the composers at the time of writing—or shortly thereafter in the case of Schnittke’s revision by Bashmet.

Bob Dylan’s New Christian Themed Album

After releasing his first new material in quite a while with “Murder Most Foul”—a nearly 17 minute track about the assassination of JFK—Dylan subsequently announced a forthcoming full-length release. Now available, the album Rough and Rowdy Ways contains only new material written by him.

The way I interpret the record, Dylan has rekindled his Christian faith. Though there are what seem to be overt lyrics in this regard, there are other more opaque references.

The overt references include these from “Crossing the Rubicon” (for those unaware, this phrase is a metaphor for point of no return):

I feel the Holy Spirit inside
See the light that freedom gives
I believe it’s in the reach of
Every man who lives
Keep as far away as possible
It’s darkest ‘fore the dawn (Oh Lord)
I turned the key, I broke it off
And I crossed the Rubicon

Plus the following from “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”:

If I had the wings of a snow white dove
I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love
A love so real, a love so true
I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you

This whole song can be read as the songwriter rededicating his life to Jesus Christ. The lyrics can be found at AZLyrics (The line I hope the gods go easy on me I interpret as I hope men deeming themselves gods go easy on me.) And by scrolling to the bottom of the AZ link, you can find lyrics to the remaining pieces on Rough and Rowdy Ways.

The album finds Dylan pondering his temporal life, his faith, his mortal end, the end of all things generally (which I think he believes is imminent), and immortality.

Starting from the beginning of the album, “I Contain Multitudes” finds the writer admitting he’s a man of contradictions. Aren’t we all, if we’re honest. This sets up two tracks in which Dylan narrates in the first person  as (A) a false prophet (“False Prophet”), though claiming he’s not (I ain’t no false prophet), and (B) as Satan describing how he’ll fashion the antichrist (“My Own Version of You”). While an initial reading of (A) I opened my heart up to the world and the world came in could be autobiographical, when interpreted in view of the whole, Dylan speaking from the perspective of a false prophet makes the best sense.

“My Own Version of You” has appropriately repulsive imagery to match the concealed ugliness of the subject—the yet to be revealed antichrist:

I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts
I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do
I’m gonna create my own version of you

The following lines make his meaning clearer (see 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12; Revelation 13:11-18):

I’ll bring someone to life, someone for real
Someone who feels the way that I feel

That Dylan thinks the false Christ’s time is nigh may be gleaned by this line borrowed from Shakespeare: Well, it must be the winter of my discontent.

The sequencing of the songs appears to be quite on purpose. With the first one admitting his own contradictory nature, the second posing as the false prophet, the third as Satan fashioning the antichrist, the writer seems to be reflecting his own notion that the end times are near. With all this in mind, a rededication to Jesus at this juncture makes sense. Thus, the fourth track is “I Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”.

The fifth track, “Black Rider”, finds Dylan pondering death itself. At times he’s pushing death away (My heart is at rest, I’d like to keep it that way / I don’t wanna fight, at least not today), other times he’s ready to give in:

Black rider, black rider, tell me when, tell me how
If there ever was a time, then let it be now
Let me go through, open the door
My soul is distressed, my mind is at war

Ah, those contradictions.

After two tracks of what I think are ‘living in the world but not of the world’—“Goodbye Jimmy Reed” and “Mother of Muses”—the songwriter begins “Crossing the Rubicon” with my favorite of the non-overt Christian lyrics:

I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day
Of the most dangerous month of the year

This is most certainly a reference to Nisan 14 on the Jewish calendar—the first day of the Jewish Passover, corresponding to the day Jesus became the Paschal Lamb (Passover Lamb), according to John’s Gospel (and 1 Corinthians 5:7). That is, the day Christ was crucified. I think these lyrics signify Dylan’s (re)dedication to Christ. This doesn’t necessarily mean Dylan metaphorically “crossed the Rubicon”—gave his life to Christ—on Good Friday, though it could.

Each verse of this song ends with the words And I crossed the Rubicon. Surely “crossed” here is a double entendre, referring also to accepting the Cross of Christ. This is evident in the lyrics beginning the second verse:

Well, the Rubicon is a red river
Goin’ gently as she flows
Redder than your ruby lips
And the blood that flows from the rose

This “red river” must be the blood of Christ, redder than…the blood that flows from the rose.

The final track (excluding “Murder Most Foul”, which is placed on a disk by itself in the cd release) “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” makes the island a metaphor for the journey to paradise (‘Abraham’s bosom’) —the hereafter. This is my favorite piece both musically and lyrically.

Dylan frames it with US President William McKinley’s assassination. The piece begins:

McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled
Doctor said, “McKinley, death is on the wall
‪Say it to me, if you got something to confess”

Then near the end of the song Dylan writes I heard the news, I heard your last request / Fly around, my pretty little Miss. This appears to be Dylan using the president’s wife’s words to her husband at his deathbed, she wishing to go with him, to which he reportedly replied: “We are all going, we are all going. God’s will be done, not ours.” However, perhaps more important to the song here are the accounts that either McKinley or his wife sang the lyrics to the Christian hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee”.

The closing chorus thematically ties it all together:

Key West is the place to be
‪If you’re looking for immortality
‪Stay on the road, follow the highway sign
‪Key West is fine and fair
‪If you lost your mind, you will find it there
‪Key West is on the horizon line

A fitting finale. Make up your mind, make the commitment, cross the Rubicon. Stay the course, follow the Spirit. You’ll reach Key West, immortality. It’s right there on the horizon. At least it’s on Dylan’s horizon.

[See the related Tangled Up in Quasi-Truth.]

The Cost of Freedom

Here in the USA as we celebrate the independence we enjoy, let us also consider the efforts of our forefathers and the ultimate price some paid for them.

May we also reflect on those in shackles—literal or figurative—in various ways, whether this is by unjust or even just jailing, through oppressive regimes or ideologies, etc. Let us remember and pray for all not yet free.

As Christians, let us also rejoice in the freedom we have—through God’s grace—in Christ. Let us remember and pray for those who have yet to experience their own freedom in Christ.

Let us never forget that freedom isn’t free.

Let us never take for granted the price paid for eternal salvation. The price paid for all.

Redemption

From the hands it came down
From the side it came down
From the feet it came down
And ran to the ground
Between heaven and hell
A teardrop fell
In the deep crimson dew
The tree of life grew

And the blood gave life
To the branches of the tree
And the blood was the price
That set the captives free
And the numbers that came
Through the fire and the flood
Clung to the tree
And were redeemed by the blood

From the tree streamed a light
That started the fight
‘Round the tree grew a vine
On whose fruit I could dine
My old friend Lucifer came
Fought to keep me in chains
But I saw through the tricks
Of six-sixty-six

And the blood gave life
To the branches of the tree
And the blood was the price
That set the captives free
And the numbers that came
Through the fire and the flood
Clung to the tree
And were redeemed by the blood

From his hands it came down
From his side it came down
From the feet it came down
And ran to the ground
And a small inner voice
Said you do have a choice
The vine engrafted me
And I clung to the tree

————-

Written by John R. Cash
Published by Song of Cash, Inc. (ASCAP)
© 1994 American Recordings /℗ 1994 American Recordings. 2100 Colorado Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90404

 

What Did Pilate State in John 19:22?: Conclusion

[See part I]

In the conclusion here I shall more closely explore the three verses leading up to Pontius Pilate’s pithy phrase in 19:22. Some necessary background in John’s Gospel will be provided first.

Events Leading Up to Jesus’ Arrest

In reaction to Jesus’ increasing popularity following the miracle of Lazarus’ revivification (11:38-45; 12:9-11), some of ‘the Jews’8 conferred with the chief priests and the Pharisees who then summoned the Sanhedrin (11:46-47). They were concerned they would eventually lose their “place and nation” (11:48). While “place” in its Scriptural context may refer to the Temple, it may well (also) mean the leaders’ privileged positions, which were granted by, yet subject to, Roman authority.

At this meeting Caiaphas, the High Priest (11:49) said, “…it is better that one man die for the people than for the whole nation to perish” (11:50; cf. 18:14). The narrator of the Gospel adds:

51 He did not say this of himself but, as High Priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, 52 and not only the nation, but also that He would unite into one the children of God who are dispersed.9

The Greek words for “children of God” above are found only here and in 1:12 in John’s Gospel. Thus, ironically, the fulfillment of Caiaphas’ words would have different consequences than he likely assumed (cf. 7:35), and would result in the inclusion of Gentile believers as children of God on equal footing (12:32; cf. 4:42; Rom 2:28-29).

They then plotted Christ’s death (11:53), apparently conspiring to arrest Him at the next available opportunity toward that end (11:55-57).

In the meantime, the Devil cast into the heart of Judas Iscariot the desire to betray Jesus (13:2; cf. 13:18, 21). Shortly thereafter, at the Last Supper, “Satan entered into him” (13:27), and then Judas left to carry out his betrayal (13:30). Soon after that he went to an olive grove where he knew Jesus often met with his disciples, bringing with him “a detachment of soldiers and some officers of the chief priests and the Pharisees” (18:1-3).

Jesus’ Arrest and Trials

Jesus was subsequently arrested and brought before Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas (18:12-14), who questioned Him (18:19-23) before sending him on to Caiaphas (18:24). Then Christ was led to Governor Pilate’s palace (18:28).

Pilate enquired about the charges levied against Jesus (18:29), and with no direct answer given (18:30) he instructed them to “judge him by your own law” (18:31).10 ‘The Jews’ replied, “We are not authorized to execute anyone” (18:31). This was to fulfill the kind of death Jesus would suffer (18:32; cf. 12:33), as He indicated earlier—being “lifted up”, i.e., crucified (12:32).

Yet the fact that Roman soldiers (18:3) were employed in Jesus’ capture indicates Pilate may well have been apprised of the charges before Christ was presented to him. This would account for his first question to Jesus: “Are you ‘the king of the Jews’?” (18:33). Pilate’s words here could be intended, alternatively, as showing incredulity (cf. Isa 53:2): “You are ‘the king of the Jews’?”11 After Jesus informed him that His kingdom is not of this world (18:36, 37), Pilate found him without guilt, then asked the Jews if they would agree to release Him as per the annual tradition of freeing one prisoner at Passover (18:38-39). The Jews chose Barabbas instead (18:40).

With that, Pilate had Jesus flogged (19:1). The soldiers, mocking Jesus’ ‘purported’ kingship, put a crown of thorns on His head and clad Him in a purple robe (19:2-3).

After this, still unconvinced of Christ’s guilt, Pilate tried once more to persuade them to reconsider (19:4). When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said (19:5), “Behold, the man!” This is probably Pilate’s way of challenging their charge of his alleged claim of political kingship.

In response, the chief priests and their officials shouted out (19:6): “Crucify! Crucify!” In return, Pilate told them to crucify Him—knowing they couldn’t of course—again stating he found the charges to be without foundation (19:6). ‘The Jews’ countered, using a different tact, “We have a law, and according to this law He must die, for He made Himself God’s Son” (19:7; cf. 5:18; 10:33). They were likely appealing to Leviticus 24:16, accusing Jesus of blasphemy.

Upon hearing their new allegation Pilate grew more afraid (19:8). Having been immersed in Greco-Roman polytheism, Pilate may have thought Jesus a ‘divine man’. Whatever the case, this new claim prompted him to ask Jesus, “Where are you from?” (19:9). As Christ remained silent Pilate apparently grew agitated, adding, “Don’t you know I have the authority to release you and I have the authority to crucify you?” (19:10). Jesus responded, “You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above; therefore, the one who has delivered me over to you is guilty of a greater sin” (19:11; cf. 10:17-18).

From this point forward Pilate kept seeking to release Him. But, in persistence, ‘the Jews’ shouted, “If you release this fellow, you are no friend of Caesar’s—anyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (19:12). Note the verbal connection between “makes himself a king” and “made Himself God’s Son” (cf. 5:18, 10:33) above.

It was around the “sixth hour” (noon) on the Day of Preparation for Passover week (19:14; cf. 13:1). With this time marker we know that Jesus’ impending death, only a short time away, would be around the same time when priests would begin slaughtering paschal lambs (Exo 12).12 Now the “Lamb of God” (1:29; cf. 1 Cor 5:7; Heb 9:11-15; 1 Pet 1:19; Rev 5:6) is about to meet a similar fate at about the same hour (cf. Exo 12:46; John 19:33, 36).

In response to their last statement (19:12), Pilate brought Jesus out and said (19:13-14), “Here is your king!” To that they shouted: “Take that man away! Take away! Crucify him!”13

Pilate answered (19:15), “Shall I crucify your king?”

The chief priests, in feigned allegiance to Caesar for the sake of expediency, answered (19:15), “We have no king but Caesar!” Their claim could be understood as a denial of their own God, their King (Jdg 8:23; 1 Sam 8:7; Psa 136:3)—at Passover, no less.

Their response was intended to dissuade Pilate from releasing Jesus, as doing so would make it appear he recognized Him as a rival to Caesar’s kingship. And thus Pilate failed in his efforts to free Jesus. ‘The Jews’ and the chief priests forced his hand, and so he handed Jesus over to them for crucifixion. Obviously unhappy with this turn of events, Pilate would exact revenge against them.

The Crucifixion and Pilate’s Enduring Statement

With Jesus formally sentenced, the soldiers took charge (19:16). After carrying His cross, He was ‘lifted up’, placed between two others (19:17-18).

Below is the brief section leading up to and including Pilate’s final statement in John’s Gospel. Each occurrence of the Greek verb root “write” (graphō) is bolded. In addition, titlos is left untranslated, for it is difficult to provide a suitable one-word substitute. An exploration of these terms will commence further below.

19 Yet Pilate also wrote a titlos and fastened it to the cross. It had been inscribed: JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS. 20 Many of the Jews thus read this titlos, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it had been written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. 21 The chief priests of the Jews therefore said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘THE KING OF THE JEWS’, but that man, ‘SAID, I AM KING OF THE JEWS.’”14

22 Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”

Pilate’s inscription was intended as an insult to the Jews. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword here—in more than one way.

Since first century Greek texts lacked punctuation (and spacing between words!), there is some ambiguity as to the exact request of “the chief priests of the Jews” and how they wished to amend Pilate’s original words. I interpret their intention was to replace ‘…THE KING OF THE JEWS’ in the inscription with ‘…SAID, I AM KING OF THE JEWS’, resulting in their proposed verbiage JESUS THE NAZARENE SAID, I AM KING OF THE JEWS. They wanted the words to reflect a claim of Jesus, not a claim of the Jewish nation. From their perspective, the inscription as it stood may “appear to be a formal declaration of Jesus’ identity rather than a charge against Him.”15

Pilate was well aware their charges had been trumped up, so he was undoubtedly taking much pleasure in making a mockery of them in response to their mocked allegiance to Caesar at Jesus’ expense. They may have forced his hand, but he showed them who ultimately had the upper hand.

But Pilate’s vindication would have other ramifications. While we understand the theological implication in Pilate’s inscription—as it stands it makes a true statement of Jesus’ Kingship—taking a closer look at the context while investigating related historical background provides a stronger foundation upon which to construe it this way.

Other Signs

It was not uncommon in first century Rome for a criminal on his way to execution to be accompanied by a sign stating both his name and the offense for which He was condemned. It was either (a) carried by an official walking in front of him16 or (b) hung around his own neck.17 But there is not much historical evidence for placing this same sign on the criminal’s cross, and what is available is ambiguous.18 We must note that none of the Gospels mention anyone carrying a sign of this sort during the Via Dolorosa. This is not to definitively claim someone had not, however. We merely have no explicit evidence. What we know for certain is that a sign was placed onto Jesus’ cross indicating His supposed crime.19

In the previous paragraph, the word used referring to the sign accompanying condemned criminals in both instances is the Latin titulus. John’s titlos—found only here in 19:19 and 19:20 in all Scripture (and seems to be first used by John)—is a ‘loanword’ from this Latin term. Titulus had rather broad applications in first century Latin texts. In addition to the two examples previously cited, the word was used by Pliny the Younger (ca. AD 61—113) for a notice to rent20 and by Roman poet Ovid (BC 43—AD 17/18) for a notice of public sale.21 It was also used to signify a grave marker.22 As can be deduced, the term applied to both the inscription and the object on which it was inscribed in these instances. However, more importantly, at times titulus was used solely for the writing itself.23

The term can refer to epitaphs (i.e., the inscriptions) as distinct from grave markers.24 Roman historian Titus Livius Patavinus (ca. BC 64/59—AD 12/17) applied it to Hannibal’s self-inscription on an altar in which he glowingly described his own achievements.25 Columella (ca. AD 4—70), a writer on agricultural concerns, used the word to reference titles of books.26 Ovid, in the very same work referred to in the previous paragraph, used titulus to signify the title of a pamphlet.27 And most pertinent for our purposes here, in a work written around the time Christ was born Ovid employed the term in reference to honorific titles, as applied to Augustus Caesar, for example.28 In similar fashion, in one context Ovid used it as a title acquired by assuming it from those conquered or from some heroic event, yet also in synonymity with “name” (Latin: nomen).29 Yet, given that Pilate’s purpose with the inscription was to antagonize ‘the Jews’, can we rightly apply any of the latter two meanings (title, name) to John 19:19?

The text in 19:19 states that Pilate wrote the titlos (titulus) and affixed it to the cross. The task of placing the titlos onto the beam, however, was almost certainly delegated. Yet given the preceding historical investigation—illustrating titulus could refer to either the inscribed object and its inscription or the inscription only—there are a number of possible scenarios with regard to the writing of the words. Perhaps Pilate dictated the desired text to a scribe for inscribing.30 Or maybe he himself penned the words on a papyrus (titlos) and then gave this document to a scribe for inscribing onto the (presumed) board of the titlos.31 It could be that he inscribed the titlos in Latin and then gave it to a secretary to translate and write the Aramaic and the Greek. Whatever the case, in some manner, Pilate wrote the titlos.

Textual Clues and Syntactical Pointers

There’s a grammatical issue in the latter part of v. 19 that may well have a bearing here. The words preceding the inscription—“It had been inscribed” in the translation above (akin to the English past perfect)—are translated from a participle reflecting a neuter subject, while titlos is masculine. In other words, it does not refer to titlos. This exact syntax is found again in 19:20. So, to what or who does it refer? This is typically translated impersonally: “There was written” (~ “It [the inscription] read”).32 However, as Keener notes, each and every time this syntactical structure with this verb is used up to this point in John it references Scripture (it is written; it had been written).33 Keener concludes, “Thus John may ironically suggest that Pilate, as God’s unwitting agent (19:11), may carry out God’s will in the Scriptures.”34 Could God’s Spirit have superintended the writing of the inscription, despite Pilate’s vindictive purpose?

The words it is written in the verses prefacing Scripture (2:17; 6:31, 45; 10:34; 12:14; 15:25; cf. 5:46; 8:17) are in the perfect tense-form, while 12:16 contains a pluperfect, the same form as 19:19 and 19:20. Though all these are important to my argument here, key is the usage of 12:16, best rendered these things had been written.35 In that context, the narrator notes that the disciples recalled earlier events but only fully understood how they fulfilled Scripture from their post-glorification perspective (after Jesus’ resurrection). Before considering this line of inquiry further, how might 19:11 (which Keener references above) impact the interpretation in 19:19?

While the authority Pilate possessed in a general sense was certainly “from above” (anōthen), as it is for all rulers and authorities, this was not Jesus’ point here. Similar to v. 19, there is a mismatch in gender in v. 11. Just as the participle in 19:19 is neuter, so it had [not] been given is in 19:11. The Greek word for authority, however, is feminine.36 Thus, if it had not been given to you from above does not refer to Pilate’s general conferred authority but to his specific role in the events unfolding at the time: “the fact that Jesus has been given into his hands has been determined by God”.37

19:11 ouk eiches exousian kat’ emou oudemian ei mē ēn dedomenon soi anōthen
not you have authority over me nothing if not was it having been given you from-above
“You would have no authority over me if it had not been given to you from above.”

This same syntactical format (‘not this’ if it has/had not been given from God) is first found in John the Baptizer’s response to those who mentioned Jesus’ baptizing and the increasing numbers going to Him (3:26): 

3:27 ou dynatai anthrōpos lambanein oude hen ean mē ȩ̄ dedomenon autō̧ ek tou ouranou38
not s/he be able person to receive and-not one if not may-be it having been given him from heaven
A person is not able to receive not one thing if not it may be given to him/her from heaven
“A person is not able to receive anything if it has not been given to them from heaven.”

Though the Baptizer’s statement serves a particular purpose in its context, it should also be seen as a maxim, a general statement.39 These words of the Baptizer are the first with this syntactical structure, while Jesus’ words to Pilate are the last. In my opinion these form bookends, one opening and the other closing an inclusio. The Baptizer’s maxim then relates to some intervening uses of “give” (didōmi) such as parts of the Bread of Life discourse (e.g. 6:37, 39), Jesus’ Prayer (17:7, 11, 12, 22), and Jesus’ cup (18:11).40 Of course, it also relates to Jesus’ statement in 19:11. The remaining verse fitting this grammatical structure (6:65) is thematically relevant:

6:65 oudeis dynatai elthein pros me ean mē ȩ̄ dedomenon autō̧ ek tou patros
no one is able to come to me if not may-be it having been given him/her of the Father
“No one is able to come to Me if it has not been given to them by the Father.”

The point here is that while God places individuals in certain positions he also orchestrates specific events, using certain individuals to accomplish specific tasks in these events. Thus, understanding Pilate’s unique role in the Passion per Jesus’ phraseology in 19:11, we might be able to assume that this circumscribed, God-given authority extends to the inscription, especially when we consider the syntax in 19:19 and 19:20 (it had been inscribed) and how that relates to other uses of this same structure. Even still, can we make the leap that his words on the inscription are tantamount to writing Scripture? If so, what Scripture is referenced?

Crucial to understanding the Gospel of John is to grasp that the author is writing from a post-resurrection perspective, with the Spirit bringing to remembrance past events, further illuminating them (14:26; 16:12-15). At various points the narrator implies this by calling attention to some of Jesus’ previous statements (12:32 via 12:33 and 18:32 || 6:39 via 17:12 and 18:9). In 2:22 the narrator remarks that after “He was raised” the disciples ‘remembered’ His words and “they believed the Scripture (graphē, noun form of graphō) and the word that Jesus spoke” (in 2:19).  But what “Scripture” is ‘remembered’ here? It cannot be the one referenced in 2:16, for 2:17 specifically states they remembered it. By the context the intended referent appears to be the OT (Tanakh) in a general sense, as it relates to the resurrection.41

Somewhat similar to 2:22 is 12:16. Here the narrator states that the disciples fully realized that these things had been written about Him only “after Jesus was glorified”. “These things” refers to the Scripture referenced in 12:13 and 12:15. Yet in this same context the narrator relates it was not only the things that had been written but also these things done to Him. We can construe that this refers to the events acted out in fulfillment of those two Scriptures. However, oddly, if at the time of Jesus’ ministry the disciples didn’t understand that He was being proclaimed king, why did the crowd say these things? The seeming contradiction is reconciled if we understand it more broadly (similar to 2:22 above) to mean Jesus’ Kingship in the post-glorification sense.42 In other words, their initial interpretation of “king” was in a political sense, then after they ‘remembered’ “these things”, God’s Spirit provided further illumination, as in 2:22.

Tying It All Together

Considering the immediately preceding regarding 2:22 and 12:16, and adding in the syntactical connection between 12:16 and 19:19-20, we have a point of contact. One may argue that the grammatical relationship (these things had been written > it had been written/inscribed) is a bit tenuous, but the thematic one certainly applies. Yet the strength of the thematic link should bolster the grammatical. If the narrator relates how the disciples’ remembrance was further illuminated (implying by virtue of the Spirit: 14:26; 16:12-15), then how much more would the narrator/writer himself be likewise illumined?43 When we factor in the syntactical relationship between 19:19-20 and all other uses of it is written and it had been written (as pertaining to Scripture) in conjunction with Pilate’s unique authority in the Passion as revealed in Jesus’ words in 19:11 (and this grammatical and thematic link to 3:27), we have a stronger case for tying all this together.

Therefore, my contention is that John wrote this with the understanding of a dual purpose for the inscription: one for Pilate’s vengeance, and one for the Spirit to make a true identity statement. In other words, John himself recognized that the words Pilate wrote had influence from the Spirit, so he chose (under influence of the Spirit) it had been inscribed/written as a way to make this connection. I further contend this is why John borrowed the Latin titulus in his use of titlos. Assuming my argument here, one can see it is certainly no leap to enlarge the definition of John’s titlos to include “title” (THE KING OF THE JEWS) and/or “name” (JESUS THE NAZARENE) or both/and (JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS). Thus, rather than merely considering the wording on the inscription as an implication, we have grammatical and contextual reasons to assert with confidence that JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS is indeed written as a Messianic title, and/or a name, a proclamation in a literal sense—in addition to Pilate’s vindication. And the prefatory it had been inscribed designates that the words following, similar to the meaning in 12:16, refer to the OT (Tanakh) generally, rather than one specific verse or section.

Given all this, Pilate’s inscription, with the assistance of God’s Spirit, could be perceived as the climactic contravening of two statements by ‘the Jews’: Jesus “made Himself God’s Son” in 19:7 (cf. 5:18; 10:33) and “makes Himself King” in 19:12 (cf. 1:49; 12:13; 18:38), both encapsulated in Nathaniel’s proclamation in 1:49 “you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (cf. 12:13).

If all this prevails, then the chief priests of the Jews’ plea to Pilate to amend the title may be interpreted as an indirect attempt at usurping God’s authority by unknowingly trying to change Scripture. Interestingly, the narrator does not record that they ‘wanted to change’ (using allassō, e.g.) or something to that effect; instead they say to Pilate “do not write” (using graphō). This is yet another grammatical and thematic link further cohering the four verses (19:19-22).

Yet Pilate refused to alter the altar: What I have written, I have written. What I have written, I stand by. The irony then is that Pilate, a pagan and acting as God’s unwitting agent, stood by God’s words, while the opposing Jews, who had just executed their Messiah, wanted to amend them.

So, what did Pilate “state”? His final words “What I have written, I have written” affirm his inscription, and by doing so, those words remain in Scripture in a state of having been written. And, if the analysis here is accepted, with God’s ‘hand’ on Pilate’s ‘pen’, Pilate ‘wrote’ New Testament Scripture, words that endure to this very day.44

_________________________________________

8 I place ‘the Jews’ in single quotes when the text uses οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι (hoi Ioudaioi), since this is the manner in which the Gospel of John chooses to identify this sub-group. Note, however, that while John’s characterization is mostly negative in the text here, there are quite a few times in the Gospel when the term is used in positive (2:6; 4:22; 8:31; 11:19, 31, 33, 36, 45; 12:9, 11; 19:31) or neutral (1:19; 2:13; 3:1, 22; 5:1, 15; 6:4; 7:2; 11:55; 13:33; 18:20; 19:20, 40, 42) settings (such as in describing a certain festival “of the Jews”), or times in which the group is perhaps understandably perplexed (2:20; 6:41, 52; 7:15; 7:35; 8:57; 10:19). The term’s meaning in John is a bit ambiguous and remains an enigma. Even the designation the Pharisees is sometimes used positively or neutrally (e.g. 9:16). However in this section of John’s Gospel ‘the Jews’ are Jesus’ adversaries.

9 My translation, as are all Scripture quotations in this article. The Latin is also my translation, assisted by online sources and, at times, by others’ English translations. My goal is to adhere closer to a formal equivalence than a dynamic or functional one. To that end, I endeavor to translate nouns for nouns, verbs for verbs, etc.

10 The words of Pilate here may well be an example of artistic license on the part of John the Evangelist. These may have been meant to be ironical in that, according to Mosaic Law—and in truth, of course—Jesus was not guilty of any crime.

11 Since Greek finite verbs encode person and number, a pronoun is not necessary unless the subject is ambiguous; thus, the presence of the pronoun “you” (συ) here is not necessary, and may be used for emphasis.

12 Here I’m following John’s intent in his presentation of events without trying to reconcile them with the Synoptic accounts. See Thompson, John: A Commentary, pp 388-390. Thompson presents a synopsis of (1) the difference between the Synoptic Gospel’s accounts regarding the timing of Jesus’ death as compared to John’s, (2) the problem of associating Jesus’ death with the “sixth hour” (noon) and how this does not seem to correlate with the timing of the slaughtering of Passover lambs.  However, John’s chronology indicates Jesus will be crucified later than noon (he had to first take up his own cross and then walk to the crucifixion site), and so her observations regarding the typical time range for sacrificing Paschal lambs (beginning a bit after 1:30 in the afternoon at the earliest) do not necessarily contradict this. Those attempting to reconcile John with the Synoptics employ various measures. See, e.g. Andreas J. Köstenberger’s contribution in G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), p 500.

13 The twice-used verb for “take away” (αἴρω, airō) has a somewhat broad semantic range that can mean take up as in to raise up to a higher position, move to another place, carry away. It seems likely a double meaning is intended here. That is, ‘lift that man up’ may be understood as the additional meaning, in irony.

14 The word translated “Aramaic” is Hebraisti, which some English versions render “Hebrew”. Following Harris (Murray J. Harris, John, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, Andreas J. Köstenberger & Robert W. Yarbrough, gen. eds. [Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015], p 314), I construe the periphrastic ἦν + γεγραμμένον in v. 19 and v. 20 as akin to the pluperfect of γράφω (cf. 12:16), though I prefer to translate as an English past perfect rather than a simple past.

15 Thompson, John: A Commentary, p 398.

16 In Roman historian Suetonius’ (c. AD 69—122) Caligula—Emperor from AD 37 to 41—an account of a slave sentenced to execution by the Emperor for stealing silver (32.2) was “preceded by a sign indicating the cause for his punishment” (Latin: praecedente titulo qui causam poenae indicaret). Cf. for a similar account in the 2nd century (AD 177) Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.1.44, in which someone carried a board (πίναξ, pinax) in front of Attalus with the inscription THIS IS ATTALUS THE CHRISTIAN.

17 In Suetonius’ Domitianus (10.2-3)—Domitian was Roman Emperor from AD 81 to 96—the sign describing the charge was placed upon the accused gladiator himself (cum hoc titulo: Impie locutus parmularius; “with this sign [upon him]: ‘A Parmularian [gladiator] impiously spoke’”).

18 Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, two volumes (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003) p 2.1137. “The posting of the accusation on the cross is not well attested, either because those describing the crucifixion had already mentioned it being carried out . . . or because the practice was not in fact standard although, given the variations among executions, in no way improbable . . . (p 2.1137, n 608).

19 Although only Matthew (27:37) and Mark (15:26) specifically refer to a sign stating the cause (aitia) for which Jesus was crucified, this does not mean we cannot infer this from the other Gospels (cf. John 19:6).

20 Letters, 7.27 (“To Sura”): Athenodorus legit titulum: “Athenodorus read the notice (to rent the haunted mansion)”.

21 In Remedia Amoris (Cures for Love), for the notice of sale (Latin: sub titulum, “‘under’ the notice”, i.e., “using the notice”) for the household items the unscrupulous girl had plundered (302). Cf. the oft-neglected Marvin R. Vincent, Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009), p II.283. Cf. Tibellus (c. BC 55-BC 19), Elegiae, 2.4.54: ite sub imperium sub titulumque; “you go under her command and under the notice.”

22 Pliny the Younger: Letters, 6.10.3: post decimum mortis annum reliquias neglectumque cinerem sine titulo sine nomine iacere: “ten years postmortem his remains have been cast down and neglected, without a grave marker and without a name.” That titulus in this context does not mean “epitaph” (the inscription itself as distinct from the marker) is evident by the next line of the epistle, in which the author specifies the words the deceased wanted inscribed (inscriberetur) as his epitaph. Also see Ovid, Fasti, Book IV.23, 44, in which titulus refers to a scroll and the writing upon it (longum scriberet annum vidit  . . . proximus est titulis Epytus: “to see what he might have engraved on the roll . . . next on the scroll is Egyptus”).

23 See F. R. Montgomery Hitchcock, “The Use of γράφειν,” Journal of Theological Studies old series 31 (1930), pp 272-273.

24 Martial (ca. AD 38/41—102/104), Epigrammata (published between AD 86 and 103), I.93.4: Plus tamen est, titulo quod breviore legis: ‘Iunctus uterque sacro laudatae foedere vitae, famaque quod raro novit, amicus erat’: “Yet more is what you glean from this brief epitaph: ‘Knit in the sacred bond of life with an honored reputation rarely known: they were friends’.” Cf. Ovid, Epistulae: Sappho Phaoni, 15.190-195; cf. Pliny the Younger, Letters, 9.19.3: . . . si immortalitatem quam meruere sectantur, victurique nominis famam supremis etiam titulis prorogare nituntur: “ . . . if they now seek immortalization, and the names they have so greatly earned in glory and fame to secure, and to perpetuate themselves by epitaphs.” By the context it seems possible that both the inscription and the grave marker are included in titulus here, but the primary meaning is certainly the epitaph/inscription itself.

25 Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita (The History of Rome), 28.46.16 aram condidit dedicavitque cum . . . titulo: “he erected and dedicated an altar with . . . an inscription.”

26 De De Rustica, Book IX, preface: tituli, quern prae-scripsimus huic disputationi: “the title, which we have prefixed to this discourse.” Cf. De De Rustica, Book VIII, preface; cf. Quintilian (ca. AD 35—100), Institutio Oratoria, Book 2.14.4: quos hac de re primum scripserat, titulis Graeco nomine utatur: “from earlier [works] which he had written, Greek name titles were used.” In other words, he used Greek names as titles in earlier works.

27 Remedia Amoris, in the very first line of the poem (1): titulum nomenque libelli, “name and title of this little book”. I interpret this as epexegetical such that “name” further defines titulus. In other words, “name” refers to the title (and ‘title’ refers to the name) on the book’s title page, in order to differentiate it from the other meaning of titulus as both inscription and inscribed object (title page). Alternatively, the terms titulus and nomen could be synonymous here. See note 29.

28 Fasti, Book III.419-420: Caesaris innumeris . . . accessit titulis pontificalis honor; “To Caesar’s innumerable . . .  titles the honor of Pontificate was added.” Cf. M. Tullius Cicero (BC 106—BC43), Against Piso, 9.19: posset sustinere tamen titulum consulatus: “might have the power to sustain the title of consulate.”

29 Fasti, Book I.599-604: si a victis, tot sumat nomina Caesar, quot numero gentes maximus orbis habet, ex uno quidam celebres aut torquis adempti aut corvi  titulos auxiliaris habent. Magne, tuum nomen rerum est mensura tuarum; sed qui te vicit, nomine maior erat: “If Caesar claims names from those conquered, let him take as many as the mighty globe has nations! From one event some celebrate—either from a neck-chain won or allied ravens—the titles they possess. O great one [Pompey the Great], your name is the measure of your deeds, but he who conquered you was greater in name.” Cf. Ovid, Fasti, Book IV.115, in which the goddess Venus is referred to as the titulus of a calendar month. See note 27 for another possibility.

30 See Hitchcock, “The Use of γράφειν,” pp 271-273.

31 Ibid.

32 E.g., Harris, John, p 314. See note 14 above.

33 Keener, Gospel of John, p 2.1138. All but one of the Scripture verses Keener cites here are perfects (as the periphrastic ἔστιν γεγραμμένον: 2:17; 6:31, 45; 10:34; 12:14; 15:25), the lone exception being 12:16, a pluperfect (the periphrastic ἦν + γεγραμμένα). While the perfects are important, it is this exception in the pluperfect that provides the primary link for the argument I shall put forth here.

34 Keener, Gospel of John, p 2.1138. The author understands Pilate’s conferred authority in 19:11 in a general sense (pp 2.1126-27) rather than in the more circumscribed view I shall pursue below.

35 It is actually a periphrastic, an equivalent to the pluperfect—see note 33.

36 More specifically, the participle δεδομένον is neuter. It would have to be the feminine δεδομένη to agree with the feminine ἐξουσίαν (authority) here. Cf. C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978) p 543. In addition, it may be that Jesus’ answer here includes a roundabout answer to the question Pilate posed in 19:9: “Where are you from?” Answer: ἄνωθεν, “from above”.

37 Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John, transl. G. R. Beasley-Murray, Gen Ed., R. W. N. Hoare & J. K. Riches (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971), p 662. Cf. George R. Beasley-Murray, John, Word Biblical Commentary, D. Hubbard, G. Barker, gen. eds. (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), pp 339-340; D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary, D. A. Carson, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), pp 601-602

38 There is a difference here in that a neuter subject is found in ἕν, hen (one) from the apodosis.

39 C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, p 222.

40 This does mean to imply, of course, that 3:27 (and 6:65 just below) is no longer applicable as a general maxim.

41 See C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, p 201.

42 See Carson, The Gospel According to John, pp 433-434.

43 See Jörg Frey, Theology and History in the Fourth Gospel (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018), pp 151-154.

44 Alternatively, John the Gospel writer took certain liberties in fashioning his Gospel, and in so doing, re-formed some words to make his theological and christological points.

%d bloggers like this: