Do the Four Accounts of the Sign on the Cross Contradict Each Other?

Some claim the four reports of the sign on the cross are contradictory, proving the Bible can’t be trusted. Is there more to this sign than meets the eye?

Jesus said, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). In His prayer the night before His crucifixion, He said, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:17). According to Jesus Christ, every word that God had recorded for us is true. This means that the entire Bible, which identifies itself as God-breathed, must be true (2 Timothy 3:16).

Yet in an event that occurred mere hours after Jesus’ prayer (John 18:28; 19:19), all four Gospel accounts appear to diverge on the details of the sign that hung above Jesus as He was dying. Does this seeming contradiction invalidate the entire Bible? There are some who actually make that claim.

As is always the case, however, there is more to this apparent contradiction than meets the eye. (For more on apparent contradictions in the Bible, see our article “Apparent Contradictions in the Bible: Why?” and related articles.)

The apparent contradiction regarding the inscription on the cross

The verses in question are the ones citing the words that Pilate wrote on the sign hanging above Christ’s head on the cross. Each of the four Gospels record the words, but they don’t seem to agree exactly.

  • “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Matthew 27:37).
  • “THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Mark 15:26).
  • “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Luke 23:38).

To some, these differences disprove the entire Bible. If the four Gospel writers couldn’t accurately record something as small and simple as a sign, then what’s the chance they got the big stuff right?

The reality is that this supposed irreconcilable difference is not all that irreconcilable. First, consider that it can be a mistake to try to impose the expectations and rules of modern English on ancient writings in other languages. What might seem to be an exact, full quote in the English translation might have been a summary or paraphrase in the original.

And it’s worth noting that the four writers didn’t claim that what they recorded was the full story. Each Gospel writer had a particular focus that shaped the specifics of what he chose to record out of the vast panorama of Jesus’ life and teachings.

Five words in common

Even so, all four writers included the essential words THE KING OF THE JEWS. (By writing this, Pilate may have been reproaching the Jewish leaders—in essence saying, this is what they do to their king!)

To start our examination of this supposed contradiction and how it might be harmonized, let’s take a look at each Gospel account and its wording of the inscription on the cross. Perhaps the context will give some ideas, even if not the full answer.

Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew wrote, “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Matthew 27:37).

Who was Matthew? Who was he writing to? What caused him to write the Gospel that bears his name?

Matthew, also known as Levi, was a Jewish tax collector (Mark 2:13-15). When Christ called him to be a disciple, the wealthy tax collector gave up everything he had with a final feast and followed Christ as one of His 12 disciples (Luke 5:27-29).

Matthew was one of the ones who abandoned Christ upon His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:56). Yet, he returned to Christ and was one of the founding apostles of the early Church (Acts 1:13). Years afterward, Matthew was inspired to write down his account of what happened—especially for the Jews, his own people. (For more details on the apostle Matthew and his Gospel account, see our article “The Gospel of Matthew.”)

Matthew recorded that the sign Pilate wrote was an account of the accusation against Christ. Perhaps the implication for the Jews, Matthew’s own people, was to emphasize that they had rejected Jesus’ claim to be the King of the Jews, the Messiah that many of them had prayed and hoped for. The phrasing of his Gospel brings out just who Christ was: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews.”

Mark’s Gospel

Mark wrote, “THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Mark 15:26). The man behind this particular Gospel is less well-known than Matthew, having only a handful of scattered references throughout the New Testament. What sets the book of Mark apart from all the rest is that the book is very fast-paced, focusing more on action and feelings than the other Gospel accounts.

Mark is a very concise book that portrays Jesus as a Man of action, Someone who is always working and doing. With this brevity, it’s no surprise that Mark’s account of the sign is the shortest, stating only that Christ was labeled “The King of the Jews.”

For more on Mark, see our article “The Gospel of Mark.”

Luke’s Gospel

“THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS,” wrote Luke (Luke 23:38).

Luke was written by the only gentile author in the New Testament, someone described as “the beloved physician” and possibly one of the best-educated men in the early Church (Colossians 4:14). Addressed to Theophilus, the book is also intended for a gentile audience (Luke 1:1-4).

Although trained to be a doctor, Luke was an excellent historian. His Gospel and the book of Acts (which he also wrote) include several amazingly accurate historical details. He had an eye for detail and apparently interviewed a wide variety of people to get as much information as he could for his account.

His perspective is that of a gentile. His description of the sign focuses on explaining the accusation that led to Christ’s death at the hands of the Jews and the Romans: claiming to be the King of the Jews.

For more on Luke, see our article “The Gospel of Luke.”

John’s Gospel

“JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS” is what the apostle John recorded from the sign (John 19:19).

Of all the Gospels, John’s is the most unique in every way. John was one of the apostles closest to Jesus Christ during His physical life on earth. And we know John was present and saw the sign with his own eyes (John 19:25-27).

John wrote later than the others, combatting the developing ideas of gnosticism and its false teachings about who Christ was. When he wrote his Gospel, John left no doubt concerning who was on the cross: Jesus of Nazareth (showing His humanity and humble origins), the King of the Jews (with the connotation of His messiahship and divine origins).

For more on John, see our article “The Gospel of John.”

Explaining the supposed contradiction

At first glance, these four differing accounts can seem to be contradictory. However, there are two plausible explanations for the different readings.

The first involves the principle of addition. By this, we mean that we can add the four Gospel accounts together to get the full picture. Each Gospel writer had a different, amazing perspective on Christ’s life, and the four of them together give us a fuller picture of the Messiah’s life. What they each said about the sign may appear to be different, but in actuality they all say the same basic thing—that Jesus was condemned for claiming to be the King of the Jews.

The differences between what was written in each language could help explain the differences in what each Gospel writer recorded.Yet, if the Bible is infallible, then shouldn’t we expect each writer to give the full message, word for word? For some, this disagreement exposes the entire Bible as a fraud.

Ironically, to others the differences mean the exact opposite. J. Warner Wallace, a former investigator and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, uses his experience as a detective to look at the Gospel accounts. Looking at the four men as witnesses, he recognizes that the different accounts actually add more legitimacy to the witnesses’ reports since nobody remembers any given event in exactly the same way.

This concept can make some uncomfortable, but it doesn’t mean that any of the Gospel writers were wrong. The sign could have read, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Instead of quoting the entire sign, each Gospel writer (using the perspectives previously discussed) wrote down the parts of the sign that stuck out to him the most.

Another explanation for the supposed contradiction

There is another, equally plausible explanation. John records that the sign was written in three languages: Hebrew (Hebraisti), Greek and Latin (John 19:20). Luke says “Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew [Hebraikos]” in Luke 23:38.

Some scholars believe that the two words translated “Hebrew” could refer to different languages. The word Luke used (Hebraikos) is used only once in the New Testament and means “Hebraic or the Jewish language:—Hebrew” (Strong’s Definitions). The word John used (Hebraisti) “in gospel usage did not mean ‘in Hebrew’ but in the Jewish dialect of Aramaic” (Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p. 346).

Most scholars, including Dr. Archer, believe both Luke and John were referring to the Aramaic language spoken by the Hebrew people of the first century and written with Hebrew characters.

It’s possible that the four Gospel authors were quoting from three or four different languages, so there would be slight differences in what they read and wrote.

Dr. Archer wrote, “It is quite conceivable that Pilate first wrote in Latin in brief form. Then, as he wrote beneath in Greek, he may have felt like adding the name of Jesus and the city that He belonged to, since the Greek form would be legible to all bystanders of whatever race. The Aramaic version may have copied the Greek with the omission of ‘Nazarene.’ This could account for the variations reported in the four versions” (ibid.).

The differences between what was written in each language could help explain the differences in what each Gospel writer recorded.

Either one of these ideas, or even a combination of the two, could explain the supposed contradiction of the sign’s words. The Bible is as unerring as it claims to be, and it can be trusted.

For more about the accuracy of the Bible, download Is the Bible True?

About the Author

Joshua Travers

Joshua Travers

Joshua Travers grew up and lives in Athens, Ohio. He graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in social studies and Spanish education from Ohio University. He also studied theology at Foundation Institute, Center for Biblical Education, in Allen, Texas and graduated with a certificate in biblical studies in May 2017.

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