To see the painting this post refers to, click here.
A "titulus" is the sign placed above the head of a convicted, crucified criminal. In Jesus' case the Bible says that the titulus read, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" and that it was written in Latin, in Greek, and in Hebrew. The sign above Jesus' head in the painting is written only in Latin, and it reads "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum."
It's in Latin.
I remember as a child asking my mother what the words meant, and she told me. I asked why I couldn't read it, what language it was in, why it was written in some other language.
Over time, as I looked at that inscription, I recognized that Jesus didn't speak English. He probably didn't speak Latin either, contrary to Gibson's portrayal of him conversing with Pilate in Latin in The Passion of the Christ. But what I took away from this was the understanding that the Bible didn't happen in my culture. I needed to do some work -- maybe some hard work -- to understand what was going on in this book that sometimes seemed so foreign. It IS foreign. We forget that at our peril. So we need to learn enough about first century Judea to be able to understand the original context and only then try to apply it to our own contexts.
I also realized dimly, over time, little by little, that this titulus was the criminal accusation against Jesus. It was the crime he was sentenced for, sentenced to death. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. His crime was to claim the throne of Caesar. The early Christians who claimed, "Jesus Is Lord" as their confession of faith were making a dangerous political statement. To say Jesus is Lord in the first century, or for three hundred years thereafter, was to state implicitly that Caesar was not Lord. The Caesars were good at proclaiming themselves Lord and did so regularly. Christians claimed (as in Acts 17) that there is "another king, namely Jesus."
Though I didn't understand with much depth, my pondering this painting included a sense that Jesus' death at the hands of the Roman authorities (and his resurrection, be patient, we'll get there) meant that he was Lord over all creation, including Caesar. In N. T. Wright's words, If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.
The irony of the Latin proclamation over Jesus' head was not lost on me as a child. It was ironic because the crime was actually true -- Jesus was truly the King of the Jews -- and it was ironic because Caesar, whose authority put Jesus on the cross and put the titulus over his head, lost his authority to reign by failing to acknowledge Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords.
The titulus in the painting also made me reflect on Pontius Pilate. I portrayed Pilate in an Easter pageant my mother wrote and many of us performed in about 1982. I thought of this man caught on the twin horns of Jewish rebellion and ironclad Roman rule. I pondered him saying, "I find no crime in this man" and desiring to release him, but then writing out the sentence and placing it over Jesus' head, writing that Jesus was king both as legitimation of the execution of this innocent man, and also as an insult against the Jewish authorities who had backed Pilate into a corner and forced him to kill Jesus. One of the many things I think Gibson did well in his movie was the portrayal of Pilate. He seems at turns sympathetic, and jaded, and exasperated, and mercenary.
In the end, Pilate couldn't surrender to Jesus as Lord because that would have meant not remaining ultimately loyal to Caesar. "If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar's!" was the final threat leveled against Pilate by the Jewish leaders. Pilate's status as a "friend of Caesar" was an official Roman designation that guaranteed him political mobility and benefits. Pilate is the ultimate government functionary who puts his own 401K above the truth, above his own integrity. He knows the truth, he puts the truth out in plain sight for all to see, but by inscribing the truth -- "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" -- on a titulus, his has made a mockery of justice and he has compromised himself beyond hope.
How often do we do the same?