If you’ve ever looked at a Crucifix, chances are you most likely noticed the four letters “INRI” inscribed atop the cross. What does it mean, and why exactly is it there?
The four letters are a titulus, Latin for label, inscribed above Jesus Christ on the Crucifix. They are the Latin initials for the phrase Pontius Pilate had written when he ordered Him to be crucified, as described in John 19:19-23. These words were “Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum” translating to English as “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Latin uses “I” instead of the English “J”, and “V” instead of “U” (e.g., Jesus Nazarenus Rex Judaeorum).
“Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews.” Now many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that he said, ‘I am the King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.” – John 19:19-23
To answer the question of why Pontius Pilate had the phrase written on the cross requires knowledge of how ancient Rome meted out punishments. It was customary to set up over the heads of those sentenced to crucifixion a label indicating the crime for which they suffered and the name of the sufferer.
This is why the Gospel of John refers to it as an inscription and Gospel of Mark 15:26 refers to it as the charge brought against Him. Pontius Pilate had condemned Jesus on the charge he was claiming to be the King of the Jews.
The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” – Mark 15:26
The term Titulus Crucis, Latin for “Title of the Cross,” refers to the actual inscribed piece of wood that is a relic of the True Cross. During Saint Helena’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, she brought with her a number of Church relics, including the Titulus Crucis.
The Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem was built about AD 325 for her to house these relics. Sometime before 1145, the relic was placed in a box bearing the seal of Cardinal Gherardo Caccianemici dal Orso, who became Pope in 1144 as Lucius II. It was forgotten until February 1, 1492, when it was discovered by workmen restoring a mosaic, hidden behind a brick with the inscription Titulus Crucis. Today, it is again housed in The Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.