“And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS…Then said the chief priests of the Jews to Pilate, Write not, The king of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews. Pilate answered, What I have written I have written.”John 19: 19, 21-22
The Jews want the title changed. Why, it is unclear. Perhaps they feared their ethnic association with seditious king. Perhaps they hated the fact that Jesus would be called their king even in execution and death. Perhaps they saw the sign as an insult perpetuated by their oppressors and particularly Pilate. Whatever the reason, the Jews wanted the words changed.
Why should Pilate change what he had written? Were his words false? We know that Jesus is indeed King of the Jews and of all Creation. There is no square inch of creation over which Christ does not say, Mine. But it is also true that Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews, the Lord’s Anointed One, the Messiah. So both claims are true.
If Pilate were to change his words would they communicate his message in a sufficiently reliable way? It seems so. Whether the sign reads, “Jesus of Nazareth who said he was the king of the Jews” or “Jesus of Nazareth the king of the Jews”; the greater bulk of the political and theological implications are carried in both versions. That is, both versions are sufficiently reliable versions.
We see further that there are two versions in the “manuscript tradition.” – one version, the Pilate version, and another version, the Jewish version. Both versions are in the historical literature. Obviously the Jewish version is the older oral version in that the Jew did not believe that Jesus was the king of the Jews but only that He said He was the King of the Jews.
As far as we know, Pilate had little to no knowledge of Jesus to this point as is indicated by his rather elementary line of questioning to both the Jews and Jesus. Which again points to the facts that Pilate’s reading, Jesus is the King of the Jews, is the more recent reading. Pilate did not think oldest was best and of course it is Pilate’s reading that makes it into the Scriptural text while the Jewish reading is relegated to the apparatus of history.
So why is it that Pilate’s reading is the reading that is chosen and the one that appears in the text? Pilate’s reading is on the sign and ultimately in the Scripture text because in that historical moment Pilate invoked his authority and didn’t change the sign. What he wrote is what he wrote, and that is enough of an answer for the sign to remain unchanged. Pilate’s words are the words that prevailed because Pilate has the authority as governor of Israel and as author of those words.
How then do you think a reading is chosen for the Bible? Is it God the Holy Spirit who has ultimate authority as Governor of the universe and as Author of His own words speaking through His words to His people or do you think it is the NT text-critical Judaizers of our day who come to God and say “Write not…but rather…”?
What God has written God has written and that fact alone possesses the requisite potency and authority to determine what readings are and are not the word of God.