Some have made the claim that an acrostic of the accusation Pilate wrote above Jesus’ cross spells “YHWH.” (example). There is at least one reason to seriously question the claim, and a second reason that proves it false. Let me deal with each in turn.
One reason to question this claim is the fact that we cannot be certain what was actually written on the titulus (the placard on which the victim’s crime was recorded) above the cross. The evangelists do not present us with a single version of what was written:
- Matthew: “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews” (27:37)
- Mark: “The king of the Jews” (15:26)
- Luke: “This is the king of the Jews” (23:38)
- John: “Jesus of Nazareth the king of the Jews” (19:19)
The accusation was written in three different languages: Hebrew/Aramaic, Greek, and Latin (Jn 19:20). The nature of language and translation is such that we would not necessarily expect for exact verbal parallels to exist between the three languages. Consider, for example, the fact that some languages require more space to write a given phrase than others. Perhaps the executioners wrote different versions of the accusation in each language due to space constraints. Which words were used in the Hebrew rendition of the accusation? No one knows! One suggested reconstruction is ישוע הנצרי מלך היהודים (Yeshua HaNazri Melekh HaYehudim), but this presupposes that the Hebrew rendition was “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” which cannot be known with any reasonable degree of certainty. If the Hebrew was rendered similar to how Mark and Luke record it, then the initial letter of each word could not possibly have spelled YHWH since Yeshua would not appear in the Hebrew accusation (and thus there would be no yod for the “Y” in YHWH).
The second reason, however, falsifies the notion entirely. All renditions of the accusation include the word “king,” which is melek in Hebrew/Aramaic. Melek begins with the Hebrew letter mem, not waw as would be required to form the acrostic “YHWH” (waw is the third letter in the Tetragrammaton). So not only does the claim presuppose to know the original Hebrew construction, but it fails to recognize that one of the words that was undoubtedly part of the accusation (“king”) begins with a letter that is not found in the Tetragrammaton.
Greek taking up the most room, followed by Latin and Hebrew.
Perhaps the variation recorded in the Gospels is to be explained in terms of one evangelist reporting the way the accusation was written in one language, whereas another evangelist was recording the way the accusation was written in another. Or perhaps the evangelists were not attempting to provide a word-for-word rendition of any particular rendition of the accusation, but simply reported the gist of it.