It is not totally correct to claim (which can often be heard) that antiquity’s crucifixion would have been an exclusively Roman way of punishment. According to famous 1st-century-CE Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius („Jewish Antiquities”, 13,14,2), Jewish king Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE) once crucified 800 Jewish opponents. Deuteronomy 21,22-23 prescribes: „When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.” Mind that in this case the convict is first put to death, according to Torah in most concerning cases by stoning, and only afterwards is the body bound to a tree, thereby adding further effects of shame and deterrence to that punishment. The Temple Scroll of Qumran lists three cases not in Torah in which death penalty is to be applied, namely judges who accept bribes (11QTa 51,16-18), political treason (11QTa 64,7-9) and cursing one’s own people (11QTa 64,9-11). In these cases the culprit obviously is meant to be executed by hanging. The formal observation that 11QTa 64,2-6 parallels Deuteronomy 21,18-21, with the topic of the execution of a rebellious son by stoning, seems to add to the impression that the Temple Scroll’s hanging of traitors is to be seen in a close logical relation to the afore quoted passage Deuteronomy 21,22-23, „hanging” being a derivative development out of that regulation in Torah. Consequently, as Torah does not know the custom of „hanging by the neck”, also as an immediate execution mode Israelite hanging does not mean hanging by the neck but by the arms – which is the principle of crucifixion. In antiquity, the typical silhouette of a cross which we today (and since the Middle Ages) have in mind when we think of a crucifixion was not yet typical at all, and the procedure wasn’t called „crucifixion” then, but „hanging (to the tree)”.
Of course, in the time and world of Jesus only the Romans had the formal right and the political power to crucify a person. But it isn’t unimportant to ask whether a crucifixion like Jesus’ would have included an aspect of humiliation by doing something to the Jews that was culturally alien to them – and the latter aspect obviously was NOT the case. So, it is indeed imaginable even from a historical-critical perspective that Jewish bystanders of the trial of Jesus might have exclamated: „Nail him to the cross!”, or rather: „Hang him to the tree!” I think, that in itself is a valuable information.
As crucifixions, distinctly being a penalty for politically relevant crimes, always served the political purpose of deterrence, and therefore were executed in particularly busy spots at the gates of a city, a public notice going with it proclaiming the precise kind of felony committed by the delinquent logically was an inherent part of the cruel procedure. His crucifixion is on top of the list of those events in the life of Jesus from Nazareth which are most likely to be critically historical; and if so, it’s almost for sure that there would have been a plaque on the cross, too.
By theological scholars, the fact that the John-Evangelist uses the term „titlos” to denote that plaque on the cross has always been credited with quite an importance. It’s only him who does so; the three „synoptic“ evangelists use the expression „epigraphé”, „inscription” instead. All our evangelists wrote in Greek, nevertheless „titlos” is a loanword from Latin, „titulus”. Therefore it is clear that we have a deliberate use of legal language here. A „titulus” is what you are „entitled” to. The use of the term „titlos” in our gospels certainly can be regarded as indicative for the fact that the Romans were in charge of the sentencing and execution of Jesus. So, there is little doubt that Pilate’s plaque declares the reason for Jesus’ sentencing. However, the John-Evangelist seems to insinuate here that the Romans observed proper legal procedures. He couldn’t dissimulate that it were the Romans were executed Jesus; but as he is the most anti-Jewish one of our evangelists, he always tries to blame „the Jews” – and here he does so by implicitly pinning the moral guilt on the Jews precisely by pointing out the legal correctness of the Roman court system in the case of Jesus. But does the formality as such of attaching a „titlos” atop a cross support that view?
There are two passages in the popular work of Suetonius (c. 69 to after 122 CE) that are frequently quoted on occasion of the question whether it was customary to present a written display of a convict’s guilt in a pillory-like manner while at the same time punishing him in other ways, too. „At a public banquet in Rome he immediately handed a slave over to the executioners for stealing a strip of silver from the couches, with orders that his hands be cut off and hung from his neck upon his breast, and that he then be led about among the guests, preceded by a placard giving the reason for his punishment.” (Suetonius, „Life of Caligula”, 32,2) – „A householder who said that a Thracian gladiator was a match for the murmillo, but not for the giver of the games, he caused to be dragged from his seat and thrown into the arena to dogs, with this placard: ,A parmularius who spoke impiously’.” (Suetonius, „Life of Domitian”, 10,1) Although the latter scene is hard to understand in its details, the generic picture is clear enough. It’s important to notice that Suetonius reports these events on occasion of the two by far worst of the twelve Caesars whom he portrays; that’s not a coincidence. Especially in mediterranean antiquity, the „pillory effect” was regarded a veritable „capital” punishment of its own, because „honor” was of historically almost incommensurable societal importance in that distant world, and so was shame. Therefore, to casually add shame to another punishment almost by principle was an illegal way of acting – and that’s precisely why Suetonius pins such behavior on his two most evil anti-heroes. Independent of the question of Suetonius’ credibility (which is not an easy one), the transferability of these scenes to the issue of the trial and execution of Jesus is highly questionable and in my opinion regularly overestimated. In sum, we simply have no reliably applicable source telling us whether putting on public display a written announcement of a convict’s guilt while punishing him was a usual procedure in turbulent 1st-century-CE provincial Rome or not.
However, let’s assume there was a plaque atop Jesus’ cross – what exactly was actually really written on it? Mark says: „The king of the Jews” (Mk 15,26). Matthew says: „This is Jesus, the king of the Jews” (Mt 27,37). Luke says: „The king of the Jews is this” (Lk 23,38). John says: „Jesus the Nazoraios the king of the Jews” (John 19,19). Interestingly, important as this information is, there is no agreement among the evangelists about the exact wording of the plaque – not even among two of them. So, while the fact that there was a plaque on the cross is certainly and reliably historical, the tradition of the precise words on it isn’t, which tradition in written form starts only some 30 years after the event (the earliest lines of Mark probably date from around 60 CE).
What stands out is that in all four canonical versions of the inscription Jesus is labeled „king of the Jews“. This is a wording remarkably void of spiritual meaning. It is immediately clear that the corresponding formula that bears spiritual meaning would have been „king of Israel“. This observation is a real pointer to critical historicity: A spiritual text has no motive to invent a non-spiritual expression – therefore, we can be quite sure that the true reason for Jesus‘s execution was a political one. Between the death of Herod the Great (4 CE) and the end of Pontius Pilate’s term in office as procurator of Judaea (37 CE), the Romans had abolished the title „King of the Jews” because during that timespan they administered Judea directly, together with Idumea and Galilee. Josephus Flavius reports many Jewish rebellions against the Romans during that era, and it can be concluded that the leaders of these rebellions frequently called themselves „kings”.
There are a lot of reasons to regard Mark’s gospel as the oldest one. A critical rule for figuring out the chronological sequence of their emergence between two texts is the „lectio-brevior” rule, which means that texts tend to grow over time. This is matched by the fact that in the comparison between the four gospels, Mark has the shortest „epigraphé” formula, simply „king of the Jews”. In contrast to that, John has the most elaborate one – and the extant text of John usually is regarded as the youngest of the four gospels anyway (although it might of course have had precursor versions that were not younger than the „Synoptics”).
John’s „titlos” calls Jesus „Nazoraios”. John emphasizes that Pontius Pilate insisted on the specific wording of the „titlos” that he himself had conceived. This coming-about story of the „titlos” is hardly believable anyway; but there is a very simple reason how this unbelievability can be „proven”: Nazareth was a fairly unimportant small place at the time – anyway, the usual identification of a person would have been the name of his father, instead of his hometown or birthplace. Moreover, whenever they want to say that Jesus hailed from Nazareth, Mark and Luke call him „Nazarenos” (Mk 1,24; 10,47; 16,6; Lk 4,34; 24,19). In contrast to that, „Nazoraios” (Mt 2,23 – which interestingly pretends to be a prophetic quote but isn’t -; Lk 18,37; Acts 2,22; 3,36; 4,10; 6,14; 22,8; 26,9; John 18,5-7) has been suspected to be a deliberate attempt of blurring the difference between „Nazareth” and „nazīr” or „nezer”. A „nazīr”, literally „a consecrated one”, is somebody who has taken a temporary ascetic religious vow; whereas „nezer” can mean either „sprout, scion, shoot” – like in Isaiah 11,1, where the word alludes to David as the famous „nezer” of the house of his father Jesse -, or „to guard, to keep, to heed”. This is a semantic universe with a deeply spiritual meaning – but as such it is all the more unlikely to have been intended by Pontius Pilate.