We read in the four accounts the following on the sign above Jesus’ head at the cross:
“This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37)
“The King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26)
“This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38)
“Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19)
The discrepancy analyzed:
First, we must note that eyewitness reliability isn’t dependent upon perfection; often eyewitnesses make mistakes even though their testimonies are reliable.
Secondly, we need to ask ourselves what are the similarities of the details reported by the Gospel authors? To people witnessing an event some details are more important than others, and some of the details of the event stick out in the mind more than others. In this case, one expression is repeated by all four authors: “the King of the Jews”. These words describe the crime for which Jesus was executed. Jesus proclaimed to be a king, which was rebellion against the rule of Rome.
Every witness offers a view of the event from his or her unique perspective; this includes things like geographic or locational perspectives, their personal worldview, history and experience. Other aspects that influence eyewitness testimony include interests, biases, aspirations, concerns and idiosyncrasies, and so forth.
And in this case John gives us a surprising little clue as to why there might be a variation between the accounts. John says:
“Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.”
What we have here is that the sign was written in a variety of languages and we don’t know how much variation occurred between these translations. Subsequently, the perspective and life experience of each author now comes into play. Which translation was the author referencing? Even more importantly, what were the concerns of the author related to the event? Some witnesses are more likely to repeat a victim’s name than others if, for instance, they knew the victim personally. Others will focus on something about which the witness had first-hand knowledge.
We simply don’t know the purpose of each author or the conditions under which each author wrote his Gospel. Why, for example, is Mark’s version of the sign so brief? In fact, Mark’s whole Gospel is brief. Was there something about Mark’s personality that encouraged his brevity, or was it because if a shortage of papyrus? We can’t know for sure.
Also, there’s a difference between complimentary variation and conflicting description. For instance, if the sign read:
“This is Peter, King of the Jews” and then in the next Gospel the sign reads:
“This is Jesus, King of the Jew”, then we would have a contradiction worthy of notice. The variations of the signs are complimentary in nature although different.
Finally, these variations are encouraging, as although they differ in small ways, the actual message that Jesus claimed to be the “King of the Jews” is conveyed in each Gospel account. As, the prominent atheist turned Christian detective, Warner Wallace writes:
“The Gospels are appropriately varied and nuanced, just like all multiple eyewitness accounts. The variations between the sign descriptions is further evidence of this expected variation. This level of dissimilarity should give us confidence in the accounts, rather than pause.”
Why are there four versions of the sign on Jesus’ cross? Because the accounts are written on the basis of eyewitness observations. They demonstrate the characteristics we would expect if they are reliable descriptions of a true event in history.