The Titulus of St. Croix
The wooden placard nailed at the top of the crucified victim's cross was called a titulus. The victim's name and his crime were written on the placard so that the public knew who was being executed and why. All four Gospels assert that Jesus’ titulus said, in three languages, “The King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19).
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, it is believed that many Christians journeyed to Jerusalem to search for his tomb. The Roman emperor Hadrian, in A.D. 135, constructed a temple in the area for the false Roman deities Venus and Jupiter. Hadrian didn't want the Christians going on their pilgrimages and hoped to tempt them to the temple.
A couple of centuries later, the Roman Empress Helena was told by a man named Judas that hundreds of years of debris covered the area. During the excavation that she ordered, the diggers found three crosses and nails in a cave close to where it was believed Jesus’ tomb was located. They also found a wooden placard that said, “King of the Jews.” This titulus was taken to Rome in A.D. 326. The placard, known as the titulus Christi, is kept in the Basilica di Santa Croce (St. Croix) in Gerusalemme, Rome.
Weighing 687 grams, the titulus measures 25 × 14 centimeters and is 2.6 centimeters thick. The inscription, written in three languages, is on one side of the placard. The first line, practically destroyed, was written in Hebrew, the second in Greek reversed script, and the third in Latin reversed script. All three languages translate the same phrase: King of the Jews.
The titulus was examined by the renowned scholar Carsten Thiede. He concluded that it was made of walnut wood, a common tree in the first-century Middle East. Stone inscriptions known to date from the first century have similar textual characteristics as the writing on the placard—evidence that it also dates to the first century A.D.
For example, the line written in Latin includes the word Nazarinus (Nazarene), a common first-century spelling. Fourth-century Latin texts read Nazarenus. Also, the letter “I” is used for Jesous (Jesus), a common abbreviation that is not used in later years.
Is it possible for wood to survive for 2,000 years? Well, wood similar to that of the titulus, also analyzed to be 2,000 years old, has been found in excellent condition near Hadrian's Wall on the England-Scotland border. Wood objects from other cultures, even before the first century A.D., have been discovered and are now in museums. For example, wooden board games and boats have been discovered in ancient Egypt.
The Hebrew language, unlike Greek, Latin, and English, is written and read from the right to the left. On the titulus, the Hebrew line is written this way. Strangely though, the Greek and Latin lines are also written from right to left. Scholars speculate a Jewish or Roman scribe wrote the text on the placard (on Pilate's order). He inscribed all three of the languages for a Jewish audience accustomed to reading from right to left. Some believe that this linguistic error proves the authenticity of the titulus. They think it's doubtful that a forger would have made such a mistake.