In Mark’s record of the Lord’s crucifixion, the following is reported: “And they compelled one passing by, Simon a Cyrenian, coming from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, that he might carry the cross of [Jesus]” (Mark 15:21).1 John’s Gospel mentions Jesus bearing his own cross (John 19:17), presumably at the beginning of the brutal trek to Golgotha. No doubt weakened by extreme blood loss and fatigue, all three Synoptic accounts report Simon’s conscription to provide assistance along the way (see also Matt. 27:32; Luke 23:26).
Simon’s name is Jewish, the Grecized version of the Hebrew name Simeon (cf. Gen. 29:33). He is called a Cyrenian, being from the North African city of Cyrene in Libya. In order to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem, if sea travel could be afforded, the journey from Cyrene would have taken over a week. Otherwise, land travel would have taken about a month. Whether Simon had made the lengthy pilgrimage or had actually moved to Jerusalem, his commitment to the Jewish faith is evident.
Mark is the only Gospel writer to mention Simon’s sons Alexander (a Greek name) and Rufus (a Latin name), indicative of a culturally diverse family. Cyrene, at one time a Greek city and then a Roman city, was itself culturally diverse. There is no practical reason for Mark to have inserted these names in the crucifixion narrative unless these men were known to his original readership. It is historically understood that the Gospel of Mark was written for a Roman audience.2 Years before its publication, the apostle Paul had penned his letter to the saints at Rome that includes a greeting to “Rufus, the chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine” (Rom. 16:13).
Paul had not yet been to Rome when this letter was drafted (Rom. 1:10-15; 15:22-24), so how did he know Rufus and Rufus’ mother? The apostle apparently had enjoyed their hospitality and knew them well enough to regard Rufus’ mother as his own. But when and where would this relationship have formed?
Attempting to Fill in the Gaps
Seeing that Simon of Cyrene and probably his family were in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified, might they still have been around a few weeks later at Pentecost? Luke, who knew of Simon (Luke 23:26), reports the following: “now abiding in Jerusalem were Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven,” including those from “the parts of Libya down through Cyrene …” (Acts 2:5, 10). Multiplied thousands of these Jewish pilgrims and residents had obeyed the gospel by the time persecution forced them to disperse with their new-found faith proclaiming God’s word (Acts 8:1-4).
“So then those having been scattered by the persecution arising over Stephen, went through to Phoenicia, and Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except the Jews only. But some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who having entered Antioch, were also speaking to the Hellenists,3 proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them; then a great number, having believed, turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:19-21).
Cyrenian Jewish Christians were involved in planting the church in Syrian Antioch, in whose work the apostle Paul became thoroughly engaged (Acts 11:25-30; 12:25; 13:1-3; 14:26-28; 15:1-3, 40; 18:22-23). Among the leaders of this congregation were “Simeon, called Niger, and Lucius the Cyrenian …” (Acts 13:1). The name Simeon is the Hebraic form of Simon (cp. Acts 15:14), and Niger is the Latin term for “black,” perhaps suggesting African descent. If Simeon (Simon) and Lucius, among others, were from the African city of Cyrene, the former may have needed a more distinctive distinguishing moniker.
While the biblical information is not detailed enough to draw definitive conclusions, Paul’s intimate connection with the Antioch church would have afforded him ample opportunity to develop relationships with Cyrenian families. If some had moved to Rome by the time he wrote his letter to the Romans, surely he would want to send them greetings. When Mark then produces his Gospel in the same environment, why else mention the sons of Simon unless they were known among his readers?
Observations and Inferences
If the above scenario is reasonably accurate, what can we learn from Simon the Cyrenian and his family?
· Simon, albeit an unwilling participant, took part in the Lord’s ruthless execution. The difference is, you and I have been willing participants (Rom. 5:6-8; Heb. 6:6; Jas. 1:14-15).
· Simon was apparently impacted by Christ’s suffering and death, earning him recognition in all three Synoptic Gospels, with additional information about his family. To the receptive heart, the cross of Jesus “is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
· Simon appears to have taken seriously his role as spiritual leader of his household, his faith impacting his wife and sons. May we follow this example of influence among our loved ones in the “training and counsel of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
· Simon and his family were not dormant appendages of the Lord’s body but very active in the work of the church. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be firm, immovable, always abounding in the Lord’s work, knowing that your labor is not ineffective in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Simon of Cyrene has typically been seen as a fringe character in the Gospel story, one simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. But closer examination allows us to learn more about him and from him, offering much encouragement as fellow cross bearers.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
2 See K. L. Moore, Mark's Audience.
3 There is uncertainty here whether the reference is applicable to Hellenistic Jews (ESV, ISV, NKJV, NRSV) or to Gentile Greeks (ASV, CSB, NASB, NET, NIV, RSV), or maybe more generically to Grecians (KJV).
Image credit: https://windingquest.wordpress.com/2015/03/28/conversation-simon-of-cyrene/