One of the advantages of practicing Lectio Divino is the chance to explore the life of minor characters in the gospels. Simon of Cyrene is a true one-hit wonder of the Bible. In Mark’s gospel he gets exactly one verse:
20 After they had mocked Him, they took the purple robe off Him and put His own garments on Him. And they led Him out to crucify Him. 21 They pressed into service a passer-by coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus), to bear His cross. 22 Then they brought Him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull. [Mark 15:20-22, NASB]
Other than this and the corresponding verses in Matthew and Luke, we know nothing about this guy. However, he had a close encounter of sorts with the Lord and salvation; he actually carried a portion of the cross where the salvation of the entire human race would occur. (Experts agree that condemned criminals in Rome would not carry the entire cross, since it was too heavy. Instead they would carry the horizontal bar, which was heavy enough by itself. The vertical pole was already at the location of the crucifixion.) So what can be said about Simon of Cyrene?
First of all, though few people know it, there is historical evidence outside of the Bible. According to Craig Blomberg’s excellent book The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, archaeologists have unearthed ossuraries belonging to the family, mentioning Simon himself and his two sons among others. The fact that so many real people appear in the gospels, and so many of them appear in realistic and detailed scenes, bears testimony to the high reliability of these texts as historical documents. Very little biographical writing from ancient times can match the wealth of detail we find here.
But what about Simon himself? First, he was almost certainly Jewish, as indicated by his name: Simon. That was a Jewish name, and not likely to show up among gentiles. His two sons are named Alexander and Rufus. Alexander was a Greek name, but it had entered the role of acceptable Jewish names after Alexander the Great chose not to loot the Temple following his conquest of Jerusalem. (Most conquerors looted freely and thoroughly.) In fact, the author of this blog post would of had a different name if Alexander the Great had acted differently. Who knows, I might have been named ‘James’ or ‘Bill’ or ‘Steve’. I would not have been named ‘Rufus’ however, because ‘Rufus’ meant “Red-haired” in ancient Rome. (I’m black-haired.) So knowing nothing else about Simon of Cyrene, we know the color of his younger son’s hair.
And Cyrene? It’s a city founded by Greeks during the 4th century in modern-day Libya. Cyrene remained one of the largest and most influential cities in the region throughout Roman times, and today offers a wealth of ruins for archaeologists to dig through.
Lastly, Simon probably became a Christian. The reasoning behind this claim is straightforward: Mark would not have mentioned him if he was not. Most likely Simon was still alive when Mark’s gospel was written, and Mark mentioned him because he was well known in the Christian community. Mark was urging readers to ask Simon of Cyrene for further details of Christ’s passion.
So what was life like for Simon of Cyrene, the only person on earth who literally shared the burden of Christ’s cross?