273 Mark's Invention of Simon of Cyrene

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Greg Jenks writes:

Simon from Cyrene appears as a small bit player in Mark's narrative of Jesus' crucifixion, along with the fascinating detail that he is the father of two people seemingly known to the original audience of that story: Alexander and Rufus. While there is a Rufus mentioned in Romans 16:13, there is no mention of "Alexander and Rufus" anywhere else in the extant Christian texts from antiquity.

Matthew and Luke both preserve Mark's reference to Simon carrying the cross of Jesus, but neither of them seem to have any information not derived from Mark. The Gospel of John explicitly asserts that Jesus carried his own cross (in other words, GJohn rejects the tradition of Simon that seems to have originated with Mark):

After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. (Mark 15:20-21)

After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. (Matt. 27:31-32)

As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. (Luke 23:26)

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.� Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. (John 19:16-17)

I think it is most likely that "Simon from Cyrene" is an invention of Mark the gospel writer.

The narrative of Jesus' crucifixion, it seems to me, owes more to the genre of the innocent victim than to any historical memory of how the core historical event (i..e., that Roman authorities executed Jesus as a threat to public order in the prefecture of Judaea) actually happened. This is how Mark wants his readers to imagine Jesus going to his death. The role of a faithful Simon who takes up his cross and follows Jesus to the end is a literary device to set off against the other Simon (nicknamed Rocky/Peter) who -- as Mark tells the story -- did not understand Jesus' call to the cross, who denied being a disciple and who ran away when Jesus was arrested.

Of course, if we start from the assumption that Mark's passion narrative is historical (as most ancient Christians did), then we will accept that there really was a man named Simon, who came from Cyrene and had two sons named Alexander and Rufus, and happened to be entering Jerusalem at the same time as Jesus was being taken out to be crucified. It would be consistent with Roman military rule for such a casual passerby to be pressed into service.

On the basis of Romans 16:13, it has been traditional to associate Mark (and Simon's family) with the Christian community in Rome. However, an African connection seems more probable.

Given that two or three variants of Mark's Gospel are known to have been in circulation in Alexandria in the third century, it is possible that "the father of Alexander and Rufus" was a late addition to Mark's version of the story and may not have been in the versions of Mark that were known to Matthew (mid-80s CE?) and Luke (115-25 CE ??). If that were so, and this is purely speculative, then the addition would have had the effect of promoting the profile of Simon's supposed descendants within Christian circles in North Africa.

In any case, I would not expect to have any information about the life of Simon of Cyrene. He does not rate a mention outside the passion narratives of Mark, Matthew and Luke. None of the earliest Christian texts (Paul's letters) mention him, and even Luke-Acts makes no mention of this Simon becoming a Christian or in any other way playing a role in early Christianity.

We can speculate about the life of a diaspora Jew, such as Simon is portrayed to have been, who lived in Cyrene but travelled to Jerusalem from time to time. The names of his sons are not especially pious Jewish names, and seem to reflect considerable absorption into the prevailing Hellenistic culture. Was he entering Jerusalem to worship at the temple, or for some other purpose? Why would we assume one option rather than the other? In the absence of any evidence about the particulars we can only sketch in the broad outlines of a diaspora Jew with sufficient opportunity to allow him to travel some distance from home, whether for commercial or religious purposes. We know that the Jewish diaspora in those times did enjoy a considerable opportunity for education, commerce and travel. Mark's character fits within those general outlines, but we cannot say anything more specific about the details of Mark's "Simon of Cyrene."

On balance, I see Simon of Cyrene as a literary creation of Mark and I suspect that the mention of Simon's sons was a later development in the tradition.