TRA 15th April, 2001
The Man who Carried the Cross
There is new evidence concerning the man who carried the Cross for Jesus, Simon of Cyrene. Cyrene was the capital of the Roman province in North Africa we today call Libya. The city was founded by Greek colonists near the end of the 7th century BC. One day a citizen of Cyrene by the name of Simon, perhaps a pilgrim to the Passover festival in Jerusalem, was compelled by a Roman soldier to carry the cross of Jesus. Matt. 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26. From such a chance meeting you would not expect to find archaeological evidence 2000 years later. Jews from Cyrene were at Pentecost that year and it is likely they were there also for Passover. Act 2:10 Acts 6:9 These Jews in Jerusalem from Cyrene and Alexandria were so numerous they had their own synagogue. Some of them debated Stephen after the resurrection. At least one believed and witnessed in Antioch. Acts 11:19-20 A prominent preacher in the early church in Antioch was Lucius of Cyrene. Acts 13:1
The ancient site of Cyrene has been extensively excavated during the present century by archaeologists. It has provided a wealth of information concerning ancient Greco-Roman art and architecture, civic and social life, money and writing. In Cyrene are a Greek theatre, Roman theatre, temple, marketplace, Roman forum, baths, magnificent houses, a race-track for chariot races, and two early churches from the sixth century. There are many fine tombs including some cut in solid rock. Doric architecture and brilliant decorative painting adorn them. From Cyrene came a man who became caught up in the events of the crucifixion.
What happened is clear. Matthew writes: MT 27:32 "As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross." "As they were going out.." presupposes "of the city." The crowd of soldiers, Jesus and the members of the public, met with Simon. Jesus, weak as he was, had managed to carry the crossbeam as far as the city gates. John 19:17 There the soldiers forced Simon to assume the load. Simon's act was not a deed of sympathetic magnanimity for he had no choice. The soldiers just forced him to carry the cross of Jesus. Mark adds MK 15:21 "A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross." Luke adds LK 23:26 "As they led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus."
Mark's Gospel includes a detail Matthew and Luke do not give. Mark adds Simon was 'the father of Alexander and Rufus'. Alexander and Rufus were apparently well known among the believers. Mark's Gospel was probably written in Rome and is based upon information supplied by Peter. Mark did not have to say who they were. Later when Paul sent greetings to the church in Rome he included ROM 16:13 "Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.". Identification seems likely. Rufus was eminent in the church. His mother is unnamed but Paul owed her a special debt. She had perceived his loneliness after the loss of his family when he became a Christian.
Phil 3:8. Her presence in Rome made him look forward to his visit. The incident involving his father bearing the Cross of Jesus, brought Rufus and Alexander a certain fame among believers at Rome, especially as they were outstanding Christians. Jerusalem was a magnet for Jews from all over the world 2,000 years ago, as it is today. Pilgrims traveled long distances to attend the festivals. The book of Acts gives a list of fifteen regions whose languages could be heard in Jerusalem just after the crucifixion. Acts 2:8-11 Some pilgrims fell ill and died in Jerusalem. A few of the tombs contain their remains. Ossuaries holding their bones are labeled with their names and places of origin.
In 1962, the archaeologist, N. Avigad, published the discovery of a burial cave belonging to Cyrenian Jews, on the southwest slope of the Kidron Valley outside of Jerusalem, dating before 70A.D. One is marked explicitly in Aramaic 'Alexander of Cyrene', and twice inscribed in Greek: "Alexander son of Simon." Here is his name, his father's name, and his city of origin. Was the Alexander of Cyrene, son of Simon, whose bones lay in that ossuary, the man whose father carried the cross? It is most likely. Coming from North Africa another question: was Simon who carried the cross for Jesus black? There is some evidence for that. Simon is mentioned Acts 13:1 in the same verse with Lucius of Cyrene. That verse is most significant. "There were at Antioch in the church that was there, prophets and teachers, Barnabas and Symeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene." Symeon is the same word as Simon, and Niger means "black".
So we are entitled to read the verse to mean "there were at Antioch, Simon the nigger and Lucius (both) of Cyrene". The evidence is strong that a black African played a part in the drama of the Passion. As I think of that, three things come to mind.
1. Jesus Died For All People Of All Races.
"God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" John 3:16 declares the Scriptures. There always was a international dimension to the plan of redemption. The New Covenant was for all races, not just for Jews as under the Old Covenant. Jesus died for all the people of all the world. Sharing in the bearing of His Cross was a black man from Africa. How appropriate!
2. Coloured People Bear Our Burdens.
Why was Simon picked by the Roman centurion? Jesus was on the long road from Pilate's palace near Fort Antonia to the hill of Calvary outside the city gates. Jesus had been up all night. He had passed through the agony of the spiritual struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane. He had sustained hurt by His disciples' cowardice. He had heard Peter's denial. He had been beaten frequently during the night with the lash. He had been examined seven times in illegal trials. He had been before Annas the godfather, Caiaphas the High Priest, Herod the fox, and Pilate the Roman Governor. He had faced twisted, scheming men and lying witnesses. He had been scourged, beaten and reviled. He heard a mob reject him with the chant "Crucify Him!" He had been subjected to the coarse brutality of Roman soldiers. The leather thongs cut His flesh. The wounds on His head still bled.
Blood ran from the thorn spikes piercing His flesh. His back was lacerated where He had been whipped with a leather lash in which pieces of bone and lead had been tied. This scourging frequently caused the death of the victim. Then they placed on His raw and quivering shoulders two huge, rough beams of wood. Under their weight He swayed and staggered, fainting in the heat, falling, at last, in all the filth and ordure of an Eastern street. This is the Christ of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the only Ruler of Princes, to Whom every knee shall bow. This is the One Whose lips had spoken words of forgiveness and life, Whose hands had been stretched out in healing and blessing, Whose feet had walked on tireless errands of mercy and love, and Whose very Name for evermore will kindle new resolution and purpose in the minds and hearts of men. (L D.Weatherhead Personalities of the Passion. Hodder 1955)
The officer in charge had a problem. The prisoner could go no further. No Roman could be told to carry the wood for a criminal. No ordinary Jew could be ordered into such service. Our phrase, "touch wood," goes back to the early days of Christianity when some possessed splinters of the Cross of Christ and wore them as charms to help people find courage. But when Jesus was carrying that wood along the streets of Jerusalem, no Jew would touch wood, for it would have made him ceremonially unclean. If they were made ceremonially unclean then, they would be unable to cleanse themselves in time to eat the Passover. What was the Roman officer in charge to do? The officer faced a real difficulty surrounded by that mob.
Jesus could carry His Cross no further. An appeal to the priests was not possible. Their reaction would be: "Can't Rome carry out its own executions?" Simon solved the problem. As the procession neared the gate to pass out to the place of execution, a black Jew was coming in. Simon of Cyrene, tall, strong, obviously not a townsman, and a black. The officer saw the solution at once. He would not dare to incur the enmity of the priests by making an orthodox white Jew unclean on the eve of the Passover, but, concerning a black man, white men have rarely been particular. In more senses than one, a black man carries the white man's burden.
No one considered the feelings of Simon. He had come up for the Passover. A devout Jew, he had taken a Jewish name. Being black he did not find it easy to get lodgings within the city and had spent the night outside. Every morning he tramped into the city to take his part in the great festival at the Temple. Then the officer spotted him. He looked strong and he was a stranger. If there was trouble through ceremonial defilement, the officer could say, "How was I to know that nigger was a Jew?" He would not command the sympathy of the people standing about. No friend was near. The officer could compel him with impunity. So they forced Simon to carry the Cross of Jesus. So black people and indigenous people have been pressed into the service of white races. They didn't care a damn that Simon would make himself ceremonially unclean in carrying the heavy cross, on a hot day, for an unknown prisoner. In doing so, that Roman soldier does Simon the greatest honour possible.
3. A Change Came From That Chance Meeting.
Simon did not know Jesus. Yet something happened on that walk. Between the gate of Jerusalem and the hilltop Calvary, Simon of Cyrene came into contact with the transforming friendship of Jesus. Jesus would speak to one who, even under compulsion, was doing Him a service. We do not know what was said. But there was some contact of spirit with spirit. For we know that Simon became a Christian. His sons Alexander and Rufus became leaders in the early church. I am glad that Simon, the black man, is in the picture and that he recognised Jesus as Saviour, for Jesus belongs to all races. Jesus was a Jew, but the Christ of the Cross is race-less. Jesus had said, JN 12:32 "But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." Simon was the very first to come, drawn to Him.
So Jesus today from the Cross, draws people to Himself. You and the future of your family can be changed by a chance meeting with Jesus who died upon the Cross for you and for people of all races. If you are one of the black races of this earth, take pride in that one of your fellows was the last person ever to do an act of kindness to the Lord Jesus. The change that can come from a chance meeting can make all the difference to your life and that of your family as well. There can be forgiveness, acceptance, salvation from sin as a result of that chance meeting. Jesus offers to make you a new person. From the Cross He calls you to accept Him as Lord and Saviour. What a change your chance meeting can make. As we re-visit the way of the Cross, do you feel Him drawing you to Himself?
- The Greeks Overseas. London.Boardman, J. 1964.
- Colony and Mother City in Ancient Greece. Graham, A. J. 1964. New York.
- The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Freedman, D. N. 1992, New York: Doubleday.
- Personalities Of The Passion. Leslie D. Weatherhead, Hodder 1955. P79.
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