by Nabil Ziani
There is in the Gospels, a mysterious character who appears only once in the whole Bible, and of whom we hear no more. It is about Simon of Cyrene who was forced to take the cross of Jesus on his way to Golgotha. “They forced to carry the cross of Jesus Christ a passerby who was returning from the fields, Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus”.
This verse, supplemented by those of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, leads us to ask ourselves many questions with the aim of trying to identify this character who had the immense honor of bearing the cross of the Lord.
First of all, let’s note his name “Simon,” that of one of the twelve patriarchs, later worn by many Jews, including Apostle Peter. Simon was therefore probably Jewish. Its origin is from Cyrene, in present-day Libya, near the modern city of Benghazi, in the east of the country. This African city was founded by Greek refugees in the 7th century BC, fleeing the drought and famine that plagued their country. The native Berbers, as Herodotus told us in his famous “Histories,” welcomed them and showed them a place where they could settle, a place where “The sky is perforated,” that is to say i.e., a rainy region.
What then produced Simon the Berber and his family in Jerusalem on that day, at the precise moment when the King of the Jews was brought to the place of his execution? In fact, it was the day of Passover, a feast of pilgrimage among the Jews. Believers from all over the Empire and beyond come three times a year, as it is ordered in the Torah, to celebrate the Feasts of the Lord. And Simon, living south of the Mediterranean, went to Judea, in obedience to the prescriptions of Moses. He was accompanied by his family, since Mark cites his two sons, Alexandre and Rufus, who must have been known in the community.
Mark tells us that Simon was returning from the fields when he was forced to carry the cross of Jesus. It must have been about eight o’clock in the morning, since Jesus was crucified at nine o’clock. How Could Simon “return” from the fields at this hour? And was he available overnight? And for what reason? This day of 14 Nissan (or Aviv) was the 14th day of the Biblical year which begins on the first of the month, as stipulated in the Book of Exodus. And that’s the only season the ewes lamb. They had to be guarded and watched to make sure that everything would go well, and that the newborn lamb would be well. It was also what has experienced the Shepherds of the Nativity, who had received the visit of an angel who had read announcing the birth of the Son of David, Jesus. Simon was, therefore, a shepherd. He had watched over the sheep all night, and was coming back from the fields to go home and prepare to celebrate the Passover feast.
If the Romans forced him to take the heavy cross of Jesus Christ who stumbled under his weight, it was because the Libyan had to be robust. Presumably, he must have been in his forties and his sons just out of their teens. Simon was also accompanied by his wife, who is not mentioned in the Gospels, but in the Epistle to the Romans. At the end of this letter, Paul sends his greetings to the brothers and sisters in Rome. Among them, he cites Rufus and his mother, who, he says, “is also mine.” Proof of her gratitude for all that she has been able to bring to him, especially in difficult times.
Alexandre and Rufus, curiously, do not have Jewish names, more Greek for the first and Latin for the second. This sends us back to the cultural reality of Cyrenaica, where, still according to Herodotus, a community formed of Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Berbers had developed. Over time, these ethnic groups eventually mixed, which is why Simon the Jew gave Greek and Roman names to his two sons. Tradition tells us that these two sons were among the 120 who first received the Holy Spirit fifty days later at Pentecost.
The Canon of Muratori and the Christian tradition tell us that after the first arrest of Paul, then his release in Rome, the two brothers accompanied him to Spain and Catalonia to evangelize this part of the world called “Extremities of the Earth” at that time. Alexander therefore evangelized Spain before dying as a martyr in Carthage. Rufus evangelized Catalonia, before settling in Avignon in the south of France, a city that would become “The City of the Popes” a few centuries later.
In Jerusalem, there was a synagogue mainly frequented by the Jews of Cyrene. Proof of the existence of a North African community there. This could explain the presence of other “Berbers” in the account of the Acts of the Apostles. Bringing together the Biblical data relating to Simon of Cyrene, we discover little by little that he was not the only North African who played a role in Biblical history and precisely in this first century.
This Book of Acts gives us a lot of information about other North-Africans who have greatly contributed to the expansion of the Gospel in the world. He tells us many stories that many commentators have passed over in silence, or at least too quickly. Among the other characters of North African origin mentioned, we can name Mark, Epenetus, Lucius, and all the anonymous people who accompanied and surrounded them. The first is the author of the first Gospel, he left to evangelize Egypt, where he died as a martyr in Alexandria. The second became Bishop of Carthage, which was to become the first capital of Christianity, even before Rome, thus contributing to the development of Christianity throughout North Africa, and up to seven thousand churches have been counted and more than twenty thousand Bishops have been appointed. The third was the Bishop of Antioch, cited among the Prophets and Doctors, who had organized the first mission led by Barnabas and Saul of Tarsus.
Too little has been said about Simon of Cyrene. Late iconography depicts him sometimes as a muscular young man, sometimes as an elderly man with a long white beard. In other paintings, he is dressed in Roman or Egyptian dress, while in some others he was depicted as a black slave. Some attribute to him the profession of carpenter, while others satisfy him as a tradesman or winegrower. Yet the Biblical text contains enough clues to allow us to describe it more accurately.
With all these elements and more, I wanted to tell the story of this mysterious character who has been so unfairly ignored in Christian literature, and to whom I wanted to do justice by telling his life and his legacy. So, I wrote a historical novel simply called “Simon of Cyrene” in the hope of reaching readers eager for knowledge and discovery of the hidden things of the Bible. The manuscript was first written in French before being translated into English by me. After a little over a year, I am looking for a publisher to publish and market this book and reach as many readers as possible.
Nabil Ziani is a North African documentalist, journalist, teacher, and a former Muslim who turned to Christ forty years ago. He is the author of multiple books, including The Berbers in the Bible and The Mishpat Iudicium: Jesus on Trials. He is currently looking for a publisher for his latest manuscript, a historical novel that traces the story of Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried the cross of Jesus on his way to Calvary. Nabil is currently based out of France.