I am interested in Simon of Cyrene. So I was disappointed that David Seccombe in The King of God’s Kingdom say only a little about him.
Seccombe does set the scene for the trek to Calvary. Jesus had been scourged or flogged with a whip. This weakened people. So he could not endure the additional strain of carrying the cross beam (the vertical stake was already in place at the scene of the execution). So a man was drafted from the crowd to carry it for Jesus.
William Baird, who was one of my New Testament professors, had a theory about Simon. His sermon based on this was his most popular.
Baird started, like Seccombe, with the fact that Simon’s sons, Alexander and Rufus, were known to the church in Mark’s day (Mark 15:21). Also, in Acts we learn that people of Cyrene were among the first to carry the Christian message to Antioch in Syria (11:20). Among the six prophets and teachers who led the church they founded at Antioch there was a Lucius the Cyrenean and Simeon called Niger (13:1) Baird identified this Simeon as the same as the Simon who carried the cross.
Since Niger means black the further implication is that Simon was a black African. For obvious reasons this preached. For people in the black churches and the civil rights movement, putting a black man into the passion story was highly relevant.
But there are other facts that get left out of this narrative. First, the diaspora Jewish population in Libya (Cyrene, which is modern Tripoli, was one of Libya’s two regions under the Romans) was large. Ptolemy had settled many Jews there. Their population was said to have reached 500,000. So it was perfectly possible to be a Jew and a Cyrenean.
There seems to have been in Jerusalem a synagogue for natives of Cyrene (Acts 6:9–it is hard to know how many synagogues the Greek in this verse means).
A tomb in the Kidron valley that seems to have been abandoned by a family that fled Jerusalem in 70 C.E. contained a bone box for one Alexandros (son of) Simon (See the pdf. article here).The lid of the box has a Hebrew word that does not make sense, but seems to be the word Cyrene slightly misspelled.
If you wanted to go way out on a limb, you could say that this was the ossuary of the Alexander that Mark mentions as a son of Simon. More modestly, it may show that there was at least one Jewish family in Jerusalem in the first century identified as from Cyrene.
The Bible never tells us people’s skin color. It writers do not seem to have cared. Jews were olive skinned Mediterranean types but this is never mentioned. Even the Ethiopian Eunuch is not said to be black, although he surely was Nor do we know for sure what the racial make-up of natives of Cyrene might have been.
So, the weight of the evidence seems to be that Simon would have been Jewish. Of course, there are black Jews. The Jews in Libya probably meant that there were Jews from there with mixed parentage. So maybe, even though preaching that Simon’s were the black hands on the cross does not rest on the strongest evidence, there is not enough evidence against it to ruin a good sermon.
Seccombe just says that Simon, since his sons may have been associated with the church in Rome, may have become a disciple as the result of the incident on the way to the cross and led his family to Christ. There are some unprovable assumptions here, but it probably leads to another good sermon.
I have retired from preaching and am now trying to figure out what is historical. So what the story means to me is that part of the passion story must be more than just a drama constructed by the church.
It is surely dramatic. When Paul says that someone had vividly portrayed Jesus as crucified before the eyes of the Galatians (Galatians 3:1), he was probably talking about a dramatic declamation by a storyteller. Someone who could do this probably traveled with Paul. John Mark?
But when the gospel mentions that people in the church know Simon’s two sons, it shows that the drama was not just constructed out of thin air. The gospels were still close enough to the events that there were people around who lived them or were closely connected to people who had.