The New Commentary on the Whole Bible, editors J.D. Douglas, Philip W. Comfort, brings up the interesting possibility that Simeon called Niger who appears in Acts 13:1 is the same person as Simon of Cyrene mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels as the man who helped Jesus carry His cross. I believe this is true, though I’ve yet to see anything beyond a couple of quick cross-references as to how we can come to that conclusion. Probably no one has written much about it because it doesn’t really matter.
Anyway, here goes:
First of all, to explain the difference in the names, Simeon and Simon are alternate spellings of the same name.
Everything we know about Simon who carried the cross is summed up in this verse from Mark:
Mark 15:21 (NKJV) Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear His cross.
- He was from Cyrene, on the North Coast of Africa.
- His sons were named Alexander and Rufus.
What we know about Simeon called Niger is his name. Simeon is a Jewish name and Niger comes from the Latin for “black”. It’s safe to say he was Jewish and may have been called “Black” simply because of his looks.
There are and long have been dark-skinned Jews. They are a minority, to be sure, but they mainly come from Africa. For an example with a picture See this post on myjewishlearning.com Might Simon of Cyrene have been one of them? Why not? Cyrene, on the African coast, is as good a place as any to look for a man with dark skin. So those two facts help connect our guys Niger and Simon. And there is more.
If we check out Acts 11:19-21 we find that the church in Antioch, where we first met Niger, was founded by men from Cyprus and Cyrene. So here is another connection. Niger is not said to be from Cyrene in Acts 13, but he’s not said to be from anywhere, so Cyrene is a good possibility, considering he was a leader in a church founded by Cyrenians.
John Mark is the evangelist who mentions Simon’s sons, Alexander and Rufus. We know from tradition and several Latin words in the Greek text that Mark was writing his Gospel to a largely Roman audience. So that can help connect Rufus with the Rufus mentioned by Paul in Romans 16:13. We know from Romans 16:13 that Paul apparently knew Rufus’s mother.
Romans 16:13 (NKJV) Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine.
So now we can begin to connect the dots into a possible history:
Simon of Cyrene became a believer in Jesus Christ and his sons were well-known in the early church. He later travelled to Antioch and helped get the church there started. His wife and sons were with him. In Antioch he received the nickname Niger, “the black guy” for being a dark-skinned Jew. (People in Antioch like to give nicknames, but that would have to be another post.) He was later joined in Antioch by Paul (then Saul of Tarsus) and, later yet, John Mark, who both got to know and love him, his wife and sons.
Years later, after Simon’s/Niger’s death, his wife and son Rufus were living in Rome. They were prominent in the church there in part because of the unique role Simon played in the Gospel story. Writing to a Roman audience, Mark mentions Rufus and Alexander, because he and the Roman church knew them personally. Paul, writing to the Romans, greets Rufus and his mom for the same reason.