The Man Who Carried Jesus’ Cross: The Hidden Significance of Simon of Cyrene’s Sons

Simon of Cyrene met Jesus in the most unusual way. Mark and Luke tell us he was coming back from the country. Whether out of curiosity or just being stuck in foot traffic, Simon ends up being a bystander to Jesus making his way to Golgotha. Weakened from the flogging, Jesus could no longer carry his cross by himself. Whether Simon felt any sympathy for Jesus or not, Roman soldiers forced him to help Jesus bear the weight of the cross the rest of the way. Coming face to face with the Man from Galilee in such a fashion would likely leave a lasting impression, and so his inclusion in the gospels makes sense.

But what is odd is Mark’s naming of his sons, as if they meant something to his audience. Notice that Matthew and Luke omit the names of his sons: 

As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. (Matthew 27:32)

And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. (Luke 23:26)

But notice that Mark calls them out by name: 

And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. (Mark 15:21)

What’s the point of Mark giving us their names, especially when so many others in the gospels go unnamed?

What’s with the names?

Richard Bauckham explains:

…the way Simon is described by Mark — as “Simon the father of Alexander and Rufus” — needs explanation. The case is not parallel to that of Mary the mother of James the little and Joses (Mark 14:40), where the sons serve to distinguish this Mary from others, because Simon (very common though this name was) is already sufficiently distinguished by reference to his native place, Cyrene. Matthew and Luke, by omitting the names of the sons, who that they recognize that. Nor is it really plausible that Mark names the sons merely because they were known to his readers. Mark is far from prodigal with names. The reference to Alexander and Rufus certainly does presuppose that Mark expected many of his readers to know them, in person or by reputation, as almost all commentators have agreed, but this cannot in itself explain why they are named. There does not seem to be any good reason available other than that Mark is appealing to Simon’s eyewitness testimony, known in the early Christian movement not from his own firsthand account but through his sons. Perhaps Simon himself did not, like his sons, join the movement, or perhaps he died in the early years, while his sons remained well-known figures, telling their father’s story of the crucifixion of Jesus. That they were no longer such when Matthew and Luke wrote would be sufficient explanation of Matthew’s and Luke’s omission of their names.”

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Kindle location 1035

Just as Paul gives us a roll-call of eyewitnesses to the resurrection that can be verified upon request in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, it’s almost as if Mark is encouraging his audience to check out the details with witnesses they’d be familiar with. This by itself is an interesting connection to real-life testimony, and certainly sets the gospels apart from “cunningly devised fables.” (2 Peter 1:16)

Was Mark’s Rufus also Paul’s Rufus?

But there might be a bit more we can know about one of Simon’s sons.  Here’s Lydia McGrew:

Bauckham’s points are well-taken, but here I want to note the coincidence between this passage and one of the greetings at the end of Paul’s epistle to the Romans. “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.” (Rom 16.13)By itself, this might just be a coincidence of names. Why think that the “Rufus” of Romans 16 is the same as the “Rufus” of Mark 15? It’s important to keep in mind that multiple, unconnected people could have the same name in Biblical times as in our own. Bauckham points out two pertinent facts that point in opposite directions on this question. 

On the one hand, Paul’s reference to his close connection with Rufus’s mother as being in some sense (presumably metaphorical or spiritual) his own mother indicates that Rufus had gone to Rome from the eastern side of the Mediterranean (where Jerusalem was), since Paul had never been in Rome at the time that he wrote this epistle. While this would by no means necessitate the conclusion that the two are the same Rufus, it would slightly confirm it. On the other hand, Bauckham raises the caution that “Rufus” was not an uncommon name, being treated by the Jews as a Latin equivalent of “Reuben,” so the Rufus of Romans 16 could be a different person. 

The greeting from Paul to a Christian Rufus in Rome is worth considering in this context chiefly because of a longstanding patristic tradition that Mark’s Gospel was originally written in Rome with inhabitants of Rome as its first audience. With that fact in mind, we have three points of evidence coming together—the “out of nowhere” reference to Rufus and Alexander in Mark, as though perhaps they are known to the audience of the Gospel, the reference in Romans to a Rufus who was a Christian in Rome, and the tradition that Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome. In this way, the reference to Rufus in Romans confirms, via a plausible conjecture, the unique reference to Rufus in Mark as the son of Simon of Cyrene and thereby confirms the historical reliability of Mark.

Hidden in Plain View, Kindle Location 1732

Evidence that Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome

This early church tradition that puts the composition of Mark’s gospel in Rome that Lydia refers to has a lot of links in the chain. Here are just three in case you’re not familiar:

Papias of Hierapolis (60-130 AD) 

“And the elder used to say this, Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said and done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had followed him, but later on, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them.”

Ecclesiastical History Book 2 Chapter 15

Irenaeus (130-200 AD)

“Matthew composed his gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul proclaimed the gospel in Rome and founded the community. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed on his preaching to us in written form”

Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 1

Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD)

“And so great a joy of light shone upon the minds of the hearers of Peter that they were not satisfied with merely a single hearing or with the unwritten teaching of the divine gospel, but with all sorts of entreaties they besought Mark, who was a follower of Peter and whose gospel is extant, to leave behind with them in writing a record of the teaching passed on to them orally; and they did not cease until they had prevailed upon the man and so became responsible for the Scripture for reading in the churches.”

“Hypotyposeis” (Ecclesiastical History Book 2 Chapter 15)

Simon and his two sons: Evidence that Mark was based on eyewitness testimony

So while we can’t be certain that Paul’s Rufus is the same as Mark’s, there are good reasons to think it’s possible. That their names are dropped in Mark’s gospel in a way that invites inquiry tells us that Mark isn’t just spinning some mythical yarn, but is rooted in eyewitness testimony. Rufus and Alexander were living witnesses who can vouch for what Mark wrote about their dad. The man who was forced to come face to face with Jesus that day left a lasting impression on Simon. That impression seems to have inspired his two sons to also take up Jesus’ cross and follow after him.

Liked it? Take a second to support Erik Manning on Patreon!