While doing some research on the mul­ticulturalism of the Antioch Ecclesia back in the 1st century, I was intrigued to note the unique emphasis on people from Cyrene. Acts 11:20 records, “And some of them (brethren fleeing from the persecution of Saul) were men of Cyprus and Cyrene.” A further connection to Cyrene is made in Acts 13:1 which highlights that “there was at Antioch certain prophets and teach­ers…Simeon that was called Niger (the black one) and Lucius of Cyrene.” Added to this intriguing thread is a distinctive comment made in all three gospel records, that a Cyrenian called Simon was apprehended to assist Jesus with his cross. Mark records, “And they compel one Simon a Cyrenian, who passed by, coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to bear his cross” (15:21). It would appear that brothers and sisters were familiar with Alexander and Rufus when Mark commented on the extended family linkage to his readers. His comment seems to indicate that the sons became believers in Christ and were part of the early ecclesia. Paul also makes reference to a Rufus in Romans 16:10: “Salute Rufus chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine.” When Paul wrote this letter, however, he had never visited Rome, so it would appear that there had been an earlier con­nection with Rufus, perhaps in either Jerusalem or Antioch. The extra comment “chosen in the Lord” and the “choosing” by the Roman soldiers of his father to carry the cross of Christ adds weight to the uniqueness of this brother’s calling.

Where is Cyrene?

Today it is known as eastern Libya in North Africa, but historically, back in 300 B.C., quite a large community of Jews from Egypt had migrated there. Cyrene was the main city of Cyrenaica and was a Roman province at the time of Jesus. Acts 2:10 records that some from “the parts of Libya about Cyrene…” were among the foreign Jews and proselytes visiting Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost and heard the apostles speak. There also was a Cyrenian synagogue in Jerusalem for Jews from Libya residing there, and they strongly opposed the preaching of Stephen: “Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians… rose up and disputed with Stephen” (RSV Acts 6:9).

An amazing discovery

All this information about Cyrene is taken to an­other level when we learn that an ossuary with the names of Simon and Alexander was discovered in 1941. A tomb on the south-western slope of the Kedron Valley, was dated as containing 1st century pottery, and amongst other ossuaries was one in­scribed with the names “Alexandris” and “Simon.” However over 20 years passed before the contents of the tomb were documented and the information published by Dr. Nahman Avigad in the Israel Exploration Journal in 1962.

One ossuary of particular interest had written in chalk or some other medium on the front the names “Alexandros Simon”, that is “Alexander [son of?] Simon” and on the back, “Simon Ale” (a false start to “Alexander” by the inscriber) and “Alexander.” On the lid, the first line says, “of Alexander” in Greek; the second line, in smaller Aramaic characters, reads “Alexander QRNYT.” The meaning of qrnyt is un­clear, but linguists believe it’s possible the engraver made an error and meant to write qrnyh – Aramaic for “Cyrenian.”

While Dr. Avigad noted that Simon was a relatively popular name around the 1st century, Alexander was a relatively scarce name. In view of this, and with the combination of the two names together, and the appended connection to Cyrene, Dr. Ilan (Jerusalem’s Hebrew University) and an expert in ancient Jewish names said that in her view it was “very likely” these names referred to the individuals in the New Testament record.

While we cannot be absolutely definitive about the biblical connection to these discoveries, it ap­pears very possible that the ossuary could contain the remains of our early brethren who came into the Truth and were familiar to the members of the early ecclesia: Simon the Cyrenian, who walked with Christ, and Alexander his son.