David Couchman
David Couchman is the Director of Focus and the producer of the 'God: new evidence,' 'God and the Big Bang,' 'After Life?' and 'Jesus Myths' video series. More...

Digital Evangelism blog

Simon of Cyrene

Archaeological evidence may confirm the historical reality of the Bible's Simon of Cyrene

The Bible records that when Jesus was on the way to be crucified, the Roman soldiers forced a man called Simon from Cyrene to carry his cross. (Matthew chapter 27 verse 32, Luke chapter 23 verse 26). It also tells us that this Simon had sons called Alexander and Rufus (Mark chapter 15 verse 21).

Cyrene was the capital city of the province of Cyrenaica, which was in the eastern part of present-day Libya.

In 1941, the Israeli archaeologist Eleazar Sukenik from the Hebrew University, and his assistant Nahman Avigad, discovered a rock tomb in the Kidron valley in eastern Jerusalem.

(Sukenik would later become famous for acquiring the first Dead Sea Scrolls for the State of Israel. He was also the father of Yigael Yadin, another famous Israeli archaeologist. Avigad was later famous for excavating the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem between 1969 and 1983.)

Pottery inside the tomb enabled them to date it to the first century AD. Also in the tomb, there was a collection of eleven ossuaries, or bone boxes. The use of ossuaries was a common practice between about 20 BC and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. A body would be laid in a niche in the wall of a burial cave. A year or so later, when the flesh had decayed away, the bones would be placed into an ossuary.

In the tomb discovered by Sukenik and Avigad, some bones had also been left outside the ossuaries. It's possible that the tomb belonged to a family that was killed or exiled in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and they were unable to come back and re-bury their dead.

It is common for ossuaries to have inscriptions on them. These inscriptions are not usually professionally written or engraved, but are crudely scratched or chalked on, perhaps by a relative of the person whose bones are within.

Sukenik and Avigad found twelve names in fifteen inscriptions. Eight of the names were Greek style, and most of these were not known among Greco-Jewish inscriptions in Palestine. However, some of them were particularly common in Cyrenaica.So it seems likely that this tomb belonged to a Jewish family that came from, or had strong links with, Cyrenaica.

The inscriptions on one of these ossuaries says:

Alexandros (son of) Simon

On the back of this ossuary, there is another inscription, where the writer has clearly made a mistake and started again.

On the lid of the ossuary, there is a third inscription that has the name Alexandros in Greek, and then the Hebrew word QRNYT. The meaning of this word is not clear, but one possibility is that the person making the inscription meant to write QRNYH - the difference is only a small one in Hebrew. QRNYH would be the Hebrew for 'Cyrenian'.

So there is evidence here for a family of Jews with links to Cyrene. The family included a man called Simon and his son Alexander, exactly as in the Bible. Of course, there is no way we can prove that this particular Simon was the same person mentioned in the Bible, but statistically it appears very probable:

When we consider how uncommon the name Alexander was, and note that the ossuary inscription lists him in the same relationship to Simon as the New Testament does and recall that the burial cave contains the remains of people from Cyrenaica, the chance that the Simon on the ossuary refers to the Simon of Cyrene mentioned in the Gospels seems very likely.

- Tom Powers, in the July/August 2003 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, page 51.

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