The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
Get the Book!

Simon of Cyrene

According to Mark, a man named Simon from Cyrene was forced by the Romans to help Jesus carry the cross to Golgotha:

Mark 15:21
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.

Christian tradition-and some modern scholars- have asserted that the addition of details such as the names of Simon's sons seems to authenticate the story of the Cyrenian carrying the cross. The tradition had stated that these men, Alexander and Rufus, were men that were known to Markís audience and as such were a guarantee of the crucifixion accounts. It has further equated them with two persons of the same name mentioned in Paulís epistles. [1] [a]

So according to the Markan tradition, it is a vouchsafe historical fact that Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, actually helped Jesus carry the cross to the place of crucifixion.

We have, in the gospel of John, another explicit claim to being an eyewitness account to the crucifixion.

John 19:35
The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may have faith.

Now, what did John saw about this event. Let us read for ourselves:

John 19:16-17
So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out of to the Place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha).

Here we have it, a blatant contradiction with the episode in Mark. According to John nobody helped Jesus to carry the cross-he carried it himself. Since both passages contradict one another, at least one of these must be wrong. Could one of these be right?

Let us first look a little closer at the Markan account. That Mark meant Simon to be a Jew we can be sure. Simon (Shimeon) is a Hebrew name. Cyrene, a town on the North African coast about 700 kilometers west of Alexandria, was also known to have a large Jewish population. [2]

The passage however raises many questions which throw grave doubts on its authenticity. As was mentioned in the previous chapter, the synoptic tradition had Jesus crucified on the first day of Passover, a high holy day. No Jew would do any work that day. Yet here, we have Mark telling us that Simon was coming "in from the country", i.e. at work in the fields. This is an impossibility, given the strict ruling of no work on the Passover. [3]

The attempt to connect the names of the sons with that given in the Pauline epistles is extremely precarious for the names Alexander and Rufus were extremely common during that time. [4] The problem is not resolved when we look at Matthew's and Luke's accounts; both do not have the names of Simon's sons:

Matthew 27:32
As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon and they forced him to carry the cross.

Luke 23:26
As they led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.

As both evangelists above copied Mark, their omission of the "authenticating" detail of Simon's sons is surprising. The possibility cannot be ruled out that the names Alexander and Rufus were later interpolations or insertions into Mark; and the copies of Mark which Matthew and Luke copied from did not have these names. [5] All these considerations point to the fact that the Simon of Cyrene story is not historical.

Let us now turn our attention to Johnís account. We have shown, in chapter six, that despite the claim of its author, the gospel is not an eyewitness account. Johnís gospel was written with a very pronounced theological slant. And here too we find the reason why Jesus was made to carry his own cross. During the time of the gospelís composition, the heretical Christian sect of docetic Gnostics was claiming that it was Simon who, transferred to Jesus' likeness, was nailed to the cross. Jesus, who assumed the appearance of Simon, stood near the cross and mocked his executioners. [6] John gospel, which was clearly hostile to the docetics [b], dealt with this docetist teaching by simply eliminating Simon of Cyrene from the narrative altogether. [7]

Thus, despite claims of historical authentification from both the Markan and Johanine tradition, we do not know if Jesus carried his own cross or whether someone else, like Simon of Cyrene, helped him with it.

Back to the top


a.Romans 16:13 mentions Rufus, while I Timothy 1:20 mentions Alexander.
b.The Docetists believed that Jesus Christ was not truly human and hence did not really suffer on the cross. Johnís account of the resurrection appearances, which include Jesus showing his wounds to Thomas ( John 21:24-31) and Jesus eating fish (John 21:15).


1.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p395
Nineham, Saint Mark: p422
2.Asimov, Guide to the Bible: p892
Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p395
Nineham, Saint Mark: p422
3.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p395
4.Nineham, Saint Mark: p422
5.Guignebert, Jesus: p481
6.Nineham, Saint Mark: p422
7.Helms, Gospel Fictions: 122

Back to the top

[Home] [The Central Thesis] [Christianity] [The Bible] [Jesus] [Paul] [God] [History] [Pascal's Wager] [Bibliography] [Links]
© Paul N. Tobin 2000

For comments and queries, e-mail Paul Tobin
Hosted by