A Cyrenius-Cyrenian link between Josephus and Mark?

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by Neil Godfrey

It is not hard to see curious shifting reflections between the lead characters in Josephus and the Gospel of Mark. Judas first, then Simon with James and Simon with John are Jewish rebel leaders and Alexander and Rufus are two Romans responsible for their executions (though John is apparently spared). In Mark we have Judas, Simon Peter, James and John as leaders and Alexander and Rufus named as identifiers of the one pressganged into the execution of their leader. (And the one executed in place of that leader was anciently believed by at least one form of Christianity, and by modern deconstructionists, the author of Mark himself being characteristically ambiguous, to be Simon himself.)

But is there another name also shiftingly reflected between Josephus and Mark that has not yet been remarked on?

“The sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain; I mean of that Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Cyrenius (Quirinius in Luke 2:2) came to take account of the estates of the Jews, as we have shown in a foregoing book. The names of those sons were James and Simon, whom Alexander commanded to be crucified.” (Josephus, Ant. 20.5.2, Whiston trans.) The same Cyrenius/Quirinius is discussed earlier by Josephus in relation to the primary rebel, Judas.

Josephus links Alexander’s crucifixions of James and Simon, sons of Judas, with the time Quirinius came into Judah. Mark has the crucifixion associated with Simon “a Cyrenian” coming in from the country. The similarity is lost our translations but compare transliterations of the original Greek spellings of these two:


If Mark has used this name in Josephus he has used it to make a pun. We know the author of Mark elsewhere employs puns. Mary Ann Tolbert in “Sowing the Gospel” shows the author’s fun with turning the lead “Rock” apostle, Peter, to be a pun for “rocky” or “stony” ground which in the parable does not last the distance. Bartimaeus, Legion, Jairus and Barabbas are others.

The distinctive Markan irony has persuaded others to see the numerous Simon’s in Mark as reflecting paradoxical sides of the one person or theological idea: thus Jesus begins his mission in the house of Simon with his enthusiatic disciples and is served there by a woman he has healed, yet approaches his end in the house of an unclean Simon (a leper) with disciples who are critical and betraying him, and where he is served again by a woman worshipper.

Many have remarked on the vicarious involvement of Simon, James and John in the crucifixion of Jesus.

  • James and John assured Jesus they could suffer with him and Jesus said they would (Mark 10), yet Mark shows two bandits crucified in their place on his right and left instead.
  • The crowds themselves even unwittingly replaced the true Son of the Father with a false Son of the Father (15:7-11) .
  • Similarly Simon assured Jesus he would die with him (14:31), effectively affirming that he would follow Jesus even to the point of taking up his cross (8:34-38), yet it is another Simon who does just this (15:21) while the former Simon denied Jesus and fled.

So it would not be out of character for the author give a meaningful sobriquet to the latter Simon also. Compare Simon Peter and Simon the Leper. Cyrenian does not readily strike one as a meaningful moniker, however. Certainly there were infamous Jewish revolts in Cyrene that were bloodily suppressed. One might recall the last named Simon in Mark’s disciple list being a “Canaanite”, or a rebel in the Jewish revolt of the 60’s, and note Mark’s attack on the first Simon for his apparent expectation that the Kingdom of God would have to be established through a warrior Jesus. But there were other Jewish revolts apart from those of Palestine and Cyrene.

The Simon identified by the names of his sons, Alexander and Rufus, is being identified by names that are prominent in Josephus as brutal Roman suppressors of Jewish rebellions and involved in the crucifixion or execution of James and Simon (twice over) and imprisonment of John. Quirinius was prominent in Josephus as the one who initially triggered those rebellions of which Simon and James and Simon and John were leaders and that led to the demise of Jerusalem and the Jewish nation.

Is Simon a Cyrenian, father of Alexander and Rufus, therefore, a pointer to Cyrenius (appearing in our English editions of Luke as Quirinius) against whom the Jewish rebellions were first directed and that ultimately sired the Alexanders and Rufus’s and their treatment of the Simon’s, the James’s and the John’s. If so, it would be most apt: the name Simon underscoring Simon Peter’s failure, while the Cyrenius pun, Alexander and Rufus throw the meaning of the crucifixion scene for the future of Jerusalem into stark relief.

Parents and Sons

For anyone who cannot resist the yawns and wonder why on earth Simon, father of Alexander and Rufus, can’t just be accepted as historical figures, well that’s another story for another place. One might simply give but one hint here: it was not the done thing to identify individuals by their offspring, but rather by their parents. The unusualness of Simon being identified by his sons is taken by theologians as evidence for their genuineness – if something is the same it proves it is true, if it is different it proves it is even truer, type arguments.

But if one looks at the broader literary construction of the Gospel of Mark one finds that among several bookend type inclusios (beginning and ending literary or thematic balances) is one that has at the opening 4 would-be disciples identified by their parents (James and John, Levi and another James) , while at the end we have parents identified by their 4 offspring (James the Younger and Joses, Alexander and Rufus). And in the middle we have Jesus holding a discussion about the difference between real and spiritual parents and siblings. But this belongs to another discussion that has more to do with literary structures and will have to wait another time or webpage.) — or maybe i can just note this in the meantime:

James and John, sons of Zebedee (2 sons of the one)

Levi, son of Alphaeus (1 son of the one)

Simon, son of Alphaeus (1 other son of the same? one)

Simon, father of Alexander and Rufus (2 sons of the one)

Mary, mother of Joses (1 son of the one)

Mary, mother of James (1 other son of the same one)

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Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

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