Simon of Cyrene: once more on the ambiguity of the crucified one in the Gospel of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

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Here is an extract from the latest publication on the question of Simon of Cyrene, the one compelled to carry the cross of Jesus according to the synoptic gospel narrative. This post follows the train of

Reading the Gospel of Mark Alone — Imagine No Other Gospels (22-10-2023)


A “Playful” Ambiguity in the Gospel of Mark (14-07-2023)

It is from an article by Andreas Bedenbener in the latest issue of Texte und Kontexte:

But as far as Simon is concerned, the text’s [that is, the Gospel of Mark] great interest in him suddenly disappears the moment he takes up the cross. We don’t hear how he carries it to Golgotha, nor how he puts it down, nor what became of him afterwards. The text continues as follows:

22 They take him to the place Golgotha, which is translated: place of the skull.
23 They wanted to give him wine flavored with myrrh; but he did not take it.
24 And they crucified him
and divide his garments,
by casting lots over them to see who could take what.

Since the last text figure mentioned before arriving at Golgotha was Simon, it would be linguistically obvious to refer all of this, as well as what is said in the following verses, to him; The name “Jesus” only appears again in v. 34. This is either told extremely carelessly – which would be astonishing given the level of detail with which the text previously addressed Simon – or else the Gospel of Mark aims to to blur the line between Jesus and Simon for a while.The ambivalence of the phrase “his cross” fits with this second possibility: the cross that Simon takes up could be both the cross of Jesus and his own cross. If you understand the scene as a representation of reality, it is of course an either – or, but if you look at it from a literary perspective, the cross belongs as much to Jesus as it does to Simon.

(Translation, pp 15f)

  • Bedenbender, Andreas. “Kein Helfer, sondern selbst ein Opfer. Die Rolle Simons Aus Kyrene in Mk 15,21 und im Gefüge des Markusevangeliums.” Texte & Kontexte, no. 169/170 (2022): 12-30.



A “Playful” Ambiguity in the Gospel of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

The Gospel of Mark is often ambiguous and disconcerting, but whether the intention of its author was “play” I doubt. Recently I was pulled up while reading an article about an ancient heresy that asserted Jesus was not real flesh but spirit in the guise of flesh, and that the one who was crucified was Simon of Cyrene, the one said in the synoptic gospels to have carried the cross of Jesus to Golgotha. — But none of that startled me because it is all well known. Rather, what pulled me up was the author’s reference to the Gospel of Mark 15:21f as an

overall playful discourse of the multiple and mistaken identities on stage during the Passion. (Hoklotubbe p. 57)

Ambiguity in the Gospel of Mark was not a new insight but what was new-ish for me was reading this notion in the context of a discussion about Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross of Jesus.

Before explaining why, let’s get orientated. Here is the passage in the Gospel of Mark from Young’s Literal Translation:

20 and when they [had] mocked him, they took the purple from off him, and clothed him in his own garments, and they led him forth, that they may crucify him.

21 And they impress a certain one passing by — Simon, a Cyrenian, coming from the field . . . . — that he may bear his cross,

22 and they bring him to the place Golgotha, which is, being interpreted, `Place of a skull;’

23 and they were giving him to drink wine mingled with myrrh, and he did not receive.

24 And having crucified him . . . .

Read the above carefully and ask yourself: whom do these verses say is being crucified?

Let’s backtrack a little. The quote I cited spoke of multiple mistaken identities during the Passion. Indeed, many of us know of Pilate asking the mob if he should release to them Barabbas instead of Jesus — the name Barabbas meaning “son of the father”. Jesus, of course, is known as the Son of the Father (God) among the mainstream faithful. The mob chose the wrong “son of the father”.

During the first trial of Jesus before the high priest he was asked if he were the Messiah. Mark 14:61-64

61 Again the chief priest was questioning him, and saith to him, `Art thou the Christ — the Son of the Blessed?’

62 and Jesus said, `I am; and ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of the power, and coming with the clouds, of the heaven.’

63 And the chief priest, having rent his garments, saith, `What need have we yet of witnesses?

64 Ye heard the evil speaking, what appeareth to you?’ and they all condemned him to be worthy of death

Jesus is asked if he is the Messiah but his audience understands his answer to be a lie.

Then at the opening of the trial before Pilate, Jesus was asked if he was the king of the Jews but Jesus curiousily replied, “You say it”. Then in the subsequent mocking of Jesus the soldiers pretend that he is the king — all highly ironical for the faithful reader of the gospel.

So yes, there is ambiguity aplenty over the identity of Jesus in Mark’s Passion narrative.

Surely, though, there can be no doubt that the gospel intended the readers to understand it was Jesus, and not Simon, who was crucified. Of that I can have no doubt at all since it was the clear intent of the gospel narrative from the opening verse of the opening chapter.

But we know that earlier in the narrative Jesus had spoken of the necessity for his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him. Recall the time Jesus elicited multiple confusions over his identity before instructing Peter (originally named Simon) to take up his cross and follow Jesus with it. Mark 8…

27 And Jesus went out with His disciples into the towns of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way He asked His disciples, saying unto them, “Who do men say that I am?

28 And they answered, “John the Baptist; but some say Elijah, and others, one of the prophets.”

29 And He said unto them, “But whom say ye that I am?” And Peter answered and said unto Him, “Thou art the Christ.”

30 And He charged them that they should tell no man of Him.

31 And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and by the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

32 And He spoke that saying openly. And Peter took Him and began to rebuke Him.

33 But when He had turned about and looked on His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, “Get thee behind Me, Satan; for thou savorest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men.”

34 And when He had called the people unto Him with His disciples also, He said unto them, “Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.

Was the author of the Gospel of Mark being careless or subtle when he left the identity of the one being nailed to the cross open to ambiguity?

20 . . . . and they led him [sc. Jesus] forth, that they may crucify him.

21 And they impress a certain one passing by — Simon, a Cyrenian, coming from the field . . . . — that he may bear his cross,

22 and they bring him to the place Golgotha . . . .

24 And having crucified him . . . .

On the face of it, the immediate literal meaning is that they crucified Simon, but we know, of course, that it was really Jesus who was crucified.

Compare other ambiguities in this gospel:

Was the daughter of Jairus really dead or only in a deep sleep? It’s in Mark chapter 5:

22 Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. 23 He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him. . . . 

35 . . . . some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?”

36 . . . . Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” . . . . 

38 When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” 40 But they laughed at him. . . . . 

41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” . . . .  42 Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around . . . .

Is the girl asleep or dead? Or is the author telling us through the ambiguity that there is no substantial difference between sleep and death?

Does the intended reader imbibe a similar message when they read about Simon taking the cross of Jesus … “and they crucified him”? The author could have easily and quite naturally have said, “And they bring Jesus to the place Golgotha….” instead of leaving the reader to do a mental double-flip to assume that he is no longer talking about Simon of Cyrene.

Confession time. I am attracted to the hypothesis of Andreas Bedenbender that the Gospel of Mark in many respects draws the inspiration for its narrative from the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. See The Crucifixion of Jesus as Implicit History of the Jewish War.

Many exegetes have further argued that this gospel draws heavily upon the letters of the apostle Paul. If so, we have good reason to believe that our author is deliberately telling readers that the crucifixion of Jesus has meaning only insofar as it means the crucifixion — the putting to “death” of the flesh — of all his followers.

Hoklotubbe, Chris. “What Is Docetism?” Re-Making the World: Christianity and Categories. Essays in Honor of Karen L. King, January 1, 2019. https://www.academia.edu/55282211/What_is_Docetism.


How the Faithful Destroy Biblical Stories to Stay Faithful (or the Ecumenical Method of Biblical Historiography)

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by Neil Godfrey

Some call it “harmonization of the Gospels”, but it might also be described as a unique brand of theological historical method. That is, something that theological students do and call “history” so they can sound more like historians (a relatively relevant profession) instead of mere students of theology (a decidedly irrelevant one).

Here’s how it works.

One gospel describes a scene in order to illustrate a certain doctrinal teaching.

Another gospel, with a different doctrinal interest, describes a contrary scene to reflect another doctrine.

The historian (sorry, the theology student) enters and says: Ah, here the historical evidence appears to be contradictory. (Only “appears” contradictory, mind you. Aspiring theologians know that whatever can be seen is not of faith, and it is faith that is all important.)

So the (irrelevant) “theologian” who thinks he/she is a (relatively relevant) “historian” draws on their ecumenical leanings and finds a way to unify the two contradictory (oops, “apparently” contradictory) narratives.

This process is not a mere intellectual conceit. It is a necessary activity for those who need something consistent to believe in.

Here’s a case study to illustrate. It is from Tom Powers’ discussion of the ‘Alexander son of Simon’ ossuary. Continue reading “How the Faithful Destroy Biblical Stories to Stay Faithful (or the Ecumenical Method of Biblical Historiography)”


Best explanation I’ve read yet re Alexander and Rufus

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by Neil Godfrey

JakeJonesIV on the iidb discussion group has offered the most coherent and contextualized explanation of the identity of Alexander and Rufus I’ve heard yet. Check out his posts 4292918 and 4291566. The explanation relates to Robert Price’s comment in his Pre-Nicene New Testament suggesting the possibility that Simon Magus is the figure behind Simon of Cyrene.


Note added 21 April 2023: those forum posts links no longer work so here are screenshots of them:







Simon of Cyrene & Golgotha (Tarazi)

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by Neil Godfrey

Hoo boy, looks like Simon of Cyrene is as mutable as Proteas, and like the man in the raincoat at the funeral in James Joyce’s Ulysses — not to mention the young man fleeing naked in Mark (Kermode), with no end of attributable meanings.

Paul Naradin Tarazi in Paul and Mark sees a play between the Greek words for Cyrene and two other words, one of which is Gologotha (this seems so obvious when he points it out I suspect he’s not the first to notice this — but someone please correct me if I’m wrong).

“Of Cyrene/a Cyrenian” is the Greek Kyrenaios. Tarazi links this with the Hebrew qeren meaning horn, connoting power and leadership, including that of a messiah, and cites a string of verses from 1 and 2 Samuel, Job, Psalms, Jeremiah, Lamentation, Ezekiel and Daniel.

Tarazi sees in this the author of Mark calling on the apostle Peter (Simon) to accept the Pauline gospel of the cross in order to become the new leader of the true Christian community, the Pauline gentile churches. While I find the symbolic meanings and puns of interest in what I see as primarily a work of literature I have some problems with Tarazi’s interpretation here. Elsewhere in this commentary Tarazi sees Peter rejecting Paul’s theology. Tarazi writes that the fact that Simon here was “compelled” to carry the cross allows for the difference here. (I’m tempted to dismiss the Hebrew pun in a Greek text for a non-Jewish audience, but there are other places in this gospel where there seem to be rather telling links between the Aramaic and Greek and will have to shelve this question for a future “to look at” date.)

But there is another pun or consonant play. Golgotha, where the crucifixion with Simon’s cross takes place, is translated in Mark as “the place of the skull” — kraniou topos.

Now that one looks interesting. That is surely an intentional link (in adjacent verses) being pushed before the readers in the form of an explanatory note. Kyrenaios – kraniou.

Now they compelled a certain man, Simon Kyrenaios, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear his cross. And they brought him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, kraniou topos. (Mark 15:21-22)

Okay Michael Turton, where are you when we need you? You once had much to write about Golgotha being some sort of metaphor for the Roman Capitol (Head/Skull).

One can also see Schmidt’s article online that I understand was initially responsible for seeing Mark’s crucifixion procession as a mock Roman Triumph culminating at the Temple on the Roman Capitol.

I have in another post here suggested that Simon of Cyrene was described by Mark as “coming from the country” in order to more directly link him with the role of executioner in that triumph.


Simon of Cyrene & Simon Magus — revised (24th jan 07)

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by Neil Godfrey

I doubt it is possible to ever know the origins of Christianity. Another little intriguing “mystery” is the potential identification at some point of Simon of Cyrene and Simon Magus.

Irenaeus informs readers that Simon Magus taught that he had appeared in Judea and appeared to suffer crucifixion. The Catholic Encyclopedia’s online article on Docetism:

Simon Magus first spoke of a “putative passion of Christ and blasphemously asserted that it was really he, Simon himself, who underwent these apparent sufferings. “As the angels governed this world badly because each angel coveted the principality for himself he [Simon] came to improve matters, and was transfigured and rendered like unto the Virtues and Powers and Angels, so that he appeared amongst men as man though he was no man and was believed to have suffered in Judea though he had not suffered” (passum in Judea putatum cum non esset passus — Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. I, xxiii sqq.)

Irenaeus also informs readers that some Christians taught that it was Simon of Cyrene who in fact suffered crucifixion in Christ’s stead. Again, the Catholic Encyclopedia’s online article on Docetism:

According to Basilides, Christ seemed to men to be a man and to have performed miracles. It was not, however, Christ, who suffered but Simon of Cyrenes who was constrained to carry the cross and was mistakenly crucified in Christ’s stead. Simon having received Jesus’ form, Jesus returned Simon’s and thus stood by and laughed. Simon was crucified and Jesus returned to his father (Irenaeus, Adv. Char., 1, xxiv).

Robert Price in The Pre-Nicene New Testament observes that:

  • Simon of Cyrene was Phoenician
  • Simon Magus was from Gitta (=Gath, Goliath’s hometown) of Phoenicia (0r Samaria)
  • Phoenicia was called Kittim (easily confused with Gitta)
  • The synoptic gospels narrate that Simon of Cyrene carried Christ’s cross

The Gospel of Mark is often ambiguous in its narration and its account of who it was who was crucified is no less so to the attentive reader:

Now they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear his cross. And they brought him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull. Then they gave him wine mingled with myrrh to drink, but he did not take it. And when they crucified him . . . . (Mark 15:21-24)

The Gospel of John of course removes any room for ambiguity by insisting that Jesus carries his own cross! (19.17)

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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.) Continue reading “A Cyrenius-Cyrenian link between Josephus and Mark?”