🔼The name Cyrene in the Bible
Cyrene was a city in the eastern part of Libya; the North-African country directly west of Egypt and straight south of Italy and Greece. Cyrene was originally one of five major Greek colonies, which were conquered by the Persians and reconquered by Alexander the Great. This so-called Pentapolis was annexed to the Roman empire in 96 BC and became a senatorial province in 20 BC together with Crete. By that time the area had been renamed Cyrenaica, after its main city Cyrene.
In the 4th century BC, a wayward pupil of Socrates named Aristippus, founded an influential school of philosophy at Cyrene, and developed his cardinal tenet of pleasure-seeking, that is: to extract joy from all circumstances, and to adapt circumstances to the person instead of the person to the circumstances. Aristippus' followers recognized additionally that pleasure could be derived from altruism, but their school nevertheless died out within a century and was replaced by the largely agreeing but much more sophisticated and thus competing Epicurean school of thought.
Cyrene remained one of the great intellectual centers of the classical world, and scholars of all plumage travelled from and to it. Many of these were Jews as Cyrene was home to an extensive Jewish community. All three synoptic gospels tell of Simon of Cyrene, who was pressed into carrying Jesus' cross to Golgotha (see full concordance). This is of course highly remarkable since Jesus had told his followers that they had to carry their own crosses (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23).
Perhaps the story of Simon's service is nothing but an inconsequential anecdote but here at Abarim Publications we doubt that. The gospels are showcases of the most advanced literary tradition the world has ever seen, and subsequently contain very little inconsequential anecdotes.
🔼Taking up the cross
The gospel of Mark additionally reports that Simon of Cyrene was the father of Alexander and Rufus, which wouldn't mean much to anyone if Alexander and Rufus weren't somehow known to Mark's audience. Perhaps the account of Simon of Cyrene represents a commentary on the quality of the academic tradition of Cyrene, and its dedication to resistance against Roman (or any other) totalitarianism. Alexander and Rufus may in turn represent the typical Jewish anti-tyranny stance within developing Greek and Roman ideologies. The movement of Stoicism, for instance, certainly helped to carry the gospel across the known world and ultimately into Rome.
Another famous Cyrenian mentioned in the Bible is Lucius of Cyrene, who was in Antioch when Paul and Barnabas were there (Acts 13:1), and who perhaps had come north with the evangelizing Cyrenians and Cypriots mentioned in Acts 11:20. Cyrenians had also been present at the first Pentecost after Christ's resurrection (Acts 2:10), and some of them appear to have been part of the Synagogue Of Freedmen who opposed and finally stoned Stephen the deacon (Acts 6:9, see our article on the name Pilate).
Modern enthusiasts often forget that to the people of the first century the gospel of Jesus Christ was the intellectual branch of the Great Revolt. The armed, Zealot branch ultimately provoked Roman military intervention, which in turn led to the destruction of the Temple of YHWH in 70 AD, and where Paul's writings are riddled with pleas to resist peacefully in order to prevent the destruction, the gospels are a literary response to its finally happening.
But the Great Revolt did not exclusively happen in Judea as in Cyrene too the Jews rose against Rome. Rome responded by massively torturing and crucifying Cyrenian Jews, and finally, during the reign of Trajan (and around the time that Revelation was written), the Cyrenian population was diminished to the point at which the city collapsed and replacement citizens had to be brought in just to keep the economy going.
🔼Etymology of the name Cyrene
The name Cyrene probably derives from a local name of a spring (Kyre). What that name meant is no longer known but when the Greeks heard it, it sounded to them quite familiar, and an explanatory story evolved around it:
The story tells how Apollo found a girl (some sources say she was a nymph) wrestling a lion — and the name Libya probably shares a root with the widely attested Semitic word לביא, lebiya', meaning lion(ess). This girl had no desire to stay home and weave clothes and chose to make weapons and hunt in stead, and Apollo zipped her off to a bountiful spring in what would become Libya. The girl's name was Kyre or Kyrene, which means Powerful One:
The name Cyrene means Powerful One but emphasizes the power that comes from social structures. The greatest social structure of all is of course love — the weakness that leads to strength (John 15:13, 2 Corinthians 12:9).