During the Second Temple Period, many Jews lived outside of Israel and city of Cyrene in Northern Africa was one of major Diaspora centers. The presence and the influence of Jews from Cyrene is reflected in several New Testament passages. Considering the Jews of Cyrene a named Simon, who carried Jesus’ cross (Matt 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26) comes to mind. Many readers assume that Simon was a native-born African and there many depictions of Simon of Cyrene in church iconography as a dark-skinned man. It is most likely, however, that he was not truly a native of Africa, but settled there as thousands of other Jews did. Many Jews were captured and taken into slavery under Pompey in 63 BC (Philo, Embassy to Gaius 23) and were scattered all over the Roman colonies.
Cyrene (Κυρήνη) was a city with long history, established in North Africa by Greek settlers from the Aegean island of Thera around 630 BC (Herodotus, History, Book IV; Strabo, Geography, Book XVII). According to the ancient accounts, the Greeks who established this colony did so by following the instructions of the oracle in order to escape severe famine. When the colony was established the ancient city was named after a nearby spring along the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the vicinity of the modern village of Shahhat in Lybia.
Simon of Cyrene was most likely not a vacation in Jerusalem, but a part of the traditional Passover pilgrimage (2 Chron 30:1; John 11:55). Simon was not a random visitor to the city, but a bystander pilgrim who was drafted by the Romans to carry the burden Jesus could not endure by himself. It was not unusual for Jewish pilgrims from Cyrene to come to Jerusalem. Jews of Cyrene were among the pilgrims who heard Peter’s moving speech during the feast of Weeks (Pentecost) in Jerusalem (Acts 2:10). It is even possible that Jews from Cyrene had their own synagogue in first century Jerusalem. In the book of Acts we read how representatives of Cyrene Jewish Diaspora who belonged to the Synagogue of the Freedmen opposed Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 6:9). (See article on the Synagogue of the Freedmen).
History of Cyrene
When Cyrene was first established the early colonists struggled, but eventually, the city of Cyrene became prosperous and famous for grain, wool, horse breeding and rare silphium herb. It is very likely that Jews of Cyrene were instrumental in marketing the famed silphium plant across the entire Mediterranean. The plant was rumored to be worth its weight in silver. This rare plant was proudly depicted on many Cyrenian coins and was prized for its extraordinary medicinal qualities in the ancient world (Herodotus, History, Book 4).
In the fifth century, the city of Cyrene was ruled by independent monarchs and rose in prominence as a major trade center of the region. Cyrene became a republic in 440 BC, then later submitted to the rule of Alexander the Great and eventually became a part of the Ptolemaic Empire. The city became a part of the Roman province (Creta et Cyrenaica) around 97 AD and remained as such into the fourth century AD when it was abandoned. The exact causes for the city’s decline are unclear. The disappearance of Cyrene as a prominent city in the region is attributed to a series of unrelated events. Most notable among them are the devastations of Jewish uprisings against Rome in 115-117 AD (Cassius Dio, Roman History 68:32) and earthquakes that occurred between 262 and 365 AD.
The significance of this city of Cyrene for biblical studies is that during the Second Temple period Cyrene was one of the main centers of Jewish Diaspora. The Jewish inhabitants of Cyrene were fully engaged in world affairs, closely connected to Jerusalem and other Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean.
Jews who lived in Cyrene retained a strong sense of their identity. They sent offerings to the Jerusalem Temple (Josephus, Ant. XVI. 6, 5). They never forsook their national interests and fought alongside their brothers in Jewish Wars against Rome (Cassius Dio, LXVIII.32; Josephus, War VI. 2, VII. 11). Even the radical Zealots called the Sicarii operated in this Lybian Pentapolis (Josephus, War VII. 11). A man named Jason of Cyrene chronicled much of the historical events recorded in the Second Book of Maccabees (2 Macc 2:23). It appears the Cyrene Jewish community was sizable and certainly not insignificant Diaspora group.
Jews of Cyrene Make A Difference
The New Testament records that some Jewish followers of Jesus from Cyrene were responsible for the first Gentile converts in Antioch.
“So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-21)
This act of outreach to the Greeks is very notable because apart from some proselytes and occasional God-fearers as Cornelius (Acts 10:2, 23-29) Jewish believers in Jerusalem did not engage in direct mission to the Gentiles. The Jews of Cyrene were Diaspora Jews, zealous in their ancestral faith, but much more open-minded and more comfortable with Hellenistic culture and Greek language. It appears that God used them to spearhead deliberate mission of the gospel to the non-Jews.
A man by the name of Lucian from Cyrene was one of the prophets and teachers in Antioch (Acts 13:1). And later Paul of Tarsus was called to teach in Antioch, precisely because of his expertise and calling to reach the Gentiles (Acts 11:25). The term the term “Christian” (Χριστιανός) originated in Antioch (Acts 11:26) and some say that the “non-Jewish Christianity” actually began in Antioch. And Jews from Cyrene were the ones responsible for this. They were the open-minded Jews who crossed the boundaries of culture, preached Jesus to the Gentiles and saw the very first fruit.
Though Cyrene was overshadowed by other cities and declined by the fifth century AD, it left a distinct mark on the history of the region. Jews of Cyrene left a distinct spiritual mark through their proclamation of the gospel. It is not a coincidence that the New Testament depicts Diaspora Jews from Cyrene and other Hellenistic cities as open-minded and deliberate in their efforts to proclaim Jesus to the Gentiles.
The Jews of Cyrene have been instrumental in Antioch. Besides that, they undoubtedly contributed to the proclamation of the gospel in North Africa. Such men as Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine came out of the African church, yet few today trace the faith of these men back to the zealous Jews of Cyrene.