The Verdict

As Jesus was being prepared for execution,

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.

            Mark’s precise identi­fication of Simon (15:21) is considered one of the great mysteries of gospel interpretation, because nobody is so well identified in the entire passion story.  Raymond Brown argues:

If Simon’s role is not historical, why would his name have been remembered? He serves no obvious theological purpose.

            In any area of the Roman Empire a Jew may have had a son called by the very Greek name of Alexander, though this would indicate a high level of assimilation to pagan culture, but only a Jew living in Rome or in the Western part of the Roman Empire would have had a son called Rufus, a typically Latin name. The usual interpretation is that Simon was personally known to the Christian community of Rome, for whom Mark was writing.[1]

            The precise identification of the one who carried the cross for Jesus is to be explained by the requirements of the play. Simon was to reappear on the stage to perform the important function of the messenger who relates the death of the hero. For this reason there was a dramatic necessity that he should be identified through the dialogue. In a Roman play a resident of Jerusalem who is a citizen of Cyrene and has two sons called Alexander and Rufus would be understood by the audience to be a loyal subject of the Roman Empire, most likely a full Roman citizen: therefore a reliable witness.

            Interpreters of the gospels meet a difficulty in that the three synoptic gospels state that Simon of Cyrene carried the cross for Jesus, whereas according to John  Jesus went out carrying the cross. Christian iconography usually presents Jesus as carrying the horizontal cross-bar, whereas Simon carries the pole. This solution is substantially correct. The normal Roman practice was to march the condemned one to the place of execution with his hands tied securely to the two extremities of the horizontal piece of the cross, which passed behind his neck; the vertical pole was often already standing at the place of execution. In some instances the condemned one had to carry both parts, but this was a more cruel form of execution. In terms of Seneca’s stage presentation, we can presume that the tying of the cross­piece took place on the stage, whereas the episode of Simon took place to the left, offstage.[2]

            It was normal Roman practice to post on the top of the cross a tablet with the ground for the con­demnation (titulus). The incident of the titulus is reported by John as follows:

Pilate wrote a notice [titlon] and had it put on the cross. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, is what he wrote. Many Jews read this because the place where Jesus was nailed to the cross was not far from the city. The notice was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. The Jewish chief priests said to Pilate, Do not write ‘King of the Jews,’ but rather ‘This man said, I am the King of the Jews.’ Pilate answered, What I have written stays written!

            The objection raised by the Jewish religious dogmatists continues the debate inside the praetoriumtwo contrasting views of what constitutes kingship are brought into stark relief. According to Pilate’s Skeptic concepts, the decisive fact was that Jesus had assumed the outward attributes of a king. Hence there was no use debating the question of whether he was in fact something different from what he appeared to be. The Jews assert that according to their criteria for what constitutes a Jewish  king, Jesus was not their king; he was a mere pretender. But Pilate brusquely denies the validity of such distinctions.

            The suggested revision of the titulus, appears at first glance rather weak:

This man said, I am the King of the Jews

            But in the original Latin of Seneca the word said would have been dixit, which, as we have noted earlier, has the added connotation of declared or appointed. Hence the true meaning of the suggested revision was:

This man declared  himself to be King of the Jews,

            Those commentators who claim that we have no direct knowledge of the specific charges on which Jesus was tried and convicted have failed to understand the function of the titulus. The titulus was the grounds for condemnation; it was posted on top of the cross to serve as a public warning. Modern interpreters, however, prefer to read it as some sort of a sentimental epitaph, such as one would find on a tombstone. Pilate would have made use of the titulus to pay tribute to Jesus. The inscription, which has come to be summarized in Christian iconography by the initials I.N.R.I (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum) in fact contains in a most condensed form the religious and secular grounds for Jesus’ condemnation, but the conciseness of Seneca’s Latin has led most interpreters to misread it. Since Jesus had undergone two trials, a religious and a secular one, he had to receive a double sentenceone based on religious grounds and one on secular grounds. Jesus’ condemnation on secular grounds could be summed up as a claim to kingship; but Seneca needed a concise summation of Jesus’ sentence on religious grounds. Based on the information available to him, he chose the designation Nazarenus. The full import of the Latin expression was as follows: This man named Jesus has been crucified for the religious crime of belonging to the proscribed Nazarene sect and for the political crime of rebelling against Rome as King of the Jews.

            The fact that the titulus was the grounds for condemnation explains why the synoptic gospels omit its first part, which dealt with the religious charge. As we shall see, Jesus’ membership in the Nazarene movement was deeply disturbing to the evangelists; it was in the effort to deny it that they placed Jesus’ home in Nazareth. Unlike modern interpreters, they understood the function of the titulus, and hence considered it too risky to be reported in full.

            In introducing the figure of Simon, Seneca intended to establish a parallel to the myth of Hercules. Apollodorus reports:

Hercules... proceeded to Mount Oeta... and there constructed a pyre, mounted on it, and gave orders to kindle it. When no one would do so, Poeas, passing by in search of his flocks, put the flame to it.

The wording of Luke (23:26) is similar:

And as they were leading him away, they seized  a man named Simon, a Cyrenian who was coming into the city from the country. They put the cross upon him and made him carry it behind Jesus.

            The gospels stress that Simon was present by chance and the narratives of Hercules’ death relate that Poias was present by chance and performed for Hercules a task that nobody else wanted to perform. It could be assumed that the element of chance in the episode of Simon consisted in the fact that there happened to be present a Jew who could write not only in Hebrew, but in Greek and Latin as well. There may be a connection between the fact that the inscription was in three languages and the occurrence of the three names, Simon, Alexander and Rufus. A person carrying a Jewish name who has a son with the typically Greek name of Alexander, and another son with the typically Roman name of Rufus, would be competent to write in the three languages. Such a person was not easy to find in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, where knowledge of Latin was rare.[3]

            Most interpreters understand that Simon was a farmer returning from the fields. But this assumes that a farmer cultivating his field outside Jerusalem would live in the city. In fact, we are dealing with an expression that has meaning in relation to the conventions of the ancient stage. It indicates that Simon entered the stage from the left, the direction of the countryside, and was proceeding toward the right, the direction of the city. His appearance on the stage must have been heralded by some order given by Pilate, as is common in Seneca’s plays. For example, as Medea’s two sons are about to be brought onto the stage, she exclaims:

Call my sons here to carry these costly gifts to the bride.

            Not only does this expedient identify the newly-arrived characters for the audience; it also defines their role in the developing plot.

            The context suggests that Simon performed a kind function, relieving Jesus of the burden of carrying this heavy wooden beam. But Mark (15:21) states that they (the antecedent of this pronoun is not given) pressed Simon into service.[4] In the popular Latin of Seneca’ time the term for a person impressed into public service was tabellarius.[5] but in formal, poetic Latin this word retained its original meaning of someone who writes a tablet, or carries it after it is written. It appears that in the text of Seneca’s play Simon was described as tabellarius. Hence, Simon must have been the one whose task it was to inscribe the tablet on top of the pole. The kindness of the tabellarius Simon was in that he went beyond his task of writing the tablet and relieved Jesus of the burden of having to carry the pole as well as the cross-bar, which Jesus was already carrying. This would fit with the humanitarian bent of Seneca who in his writings points out the cruelty of having a condemned man carry the cross, or portions of it, to the place of execution. But Mark and Luke, influenced by a misunderstanding of the meaning of tabellarius, gathered that Simon had appeared by chance and been requisitioned to carry the cross.

            John relates that many Jews read the inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was not far from the city. This indicates that the inscription was not seen by the audience, but was assumed to be visible from the center of the stage.

            We must visualize a scene in which Pilate is seated in his chair of office at the center of the stage, surrounded by the chorus of Jewish leaders, while some mute characters, representing Roman soldiers, prepare Jesus for execution by tying his arms to the cross-bar. Pilate calls for a tabellarius able to write in three languages, and is told by the chorus that such a man exists in the person of Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Hence when Simon enters the stage from the left (the direction of the countryside), his identity is already known to the audience. Simon is given the pole of the cross on which he is to write the titulus, and follows behind Jesus, as the latter is being marched to the left offstage. After Jesus and Simon leave the stage, the chorus reads the titulus that Simon had just written, thereby apprising the audience of the grounds for Jesus’ condemnation. The chorus objects to the wording, but Pilate, resorting to his magisterial authority, rebuts

What I have written stays written!

            With these words Pilate rises to his feet and withdraws into his praetorium through the central door, which closes behind him, marking the end of Act Two. The stage is left empty except for the chorus, as is appropriate for the choral interlude separating two acts of an ancient tragedy.

            The dramatic force of this scene is recognized by Raymond Brown, who comments:

Could any playwright have given Pilate a more effective or impressive final line?

            That this is truly the last line spoken by Pilate is confirmed by the fact that all subsequent communication with the Roman governor will be by means of messengers, of whom the most important one will be Simon of Cyrene. The reason for Pilate’s leaving the stage at this point is made clear in Seneca’s On Clemency. We have seen that Pilate, as presented by Seneca in his tragedy of Jesus, behaved like the prince depicted in that essay, who may on rare occasions consent to an execution as a necessary evil, but then only with a heavy heart and after numerous delays, and never out of cruelty. To avoid the charge of cruelty, Pilate must not see the crucifixion of Jesus; hence Seneca had him leave the stage and go back inside the praetorium just as the execution was about to begin.

[1]           Some have understood that Rufus, son of Simon, is the same Rufus whom Paul greets as an important Christian of Rome (Romans 16:13). All this assumes that Simon, a Jew of Cyrene, was a farmer in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, but, after having carried the cross, moved to Rome. In Rome he would have had two sons, well-known members of the Christian community. But if the Simon who had participated in the crucifixion had moved to Rome, Mark would have had first-hand information about the occurrence, whereas his information is full of uncertainties.

[2]           The removal of the clothes must have taken place before the attachment of the horizontal part of the cross, and hence it can be presumed that the division of the clothes also took place on the stage.

[3]           Seneca must have been familiar with the problem since, when his uncle was Roman viceroy for Egypt, he had spent several years in Alexandria, a city where almost a third of the population was Jewish, but normally was ignorant of Hebrew. It is disputed whether even Philo, the great Jewish scholar of Alexandria, and a contemporary of Jesus, could read Hebrew.

[4]           The Greek verb angareo refers to the forced mobilization of manpower for public service; it corresponds to the medieval term corvée. The institution of the angaria was of oriental origin and it spread through the Roman Empire from its eastern part; it is frequently mentioned in texts of the Late Roman Empire, often using the Greek term Latinized into angaria.

[5]           The reason for which the Greek angareus, person impressed into public service, is rendered into Latin as tabellarius, is that the Greek term was of Persian origin and at first referred to the carriers of the Persian postal service.