Luke records for us in Acts 13:1 the names of five church leaders at Antioch, saying: “Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” Who are these people? Luke simply mentions their names. We know a little about Barnabas, but I’ll deal with him at length in another blog. We know who Saul is, and I have already written about Lucius of Cyrene HERE, but who are Simeon, called Niger, and Manaen, who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch? Can we know?
I find it somewhat interesting that, if we couple the five mentioned here with the seven Hellenist Messianics mentioned in Acts 6 we have twelve. Is the Lord telling us through Luke that, just as he had anointed and sent twelve apostles to the Jews, he also has anointed and is sending twelve apostles to the gentiles? We cannot know this for certain, but it is a curious possibility. In any event, just as we don’t know a lot about the Twelve Jesus sent to the Jews, we probably cannot know (from the Scriptures) who many of these twelve were. Moreover, just as we know more about Peter and Judas than any of the other Twelve, we know more about Barnabas and Saul/Paul than the names of the other twelve mentioned here and in Acts 6. Some of them we know only by name, as far as the Scriptures are concerned. Therefore, it wouldn’t be an oddity, if we cannot identify these two men further. Certainly, we don’t know much about Stephen and Philip of Acts 6, and the other five we know only by name.
That said, notice that the list of names is separated by the word “and” in the English, and this is in the Greek. If we take out Simeon’s nick name we could read it: “…Barnabas and Simeon and Lucius of Cyrene…” Could both Simeon and Lucius be both from Cyrene? Cyrene is a country located in northern Africa and west of Jerusalem. The people there are darker skinned than is normally supposed of Jews and Europeans, and Simeon was identified in Antioch by his nickname “Niger” or “the black” (one). Since Lucius was also from Cyrene, his skin color was also probably dark, but just as some black people today are lighter or darker than one another, so to it might have been so for Simeon and Lucius. Lucius’ name means “light, bright or white” according to Thayer. The meaning of names were important to 1st century CE Jews, and Lucius, if born in Cyrene, may have had lighter skin than his blacker brethren, just as it is so among black people today.
If the above is logical, and remembering that Simeon is the same name as Simon, despite the different spelling, for notice that Peter is called Simeon in Acts 15:14 but elsewhere called Simon (cp. John 1:42; 21:15-17), Simeon of Acts 13:1 may have been the same Simon who carried the cross behind our Lord (cp. Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26). Jews from all over the Empire came to Jerusalem during the 1st century CE to attend the annual Jewish festivals. Luke offers us a list of fifteen regions out of which these pilgrims came just after the crucifixion (Acts 2:8-11). As it is anywhere when large groups of people gather, some of the pilgrims died during their stay in Jerusalem and would have been buried there, rather than relatives taking or shipping their bodies home. Josephus records many thousands, perhaps up to a million pilgrims dying following the Passover during the Jerusalem revolt. Ossuaries holding their bones and labeled with both their names and places of origin are sometimes uncovered during archeological digs. In 1962, Dr. Nahman Avigad, an archaeologist, unearthed a burial cave of Jews from Cyrene just outside Jerusalem, and he dates his discovery prior to 70 CE.
One of these ossuaries is marked in Aramaic: ‘Alexander of Cyrene’. It is inscribed twice in Greek: “Alexander son of Simon.” Could this be the same Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21)? The names: Alexander, Simon and their place of origin, Cyrene, inscribed on the ossuary match up with the Scripture, so it is at least a possibility, and if true, it is possible that Alexander became a believer and died in the persecution that followed the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1-4 cp. Acts 11:19-21), for only Rufus (his brother?) is mentioned with his mother in Paul’s letter to the Romans (cp. Romans 16:13). The fact that both of Simon’s sons are mentioned in Mark suggests that he and his family became believers and were known to Mark’s readers, the Romans, and this same Simon who carried Jesus crossbeam to the place of the crucifixion was from Cyrene, probably had black skin, and may even be the same Simeon, called Niger, who helped evangelize the first gentile believers of Antioch (Acts 11:20; cp. 13:1).
What of the one called Manaen, who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch? His name means “comforter” and may be a nickname given him by the disciples just as “Barnabas” was given to Joseph (cp. Acts 4:36); he was a member of Herod Antipas’ court and grew up with him. By this time in Acts 13:1, Herod had been banished to Gaul. Manaen could be the same as person as Chuza, Joanna’s husband (Luke 8:3). Chuza may be the nobleman who sought Jesus to heal his son (John 4:46-53), which would explain why Joanna was one of Jesus’ supporters. Of course, these things aren’t embedded in cement, but one has to wonder what happened to those people the Gospels mention who believed the Lord. Why are they singled out there but never heard of again? Could some of them be mentioned in Acts or Paul’s epistles without our realizing it through a cursory read? We need to be careful not to draw firm conclusions over these matters, but we should also leave our minds open to accepting the implications the Scriptures might be making.