Jews Of Ancient Cyrene And The Gospel (by Prof. Peter Shirokov, Eteacherbiblical)

“There were four classes of men among those of Cyrene; that of citizens, that of husbandmen, the third of strangers, and the fourth of Jews. Now these Jews are already gotten into all cities; and it is hard to find a place in the habitable earth that hath not admitted this tribe of men, and is not possessed by them…” (Historian Strabo quoted by Josepus, Antiquities 14:115)

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. Most famous is the service of a Jewish man from Cyrene named Simon, who carried Jesus’ cross (Matt 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26). Many assume that Simon was an 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 a native of Africa, but settled there as thousands of other Jews did. His business in Jerusalem was most likely the traditional Passover pilgrimage (2 Chron 30:1; John 11:55). Simon was a bystander pilgrim who was drafted by the Romans to carry the burden Jesus could not. 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 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 also a post on synagogue of the freedmen).

Cyrene (Κυρήνη) was a city 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.

The first colonists struggled, but eventually the city of Cyrene became prosperous and famous for grain, wool, horse breeding and rare silphium herb. This rare plant was proudly depicted on many Cyrenian coins and was prized for its 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. It is very likely that Jews of Cyrene were instrumental in marketing the famed silphium plant across the Mediterranean. The plant was rumored to be worth its weight in silver.

Jews who lived in Cyrene retained a strong sense of their identity. They sent offerings to the Jerusalem Temple (Josephus, Antiquities XVI. 6, 5). They never forsook their national interests and fought alongside their brothers in Jewish Wars against Rome (Cassius Dio, LXVIII.32; Josephus, Jewish Wars VI. 2, VII. 11). Even the radical Zealots called the Sicarii operated in this Lybian Pentapolis (Josephus, Jewish Wars 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.

The New Testament records that some Jewish followers of Jesus from Cyrene were responsible for the first Gentile coverts in Antioch.

So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their wayto 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. 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.

 

About the author

Dr. Eli Lizorkin-EyzenbergTo secure your spot in our new course “The Jewish Background of New Testament” - CLICK HERE NOW

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  1. Alfredo Zarecht

    I believed that salvation was always from the Jews.To them was given the Torah for the salvation of all human kind. “To the Law and to the testimony”

  2. Peter Shirokov

    I think Dr. Eli’s answer is on target. There was always “salvation” outside of full conversion since ancient days.

  3. Brad Thompson

    I’m wondering what type of conversion process the faithful Cyren’s were preaching to the Goyim. The laws of conversion is well set in Torah, however, the debate in the first century was did the Goyim have to convert to Judaism or could they remain Goyim but believe in Yeshua the Messiah? This is still very much in debate today.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Brad, there are two trajectories for conversion in the Hebrew Bible. One is that of the Ruth the Moabite and the other is that of Naaman the Aramean. One says your God will be my God and your people will be my people, the other says Your God will be my God, but my people will still be my people. Acts 15 (Jerusalem Counsel) opts for the second one in view of Gentiles prior reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10).

  4. Kostya

    This was a fantastic post. The connections of the Cyrenians with the Hellenistic synagogues in Jerusalem, Stephen, Antioch and the first ‘Messianic’ congregations was absolutely fascinating! Thank to Peter and you for posting it.

    1. Peter Shirokov

      You are welcome, Kostya. Many people forget how it all began. People always look to Israel as the “center of all things Jewish” and the source of all things. People forget that the Jews of Diaspora were always the most zealous and faithful Jews, historically and sociologically speaking. Paul of Tarsus was a Diaspora Jew… What an impact…

  5. Micha van Vlijmen

    The chain has been broken. But God did not rejected His people.

  6. Mª Ruth Gomez

    Shalom, dear Dr. Eli !
    I really enjoyed translating this work into Spanish. I must realice that I’m among of those who forgot to trace back a line from now a day to Cyrene and Israel, though I’m quite open minded. LOL !!!
    May the Lord bless you largelly
    Lehita’ot
    Ruth

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Ruth, thank you so much!!!!!!!!

    2. Peter Shirokov

      Thank you for your work. We hope this article will inspire more people, now in Spanish!

  7. Steven H.Paul

    Very interesting on, Jews of Ancient Cyrene and the Gospel. Is that where the gospel ( Antioch) spread throughout the world to, none Jewish? Shalom.