Lucius of Cyrene

Ancient Christian Church

Lucius of Cyrene is mentioned in Acts 13:1: “Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul” (ASV). The Prophecies Collected from All the Books, a Latin work originating in the African church in the early fourth century, contains a fuller reading: “Now there were in the church prophets and teachers, Barnabas and Saul, on whom the following prophets laid their hands—Symeon who is called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene who remains to this day, and Titus his foster-brother” (Bruce, 244 n.1; cf. Cadbury 1922, 247). Theodor Zahn took this longer rendition as the original Western text of the verse (Zahn, 280-281). Critical Greek texts, however, have followed the shorter version given first above.

The broader passage describes the initiation of a pioneering venture in Acts—the deliberate launching of the missionary activity of Barnabas and Paul (Best, 345). The church leaders in Acts 13:1 are labeled as “prophets and teachers” (cf. Rom 12:6-7; 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11). According to Acts 11:27, prophētai (“prophets”) from Jerusalem had made their way to Antioch (cf. Hanson, 139). This is the only instance of didaskaloi (“teachers”) in the Book of Acts, although the verb didaskein appears on various occasions (see Knoch, 134). Acts commonly employs the title presbyteroi (“elders”), as in 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23; 16:4; 20:17-18. Richard Longnecker noted the Greek double te construction in 13:1, and on that basis argued that Barnabas, Simeon, and Lucius were prophets while Manean and Saul were teachers (Longnecker, 416). “However, the stylistic variation of connectives in this verse should not be made the basis for a hard-and-fast distinction between prophets and teachers” (Peterson, 374; cf. Keener, 1982-1983). Although the verse is grammatically constructed in such a manner that some could be prophets and others teachers, alternatively all five could be considered as both prophets and teachers (Didache 15:2; Aune, 265; Barrett, 602; cf. Knoch, 133-150). For example, Paul is portrayed elsewhere in Acts as both a prophet (13:9-11) and a teacher (11:26).

Acts 13:1 most likely reflects traditional material, perhaps a traditional list (Witherington, 391; Lüdemann 147-148). Barnabas and Saul (Paul) frame the list, which also includes Simon Niger, Lucian of Cyrene, and a Manaean with Herodian connections. Clinton Arnold declares, “What is most notable about these five is their racial, cultural, and social diversity” (Arnold, 133). Their representative diversity emphasizes “the cosmopolitan character of the church of God used at the foundation of the Gentile mission” (Keener, 1982). The passage specifically reflects the influential importance of the African diaspora in early Christianity. According to Darrell Bock, “God is gifting the church without ethnic distinctions” (Bock, 439). Thomas Oden counsels: “Ponder this as if with African eyes: Mark, Lucius of Cyrene and Simon the Black were all together in Antioch, praying and fasting and participating in the Spirit’s mission to send chosen vessels for the first missionary journey. Note that this African core of missionaries preceded Paul in gospel witness. In fact they ordained Paul (Acts 13:3)” (Oden 2011, 98). Due to the mention of fasting, Peter Back considers these men to have been joining in “a fraternal, spiritual activity, when the Holy Spirit spoke to them” (Back, 17). Back maintains, “The church separates the workers, but it is the Holy Spirit who sends their members into mission (Back, 18).

Both Lucius of Cyrene and Simeon Niger apparently emigrated from Africa to Antioch. The word Niger is a Latinism meaning “black” (Bock, 439; Parsons, 289), presumably connoting that Simon was of dark complexion and of African descent (Marshall, 228; Krodel, 227; though see Barrett, 603; Keener, 1985-1987). Many interpreters therefore assume that he was originally from Africa (Jervell, 340-341), and his juxtaposition with Lucius the Cyrenian seems to bolster this interpretation (Witherington, 392). Some scholars have equated this Simon Niger with Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross of Christ (Longnecker, 416; Walaskay, 125; see Mk 15:21=Matt 27:32=Lk 23:26). John Stott reasons that Simon Niger was “just conceivably none other than Simon of Cyrene who carried the cross for Jesus and who must have become a believer, since his sons Alexander and Rufus were known to the Christian community” (Stott, 216). However, Luke uses two different spellings in the two instances, employing Simōna in Lk 23:26 and Simeōn in Acts 13:1. Moreover, Lucius is called the “Cyrenaean” (Kyrēnaios) in Acts 13:1, while Simeon carries the title in Lk 23:26. In addition, the reference to the sons of Simon of Cyrene (Alexander and Rufus) in the context of Mk 15:21 seems to imply that they were personally known to the readers, requiring an unlikely but not impossible three-fold connection between Jerusalem (at the time of the crucifixion) and Antioch and Rome (the likely provenance of the Gospel of Mark), if the three passages reference the same individual. In sum, the identification is “no more than conjecture” (Hanson, 139). Craig Keener reasons that the two are not the same, “since Luke would hardly have relinquished the opportunity to identify them explicitly had they been the same person” (Keener, 1841; cf. 1985 n.29).

In Acts 13:1, Lucius is described as “the Cyrenaean.” F. F. Bishop postulated that Kyrēnaios is a modified reference to Kyrenia (a town in Cyprus), and thus Lucius was actually a Cypriot (Bishop, 148-153). However, Bishop’s conjecture has not found a foothold in scholarship. C. K. Barrett suggested that “Cyrenian” (Kyrēnaios) was a metaphorical reference to a very brave Perean (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 2.520). And F. F. Bruce mused that perhaps “Cyrenaean” was employed in a general sense of “African” (Bruce, 244 n.3). But the probable connotation is that Lucius was from Cyrene itself, either the city of Cyrene proper or at least the region of Cyrenaica (Barrett, 550; Witherington, 369 n.12; Peterson, 352). In the first century, Cyrenaica was the African territory of the senatorial province of Creta et Cyrenaica, roughly corresponding to eastern Libya.

Cyrene/Cyrenaica was a center of the Hellenistic Jewish Diaspora (Applebaum; Pervo, 210; cf. Mk 15:21=Matt 27:32=Lk 23:26; Acts 2:10; 6:9; 11:20-21; 13:1). Clinton Arnold reasonably theorizes that Lucius was “most likely one of the Hellenistic Jews, originally from Cyrene, who fled Jerusalem at the outbreak of the persecution and went to Antioch to proclaim the gospel to Gentiles (see 11:20)” (Arnold, 333; cf. Marshall, 214; Bruce, 245). Haenchen specifically hypothesized that Barnabas and Lucius were founders of the Antiochene church (Haenchen, 370; cf. Keener, 1840). One could develop such hypotheses further: perhaps Lucius was converted to Christianity at Pentecost (Acts 2:10 mentions Cyrene; cf. 6:9), and then later sent to Antioch as a missionary from the Jerusalem church (Rice, 171). “Some suppose that he was one of the seventy disciples” (Pseudo-Hippolytus, in M’Clintock and Strong, 544).

In all probability, the “Lucius of Cyrene” in Acts 13:1 should not be equated with the Lucius of Rom 16:21 who was a “kinsman” of Paul, even though a few modern commentators have followed Origen in this identification (Origen; Commentary on Romans 10.39; Allen, 267). The word “kinsman” (suggeneis) applied to the “Lucius” of Rom 16:21 may refer to a relative (Arnold, 333), but it may also mean nothing more than a fellow Jew or a fellow Christian of Jewish heritage (Rom 9:3; 16:11). As F. F. Bruce concludes, “This Lucius may be identical with our Lucius of Cyrene; there is no means of being sure” (Bruce 2000, 149).

Some have equated “Lucius (Loukios) of Cyrene” in Acts 13:1 with “Luke (Loukas)” who was “the beloved physician” and Paul’s “fellow-worker” (in Col 4:14 and Phile 24; cf. 2 Tim 4:11). Some inscriptional evidence demonstrates that the Latin Lucius and the Greek Loukanos were interchangeable (Cadbury 1933, 491). Ephrem the Syrian, in his commentary on Acts, adds “and Luke the Cyrenaean, the evangelist” as a conclusion to the text of Acts 12:25 (Bruce, 243 n.44; cf. Delebecque, 551-559). Ephrem’s identification would seem to equate “Lucian the Cyrenaean” with Luke, the traditional author of Luke-Acts. A few modern authors have followed his lead (Wenham, 32-41). Justo González reasons, “It is impossible to affirm it as a fact, but it is still a possibility” (González, xi). The first person plural “we” (traditionally tied to the presence of Luke) appears for the first time in Acts 11:28 (in the context of Antioch) in the Western text (Hengel, 72).

Nevertheless, strong evidence counters this equation of “Lucius of Cyrene” with the “Luke” of Col 4:14 and Phile 24, traditionally credited with the authorship of Luke-Acts (Keener, 1987). As Martin Hengel declares, “this hypothesis is very improbable” (Hengel, 72). In most texts of Acts, the first person plural “we” does not appear until Acts 16:10 (Polhill, 75). No ecclesiastical tradition states or implies that Luke was from North Africa; and some early Christian traditions do describe Luke as a Syrian, native to Antioch (ADB 397). Moreover, conflating the Lucius (seemingly of a Jewish diaspora background) in Acts 13;1 with the Luke “the beloved physician” of Col 4:14 faces the obstacle of the Gentile character of the latter within the literary context (Col 4:10-14); however, this interpretation of Col 4 has been disputed (Allen, 267-28). Most likely the amalgamation of these individuals (in Acts 13:1; Rom 16:21; Col 4:14; Phile 24; 2 Tim 4:11) simply reflects the tendency to conflate persons of similar name (though see Wenham, 32-38; Cadbury 1933, 492-492). Lucius was a common name—one of eighteen Roman praenomina (Bruce 1988, 245).

In ecclesiastical tradition, the Lucius of Acts 13:1 returned to Cyrene to lead the infant church there (Walsh, 372). For example, St. Lucius was the first bishop of Cyrene (following Mark) according to the Orthodox Synaxarium (Oden 2011, 98). Similarly, Michel LeQuien, the French historian and theologian, listed St. Lucius among the six early bishops of Cyrene (Pétridès). However, this episcopal characterization probably reflects early Christian conjecture based upon Acts 13:1 rather than any independent and reliable tradition. According to Thomas Oden, another strand of early Christian tradition places Lucius later in Cenchraea (Apostolic Constitutions 7.46; Oden 2011, 98), but this probably stems from the conflation of “Lucius” in Acts 13:1 with “Lucius” in Rom 16:21 (see above).

Paul A. Hartog


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This story, received in 2017, was written by Dr. Paul A. Hartog, Professor of Christian Thought at Faith Baptist Theological Seminary in Ankeny, Iowa, USA.