Simon of Cyrene and his family, on film.

Simon of Cyrene and his family, on film. May 6, 2020

Like many other people, I’ve been doing a lot more binge-watching than usual lately, ever since the pandemic lockdowns went into effect. I have particularly enjoyed spending time with the Criterion Channel; among other things, they had a huge selection of Sidney Poitier films leaving at the end of April, and this inspired me to do a marathon of all his feature films (and some of his TV films, which are surprisingly harder to find online).

Along the way, I revisited his cameo as Simon of Cyrene in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) — and I was startled to realize that it included a detail that I had never noticed before. Namely, it just might be the only film that depicts both of Simon’s sons.

Simon of Cyrene is mentioned in all three of the Synoptic gospels, which state that he was passing by when the soldiers who were about to execute Jesus forced Simon to carry the cross for Jesus, presumably because Jesus himself was too weak to do so.

The three accounts are very similar, but Mark’s gospel is the only one which includes the detail that Simon was “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mark 15:21).

Who were Alexander and Rufus? Who knows. But tradition does associate Mark’s gospel with Rome — and with St Peter, who died in Rome — and Paul’s letter to the Romans includes a special greeting for “Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too” (Romans 16:13). Is that the same Rufus? I like to think so. It may be that Mark mentioned Simon’s sons because he knew his readers would recognize those names, whereas Matthew and Luke were writing for audiences that wouldn’t.

And hey: If Paul and Mark are talking about the same guy, then it would seem that Mrs. Simon of Cyrene was a close friend of Paul’s, which is interesting in its own right.

Anyway. I have noted in the past that at least two films do seem to acknowledge the bit about Simon’s sons — but the films I was aware of showed only one of his sons.

Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927) shows Simon with one of his sons, who is so upset by the sight of Jesus’ suffering that he challenges his father to pick up the cross voluntarily (whereas the gospels say that Simon was forced to carry the cross):

(And no, Simon of Cyrene doesn’t have any dialogue in the gospels.)

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) also shows Simon walking with one of his sons before the soldiers force him to carry the cross (this time, against his will):

But The Greatest Story Ever Told seems to show Simon with both of his sons, as per the photo at the top of this post. How did I miss it before? Possibly because, when Simon first appears, he steps out from behind the crowd, and is not clearly with anybody:

He then looks to the side, briefly, at a woman and two boys — and I honestly don’t know how I missed this. Maybe I looked away to write some notes down or something:

And then Simon walks over and picks up the cross voluntarily:

Note, also, that Simon carries the cross with Jesus, whereas Luke’s gospel says he carried it behind Jesus. (Simon carries the cross with Jesus in a few other films, too.)

Anyway, if those two boys are Alexander and Rufus, then this is the only film I can think of that depicts both of Simon’s sons — and it seems to depict Simon’s wife, as well!


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