Cyrene and Its Surroundings

For most Bible readers, the city of Cyrene is not typically recognized as a significant place for understanding the world of the Bible, yet it is mentioned no less than five times in the New Testament as the place where certain people came from or lived. This underscores how much interaction some residents of Cyrene must have had with believers throughout the early church, both in Jerusalem and in Antioch. The ancient city of Cyrene was established on the narrow band of fertile land along the northern coast of Libya. It was founded around 631 B.C. by Greeks from the island of Thera who had been experiencing a severe drought. Over time several other cities were founded along the coast, forming what has sometimes been called the Pentapolis (“Five Cities”) of Cyrenaica: Cyrene (and its port of Apollonia), Balagrae, Ptolemais, Barca, and Berenice. Cyrenaica came under Persian rule by 525 B.C., and after Alexander’s empire was divided among his generals the region came under Ptolemaic rule. In 96 B.C. the Pentapolis was bequeathed to Rome and was later combined with Crete to form the Roman province of Crete and Cyrenaica. Cyrene and its surrounding lands produced grains, olive oil, wine, figs, apples, wool, beef, and a rare herb called silphium, and the city became renowned for its academic and artistic centers. At its peak it boasted a population of about 100,000 residents, including a large Jewish population. During the time of Jesus a man from Cyrene named Simon, who had likely come to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple during Passover, was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross while Jesus was being led away to his crucifixion (Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26). Other Jews from Cyrene were among those in Jerusalem who heard the apostle Peter’s message in their own language while celebrating the festival of Pentecost (Acts 2:10). Later, other Jews from Cyrene and elsewhere argued with a believer named Stephen and falsely accused him of blasphemy (Acts 6:9). After Stephen was stoned to death and many believers fled Palestine, some Jewish believers from Cyrene were among those who traveled to Antioch and told Gentiles about the good news of Jesus Christ (Acts 11:19-20). Finally, a Cyrenian believer named Lucius was one of several people in Antioch who were led by the Holy Spirit to appoint Barnabas and Paul for missionary service (Acts 13:1).

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