(This is a bit lighter than some of my recent posts. It’s a sort of postscript to my Twitter comments on Romans 16. All Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation, 2nd edition.)
“Greet Rufus … and also his dear mother, who has been a mother to me.” (Romans 16:13)
So, just when and how was Rufus’s mother like a mother to Paul? These thoughts are speculative, though I’m sure I’m not the first person to speculate in this way: I’ve seen some of the suggestions in study Bibles and commentaries, although none of the ones I have suggests all of this.
The only other time a Rufus is mentioned in the Bible is in Mark 15 verse 21, as one of the sons of Simon from Cyrene, who was the man forced by the Romans to carry Jesus’ cross. Matthew and Luke both mention Simon, but not his sons; and Mark actually says “Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus”. This is strange, at a time when people were normally described as ‘X son of Y’, and suggests that Alexander and Rufus were known to the early church, particularly to Mark’s original readers (and less so to those of Matthew and Luke?).
It is wisdely believed that Mark’s gospel was based on the teavhing and recollection of Peter, and Peter was associated with Rome. So it is possible that this Rufus was known to the Roman church, and therefore when Paul mentions a Rufus in his letter to Rome, it is the same Rufus, the son of Simon of Cyrene.
Cyrene was a city in North Africa, and one of the places where there were colonies of Jews, and also Jewish converts from the local population. People from Cyrene were present on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples (Acts 2:10): was Simon still there, having stayed since Passover? Were Alexander and Rufus with him?
Many of the people who saw and heard the disciples that day became followers of Jesus. And it was believers from Cyprus and Cyrene who went to Antioch and started preaching to non-Jews (Acts 11:20); so successfully that the Jewish church sent Barnabas to find out what was going on, who then brought Paul (still known as Saul) to develop the ministry.
And then we read “Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were Barnabas, Simeon (called “the black man” [Greek ‘Niger’]), Lucius (from Cyrene), … and Saul” (Acts 13:1). So, is Simeon Niger the same as Simon of Cyrene? Was he a native North African (hence ‘black’), a convert to Judaism, who then became a follower of Jesus?
This is, of course, speculation: but if it is true, then it is possible that Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross, was there in Antioch with his family – his sons Alexander and Rufus, and his wife, their mother. Is this where Rufus’ mother became like a mother to Paul? Did he actually stay at Simon’s house? It would be nice to think so.
And when Paul is writing to the Romans, perhaps, Simon has died, and his widow has gone to Rome to live with her son Rufus. So in his letter, Paul remembers all she did for him as a new Christian in Antioch, being “a mother to me”.