Who Was Simeon Niger in the Bible?

This Little-Known New Testament Character Plays a Huge Role

Image of Antioch from an illustrated Bible.

Smith, William, 1813-1893 Barnum, Samuel W. (Samuel Weed), 1820-1891, ed/Flickr/Public Domain

There are literally thousands of people mentioned in the Bible. Many of these individuals are well-known and have been studied throughout history because they played major roles in the events recorded throughout Scripture. Prominent Biblical characters include people such as Moses, King David, the apostle Paul, and so on.

But most of the people mentioned in the Bible are buried a little deeper within the pages, people whose names may not be recognized right away.

A man named Simeon, who was also called Niger, is one of these characters. Outside of some dedicated New Testament scholars, very few people have heard of him or know about his story. And yet his presence in the New Testament may signal some important facts about the early church of the New Testament, facts that point to some surprising implications.

Simeon's Story

Here is where this interesting man named Simeon enters the pages of the Bible:

In the church that was at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen, a close friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
As they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work I have called them to.” Then after they had fasted, prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them off.
Acts 13:1-3

This calls for a bit of background. The Book of Acts largely tells the story of the early church, including its launch at the Day of Pentecost all the way through the missionary journeys of Paul, Peter, and other disciples.

By the time we get to Acts 13, the church had already experienced a powerful wave of persecution from both Jewish and Roman authorities. More importantly, the church leaders had begun discussing whether Gentiles (non-Jewish people) should be told about the gospel message and included within the church. Leaders were also discussing whether the Gentiles should convert to Judaism. Many church leaders were in favor of including the Gentiles just as they were, but others were not.

Barnabas and Paul were at the forefront of the church leaders who wanted to evangelize the Gentiles. In fact, they were leaders in the church at Antioch, which was the first church to experience large numbers of Gentiles converting to Christ.

At the beginning of Acts 13, we find a list of additional leaders in the Antioch church. These leaders, including "Simeon who was called Niger," had a hand in sending Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey to other gentile cities in response to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Simeon, a Man Called Niger

So why is Simeon significant in this story? Because of that phrase added to his name in Acts 13:1: "Simeon who was called Niger."

In the original language of the text, the word "Niger" is best translated as "black." Therefore, many scholars have concluded in recent years that Simeon "who was called Niger" was indeed a black man. He is presumed to be an African gentile who had transplanted to Antioch and met with Jesus.

We can't know for sure whether Simeon was black, but it's certainly a reasonable conclusion. And a striking one, at that! Think about it: There's a good chance that more than 1,500 years before the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, a black man helped lead one of the most influential churches in the history of the world.

That shouldn't be news, of course. Black men and women have proven themselves as capable leaders for thousands of years, both inside and outside of the church. But given the history of prejudice and exclusion demonstrated by the church in recent centuries, the presence of Simeon surely provides an example of why things should have been better — and why they still can be better.

Source:

Anonymous. Acts 13. Holman Bible Publishers, 2009, Nashville, Tennessee.