Who Was Simeon (Niger) in the Bible?

This little-known New Testament character carries big implications.

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

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. These are 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 we may not recognize off the top of our heads.

A man named Simeon, who was also called Niger, was such a man. Outside of some dedicated New Testament scholars, very few people have heard of him or know about him in any way. 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 God's Word:

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 should be told about the gospel message and included within the church — and whether those Gentiles should convert to Judaism. Many church leaders were in favor of including the Gentiles just as they were, of course, 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's Name

So why is Simeon significant in this story? Because of that phrase added to his name in verse 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 black (Niger)" was indeed a black man — 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 in the church and without. 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.