In the middle of his novel, Claudius the God, the sequel to I, Claudius, writer Robert Graves interrupts his narrative about the Roman Emperor to tell the story of a friend of Claudius’, the son of a Jewish royal family whose career had more ups and downs than an epileptic yo-yo. He is mentioned very briefly in the Book of Acts, but like the rest of his dysfunctional family, there is so much more to his life than that. He was the rock star of the House of Herod: Herod Agrippa I.
Agrippa was the son of Aristobulus IV, one of the children of Herod the Great, and one of the sons Herod had executed. Little Agrippa was only three at the time, and therefore incapable of plotting against Grandpa Herod, so the family sent him to Rome. Agrippa grew up at the Roman Imperial Court and became good friends with Claudius and with the Emperor Tiberius’ son, Drusus.
After his mother’s death, he came into some money, but quickly spent it all and dug himself deep into debt. When his friend Drusus died, he had to flee Rome to escape his debts and he stayed for a while in Idumaea, where his grandfather’s family originally came from.
His uncle, Herod Antipas, gave him a minor administrative post in the city of Tiberius in Galilee, but that didn’t last very long. He bounced around a bit after that, ending up in Alexandria in Egypt, where with the help of his wife, he was able to secure a loan to pay off his debts, enabling him to return to Rome.
Once again in Rome, he became close friends with Caligula, Tiberius’ designated heir. For a while, these were good times for Agrippa; but on one occasion a servant heard him joking that he wished Tiberius would hurry up and die so that Caligula could ascend to the throne.
Word of Agrippa’s injudicious remark got back to Tiberius. The Emperor did not find the joke terribly funny. Not that many years before, Tiberius had discovered that his best friend, Sejanus, had practically taken over ruling the Empire and was using him as a figurehead. Tiberius regained control of the situation, but the betrayal had left him justifiably paranoid about that sort of thing. Herod Agrippa was sent to prison, and there was nothing Caligula could do to help. If he had tried, Uncle Tiberius would have seen it as proof that Caligula really was plotting against him. Which Caligula probably was.
So there Agrippa sat, until the old hedonist finally did croak, and Caligula took over. Caligula did not forget his old pal. He freed Agrippa and by way of restitution gave him a chain made of gold as heavy as the iron chain Agrippa had worn in prison. Caligula also appointed him king of the province of Syria and the regions previously ruled by Agrippa’s late Uncle Philip, (the brother of Herod Antipas). This rankled Antipas, who for years had coveted the title of king, but had to be content with being called a tetrarch.
On his way to Syria, Agrippa revisited Alexandria. According to Philo, a First Century Jewish historian living in the city at that time, the honors the Emperor had bestowed upon Agrippa stirred up jealousy and resentment against the Jewish community amongst the populace. Philo describes public insults to Agrippa made by rabble-rousers, and acts of violence against the Alexandrian Jews. The provincial governor, a guy with the embarrassing name of Flaccus, was either too incompetent to curb the violence or, as Philo insists, complicit in it. None of this seems to have been Agrippa’s fault, though, and Philo seems to have had a high opinion of him.
Philo wasn’t the only one who liked Agrippa. Unlike the rest of the rulers in the House of Herod, Agrippa actually got along with his Jewish subjects. Maybe enough generations had passed that Grandpa Herod’s Idumenan blood wasn’t that important anymore; maybe Agrippa was more observant than his hedonistic Uncle Antipas; maybe years of Roman rule had made people nostalgic for the glory days of Herod the Great. Personally, I suspect that Herod Agrippa had a talent for schmoozing which his other family members lacked; but we don’t read much about that aspect of Agrippa’s personality from Josephus.
His Uncle Antipas didn’t like him, though. You may remember that Herod Antipas was only a tetrarch, the ruler of one quarter of a province; but the Emperor appointed Herod Agrippa to be a basileus, (king). Antipas tried lobbying the Emperor for an upgrade in his job title; and while he was at it, hint that Agrippa was doing a crappy job; (the same sort of rumors Antipas used to pass on about his rival Pontius Pilate).
Agrippa anticipated him, and sent Caligula accusations of his own against Uncle Antipas. Guess which one Caligula believed. Antipas found himself exiled to Gaul and his former tetrarchy got added to Agrippa’s territories. Agrippa now ruled over all of the Jewish territories in Palestine, except for the core provinces of Judea and Samaria, which remained for the time under Roman administrators.
Agrippa remained close buds with Caligula, which in itself was no small accomplishment. He accompanied the Emperor on a military campaign to the Rhine Valley, not because he had any great military skill, but I think because Caligula wanted a drinking buddy on the trip to pal around with.
This relationship helped Agrippa in what was probably the biggest crisis of his career. As Caligula slid further and further into the teacup, he issued a decree that statues of himself be placed in every temple in the empire. This would not have gone down well in Jerusalem.
Some years earlier, Pontius Pilate had faced riots because he brought soldiers into the city whose regimental standard bore the Emperor’s likeness. More importantly, the Maccabean wars of a century or two earlier when the Jews revolted against the Selucid Greeks and briefly established their independence, was triggered when the Selucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ordered sacrifices to Zeus in the Temple.
Agrippa was descended on his grandmother’s side from the Hasomean Dynasty of priestly kings who ruled Judea during this period of independence. He could see how this would go: the Jews would resist the edict, as they did in the days of Judah “the Hammer” Maccabeus; only this time, the Romans would be the ones doing the hammering.
With his considerable powers of flattery and diplomacy, Agrippa was able to intercede with Caligula – very likely at the risk of his own life – and persuade him to rescind the edict. Jerusalem and the Temple were spared revolt and the crushing Roman retaliation for a generation.
Before Caligula could change his mind again, he was assassinated. As luck would have it, Agrippa was once again in Rome when it happened. Always one to know who his friends were, Agrippa glommed onto Claudius, his old school chum and Caligula’s uncle.
Claudius had always been considered too feeble-minded and bookish by his family to get involved in their Imperial power struggles; but with the death of Caligula, he was about the last male member of the House of Caesar available as a successor. The Praetorian Guard, the Emperor’s elite bodyguards, declared their support for Claudius to be the new Emperor. In Josephus’s book The Antiquities of the Jews, he describes Agrippa as being instrumental in persuading Claudius to seize the throne and challenge the Roman Senate. His earlier book, The Jewish Wars, simply depict Agrippa as a messenger to Claudius.
When the dust cleared and all the blood mopped from the floor, Claudius was Emperor, and he granted his buddy the remaining Jewish provinces of Judea and Samaria. Now Herod Agrippa truly was King of the Jews.
And, from the accounts of Philo, Josephus, and some of the rabbinical commentators on that period, he did pretty well as king. His ringside seat in Rome witnessing the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula gave him an exemplary education in what not to do when you’re an absolute monarch and he seems to have taken those lessons to heart.
But you know he wouldn’t be a Herod if he didn’t execute someone somewhere along the line. And that’s where he comes into the New Testament.
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. (Acts 12:1-3 NIV)
James the son of Zebedee, along with his brother, John and with Simon Peter, are described by the Gospels as the closest of Jesus’ disciples. He took the three of them with him up on the mountain to witness his Transfiguration; and later on, he also took them along when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. At one point, the mother of James and John lobbied Jesus to have him place her boys at his Right and Left Hand; an idea Jesus quashed, but which caused a bit of resentment among the other Disciples. The Gospels say little of James actually doing much, and I’ve always gotten the impression that John was the one who was really close to Jesus and that James came along because the two brothers were inseparable. I also have to wonder how much of the hostility in the Gospel of John towards “The Jews” stems from the execution of his brother. I may be reading too much into this, though.
The James mentioned here, the brother of John, is a different guy from the James who appears later in Acts as an important leader in the Christian Community, and who is called “James the brother of Jesus.” Unless the author of Acts did some major messing with the sequence of events, which is also a possibility. But no, I think if the two Jameses had been the same man, the writer would have made this more clear.
Why did Agrippa have James arrested and executed? He probably considered James’ wacko religious splinter group as disturbers of the peace. Or perhaps, as the text darkly suggests, he did it solely to suck up to the Jewish religious authorities, who regarded them as blasphemers. Or, most likely, I think, a little of both.
He had James executed by the sword, and not by crucifixion. It seems to me that this is a telling point, but I’m not sure what it tells me. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment for crimes against the Empire of Rome; Agrippa, I think, wanted to be seen acting on behalf of his own kingdom and not on behalf of the Emperor. Or maybe he figured that since the Messiah these people followed had been crucified, that doing it to James too would just encourage them.
The poll numbers from his action were encouraging. After all, no politician ever misses a chance to appear Tough on Crime, and being Tough on Heresy is even better. So Agrippa also had Peter brought in during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, intending to put him to public trial once Passover ended. The Book of Acts tells of how Peter miraculously escaped from prison in a jailbreak that was simultaneously awesome and a little bit creepy. (And capped off with a bit of comedy, when Peter showed up at the house of some friends and they refused to believe it was him). Presumably Peter laid low after that, because we get no mention of Agrippa trying to arrest him again.
He might not have had the chance; because after the Passover festival of AD 44, Caligula returned to the city of Caesarea to preside over a series of games in honor of Claudius. According to Acts, he had been quarreling with the people of the nearby provinces of Tyre and Sidon, and they had sent envoys to Agrippa to sue for peace. Josephus, describing the occasion, makes no mention of the envoys and only says that Agrippa was presiding over a public festival. The Book of Acts describes it this way:
On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” (Acts 12:21-22)
If this doesn’t sound like the kind of thing a crowd of Jewish subjects would say, you’re right. But Caesarea was a predominantly Gentile city. The author of Acts strongly hints that the envoys from Tyre and Sidon were the ones doing the flattery. Josephus’ account says that the occasion was a a series of public games held in honor of the Emperor, which would likely draw a mostly Romanized crowd anyway. And I suspect that after a couple of generations of Roman Emperors being declared gods after death, and of Caligula claiming godhood for himself while alive, the idea of granting divine attributes to a king had pretty much come to be considered one of the perks of the job.
Josephus gives a little more detail:
Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea [...] There he exhibited shows in honor of the emperor [...] On the second day of the festival, Herod put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a truly wonderful contexture, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment was illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun's rays upon it. It shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him. At that moment, his flatterers cried out [...] that he was a god; and they added, 'Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.'
Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and he fell into the deepest sorrow. [Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities Book 19 ch.8]
The owl was a reference to the earlier occasion when Agrippa had been imprisoned by Tiberius. He saw an owl perched above him while in prison and took it to be an omen of good fortune. When he saw the owl again, he interpreted it as a sign that his luck was about to change.
A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, 'I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner.' After he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad that he would certainly die in a little time. But the multitude presently sat in sackcloth, with their wives and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king's recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground, he could not himself forbear weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign. (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities Book 19.ch. 8)
The Author of Acts has little positive to say about the killer of James, and is much briefer:
Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Acts 12:23)
What was this malady that took away the resplendent Agrippa in the vigor of his life? Some have speculated that it might have been the same ailment that took his grandfather, Herod the Great; but since we don’t know what that ailment was, it doesn’t really help that much. If it was the same cause of death, Agrippa was lucky he only suffered for five days instead of the years it took Grandpa Herod to die.
In his novel Claudius the God, Robert Graves has the Emperor, hearing about his friend’s death, muse that the Hebrew god must be pretty arbitrary and petty to strike Agrippa down like that for such a trifling offense. And perhaps it was. But in Josephus’ telling at least, Agrippa seems to have taken his fate philosophically. He might well have said, with Job: “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.”
He left behind a son, Agrippa II who was only 17 and considered too young to take over the throne; and so the restored Kingdom of the Herods once again fell to the rule of Roman administrators. In the meantime, the fringe group following the crucified Messiah that Agrippa tried to crush grew. And so did the tensions between the Jewish population of Judea and their Roman rulers.