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If Luke has been tracking the story of the movement of the Spirit to the “fringes” of Judaism, then we might wonder what the point of chapter 12 is in that development.  It is possible to see persecution from Herod (Agrippa I) as a demonstration of how far out of step the leadership of Israel was with the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Herod was considered to be the best of his line with respect to Jewish roots.  But as we shall see, he was quite Roman in his thinking. With this story, we have in many ways crossed the line to “outsiders,” and it is therefore quite surprising to find the “King of the Jews” on the outside of the growing movement of the Spirit.

Because the death of Herod Agrippa is well know from Josephus, we can date the events of this chapter fairly precisely to A.D. 43-44, some 14 years after Pentecost.  If Herod is celebrating Claudius’ birthday, then he died about Aug 1, 44 and Peter was arrested in April of 44.  If Herod was celebrating the founding of Caesarea, then he died about March 5 and Peter would have been arrested the previous year at Passover (April 43).

The king Herod of Acts 12 is Agrippa I.  Later in Acts we meet Agrippa II (Acts 25-26; Agrippa II’s full name was Marcus Julius Agrippa).  Born about 10 B.C., Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great, the son of Aristobolus and Bernice. He was raised in Rome, and was a friend of Caligula and Claudius as well as Tiberius’ son Drusus. He was able to exploit the relationships in order to gain wealth and power. He sought the favor of Caligula to the point that the Emperor Tiberius imprisoned him for six-months on charges of treason.  In A.D. 41 Agrippa used his relationship with Caligula to help prevent the installation of a statue of the emperor in the Temple in Jerusalem. When Caligula was assassinated, Claudius made Agrippa ruler over considerable territory in Judea.

We are not told why he persecuted the church in Jerusalem, although it may be that Agrippa was in some respects interested in his Jewish roots.  This piety was demonstrated upon his return to Judea.  He donated a golden chain, given to him by Caligula when he was freed from his imprisonment, to the Temple.  In addition, he undertook the sponsorship of a large number of Nazarite vows in the temple (Antiq., 12.6.1, Schürer 2:155).  During a Sabbath year, Agrippa read from the book of Deuteronomy and was moved to tears when he read the words of Deut 17:15, forbidding the appointment of a stranger over the “brothers” (i.e., a non-Israelite over Israel.)  The crowd which witnesses this responded “Thou art our brother!” (See m.Sota 7.8).  According to Josephus:

“He loved to live continually at Jerusalem, and was exactly careful in the observance of the laws of his country. He therefore kept himself entirely pure; nor did any day pass over his head without its appointed sacrifice.” Antiq. 19.7.3

Schürer argues that Agrippa was favorable to Pharisism and even to some extent a Jewish nationalism (2:159).  This may be plausible given his zealous persecution of the Jewish Christians in Acts 12.

James’ death is about eleven years after the martyrdom of Stephen.  It therefore appears that the people of Jerusalem no longer support the Jewish Christians. Witherington makes this point:   the city of Jerusalem has “turned against” the Jewish church (Acts, 386 ).   Agrippa is therefore demonstrating his piousness by pursuing the leaders of the Christian community.  Luke demonstrates that the leadership of Israel has rejected the gift of the Spirit.

Bibliography: David C. Braund, “Agrippa” ABD 1:98-99; Schürer , 2:150-159.

What do we know about the Herod of Acts 12?

The king Herod of Acts 12 is Agrippa I Later in Acts we meet Agrippa, he is Herod Agrippa II (Acts 25-26. Agrippa II’s full name was Marcus Julius Agrippa). Born about 10 B.C., Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great, the son of Aristobolus and Bernice. He was raised in Rome, and was a fried of Caligula and Claudius as well as Tiberius’ son Drusus. He was able to exploit the relationships in order to gain wealth and power. He sought the favor of Caligula to the point that the Emperor Tiberius imprisoned him for six-months on charges of treason. In A.D. 41 Agrippa used his relationship with Caligula to help prevent the installation of a statue of the emperor in the Temple in Jerusalem. When Caligula was assassinated, Claudius made Agrippa ruler over considerable territory in Judea.

We are not told why he persecuted the church in Jerusalem, although it may be that Agrippa was in some respects interested in his Jewish roots. This piety was demonstrated upon his return to Judea. He donated a golden chain, given to him by Caligula when he was freed from his imprisonment, to the Temple. In addition, he undertook the sponsorship of a large number of Nazarite vows in the temple (Antiq., 12.6.1, Schürer 2:155). During a Sabbath year, Agrippa read from the book of Deuteronomy and was moved to tears when he read the words of Deut 17:15, forbidding the appointment of a stranger over the “brothers” (i.e., a non-Israelite over Israel.) The crowd which witnesses this responded “Thou art our brother!” (See m.Sota 7.8 )

“He loved to live continually at Jerusalem, and was exactly careful in the observance of the laws of his country. He therefore kept himself entirely pure; nor did any day pass over his head without its appointed sacrifice.” Josephus, Antiq. 19.7.3

Schürer argues that Agrippa was favorable to Pharisism and even to some extent a Jewish nationalism (2:159). This may be plausible given his zealous persecution of the Jewish Christians in Acts 12.

Herod Agrippa’s death is recorded in Josephus, Antiq., 19.343-352 as well as Acts 12. The two accounts are remarkably similar. Josephus gives more details on Herod’s robes (which probably were designed to catch the sun and make him appear as though he is the god Apollos); Luke describes the nature of the illness with a bit more medical detail. When we read Acts 12, it appears that he dies immediately, Josephus describes Agrippa as lingering for five days before dying. In both accounts his robes are “divine”, although Josephus gives us a description of robes as “silver” and adds the fact that he arrived early in the morning to make sacrifices and the sunlight caught the robe in a spectacular way. Both Acts and Josephus agree that Herod accepted the praise of the men who called him a god.

What is the point of the death of Herod? The story indicates that the gospel has gone to the Jews in every imaginable variation, from Temple worshipers to Gentile Godfearers, to Herod, the king of the Jews himself. The good news that Jesus is the Messiah has been rejected, therefore God is going to begin a new work among the Gentiles, using Saul of Tarsus as the “light to the Gentiles.”

The audio for this week’s evening service is available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer.

In this chapter we see some significant changes in the church at Jerusalem.  James has been killed and Peter is about to die at the hands of Herod Agrippa.  It is only by a miraculous rescue that Peter avoids martyrdom in A.D. 44.

After Peter is rescued from prison, he tells the group which had been praying for him to report to James what has happened.  This is James, the Lord’s brother.  At this point in the story, we did not know that he was a believer, but he will be one of the major leaders of the Jerusalem church by Acts 15.

During Jesus’ ministry, the Lord’s family did not believe that he was the messiah.  After the resurrection we are told in 1 Cor 15:3-5 that Jesus appeared to James at some point.  We presume that after this appearance, James became a believer in Jesus as the Messiah.  James has a reputation for being an extremely zealous Jewish believer, and a leader among the Pharisees and priests who accepted Jesus.  This will be a problem later for Paul, but at this point we are only told that James is some sort of a leader in the Jerusalem church.

Some scholars have seen this passage as an indication that there is a shift in leadership in the Jerusalem community from Peter to James.  This is possible (and I would even go so far as to say probable!), but it remains only a hint in this chapter.  James, it seems to me, is a very significant leader in the Jerusalem church, although this fact is sometimes overlooked.  Since Peter is the leader of the twelve most people look to him as a defacto leader of the church.  I think this is a mistake, although Peter does continue to have some influence in Jerusalem (Acts 15).

It is significant that there is no effort to replace James the son of Zebedee after he is killed.  On the one hand, it is 13 years after the resurrection, so the pool of individuals who could be witnesses from John the Baptist through the resurrection is likely very small – even James the Brother of Jesus does not qualify as a witness under those requirements!

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Phillip J. Long

Phillip J. Long

I am a college professor who enjoys reading, listening to music and drinking fine coffee. Often at the same time.

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