Aristobulus and Narcissus

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

tom lowe

Aristobulus and Narcissus
Early Church Workers
• Aristobulus was the grandson of Herod the Great and lived in Rome as a private citizen.
• Since Paul does not greet him, but only those in his household, it is plausible to think he had either passed away or was not a Christian.
• If he had died, his slaves would have reverted to the emperor upon his death. Furthermore, they would have been known as the household of Aristobulus. ·
• Narcissus was a powerful freedman. Someone by that name was put to death by Nero shortly before this letter was written.
• Interestingly, members from his household are identified as being "in the Lord."

The Households of Aristobulus and Narcissus
Romans 16:10-11
Salute Apelles approved in Christ. Salute them, which are of Aristobulus' household.…

We do not know anything about these two persons, men of position evidently, who had large households. But learned commentators of the New Testament have advanced a very sensible conjecture concerning each of them. As to the first of them, Aristobulus — that wicked old King Herod, in whose lifetime Christ was born, had a grandson of the name, who spent all his life in Rome, and was in close relations with the emperor of that day. He had died some little time before the writing of this letter. As to the second of them, there is a very notorious Narcissus, who plays a great part in the history of Rome just a little while before Paul's period there, and he, too, was dead. And it is more than probable that the slaves and retainers of these two men were transferred in both cases to the emperor's household and held together in it, being known as Aristobulus's men and Narcissus's men. And so probably the Christians among them are the brethren to whom these salutations are sent.


I think of the sort of man the master of the first household was if the identification suggested is accepted. He is one of that foul Herodian brood, in all of whom the bad Idumaean blood ran corruptly. The grandson of the old Herod, the brother of Agrippa of the Acts of the Apostles, the hanger-on of the Imperial Court, with Roman vices coated on his native wickedness, was not the man to welcome the entrance of a revolutionary uproar into his household; and yet through his barred doors had crept quietly, he knowing nothing about it, that great message of a loving God, and a Master whose service was freedom. And in thousands of like cases the gospel was finding its way underground, undreamed of by the great and wise, but steadily pressing onwards, and undermining all the towering grandeur that was so contemptuous of it. So Christ's truth spread at first, and I believe that is the way it always spreads.


A considerable proportion of the first of these two households would probably be Jews — if Aristobulus were indeed Herod's grandson. The greeting increases the probability that he was interjected between those to the households — "Salute Herodian." The name suggests some connection with Herod, and whether we suppose the designation of "my kinsman," which Paul gives him, to mean "blood relation" or "fellow-countryman," Herodian, at all events, was a Jew by birth. As for the other members of these households, Paul may have met some of them in his many travels, but he had never been in Rome, and his greetings are more probably sent to them as conspicuous sections, numerically, of the Roman Church, and as tokens of his affection, though he had never seen them. The possession of a common faith has bridged the gulf between him and them. Slaves in those days were outside the pale of human sympathy and almost outside the pale of human rights. Furthermore, the foremost of Christian teachers, who was born a freeman separated from these poor people by a tremendous chasm, stretches a brother's hand across it and grasps theirs. The gospel that came into the world to shred old associations split up society and do a deep split between fathers and children and husband and wife also came to more than counterbalance its dividing effects by its uniting power.


They were mostly slaves, and they continued to be slaves when they were Christians. Paul recognized their continuance in the servile position and did not say a word to them to induce them to break their bonds. Of course, there is no blinking away the fact that slavery was an essentially immoral and unchristian institution. However, it is one thing to lay down principles and leave them to be worked in and then to be worked out, and it is another thing to go blindly charging at existing institutions and throwing them down by violence before men have grown up to feel that they are wicked. Thus, the New Testament takes the wise course and leaves the foolish to foolish people. It makes the tree good, and then its fruit will be good. However, the main point that I want to insist upon is this: what was suitable for these slaves in Rome is good for you and me. Let us get near to Jesus Christ and feel that we have got hold of His hand for ourselves, and we shall not mind very much about the possible varieties of the human condition.


It was not a very likely place to find Christian people in the household of Herod's grandson, was it? Such flowers do not often grow, or at least not quickly grow, on such dunghills. Moreover, in both these cases, only a handful of the people, a portion of each household, were Christian. So they had beside them, closely identified with them — working, perhaps, at the same tasks, I might almost say chained with the same chains — men who had no share in their faith or their love. It would not be easy to pray, love, and trust God and do His will, and keep clear of involvement with idolatry and immorality and sin, in such a pigsty as that; would it? Nevertheless, these men did it. Moreover, nobody need ever say," I am in such circumstances that I cannot live a Christian life." There are no such circumstances, at least none of God's appointing. There are often such that we bring upon ourselves. And then the best thing is to get out of them as soon as we can. However, as far as He is concerned, He never puts anybody anywhere where he cannot live a holy life.

Early campaigns and monarchy established
John Hyrcanus conquered many lands to expand Jewish territory, but throughout his campaign, Samaria resisted, while surrounding land was captured. John so highly valued Samaria that he sent his two sons, Aristobulus and Antigonus, to capture it; they besieged the city. The residents requested Antiochus IX Cyzicenus, who joined the battle but was defeated. Antiochus fled, and the brothers pursued him towards Scythopolis. After Antiochus eventually escaped, the brothers returned to Samaria, demolished the city, and enslaved its populace. The capture and destruction of Samaria occurred near the end of John Hyrcanus's long tenure. Forces led by the brothers then overran Scythopolis and the entire region south of Mount Carmel.

According to the directions of John Hyrcanus, the country after his death was to be placed in the hands of his wife, and Aristobulus was initially to receive the high priesthood only. Instead, Aristobulus became both king and high priest as he disapproved of his father's wishes; And to secure his kingship, he had his mother placed in prison where she starved to death; And to ensure himself of any possible endangerment from his family, he placed his three brothers in prison except for Antigonus whom he had friendly relations because they had fought together against the enemies of Judaea.

Josephus does not name Hyrcanus's wife. However, he states that Aristobulus and Antigonus were the eldest of the five brothers, but Aristobulus is the firstborn. The others were Alexander Jannaeus and Absalom. Josephus mentions the fifth brother but does not name him.

Conquest of Galilee
Aristobulus had gone to war against the Ituraeans and taken territory from them. The conquered Ituraeans and the inhabitants had to accept Jewish law and be circumcised if they wanted to remain in their land. The Ituraeans were an Arab tribe that expanded their settlement to the Golan and Mount Hermon in the second century BCE after the collapse of the Seleucid Empire. They are first mentioned in Josephus's Antiquities 13.319 during Aristobulus I's conquest, where Josephus writes, "he brought over to them a portion of the Ituraean nation."

Death and successor
With sudden abdominal pains, Aristobulus's health gradually deteriorated, forcing him to return to his palace during the festival of Sukkot. His brother Antigonus would eventually return to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival at the Temple. Unfamiliar with ceremonial festivities, Antigonus arrived armed with escorting soldiers. According to Kenneth Atkinson, Antigonus had returned from a successful unspecified military campaign. He further states that Josephus did not mention the location of the campaign. Atkinson presumes it to be Galilee since Antigonus had fine armor and military decorations procured in the region stated in Josephus's Jewish War 1.76.

Meanwhile, Aristobulus fell prey to his wife, Queen Salome Alexandra, and conspirators. They had spread rumors about Antigonus attempting to seize the throne once he was seen in armor at the festival. Wearing a military uniform was considered unorthodox during the occasion. Aristobulus alienated Antigonus once he heard of him parading at the temple courts in armor. Aristobulus was then informed by "evil men" that his brother sent soldiers to murder him. Believing the report, Aristobulus barricaded himself at the fortified citadel Baris which was moated and had defensive fortifications.

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