James Put to Death: Part 1 of 2

by John Lowe
(Laurens SC, USA)

June 5, 2014

Acts of the Apostles

Note: The Revised Standard Version is used throughout, except for the text, which uses the King James Version.

Scripture (Acts 12:1, 2; KJV)
1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church.
2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword;

After the brief glimpse of the Antioch church that we had in chapter 11, attention focused once more on Jerusalem in chapter 12. If the apostles remained largely untouched by the persecution that followed Stephen’s death, the situation radically changed when Herod Agrippa assumed rule over Judea. The apostles then became the specific targets of the king’s efforts to suppress the Christians. James was beheaded and Peter was put in prison in anticipation of the same fate. But not even the king was able to stem the tide when God was behind it. Indeed, the king found himself fighting against God and suffered the consequences. “But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!" (Acts 5:39). “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:17).


1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church.

The story begins with a vague time reference. It was “about this time.” Evidently Luke meant about the time the Antioch church was preparing its relief offering for the Jerusalem church. “Now in these days, prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world; and this took place in the days of Claudius. And the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brethren who lived in Judea; and they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:27-30). Considering the history of Herod Agrippa I, the Herod of this story, the time most likely would have been the Spring of a.d. 42 or 43. The Greek of verse 1 is quite vivid: Herod “laid violent hands” on some of the Christians. To understand why he would do this, it is necessary to understand something of Herod Agrippa I and his relationship to the Jews.

In 1 Peter 3:12, we read, “For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous . . .” God watched and noted what Herod Agrippa I was doing to His people. This evil man was the grandson of Herod the Great, who ordered the Bethlehem children to be murdered, and the nephew of Herod Antipas, who had John the Baptist beheaded. His father Aristobulus, had been executed in 7 b.c. by his grandfather for fear that he might usurp his throne. After his father’s death, while still a child, Agrippa was sent to Rome with his mother, where he was reared and educated along with the children of Roman aristocracy. These childhood friendships eventually led to his ruling over a Jewish kingdom nearly the extent of that of his grandfather. In a.d. 37 the emperor, Caligula, gave him the title of king and more territory to rule. He was truly “king of the Jews” now, ruling over all of Judea, Samaria, Galilee, the Transjordan, and the Decapolis. A scheming and murderous family, the Herods were despised by the Jews, who resented having Edomites ruling over them Herod Agrippa I was in reality partially Jewish, being of Hasmonean descent.. Of course, Herod knew this, so he persecuted the church to convince the Jewish people of his loyalty to the traditions of the fathers. Now that the Gentiles were openly part of the Church, Herod’s plan was even more agreeable to the nationalistic Jews who had no place for “pagans.”

Though the king, Agrippa was hardly secure. Much of his good fortune was due to his friendship with Caligula, and Caligula had not been a popular emperor with the Romans. In fact, Agrippa could not count on always being in the good graces of Rome. It became all the more important for him to win the loyalty of his Jewish subjects in order to give him at least a firm footing at home. Everything Josephus said about Agrippa would indicate that he made every attempt to please the Jews, particularly currying the favor of the influential Pharisees. His “Jewishness,” however, seems to have been largely a face he put on when at home. When away he lived in a thoroughly Roman fashion. Why persecution of the Christians was particularly pleasing to them at this time is not stated. Perhaps the acceptance of uncircumcised Gentiles as related in chapter 11 had something to do with their disfavor.

The following article, taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica, probably has more information about Herod Agrippa I than you want to know.

Herod Agrippa I, original name Marcus Julius Agrippa (born c. 10 bc—died ad 44), king of Judaea (ad 41–44), a clever diplomat who through his friendship with the Roman imperial family obtained the kingdom of his grandfather, Herod I the Great. He displayed great acumen in conciliating the Romans and Jews.

When Antipater, the son of Herod and the father of Agrippa, was executed by the suspicious Herod, Agrippa was sent to Rome for education and safety. There he grew up in company with the emperor Tiberius’s son Drusus. After his mother’s death, he quickly spent his family’s wealth and acquired serious debts. When Drusus died in ad 23, Agrippa left Rome, settling near Beersheba, in Palestine. An appeal to his uncle Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, won him a minor official post but he soon vacated it.

In 36, having raised a sizable loan in Alexandria, Agrippa returned to Rome, where the emperor, Tiberius, received him but refused to allow him to stay at the court until his debt was paid. A new loan covered the obligation, and he secured a post as tutor to Tiberius’s grandson. Agrippa also became a friend of Caligula, Tiberius’s heir. An intemperate remark about Tiberius, overheard by a servant, landed Agrippa in prison, but Caligula remained his friend. Within a year Tiberius was dead, and Agrippa’s fortunes were reversed.

In 37 Caligula made him king of the former realm of his uncle Philip the Tetrarch and of an adjoining region. Antipas attempted to stop his rise by denouncing him to Caligula; Agrippa made counteraccusations. The confrontation before Caligula ended with Antipas’s banishment, and Agrippa acquired his territory as well. About 41, Agrippa, on the advice of the governor of Syria, dissuaded Caligula from introducing emperor worship at Jerusalem. Later, Caligula decided to restore Agrippa to his grandfather’s throne but was assassinated before he could affect this plan (41). In the delicate question of the imperial succession, Agrippa supported Claudius, who emerged successfully and added Judaea and Samaria to Agrippa’s kingdom.

In Judaea, Agrippa zealously pursued orthodox Jewish policies, earning the friendship of the Jews and vigorously repressing the Jewish Christians. According to the New Testament of the Bible (Acts of the Apostles, where he is called Herod), he imprisoned Peter the Apostle and executed James, son of Zebedee. Nonetheless, mindful of maintaining the Roman friendship, he contributed public buildings to Beirut in Lebanon, struck coins in emulation of Rome, and in the spring of 44 was host at a spectacular series of games at Caesarea to honor Claudius. There he died, prematurely terminating the compromise he had striven to achieve between Roman authority and Jewish autonomy. Because his son was only 17 years old, Judaea once more returned to provincial status.

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