Acts 12 – Persecution in Jerusalem

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.

16 thoughts on “Acts 12 – Persecution in Jerusalem

  1. My first reaction when I read acts 12, is that King Herod killed James and pursued Peter and many other believers to please the Jews. If Herod was a Jew this would have been protecting his religion, and getting back at the new messianic believers who have given the whole idea of Judaism and Church Seekers. I think the point of this story is to show that God will spread the Gospel and no person will stop it from being told to others. Another part that stuck put to me is that God was not recognized so or praised by Herod, so he was killed. The point of chapter 12, Praise be to God, who is delivering and spreading his Gospel to all.

  2. This story reminds me a little of Hitler. It’s obviously not the same magnitude, but Herod is at the beginning stages of attempting to wipe out the Christians. The “Jewish nationalism” mentioned in the post seems about right. In order to gain “approval” from the Jews, Herod starts killing Christian leaders, thus fortifying his future position with the Jews, and ridding the world of the pesky sect that challenged his religion. He seemed like a powerful & zealous guy (a dangerous combination), and if God hadn’t intervened, he probably would have done some major damage to Christianity. Also, he couldn’t have been that “good” of a Jew if he had 16 guards murdered, and then placed himself in the position of an idol to be worshipped.

  3. Yeah, I mean it is smart what Herod is doing here. If you somebody to agree with you, get rid of your opposition. It is defiantly a good thing that God did something. He can change anybody’s heart if He wants to. I would not call anyone a “good” anything if they murdered sixteen guards and wanting to be worshipped as an idol.

  4. I see a correlation between King Herod Agrippa and Saul (pre the road to Damascus and Jesus incident). 1, they both appear to be “good” law abiding Jews, for the most part. Although the above posts do mention that King Herod had somewhat “Roman thinking” and did some things that would not be Jew approved, like considering himself a god…2, they both persecuted Christians. If Herod is a good Jew then his motives could be the same as Saul , that they view Christianity as a threat to their own religion…3, neither of them seem to be filled with the Holy Spirit. If they were filled with the Holy Spirit, they would have realized that this new Christian “movement” was/is of God and therefore does not need to be stopped.

    • What about Gamaliel, who did think that it was unwise to try to stop the preaching of the Apostles? Would he be an example of someone who was filled with the Spirit? Perhaps this was just a wise spirit, not the Holy Spirit.

  5. It always amazes me to think of the persecution that was so prevalent during these times. Anytime I read of events like this, and how James was the very first martyr to die for Jesus Christ (12:2; Arnold 109), I begin to think if I would be willing to do the same. Am I so in love with Christ that I would be willing to die for Him? It is a tough thing to think about; I want to eventually be as confident about my willingness to die for Him, as I am about my salvation in Him. The two go hand in hand. It just fascinates me to read about these people that were tortured and killed, and I long for that same zeal. “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:20-21)

  6. I completely agree with Stefan. I think that in many ways this is a great example of how God’s plans will not be deterred. God is the driving force behind the Gospel message. And, Acts 12 is a great example of that. We see that in most Christian doctrine as well. We work for God, but He makes things happen. Even those who work against him, whether intended or not, will fail in the end.

  7. Acts 12 is one of my favorite chapters in the entire Bible because of this reality that persecution is real and is a part of the Christian life, but also it goes to show that God is God. He is the One who does the work and brings the growth, not by any works that we can do or think of. He allows us to go through hard times, but then, as soon as we start to worry, He simply rescues us.
    I also like how Luke points out how the Church body plays a role in this story of Peter’s imprisonment and escape. When Peter comes to his senses he doesn’t just run out of the city or get as far away as he can, instead he goes to Mary’s house, where many other believers were gathered. Peter went to the Body first. I love it!
    I also wonder if Herod was trying to show off with detaining Peter. He first killed James and realized that the Jews, the ones he wanted to fit in with, enjoyed that, so he then proceeds to imprison Peter. I wonder if he was simply trying to keep the favor of the Jews headed his direction so he kept persecuting the people of the Way. He couldn’t just stop with the killing of James, he had to one up himself, so he imprisoned one of the main leaders, Peter.

  8. Well said, Chrissy!

    It seems to me that this chapter is incredibly dramatic. It has a long serious of death, imprisonment, lack of faith by those praying. Then Herod, the source of the persecution, claims himself as a god and is killed. If that were not dramatic enough, the next verse, 24, states, “but the word of God increased and multiplied.” Whoa. That gives me chills. (It even gets its own paragraph line on biblegateway…)
    Luke, time and time again, seems to be the master of the dramatic scenario. This chapter hinges on the depressing, but is subtly rooted in the rejoicing of the gospel. Despite everything that is happening, God’s word is still prevailing. Even today… if that’s not encouragement, I don’t know what is!

  9. I wonder if Agrippa were to live in a pre-Christ Israel, would he have been seen as a king who “walked in the ways of his father David” even though he was not a Davidic king? He walks, talks and acts like he is a Jew by practice and even seems to have Jewish convictions. It would seem likely that if Agrippa, despite having Greco-Roman influence, was in fact a Jew, his appointment by Rome was a smart move. Having the guise of one of their own over them instead of a Roman ruler directly governing them would have been most difficult. If he were a type of half-breed, then I think it is telling that the Israelites have bigger fish to fry than one of their own petty squabbles with their personal prejudices.

  10. I am trying to wrap my mind around if Herod claimed to be king of the Jews, or if the Jewish people appointed him King of the Jews. From my perspective this would make a difference in the reasoning behind his persecution. He could be the leader of a nation and still disagree with the practices of the people, or he could hereditary be the king of the Jewish race who is trying to lead people of his same background and history. Based upon the original post, I would conclude that Herod Agrippa II was appointed as the ruler of Judea based upon political reasons and not merely because of his Jewish roots. It could have been possible that Herod knew of his Jewish background but chose not to associate with it, much like how some people may recognize the actions of their ancestors and yet choose to do the exact opposite in order to guide their life. We often see throughout Luke-Acts the local government siding with the people in the majority or maybe peer pressured into making decisions according to the desires of the powerful and not necessarily in accordance to appropriate moral side of the issue (Luke 23). In regards to the persecution of James, maybe it is as simple as being a scene in the overall drama that builds up to the Jewish people recognizing their disconnection and misunderstanding of the Messiah and the gospel.

  11. King Herod was someone that was after the Christians because he was trying to live the Jewish way and please the Jews. He saw the newly formed Christian religion as a threat to the Jewish way which I believe to be the main catalyst for Herod to persecute Christians. After he persecutes James it appears clear to the read that Herod may be after Peter. In the post you state “Jewish Nationalism” which would be a great way to put it. Herod wanted to please the highest of the Jewish community which is why Herod is after the highest Christian leaders such as James and Peter. Something that stood out to me while reading Acts 12 is that God will make things happen. We as followers of God work for Him and He will make great things happen for us. For people such as King Herod this is far from the case because Herod was working against Him whether it was intentional or not, they will fall when the time comes. Herod was someone that persecuted Christians because he wanted to fit in and please the higher Jews but failed in the end because God is the almighty ruler.

  12. Herod Agrippa was seen to be pious in the eyes if his constituents than we may have fought hard to keep that image. Potentially feeling like an “outsider” until he ruled over a significant portion of Judea. If he grew up in Rome, raised by Roman society, then he may have felt very distant from his Jewish roots until he was forced to be present with them. Instead of rejecting them like others before him had done, he fought to gain their respect through the persecution of the Jewish Christians. This may a bit too much of a psychological evaluation of his reasons why, when in reality he could have just been ultra-pious and aligned himself with the Pharisaical thinking and thus was looking to snuff out the growing sect of Jewish Christians who were “disrupting” the practices of the religious Jews. Looking at Acts 12, we know that Herod (Agrippa I) killed James and tried to kill Peter but because of an angel of the Lord, he was able to escape the same sword that killed his fellow disciple (12:7-11). Based on the reaction of the servant girl Rhoda, and nobody believing her when she ran to tell them Peter was at the gate, they fully expected him to die the same martyr death that James did (12:13-17). However high Herod Agrippa’s piousness ran, when he gave a great speech and the people saw him as equal to a god, he was struck down immediately by an angel of the Lord (12:23). This is very interesting. Despite all the persecution, the worst thing he did was make himself equal to God even as he proclaimed righteousness.

  13. When I read this blog about King Herod it was about someone that was going after the Christians which I find very crazy because he wanted to live a certain type of lifestyle not just for himself but for the Jews as well. The part that I am stuck on is was King Herod a jew himself? Or was he just down for the Jews community and like what the stood for. Any way how you answer this question it still not right because he was coming for Christians which is God peoples and children and thats just not right and Herod wouldn’t get away with that

  14. It was interesting how Phillip Long was able to work and plan out the times when someone had died such as Herod and when Peter was arrested. Personally, I do not believe that I have enough in my context to be able to figure out around the time period when people did specific things such as when the Pentecost had happened. It is interesting to hear all of these dates because it brings more understanding to what was going on in scripture and gaining an even clearer understanding of the meaning behind it. I found it interesting that the individual called Agrippa was the grandson of the guy who was called “Herod the Great” (Long, 2011). Learning small details is important to me because I love learning more context about stuff that already confuses me, it’s something that I always look forward to. It was a wholesome experience to hear that Agrippa began to cry after reading the word of God because the bible tends to move people in different ways and directions and many people can become choked up because it changes the way that they feel at the time of reading it. I loved hearing about this because it makes you smile when it is said that others enjoyed reading the word of God because it is something that I love to do as well. Long says that “Luke demonstrates that the leadership of Israel has rejected the gift of the Spirit.” (Long, 2011), and this is important to understand because this is the reason that there is persecution in Jerusalem because leaders and people within the world were rejecting the word of the Lord which causes those who believed and followed the Lord were being killed and thrown in jail for the beliefs that they had and how they preached their beliefs to others to grow the kingdom of God.
    Long, Phillip J. “Acts 12 – Persecution in Jerusalem.” Reading Acts, 25 Feb. 2011,

  15. Persecution in Jerusalem was shown in many ways. The blog post tells us that “it is possible to see persecution from Herod as a demonstration of how far out of step the leadership of Israel was with the movement of the Holy Spirit.” I also really enjoy the thinking that although Herod had Jewish roots he still is very Roman in his thinking. Part of me wishes I could have lived in the times when all of this was going down but the other 90% of me is so thankful to live in a free country. I cant imagine what they went through persecution wise but I think it’s super cool to hear and think about how that effected their life and faith.

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