The Herod mentioned in Acts 12 as a persecutor of the apostles was Herod Agrippa I (10 B.C.- A.D. 44). He was the grandson of Herod the Great and was educated in Rome. He was a friend of the imperial family, but supported Caligula as the successor to Tiberius and was imprisoned as a result. When Caligula became emperor, Agrippa was released and was given the title of King and the territories formerly held by Herod Philip and Lysanias, and later the territory given to Herod Antipas. Agrippa was a key figure in persuading Caligula to rescind his order to place an image of himself in the Temple (JW 2.206-13, Antiq. 19:236-47).
We are not told why Herod persecuted the church in Jerusalem, although it may be that he 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 the Pharisees 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, probably about A.D. 41-42. Agrippa may have been motivated toward this persecution by zealous Pharisees (like Paul) who sought to suppress the Jews who taught that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. It even 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 ).
A further motivation for the summary execution of James may be the messianic claims of the apostles. If Caligula was inclined to demand his image be honored in the Temple, then perhaps messianic fervor among the Christians was high. Jesus himself predicted an “abomination which causes desolation” similar to the offenses of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (Dan 9:25-27, Mark 13:14 and parallels).
Agrippa is therefore acting like a pious devotee of the Jewish faith by pursuing the leaders of the Christian community who promote the teaching that Jesus is the Messiah. If this is true, how does this play out into the overall themes we have been seeing in Luke? Is Herod the “ultimate fringe” of what it means to be Jewish?
Bibliography: David C. Braund, “Agrippa” ABD 1:98-99; Schürer , 2:150-159.