Herod Agrippa begins to persecute the church in Jerusalem (verse 1). The Herod of Acts 12 is Agrippa I. Later in Acts we meet Agrippa, he is Herod Agrippa II (Agrippa II is Marcus Julius Agrippa, Acts 25-26). Born about 10 B.C., Agrippa I 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.” Antiq. 19.7.3
Schürer argues 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.
That James would be the first of the disciples to be martyred was anticipated even during Jesus’ ministry. In Matthew 20:20-28 James and John ask to sit and the right and left hand of Jesus in the Kingdom. Jesus’ response is to hint at the sort of service which he is about to offer–he is about to drink the bitter cup of God’s wrath as he gives up his life as a ransom for many.
The brothers say that they are able to do so, just as Peter thought that he would be able to go to prison or die for Jesus only a few days later at the last supper. All three of the inner circle swear ultimate loyalty, and at least initially, all three fail. Jesus grants them at least part of their request – they will drink the same cup, although it will be different for each of the brothers. James is the first to be martyred, John lives a very long life, and according to an early tradition, was persecuted greatly during the reign of Domitian.
James’ death is about eleven years after the martyrdom of Stephen. It therefore appears that the people of Jerusalem are no longer supportive of 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.
Bibliography: David C. Braund, “Agrippa” ABD 1:98-99; Schürer, 2:150-159.