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.