Updated: May 6, 2021
While researching for my novels, I sometimes stumble upon history so dramatic that I feel as though I am reading a fantasy novel. That was definitely the case as I was reading the history of one of the rulers we meet in the New Testament.
To a casual reader of the Bible, it might sound like there was just one Herod who ordered the deaths of children in Bethlehem, presided over the trial of Jesus, and had James the brother of John killed. I've written a Who's Who of Herods before, but in this post, I wanted to take a more in-depth look at one of these men in particular:
Herod Agrippa the First
(You can print off a family tree of this complicated family, as well as read about highlights from 25 family members in this post: Herod's Family Tree: Lies, Power, and Incest)
Agrippa is the Herod we find in Acts 12. He is recorded in the Bible as having James the brother of John (one of the sons of Zebedee) killed with a sword. He then arrests Peter, but Peter makes a miraculous escape. Later in that same chapter, Agrippa is sitting before the people in his royal raiment when the people begin declaring Herod Agrippa a god. Luke, the author of Acts, describes that an angel of the Lord struck Agrippa down because he didn't give God the glory.
This is a startling end to a twisting tale of a man who rose from crippling debt to become King, a true account that is described by the historian Josephus. Josephus records the extraordinary life of Agrippa, and it is a tale built on debt, grudges, prophecy, and declarations of loyalty to men teetering on the edge of power.
Agrippa's Shaky Start
Agrippa was a born in 10 BC as the grandson of Herod the Great, and the brother of Herodias—who you might remember as the one who asked for the head of John the Baptist. (1) Agrippa, like most of the young men in his family, spent his youth in Rome being educated and hobnobbing with the Roman elite.
Agrippa was good friends with Tiberius Caesar's son, Drusus. With this powerful connection, Agrippa's feet were set on the path to prominence, but then Drusus died. Because of his grief, Tiberius could not stand to see any of Drusus' former friends. (2)
Banished from the face of Caesar, Agrippa began to court other powerful friends, giving extravagant gifts far beyond his income. He becomes hopelessly entrenched in debt, and when he is unable to escape his creditors, Agrippa flees to live in Idumea, poor and without honor.
He is so depressed about his situation that he contemplated suicide. Cypros, his wife, writes to Herodias, asking that she do something for her brother. Herodias, now married to the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, works her influence on her husband to secure a magistrate position for Agrippa in the city of Tiberias and an allowance to be paid to her brother.
This act of charity goes about as well as can be expected between two men of pride. While drinking at a feast, Antipas and Agrippa argue because Antipas keeps “hitting Agrippa in the teeth” with his poverty. Agrippa nurses his anger towards Antipas and bides his time, waiting for the chance to knock his brother-in-law down a peg. (3)
Yearning for the counsel of his friend, Flaccus, Agrippa manages to borrow enough money to go back to Rome, where he plays a game of rotating debts to appease his creditors and restore some of his honor. With his silver tongue, he persuades several friends to loan him incredible sums to pay off his debts. (4)
Agrippa Risks Everything in a Declaration of Loyalty
After restoring his friendship with Tiberius, Agrippa spends his time with Caius, the nephew of the emperor Tiberius. One day, when he was riding in the chariot with Caius, Agrippa states that he prays for the day when Tiberius dies and Caius takes over the government. This is a dangerous assertion on two points: It is treason to look forward to the death of Caesar, and Caius is not guaranteed to rule—in fact, Tiberius is leaning towards naming his grandson, Drusus, as his heir. And on top of this risky declaration of loyalty, the conversation is overheard by the chariot driver.
This chariot driver later steals some of Agrippa's clothes, and when accused, the driver tries to turn the tables and relates Agrippa's conversation to Tiberius. Tiberius is already angry with Agrippa for showing more attention to Caius than his grandson, Drusus, and so he has no problem ordering Agrippa imprisoned. (5)
Agrippa Hears a Prophecy of His Future
While awaiting imprisonment, Agrippa is leaning against a tree, and above his head sits an owl. Agrippa is approached by another prisoner, who tells him that God has declared that Agrippa will soon be delivered from his bonds, promoted to the highest dignity and power, and envied by all. He states firmly that Agrippa will be happy until his death. But then the prophecy takes a dark turn. The fellow prisoner declares that when Agrippa sees this owl again, he will live but five days longer. (6)
Agrippa's Loyalty to Caius is Rewarded
Soon, the man's prophecies begin to come true. Only six months after Agrippa is imprisoned (in a pretty luxurious manner), Tiberius falls sick. Tiberius summons his children to approach him so he can talk to them before he dies. He needs to appoint his heir.
Being a very superstitious man, Tiberius privately resolves that the child who arrives first will be his heir. He wants his grandson to be heir, so he sends his servant to fetch his grandson early in the morning. However, his grandson is busy waiting for his breakfast, and so it is Caius who first enters the room. Tiberius will not go against the will of the gods, and so when Tiberius dies, Caius is named his successor. (7)
As soon as is respectable to his late uncle's memory, Caius (known by most modern readers by the name Caligula) frees Agrippa, crowns him with a royal diadem, and names him King over the tetrarchy of Philip, who is the late brother of Herod Antipas. Caius also gives Agrippa the tetrarchy of Lysanias. Agrippa's loyal declaration to him in the chariot is now rewarded. (8)
You can imagine the astonishment Herodias felt when her brother returned. He had left the country in disgrace, in need of charity, bogged down by crippling debt to the point of dishonor, and then he returns as a king. She becomes incredibly jealous that a man like him is a king while her husband has only the title of tetrarch. So she presses her unwilling husband to go to Caius to ask for similar honors. Antipas prepares his gifts, and he and Herodias set sail to meet with the new Caesar. (9)
Agrippa takes his revenge on his brother-in-law, Herod Antipas
Agrippa grabs his chance for some revenge on his brother-in-law. He sends letters to his good friend Caius that tells him not to trust Antipas because Antipas had previously allied himself with Caius' enemies, and had been storing up enough armor to outfit an army.
Caius accuses Antipas, and when Antipas cannot refute the story, Caius strips Antipas of his territories and fortune and gives them to Agrippa. Caius then banishes Antipas to Gaul. For the sake of her brother, Caius is prepared to send Herodias to Agrippa, but Herodias has her pride too. She goes with her husband into exile. (9)
Agrippa Helps the Jews with His Friendship to Caius
Caius is a hot-tempered and impulsive ruler. When he hears a report that the Jews in Alexandria are not revering him by building statues in his honor, he declares that a statue of himself be placed in the Jewish temple. He sends the President of Syria to take an army and see it done.
While the Syrian president is wintering with his soldiers, Jews began arriving to petition him for mercy. Tens of thousands peacefully protest by saying they would rather die than see the temple desecrated. The Syrian President is moved by their conviction and admires their honor. He promises to write to Caesar on their behalf. (10)
Meanwhile, Agrippa has heard of the problem. He lives in Rome at this time, governing from a distance. He is throwing one of his famously expensive feasts, when Caius promises to give Agrippa a gift, expecting him to ask for more territory or the tribute of cities. Instead, Agrippa asks that Caius not press the Jews into placing a statue in the temple. Caius is surprised, but he agrees. (11)
After Caius has written to the Syrian president to tell him not to worry about the statue, the letters arrive from the same president, speaking on behalf of the protesters. Caius, true to his nature, doesn't care that he already gave permission to give up the idea of the statue, and is angry at the Syrian president for not doing his bidding already. Caius threatens him with death. But like a good many other threats uttered by the ruler, it never comes to fulfillment. Caius is about to be assassinated. (12)
Agrippa Quickly Shifts Support to Claudius
Because of his cruelness, including harsh treatment of the equestrian class by having many murdered and seizing their wealth (13), Caius is stabbed on the way to the bath. (14) Once the word gets out of his grisly death, the Senate tries to take control of the government, but Agrippa advises Caius' uncle, Claudius, against allowing power to slip away so easily. With Agrippa's support, Claudius manages to take power and becomes the next Caesar. (15)
Agrippa Becomes Ruler of All of Judea
As a reward for his help, Claudius gives Agrippa the rest of the lands that King Herod the Great had held, granting him rule over Judea and Samaria. (16) It is the final step in a total reversal of fortune for Agrippa, and he is not unaware of the dramatic turn of events. He speaks to the people in the temple declaring that God can raise up what has fallen down. (17)
Agrippa finally lives in the lands he rules, staying often in Jerusalem. He keeps the sacrifices of the temple and the laws of the Jews. (18) He reduces taxes. (19) He works on some building projects, including reinforcing the walls around Jerusalem until a suspicious Claudius tells him to stop. (20) He also appoints and removes three different High Priests in short succession. (21) While Josephus does not mention the beheading of James or the imprisoning of Peter (the ancient historian had other concerns than the early Christian movement) those two events fall within this time frame.
The Prophecy is Fulfilled
After three years of ruling over all of Judea, Agrippa goes to Caesarea where games are being held in honor of Caesar. On the second day of the festival, Josephus records that Agrippa dressed in clothes made entirely of silver, arriving early in the morning so the sunlight made him look dazzling. The people are captivated by the sight, declaring him a god. Josephus agrees with the book of Acts in stating that Agrippa does not rebuke the crowds for their words.
By Josephus' account, as Agrippa was reveling in their words, he looked up and saw an owl, and remembered what had been prophesied. He feels a pain in his stomach and declares to his friends that though they had declared him a god, it was a lie, and providence was about to carry him away. He is not bitter, however, and states that he had enjoyed a good life. His pain then became violent.
As their king languishes, the people put on sackcloth and mourn, but after five days, Agrippa is dead. He had reigned a total of seven years. Four years under Caius, three of which over Philip's tetrarchy only, then the lands of Antipas were added in the fourth, and then three more years under Claudius, ruling over all of Judea and Samaria and Caesarea. He was fifty-four at his death. (22)
The End of the Last King of Judea
Even though the total revenue of his land was not less than twelve million drachmas (the value of a drachma varied throughout history, but one drachma was about a day's wages) Agrippa still managed to leave behind huge sums of debt. He was generous to a fault, loving to give gifts to his friends and host the most extravagant feasts and games. (22)
He also left behind children. He had three daughters: Drusilla, who was six, Mariamne, who was ten, and sixteen-year-old Bernice, who was married to her uncle. He had only one living son, Agrippa, who was seventeen and living in Rome. (23)
Though Claudius was of a mind to give Agrippa the second all of his father's lands, Claudius' counselors advised against it due to the young man's age and inexperience. (23) In the end, Agrippa the second ended up ruling just a fraction of his father's lands. (24) We meet him in Acts 25, as he listens to the Apostle Paul's defense.
Herod Agrippa the First, known simply by his family title “Herod” in the Bible, is a ruler most of us know as an enemy to the early Christian church, and a man puffed up with enough pride that it took him to an early death. I hope that this brief walk-through of Agrippa's life gives more historical background to this ruler, and helps bring the world of the Bible alive in your imagination and study.
1. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 18.5.4
2. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 18.6.1
3. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 18.6.2
4. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 18.6.3
5. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 18.6.5-6
6. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 18.6.7
7. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 18.6.8-9
8. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 18.6.10
9. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 18.7:1-2
10. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 18.8:1-3
11. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 18.6.7-8
12. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 18.6.8-9
13. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 19.1.1
14. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 19.1.14
15. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 19.4.1
16. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 19.5.1
17. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 19.6.1
18. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 19.7.3
19. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 19.6.3
20. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 19.7.2
21. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 19.6.2,4
22. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 19.8.2-3
23. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 19.9.1-2
24. Jewish Antiquities, Josephus, 20.7.1