Which Herod Killed James in the Bible?

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)