Herod Agrippa I, named Marcus Julius Agrippa, was born around 10 BC and ruled Judea and its surrounding areas after a brief period of direct Roman rule. His first son, Herod Agrippa II, born in AD 28, ruled much of Palestine as king, though never Judea. As father and son, Agrippa I and II were men of similar characters.
Following after the reputations of Herod the Great and Antipas, the Agrippas were masterful politicians who got their way and shaped the cultures of Palestine. Unlike their predecessors, however, the Agrippas won the favor of their Jewish subjects through eloquence, insincere displays of piety, and even standing before the Roman Emperor as the voice of the Jews. The Agrippas were rulers beloved by their subjects, but were mere white-washed tombs with appalling moralities (see Matthew 23:27).
One group that the Agrippas never won over, however, was the followers of Jesus Christ. The Agrippas represented a way of life diametrically opposed to the Way of Christ. Further, Jewish morality declined in reflection of their corrupt rulers, worsening an already hostile relationship between Jews and Christians. Not only did the Agrippas destroy Judea's reputation, but Agrippa II aided the actual destruction of the nation to which Jesus had come.
Agrippa I's Youth and Rise to Power
The elder Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great, born of Herod's son, Aristobulus. At the age of six, during Tiberius' reign as emperor, Agrippa was sent to Rome for education. While there, he dwelt among the most elite of Roman society and developed important political friendships, including Claudius, who would eventually become emperor, and Drusus, Tiberius' son. He also acquired in Rome a taste for luxury and uncontrolled spending.
His mother, Berenice, lived with her son in Rome and curbed Agrippa's wasteful spending habits. Once she died, however, Agrippa lost all self-control. Without his mother's purse and oversight, Agrippa began borrowing far more than he could pay back, hosting feasts and parties with borrowed cash. He also bribed Romans whom he thought would be important players in his rise to power in Palestine.
As was inevitable, the floor collapsed under him. His creditors grew weary, Drusus—his connection to the emperor—died, and he was becoming a public embarrassment to the court. Agrippa was forced to exile himself from the wealthy city of Rome to the impoverished land of his ancestors, Idumea.
In Idumea, Agrippa married Cypros, the granddaughter of Mariamme the Hasmonean, and his new wife proved important in nurturing Agrippa through the miserable years ahead of him. Though Agrippa saw no future for himself and even considered suicide, Cypros contacted his sister, Herodias, the wife of Antipas, and secured a job for him as the "inspector of markets" (agoronomos) in the city of Tiberias.
Agrippa's new salary did not satisfy his appetites for long. After a public falling-out between Agrippa and Antipas, Agrippa fled to Antioch, seeking his younger brother, an adviser to the Roman governor, to find a job. He was given a position but quickly lost it after he was discovered accepting bribes.
Agrippa decided it was time to return to the world's source of political power, Rome. Visiting moneylenders across Palestine, Agrippa borrowed up to 500,000 drachmas1 for his trip, which he characterized as a trip to see the elderly and ailing Emperor Tiberius, who was in his mid-seventies. Agrippa, foreseeing the impending death of the emperor, decided to win the favor of the apparent heir, twenty-four-year-old Gaius Caligula. He borrowed an astounding one million drachma to finance his pursuit of Caligula's goodwill.
Conversing one day with Caligula in a chariot, Agrippa expressed the wish that Tiberius would die so his friend could become emperor. The driver of the chariot, overhearing his foolish remark, reported it to the emperor. Showing mercy, Tiberius decided not to execute Agrippa for treason but imprisoned him instead. In less than a year, Tiberius died, reportedly smothered by Caligula with a pillow. The new emperor soon pardoned Agrippa and made him tetrarch over the land his uncle, Herod Philip, once ruled.
Agrippa I Wins over the Jews
After Agrippa had arrived in his new capitol city, Caesarea Philippi, Antipas grew suspicious of his nephew's swift rise to power. Urged by his wife, Antipas went to Rome to accuse Agrippa of treachery and take his crown. Discovering his uncle's plot, Agrippa sent his own representative to warn Caligula. As a result, Antipas was sent into exile and Agrippa given all of Antipas' land.
Having proved himself politically adroit, he was soon given a chance to win over the Jews as well. Caligula decided he was a god and deserving of worship. By imperial decree, statues began to be erected in every place of worship in the empire, including Jewish synagogues. In a show of Jewish defiance, outrage and bloodshed erupted all over Palestine.
Coincidentally, Agrippa was returning to Rome to see Caligula, unaware of what was happening at home. Once in Rome, Agrippa discovered the horrifying news, also catching wind of Caligula's decision to erect a statue of himself in the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem. Agrippa decided to stand up to Caligula for the sake of the Jewish people. History is not definitive about how Agrippa persuaded the emperor, but it seems most likely that he wrote a long letter explaining the Jewish faith to Caligula and providing political reasons for retracting his decree. Whatever Agrippa did, it worked. Caligula desisted, and Agrippa won the love of the Jews.
In January AD 41, after three years of Caligula growing increasingly unstable, he was assassinated. In his place arose Claudius, Agrippa's childhood friend. Agrippa journeyed to Rome when he heard of Caligula's death to pay his respects, as well as to congratulate Claudius and ensure his continued good standing with the new emperor. When Claudius met with Agrippa, the emperor more than put his mind at ease when he granted him—after 35 years of direct Roman rule—rulership over the prized district of Judea.
The Jews who despised direct Roman rule welcomed Agrippa into Judea with overwhelming praise. He did not disappoint them. While in Jerusalem, Agrippa, who considered himself a Jew, followed the Judaic law precisely. On the Feast of First Fruits (Pentecost), Agrippa even carried his own basket of offerings and made sure everyone saw him do it. At the Feast of Tabernacles, Agrippa followed the tradition of Jewish kings by reading large portions of Deuteronomy, and even shed a tear when he read, "You shall appoint over you a man of your own race; you shall not appoint a foreigner." However, Agrippa was all show. When not in Jerusalem, his morality and way of life was indistinguishable from any other Roman citizen's.
Agrippa soon won over the Pharisees, the most culturally and religiously influential group in Judea. Out of a desire to appease his influential friends, he persecuted the Christians at the Pharisees' request, which the Bible records in Acts 12:1-4 (note verse 3). He made James' execution a public spectacle, killing him by the sword in front of crowds. He also imprisoned Peter, whom God delivered just before Agrippa intended to consign him to a similar fate.
Just after Peter's escape, Agrippa attended athletic games in Caesarea. He dressed for them in a silver cloth that reflected light, causing him to appear as if he shined with fire. In his radiant garb, Agrippa took his seat in front of a full theater of spectators, allowing everyone to catch a glimpse of his grandeur. The crowds murmured that his aura was a sign of his divinity (Acts 12:22).
Unexpectedly, Agrippa was struck with sharp pains in his stomach and within five days died from intestinal worms (Acts 12:23). God chose a death for Agrippa that best demonstrated his character: While he appeared perfect in his outward actions and dress, his insides were corrupt and eaten away. God struck him with the foul sickness at the height of his political career.2
Agrippa II's Youthful Reign and Corruption
Agrippa's first son, Julius Marcus Agrippa II, was born in either AD 27 or 28, and his upbringing mirrored his father's. He was born in Rome and remained in the imperial city until he had to flee with his parents to Judea for a brief time to escape his father's creditors. He returned to Rome to finish his education during his teenage years and was there when his father died in AD 44. The younger Agrippa was only 17 at the time.
He and his Herodian family desired that he take up his father's crown as king, but Claudius decided the task would be too difficult for the adolescent, placing Judea back under direct Roman rule. Instead, Agrippa was appointed as head of Temple affairs in Judea. The emperor's decision was the first in a series of events that upset Jewish nationalists, which ultimately escalated into a war against the Romans.
When his uncle, Herod of Chalcis, died in AD 48, Agrippa received the kingship of Chalcis, a town near the border of Lebanon. After Agrippa helped settle a dispute between longtime-rivals, the Samaritans and the Galileans, Claudius sent Antonius Felix to replace the existing Roman governor and awarded Agrippa additional territories. After Claudius died in AD 54, the newly crowned Emperor Nero increased Agrippa's dominion even more.
Agrippa continued his father's legacy of duplicity. Wishing to win the Pharisees' favor, the younger Agrippa consulted them about how to live a pious life as a Jew. The favor of the Pharisees was imperative, for as head of Temple affairs, he appointed the high priest and needed to have his decisions approved in order to keep peace.
Agrippa appeared to live lawfully, but he was just as corrupt as his father, turning the high priesthood into a business venture. Agrippa sold the position to the highest bidder. Following Agrippa's example, the high priests also took advantage of their positions for social and economic gain. At threshing time, they sent servants to collect the tithes that rightfully belonged to the lower priesthood, and after keeping their unlawful money, required the same workers to pay another tithe to make up for what should have been paid to the priesthood. Agrippa's moral corruption caused even the most respected of religious offices to degenerate into nothing more than a position of fraud.
Agrippa II's Encounter With Paul And Betrayal of the Jews
Around AD 61, this corrupt ruler directly encountered Christianity. In the summer of 58, Paul had traveled to Jerusalem to preach, but had been arrested by the Jews and tried before the Sanhedrin (a full account of this is found in Acts 21-25). After five days of trial, Paul was sent to Caesarea by a centurion who discovered a Jewish plot to kill the apostle. The Roman governor, Felix, heard Paul's case, and to satisfy the Jews, decided to keep him imprisoned in Caesarea. However, he made it clear to Paul that, with an adequate bribe, he could quietly "escape."
Paul, morally opposite to Agrippa, did not bribe his way out of his imprisonment but trusted in God's will. After two years, Rome replaced Felix as governor with Porcius Festus. The Jews found Festus' appointment an auspicious time to have Paul tried once again, and the apostle, knowing a trial in Jerusalem would lead to his unjust execution, appealed to Caesar, a right allowed any Roman citizen. Before sending Paul to Rome, though, Festus told Agrippa about him, and Agrippa requested a meeting with the converted former-Pharisee.
Paul testified before Agrippa, appealing to his status as a Jew and his knowledge of Jewish history and affairs. The apostle also provided a personal history, an explanation for his actions, and a brief summary of Christ and His teachings (see Acts 26). In reply, Festus accused Paul of lunacy, while Agrippa asked, "In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?" (Acts 26:28 ESV).
Agrippa found Paul innocent, but disparaged Christianity. He was a religious pragmatist, "believing" only what was politically, socially, or financially beneficial. Many scholars interpret his comment as mockery of Paul, an analysis consistent with his insincere and reportedly comic character.
In AD 63, the Temple at Jerusalem, which Herod the Great had begun in 20 BC, was finally finished. The many artisans who relied on the Temple construction as their source of work were now unemployed, and Roman taxes on the Judeans at this time were crippling. The civil unrest against Rome that began to flare up in AD 48 at Felix's appointment boiled over into hostile aggression, with tax riots erupting in Judea in 65. In an attempt to save the province he aspired to rule, Agrippa delivered a speech in Jerusalem that tried to justify Rome's actions and argue the futility of rebellion against Rome.
The Jews ignored Agrippa's plea, and war broke out between the Jews and the Romans. Though Agrippa was himself a Jew and part of the Hasmonean bloodline, he betrayed his people and sided with the Romans. He not only gave Rome his vocal support, but also supplied it with troops. After the Romans took the city of Jotapata, he even celebrated the victory with the Roman general Vespasian and his troops in drunken festivities for several weeks.
In AD 68, Nero was assassinated and succeeded by Galba, who himself was also killed within several months. Two men, Otho and Vitellius, vied for the imperial crown of Rome, plunging the empire into civil war. Otho committed suicide, and Vitellius was dispatched by troops loyal to Vespasian, who decided he deserved the crown. Meanwhile, his son, Titus, along with Agrippa, returned to Judea to continue the war.
In AD 70, the war ended with the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. Agrippa went from Palestine's "pious" king to the very enemy that aided in destroying and dispersing the Jewish people. Newly crowned Vespasian rewarded Agrippa with additional territories in Syria, and he ruled as king over much of the land of Palestine—except for the one province he had desired from the beginning of his political career, Judea. Agrippa died in AD 100, ending the Herodian line in bloodshed comparable only to the dynasty's founder, Herod the Great.
The Agrippas embodied a pragmatic, two-faced philosophy that was the exact opposite of what Jesus had taught. Jesus was crucified before either man ruled, yet His followers used His teaching and God's Holy Spirit to endure the chaotic culture that the Agrippas created.
1 While it is nearly impossible to provide a modern-day equivalent to ancient currencies, one can grasp the amount borrowed by knowing well-paid workers earned about a drachma a day.
2 Acts 12:20-23 gives no mention of Herod's death occurring during athletic games, but it seems probable that the elite of Palestine, including those mentioned in Acts 12 from Tyre and Sidon, would have been at the games. There is no contradiction between the secular and biblical accounts of Agrippa's death.