King Agrippa I

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: New Testament Kings

  • Agrippa I was born in 10 BCE, and he was the son of Aristobulus IV, who was the son of Herod the Great.
  • Father and son, however, did not get along and Herod had Aristobulus executed in 7 BCE, when Agrippa was 3.
  • Agrippa, who was named Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa after a friend of the emperor, was spared. He was also known as Herod Agrippa or just Herod, according to biblical texts.
  • Shortly after the death of his father, Agrippa was sent to Rome to be educated. There, he became very close with the Emperor's son, Drusus Caesar, and became accustomed to living a life of luxury with endless financial resources. His other companions included the future emperors, Caligula and Claudius.
  • When Agrippa was just 13, Drusus suddenly died, leaving him without a patron and deeply in debt.
  • Given this change of fortune, he contemplated suicide.
  • Yet, at some point he married Cyprus (Cypros), who was one of his distant relatives. Together, they had five children.
  • His wife, Cypros, and sister, Herodias, convinced his uncle, Herod Antipas, to give him a civil position in Tiberias.
  • This only lasted for a short time because Agrippa chafed under this "act of charity" and was only too aware of his inferior status.
  • He returned to Rome in 36 CE. One day, he was overheard wishing for the death of Tiberius (who was quite elderly) so Caligula (his close friend) could be named emperor. Right after making this remark, he was imprisoned.
  • Within six months Tiberius died. When Caligula assumed the throne, he personally freed Agrippa.
  • He was then given several territories that had been governed by his uncles, Philip and Lysanias, along with the title of "king."
  • Herodias wanted equal rank for Herod Antipas, but through political intrigue, Agrippa managed to not only have Herod exiled but also to be granted his territories.
  • When Caligula was assassinated in 41, Agrippa supported Claudius' (another childhood friend) election to the Senate. For this he was rewarded with the territories of Judea and Samaria.
  • Eventually, his territories included Samaria, Judea, Galilee, and Perea – equaling an area greater than that of Herod the Great.
  • Needless to say, he was an important and influential ruler whose successes began to worry Claudius.
  • According to Josephus (first-century Jewish/Roman historian) and the Jews, Agrippa was well-loved and brought peace and stability to his territories.
  • Apparently the hardships of his earlier years and his time in Rome taught him self-control and temperance.
  • He ruled his territories with compassion and friendship.
  • When he minted coins, he was careful not to include any symbols that would offend Jewish sensibilities.
  • According to legend, he interceded on the Jews' behalf to prevent Caligula from setting up his statue in the Jewish Temple shortly before his death. In this way, he prevented the Temple from being desecrated.
  • The Christian account is somewhat different.
  • He is the "King Herod" that appears in Acts, where he is described as a cruel and heartless ruler.
  • Acts 12:1ff states that he arrested some who belonged to the church and intended to persecute them.
  • He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.
  • When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.
  • After arresting Peter, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each.
  • Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.
  • It is probable that Agrippa didn't look favorably upon a movement that seemed opposed to Judaism, a movement that began during his absence, and quickly flourished.
  • Accounts of his death also vary. After Passover in 44 CE, he went to Caesarea for the games that he sponsored in honor of Claudius. During the games, he noticed an owl perched over his head. This had happened once before, when he had been imprisoned by Tiberius. Then, it had been a good omen—signaling that he would soon be released.
  • The caveat, however, was that if he ever saw the same event, it would signal his impending death – within five days.
  • Indeed, he immediately came down with severe stomach and heart pains. He died within five days.
  • Acts 12 reports that he had been eaten by worms. It is possible that this was a case of Fournier's gangrene, a type of abdominal bacterial infection that was usually fatal. Scholars think this was also the cause of death of Herod the Great.
  • The Christian version is that he had addressed the crowd; they had acclaimed him by saying, "This is the voice of a god, not of a man." Because he did not correct their thinking, Agrippa was immediately struck down by an angel for not giving praise to God.
  • In either event, he died very unexpectedly in 44 CE and was deeply lamented by Jews and Romans.

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