Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Herod Agrippa and the Persecutions at Jerusalem

Reading N°10 in the History of the Catholic Church

Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

While Saul was undergoing his conversion at Damascus, the authorities at Jerusalem continued to plan new measures against the disciples of Christ. Up till then, the chief priests had always stopped short of capital punishment.[1] We may well suppose that fear of the people had much to do with this restraint. It also seems that the procurator, Pontius Pilate, after his lamentable surrender in the matter of Christ's death sentence, showed himself less inclined to make new concessions to the religious authorities of Jerusalem. But the events of the years 36 and 37 allowed the enemies of the Christian name to push their boldness farther.

The Pilate Inscription - the only known inscription bearing
the name of Pontius Pilate, found in Caeserea.

Upon the evidence of an impostor, who claimed that he knew and could point out the place where Moses had buried certain precious vessels, a large number of Samaritans met together on Mount Garizim. Pilate looked upon this noisy gathering as the beginning of a revolt and had the unfortunate crowd pitilessly massacred. In this instance it would seem that the Roman governor, yielding to the promptings of his restless and somber temperament, had exceeded the bounds of a just repression. Because of his disinclination to help the chief priests in their strifes, the latter took advantage of the occasion to denounce him to the legate of Syria, Lucius Vitellius. This man, whose son, of the same name, later occupied the imperial throne, appears in history as the type of a common upstart. Just then, he was trying by every means to win the favor of the people whom he governed. Josephus relates that one of his first measures was to return to the Jews the priestly vestments which had been kept in the Antonia tower ever since Herod the Great.[2] Vitellius cordially received the protests of the Jewish authorities and sent Pilate to Rome. He was banished to Vienne in Gaul. If we are to accept Eusebius' statement, Pilate, whose life had been a strangely tormented existence ever since the condemnation of Christ, committed suicide there.[3] Meanwhile the death of Tiberius (March 16, A. D. 37) and the succession of Caligula did but encourage the criminal projects of the Jews. The policy of the new emperor, before madness deranged his mind, was to give the peoples of the East their autonomy and native rulers.[4] A friend and companion of his debauches was Agrippa, the brother of Herodias. In Pilate's place, Vitellius put his friend Marcellus, who was agreed to his policy.

Coin from the reign of Herod Agrippa I
The situation became especially threatening for the Christians when imperial favor restored the royalty at Jerusalem in the person of Herod Agrippa I. This grandson of Herod the Great, thanks to Caligula's protection, at first bent his efforts to the territorial reconstruction of his ancestor's realm. His fawning attitude toward Emperor Claudius made his fortune. With regard to his Jewish subjects, his policy was equally shameful. To gain the regard of the priests, this debauched wretch hypocritically pretended to observe every smallest prescription of the Mosaic Law. To win popular favor, he exempted the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the tax due the king from each family.[5] From such a monarch as King Herod Agrippa the Christians could expect nothing but new persecution.

The Martyrdom of Saint James the Greater
Juan Fernández Navarrete (1526-1579)
This time, the persecution fell upon the head of an Apostle. Did Agrippa imagine that James, the son of Zebedee, was at the head of the Christian community? It is not unlikely that this "son of thunder" was one of the most forceful preachers of the new faith. The king of Judea had him put to death; but we have no evidence touching the circumstances. We know only that he was not stoned, as the Jewish law provided, but was beheaded according to Roman custom.[6] One day his mother had asked a high place of honor for him in the Messianic kingdom. His martyrdom was the Master's reply: James the son of Zebedee was the first of the Apostles to shed his blood for Christ.[7]

Amidst the Paschal festivities of the year 42,[8] the Jerusalemites and pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from other places to celebrate the great Jewish solemnity suddenly learned that Peter, the chief of the Twelve, had been placed under arrest. Agrippa had carefully calculated the circumstances of this clever stroke, through which he displayed his zeal for the religion of his subjects, while at the same time he gratified his personal hatred.

The Liberation of Saint Peter
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682)
The formal trial and execution were postponed to a few days later. The astute monarch was doubtless preparing some new theatrical effect, calculated to impress the populace. Meanwhile, as we learn from St. Luke, "prayer was made without ceasing by the Church unto God for Peter."[9] Closely guarded by four squads of soldiers, who were successively relieved at each of the four watches of the night, Peter was chained to his keepers. As he waited for the hour of his deliverance or martyrdom, a bright light suddenly filled the prison, and Peter heard a voice saying, "Arise quickly." The chains fell from his hands, and an angel stood before him in human form. Peter wondered whether he was the victim of a hallucination. But the angel, directing Peter to follow, led him to the iron gate of the prison, which opened of itself. The Apostle was free. He at once turned his steps to a friend's house, where the faithful ordinarily met for common prayer: it was the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. There Peter told the astonished family the miracle of his deliverance. Then he said: "Tell these things to James and to the brethren."[10]

The Martyrdom of Saint James the Younger
Pedro Orrente (1580-1644)
The James here mentioned was the bishop of Jerusalem. According to accounts that appear to be very early, the son of Cleophas and Mary was placed at the head of the Church in Jerusalem in 42, when the Apostles dispersed to preach the Gospel.[11] He was the first bishop of the holy city.[12] His piety, his faithfulness to the ancient prescriptions of the Law, his long prayers in the Temple, and his spirit of justice, made him venerable to the Jews as well as to the Christians. He was popularly known as "the Just" and "the rampart of the people."[13] One day Paul joyfully related to him what God had done for the Gentiles. With undisguised national pride, James replied: "Thou seest, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews that have believed; and they are all zealots for the Law."[14] But James was a witness of the risen Christ and this was enough to make him insupportable to the sect of the Sadducees. A fierce Sadducee, Annas the younger, a son of the high priest Annas, who had been more instrumental than anyone else in Christ's death, later on, in the reign of Agrippa II  (A. D. 62), gratified the ancestral hatred by putting to death the holy Bishop of Jerusalem.


[1] The slaying of Stephen has been regarded as the result of a spontaneous outbreak. It was not officially approved, nor was it carried out by the Jewish and Roman authorities.
[2] Josephus, Antiquities, XV, xi, 4; XVIII, iv, 2.
[3] Eusebius, II, vii.
[4] Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, v, 3; Suetonius, Caligula, 16.
[5] Josephus, XXX, vi, 3.
[6] Abdias (Historia certaminis apostolici) says: "Cervicem spiculatori porrexit."
[7] On St. James, son of Zebedee, usually called James the Greater, see Ermoni, "Les Eglises de Palestine aux deux pretniers siècles" in the Revue d'histoire ecclés., January 18, 1901.
[8] The reasons for adopting this date are set forth in Fouard, St. Peter and the First Years of Christianity, pp. 406 ff.
[9] Acts 12:5.
[10] Acts 12:1-19.
[11] Eusebius (V, xviii, 14) states that the Apostles stayed in Jerusalem for twelve years after the Ascension. Clement of Alexandria (Stromata, VI) testifies to the same tradition. In the corrected chronology, the Ascension is generally placed in the year 30.
[12] Eusebius, II, i and xxiii; III, v; IV, v; VII, xix. Cf. St. Jerome, De viris illustribus, chap. 2 (P. L., XXIII, 639).
[13] Eusebius, II, xxiii.
[14] Acts 21:20.


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