God Triumphant: Reflections on the Church After Calvary
Persecution Under Herod Agrippa
Acts of the Apostles, 12: 1-24
The rise of Christianity in Antioch was providential in many ways because the "Mother-Church" at Jerusalem was beginning to be bothered by increasing problems both within and without. It was still a "Jewish" congregation mostly composed of converts from orthodox Judaism. Because many still observed the mandates and practices of the Law, the Temple officials and many ordinary Jews considered the Christian Community as apostates from Judaism and thus well-deserving persecution when the times were right.
Another problem was that the Jerusalem Christian community was made up mostly of the poor and powerless, those who had little or no influence in Jewish society or on Roman power. Thus when famine struck in Judea in 46-48 A.D. during the reign of the Emperor Claudius, Agabus and other emissaries had to be sent from Jerusalem to Antioch to plead for aid. Aid was quickly gathered and Paul and Barnabas were delegated to carry the funds and food to the Christians in Jerusalem. (Acts of the Apostles, 11: 27-30) Such support continued to be necessary even up to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 130 A.D.
The Christians were thus an easy target for persecution. All that was needed was some pretense to begin the assault. History shows that there have been many reasons found for persecuting others
... most of them shameful. Only on rare occasions was persecution warranted because those persecuted were indeed a danger to others. More often than not, persecution of a powerless minority was pursued for ignoble reasons ...
... because their belief was considered an affront to the "accepted" way of living one's life or worshipping God;
... or because leaders in the society considered them to be a disruptive force;
... or because rulers saw persecution of the powerless minority as a way of winning the approval of the majority.
Thus, soon after the birth of Christ, Herod the Great had the babies of Bethlehem executed because he feared that one would eventually replace him. Soon after Pentecost the Christians at Jerusalem were persecuted by the Temple authorities (with the passive permission of the Romans) because their belief in Jesus as the Messiah was considered to be an affront to the established religion of Judaism.
In 42 A.D. Agrippa I (the grandson of Herod the Great and father of Agrippa II) began a new persecution of Christians for quite a different reason. After the assassination of the Emperor Caligula (his benefactor) in 41 A.D. he had been able to wheedle his way into the good graces of Claudius, Caligula's successor. His new benefactor gave him power over eastern Jordan, Galilee, Judea, and Samaria.
Agrippa took up residence in Jerusalem and developed a great affection for the belief and traditions of Judaism. His Idumaean ancestry prevented him from being identified as a son of Orthodox Judaism but he began observing its practices as far as he was able. This desire to be accepted by the Jewish community was the reason for the persecution of the Christians that he began in 42 A.D. The focus was on the leaders, Peter and James, with the hope that if the leaders of this "schismatic" group of Jews could be eliminated, the rest would surely scatter and eventually disappear.
The first victim was the Apostle James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John. Agrippa ordered that he be seized, beaten, and decapitated ... an act which assured Agrippa's popularity among the Temple authorities since it was considered in Jewish society to be the most ignominious form of execution. (1)
The suffering and death of James gives an example of the virtue of patience, the virtue described by Augustine as ...
... the virtue by which we endure evils with such a peaceful spirit that we do not abandon the good we are striving to achieve.
On Patience, 2.2
Augustine believed that, just as "restraint" is necessary to control pleasure, "patience" is needed to overcome pain. The preeminent example of patience is that of the martyrs who (like James) endure execution for the sake of their belief, but patience is needed by all of us as we make our sometimes troubled journey through life. (See Sermon 283, 1)
This is so because every human seeks a perfect happiness that cannot be achieved in this life. As Augustine told his people:
You are seeking happiness. You want to be always joyful, filled with all that is good, completely satisfied. All that you desire is good, but you will not achieve it in this life. ... You have given up the evil in your life. You have devoted yourself to good works. You say "I have done all these great good things but have received nothing in return!" There remains for you to be patient. As St. Paul proclaims (Romans 5:3-5): "We boast of our afflictions! We know that affliction makes for patience and patience for tested virtue, and tested virtue for hope."
Sermon 72, 9-10 (A recently discovered sermon)
It was because of James's faith and hope in Jesus that he was able to patiently endure his execution and thereby merit entrance into that happy life that all of us dream of. He may have lost his head but he never lost heart, believing till the end in the Jesus who had died for his sake.
The story of Peter's arrest did not end in martyrdom (that would come some years later). Since it was the beginning of Passover, Agrippa ordered Peter put into prison until the next day. Perhaps remembering Peter's previous escape from prison, he assigned four soldiers to guard him, two at the door of the prison and two actually chained to the prisoner in his cell.
It was on this night before Peter's planned execution that the miracle occurred. The Christian community was deep in prayer while, deep inside the prison, Peter's cell was suddenly bathed in light. An angel appeared and woke the Apostle from his sleep (a paradox in a way that a man to be executed in the morning should be found in a deep sleep). The angel commanded "Arise and follow me!" The shackles fell from Peter's arms (apparently not waking the guards chained to him) and the angel led him out of the prison past the other two guards stationed outside. The angelic rescuer then disappeared. Peter stood for a moment in the morning darkness wondering what to do next. Finally he decided to run to the nearby house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where a small group was gathered in prayer for him.
Peter knocked loudly at the door and Rhoda, a maid-servant, rushed to discover who was pounding at this late hour. She recognized the sound of Peter's voice and became so excited that she forgot to open the door but instead rushed back to the group inside crying out "It is Peter! It is Peter!" (We should not be too hard on her. It was a very human reaction when faced with a situation that was simply too good to be true.) Finally Peter was let in and the whole community was overcome with joy at his escape.
Peter realized the continuing danger he was in and the danger he had brought to the house of the disciples. Thus, with the command to tell the other James (James the son of Alphaeus) and the rest of the disciples about his escape, he left Jerusalem before dawn. We know that he returned for the Council of Jerusalem but there is no indication that he spent much time in the sacred city after that. God was calling him to Antioch and eventually to Rome.
Agrippa was understandably upset. The execution of Peter, the leader of the despised Christians, was to be the final proof of his dedication to Judaism. Unable to find Peter, he had to take his wrath out on somebody. He ordered the guards executed, hoping thereby to hide the miraculous nature of the escape. Of course, this effort was useless. Word of the miracle quickly spread through the Christian community and through Jerusalem itself.
Agrippa could not stand the embarrassment. He left Jerusalem and reestablished his court in Caesarea in 44 where soon after he was struck down and died. His death marked the end of the favored position and independence of Judea in the Roman Empire. The Roman Procurator, Cuspius Fadus, took control and ended the persecution. As long as he ruled, Christians were accorded the same protection given to other subjects and to attack them was considered a serious breach of public order.
All thoughts of persecution were further dampened by the terrible world-wide famine that now began to ravage Judea. It became more important to find something to eat than to plan the destruction of religious enemies. In the beginning the Christians made out better than the Jews. They received constant support from distant churches while for a time the Jerusalem Jews were left to fend for themselves. Eventually they too began to receive aid from afar through the royal family of Adiabene (especially the queen mother Helen) who poured food and funds into Jerusalem to save starving Jews and Christians alike. Just as hatred and lust for power had caused Agrippa to wreak so much suffering in Jerusalem, so now charity came to save those in need. (2)
1, (Acts of the Apostles, 12:1-2) There is a well-founded tradition that the man who had delivered James to his executioners was so impressed by the Apostle's continuing proclamation of his faith, that he too became a Christian and joined James in execution by decapitation.
2. For the history of the days after Peter's escape, I have been heavily dependent on Fouard's description culled from the historian Josephus (Antiquities) and other ancient writers of the time. (see Abbé Constant Fouard, Saint Peter and the First Years of Christianity [New York & London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1892], pp. 181-85)
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