King Agrippa I was king over Judea for at least 3 years from January or February of 41 CE to 44 CE. It is possible that he reigned 3 ½ years, depending upon whether he died immediately after the summer games (Acts 12:19-23; see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews: 19.8.2), or approximately 6 months later. We know he died in 44 CE, but did he die in January (approximately 6 months after the summer games of 43 CE honoring Caesar) or immediately after the summer games of 44 CE? If his death was quick, then he reigned 3 ½ years. On the other hand, if his death followed a six month illness, he reigned only three years over Judea.
Agrippa I was appointed king over Judea by Claudius Caesar not only in gratitude for his diplomatic skills that were responsible for his being appointed Emperor by the Roman senate, but also to bring peace and civil order to Judea and Galilee, which were at the brink of war with Rome over Gaius Caesar’s attempt to introduce the emperor worship cult in Jerusalem by placing his image in the Temple.
Acts 11:26 has the disciples in Antioch, the capital of the Province of Syria (of which Judea and Galilee were parts), being referred to as Christians. This name is a Grecian/Latin derivative used to describe the disciples of Jesus, the Messiah or Anointed One. Placing this name upon the disciples in Antioch at this particular time implies they were being keenly observed by the Roman officials in the capital city. A correct evaluation of them was sought to determine, if the war broke out between Rome and the Jews, if this growing Jewish sect would revolt against Rome and cause trouble there in Antioch. It is significant that the Jesus Movement was the only Messianic sect arising out of Palestine in the first century CE that the Roman government did not try to root out and destroy. Rome did not consider Christians a threat to Caesar or Roman peace in the province of Syria or anywhere else in the Empire.
It is, therefore, striking and unexpected that King Agrippa would “lift up his hand against certain of the disciples” at Jerusalem. One has to wonder from where he received the notion that the Jewish believers in Jesus were a threat to the peace of his government. Acts 12:1 begins with “Now about this time…” To what period of time is Luke referring? Was he referring to the time of the predicted famine (Acts 11:28-30)? One wouldn’t think so, since the only real famine according to Josephus occurred in 47 CE, several years after the death of Herod Agrippa (Acts 11:28) and near the end of the government of Tiberius Alexander, procurator of the Jews, and near the beginning of the high priesthood of Ananias, son of Nebedeus. Just after the famine Ventidius Cumanus succeeded Tiberius Alexander in 48 CE (see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews: 20.5.2 and 20.2.5).
Acts 12:1 must, therefore, refer to Acts 11:26 or about the time when the disciples were first referred to as Christians in Antioch. Since the New Testament never shows any of the disciples referring to other followers of Jesus as Christians, the name was probably first meant to be derogatory. The fact is, it wasn’t until sometime in the 2nd century CE that we have Christian writers referring to the disciples by this name. Therefore, Agrippa’s actions in Acts 12:1 seems to contrast that of the Roman government in Acts 11:26. That is, although the Roman government found no reason to hold believers in Jesus as guilty of treason, Agrippa did! How is treason implied in Agrippa’s killing James in Acts 12:2? The method of execution was “with a sword,” showing the king executed James as a traitor or for treasonous activity. If he was thought to be a common criminal, James would have been stoned or perhaps crucified.
The question is, therefore, what did James do and why was it considered treasonous? It could not have been against Rome, because the implication of Acts 11:26 is that Rome considered the Jesus sect harmless. Therefore, Acts 12:3 probably gives the best indication of why James was executed and against whom his treasonous activity was played out. The Jewish authorities—the Sadducees, the high priest and the Sanhedrin, the governing body of the Jews at Jerusalem—were pleased with the execution of James. Acts 11 begins with Peter explaining his activity of eating with Gentiles in the home of Cornelius at Caesarea. In other words, he accepted an uncircumcised non-Jew into the Jewish community of believers in Jesus.
We know what prompted Peter to do this, but the unbelieving Jewish authorities in Jerusalem would not have found Peter’s explanation acceptable, and remember, at this time all believers in Jesus were still considered a part of Judaism. What Peter did, though in obedience to the Holy Spirit and to his vision of Jesus, was illegal according to the authorities in Jerusalem.
James, the brother of John, appears to be a very outspoken man. Both he and John were called the sons of thunder by Jesus, and they got themselves into trouble with the other apostles for asking Jesus for a place at his right and left in the Kingdom of God. The implication of the Scriptures is that James would have been one of the most outspoken proponents of the new understanding of the Gentiles’ relationship with Jesus, and this got him executed for treasonous behavior—he was executed with the sword, and the apostles were expelled from Jerusalem, leaving only James, the Lord’s brother, and the elders there to lead the church! The Hellenist believers (liberals) and the Apostles (moderates) were the persecuted believers who were no longer welcome in Jerusalem. They returned at the risk of their lives. The church at Jerusalem was now totally conservative, headed by James, believing Pharisees and priests—all of whom were expected to take part in all the traditions of the Oral Law etc. in order to take part in any of the Temple activities.