After the death of James, Agrippa turned his attention toward Peter (Acts 12:3), the apparent leader of the Messianic movement in Jerusalem. Luke tells us that Agrippa realized that “the Jews” (read the powerful Annas family) were pleased with what he had done with John’s brother, James (Acts 12:1-3), and, being the man-pleaser that he was (see Antiquities 19.7.3), Agrippa then made it his business to vex the Church of God and seized Peter, intending to execute him after the Passover feast days (Acts 12:3).
The form of execution Agrippa used was beheading with the sword. This was the Roman form of executing a traitor who didn’t deserve the more cruel death by crucifixion. Knowing the type of death James had undergone helps us to understand what the official accusation may have been. He was not executed as a criminal; otherwise, Agrippa may have used a more cruel form of execution, such as crucifixion. His grandfather, Herod the Great, burned two leading Pharisees alive for their acts of desecrating the Temple by pulling down and destroying the great eagle over the East Gate.
The context of Luke’s placement of Agrippa’s activity immediately follows the Peter/Cornelius incident of Acts 10 and defended in Acts 11. Since the Messianic movement was a Jewish movement, it fell under the authority of the high priest. Good Jews were expected to act according to the Jewish Law. Therefore, when Peter received Cornelius and company into the Messianic movement, as equal members with Jews, without having been circumcised, he circumvented the Law of Moses, as understood by the Jewish authorities and incurred the potential wrath of the powerful Annas family of priests.
We don’t know what put it into the mind of Agrippa to seize and execute James, but we do know from history, that upon every other occasion when believing Jews were executed at Jerusalem, a member of the Annas family was reigning as high priest. I suspect, therefore, that Agrippa began to vex the Church at the instigation of Matthias, the high priest and son of Annas, or more probably at the instigation of Jonathan, who had the arrogance to refuse the office when Agrippa wanted to bestow it upon him. Jonathan had a history of meddling in the political affairs of the civil authorities and was ultimately assassinated by Felix for doing so [see Josephus: Antiquities 20.7.5].
Peter was probably held prisoner in the Antonia, formerly (and later) occupied as a fortress for the Roman army stationed at Jerusalem, but presently used by Agrippa and his army. Nevertheless, Peter miraculously escaped Agrippa’s sword (Acts 12:6-10), when an angel came to him during the night. When Agrippa sent for Peter, he found he had escaped, so he executed the guards (Acts 12:19).
I believe it is noteworthy to point out Luke’s apparent silence over why the persecution was renewed and what the official reply was concerning Peter’s escape, for his imprisonment was very public (Acts 10:11). If, as I believe, that both Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts were presented to Theophilus, the high priest and son of Annas, then by Luke not overtly blaming the Annas family for the troubles of the nascent Church or putting the ruling party of the Sadducees in a bad light publically (for both books were also used in the Messianic movement), he was submitting a warning from God to repent without repudiating their behavior to the extent that Theophilus would consider Luke’s overture and insult and turn a deaf ear. Therefore Luke is silent over the reason for Agrippa’s resuming Jerusalem’s persecution of the Messianics.
When Jesus rose from the dead, the official reply was that his disciples stole the body while the guards slept (Matthew 28:11-15). The Jewish authorities (read the Annas family) did this even though they knew by the soldier’s report that Jesus had, indeed, risen from the dead. What, then, would have been Agrippa’s official announcement of Peter’s absence? Luke doesn’t tell us, no doubt, because Agrippa was greatly beloved by the Jewish authorities. Josephus, Annas’ great-grandson, never puts Agrippa in a bad light. He always glosses over any of Agrippa’s shortcomings, while usually putting his opponents in a bad light, including Tiberius Caesar, though not overtly. Luke, therefore, never mentions any lies concerning Peter’s release from prison, but simply allows Agrippa’s public embarrassment to go unnoticed, or at least without mention.
On the other hand, Josephus records a curious story about one Simon (Simon Peter?), whom Josephus describes as one appearing to have an accurate knowledge of the Law. Josephus says this Simon had accused Agrippa in one of his speeches (sermons?) of not living in a holy manner. When this became known to the king, Agrippa sent for Simon, told him to sit near him, and then asked him in a gentle, low voice: “What is there done in this place that is contrary to the Law?” This Simon was speechless but did beg the king’s pardon. Agrippa then magnanimously forgave Simon, made him a small present and dismissed him [see Josephus: Antiquities 19.7.4]
Does this really concern another religious man named Simon in Jerusalem or does Josephus record for us the official public explanation for Peter’s release? If this isn’t so, it would seem odd for Josephus to record an event pointing to an otherwise obscure individual whose only possible purpose would be to flatter the memory of the king. Of course, we don’t know for certain if Josephus’ Simon is indeed Peter, but Luke’s silence in the matter is very curious if something like this didn’t occur.