First the Players:
Jesus had many disciples (Luke 10:1); twelve were primary. (Matthew 10:1) Of the 12, three held an even closer relationship—Peter, James and John. James and John were brothers, sons of Zebedee. Only these three were present at the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1). Only they were given affectionate names by Jesus. (Mark 3:16-17), and saw the ruler’s daughter raised from the dead (Mark 5:35-43). These three were the ones with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Mark 14:33).
But of the three, James is treated like the red-headed step-child. Peter (by tradition) goes on to become a leader in the church, the first Pope, author of two (2) canonical works, and testimony for a third. John (by tradition) goes on to also become a leader in the church, author of five (5) canonical works, and the longest living disciple—the sole non-martyr.
James? James does…well…nothing. In the Gospels he is never listed as solely stating or performing an action—he is always linked with his brother John. (See Mark 10:35; Luke 9:54). He is never listed as a leader in the Church. Indeed, his solitary moment in the limelight (what we will be discussing) is the dubious distinction of being killed in a parenthetical statement within the introduction to a glorious story on another Disciple—Peter.
For those of you familiar with Star Trek: James was the red-shirted crewmember beamed down to the planet.
His brief part:
Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also. Now it was during the Days of Unleavened Bread. So when he had arrested him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him, intending to bring him before the people after Passover. Acts 12:1-4
Our second player then, is this Herod. What is this about? [Note, this king’s name was “Agrippa” and the other historical documents refer to him as such. Only Acts refers to him as “Herod.” To avoid confusion, I will refer to him as “Agrippa” from now on.] To understand this, we need a little history. (Some of this will come up in our sources later.)
Herod the Great ruled Israel (Judea, Samaria, Galilee, Perea and Batanea) from 37 BCE to 4 BCE. (This is the Herod famous for the Slaughter of the Innocents.) King Herod was paranoid about his family assassinating him, so he killed his own sons, including Aristobolus. Aristobolus had a son (Herod’s grandson)—Agrippa. When Herod died in 4 BCE, the kingdom was split amongst three sons (who managed to stay alive)– Herod Archelaus ruled Judea and Samaria, Herod Antipas (killer of John the Baptist) became tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, and Philip received Batanea.
Herod Archelaus was a rotten ruler, so in 6 CE, at the people’s request, Judea became a province of Rome. This instigated the famous census of Luke 2.
In the meantime, our Agrippa is growing up in Rome. If he is one thing, it is an opportunist; unfortunately, he is a poor money manager, and frequently finds himself in debt. Both monetarily, and favors to others for bailing him out.
In 34 CE, he encourages Caligula to seize the throne from Tiberius. Tiberius, none too pleased, tosses Agrippa in prison. However, Tiberius conveniently dies, Caligula becomes Emperor, and Agrippa’s fortunes are restored. Even better, Philip (Agrippa’s uncle) had died without children, so Caligula gives Agrippa Philip’s territory—Batanea—and the title “King.” A title no Israelite had since Herod the Great.
Herod Antipas is unhappy with his nephew having a higher title, and attempts to steal it. Caligula repays this exploit by exiling Herod Antipas and increasing King Agrippa’s government to include all the land Herod Antipas had in 39 C—Galilee and Perea.
Caligula eventually goes totally insane, and is replaced by Emporer Claudius (41-54 CE.) Again, King Agrippa hitches his wagon to the correct star at the right moment, and Claudius gives him Judea and Samaria in 41 CE (in addition to what Agrippa had before). King Agrippa now rules the same territory (with the same title) as his grandfather, Herod the Great. Alas, not for long, as he dies in 44 CE.
Second the Incident
This occurred when King Agrippa ruled in Jerusalem from 41-44 CE. Acts 12 starts off, “About this time” meaning we are to look at the verses prior to give us point of reference. However, this is problematic since Acts 11 (vs. 28-30) ends with a famine that didn’t occur until after King Agrippa died. (around 46 CE.) Either Luke is mistaken, Luke has deliberately modified the chronology (which makes no sense to start a differing chronology with “about this time”), or—if one prefers the novel inerrantist approach—Acts 11 was only talking about a prediction of a famine. The prediction occurring while Agrippa was alive; the famine not occurring until a few years later.
Regardless, we cannot narrow this down any more than 41–44 CE.
Next we should look at the disposition of King Agrippa—why was he harassing the church? The Catholic Encyclopedia would like to claim it was due to his fervent religious belief. However, Josephus paints Agrippa as magnanimous:
Now this king was by nature very beneficent and liberal in his gifts, and very ambitious to oblige people with such large donations; and he made himself very illustrious by the many chargeable presents he made them. He took delight in giving, and rejoiced in living with good reputation. He was not at all like that Herod who reigned before him; for that Herod was ill-natured, and severe in his punishments, and had no mercy on them that he hated; and every one perceived that he was more friendly to the Greeks than to the Jews; … But Agrippa's temper was mild, and equally liberal to all men. He was humane to foreigners, and made them sensible of his liberality. He was in like manner rather of a gentle and compassionate temper. Accordingly, he loved to live continually at Jerusalem, and was exactly careful in the observance of the laws of his country. He therefore kept himself entirely pure; nor did any day pass over his head without its appointed sacrifice.
However, there was a certain mall of the Jewish nation at Jerusalem, who appeared to be very accurate in the knowledge of the law. His name was Simon. This man got together an assembly, while the king was absent at Cesarea, and had the insolence to accuse him as not living holily, and that he might justly be excluded out of the temple, since it belonged only to native Jews. But the general of Agrippa's army informed him that Simon had made such a speech to the people. So the king sent for him; and as he was sitting in the theater, he bid him sit down by him, and said to him with a low and gentle voice, "What is there done in this place that is contrary to the law?" But he had nothing to say for himself, but begged his pardon. So the king was more easily reconciled to him than one could have imagined, as esteeming mildness a better quality in a king than anger, and knowing that moderation is more becoming in great men than passion. So he made Simon a small present, and dismissed him.
Josephus can be taken with a grain of salt here. He paints King Agrippa far nicer than he probably was. For example, Josephus goes on to relate King Agrippa’s death (similar to the account in Acts 12), stating other men referred to him as a god, and he declined, claiming their proclamations had doomed him. The picture here is a little TOO good.
We have no further information as to why Agrippa would attack the Church. It wouldn’t be their monotheism—Jews were monotheistic. Nor would it follow the typical Roman persecution—Agrippa would not require Christians to sacrifice to other gods! Indeed, at this early stage, the church was still grappling with its obligation to the Law, and many continued to follow Jewish traditions.
Early Christians were accused of Cannibalism and incest (due to misunderstandings of their rituals.) Numerous Christians defended against these accusations. This demonstrates we cannot know for any certainty why (if he did at all) Agrippa would pursue the Church.
It is important to note Luke (with very few exceptions) portrays the persecution of the early church by the Jews and claims the Gentile authorities were favorably disposed towards Christianity against the Jews. Personally, I am persuaded Luke was writing at a time to evangelize to gentiles, and desired to avoid claims of Roman persecution, by laying all the blame to the Jews. This incident would follow such a pattern.
Additionally, Luke writes a lengthy tale regarding Stephen’s martyrdom and the events surrounding it (Acts 6:8-8:1); whereas no information is provided regarding James’ death other than the general statement of persecution, and that James died by the sword. Luke then follows James death with the story of Peter escaping from Prison by a miracle. (Acts 12:3-19)
Luke is writing a story about Peter escaping from prison, once again drawing from Euripides. Hellenistic fiction often included accounts of “wonderful characters” escaping from prison through divine intervention. In Bacchae it was a divine escapee for a devotee who had been jailed by a tyrant attempting to stop a cult. (Sound familiar?)
In short, Luke is writing about Peter’s miraculous escape in the manner familiar to his audience. Luke injects James’ death to introduce an element of danger—Peter was in fear for his life when rescued by God. King Agrippa had already killed James…Peter was next!
James’ death has nothing to do with “die for a lie.” He was killed like a Star Trek red-shirted crew member as a plot device.
Third the Sources
We receive our first hint James was killed in Mark 10:35-40:
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, "Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask."
And He said to them, "What do you want Me to do for you?"
They said to Him, "Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory."
But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"
They said to Him, "We are able."
So Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared."
Biblical scholars claim Jesus’ statement that James and John will “drink the cup I drink” is intended to be a prophesy foretelling their martyrdoms.
[See Matthew 20:20-23 for an interesting demonstration of Matthew’s use of Mark. Useful for arguing Markan Priority in the Synoptic Problem. Matthew, disliking the pride demonstrated in James and John, takes this question from their mouth, and indicates their mother asked it. Matthew cleaning up Mark. But then Matthew suffers from fatigue, and continues with Mark’s Jesus’ reply, having Jesus say, “Are YOU willing to drink my cup?” meaning James and John’s mother! Then Matthew has the brothers reply to a question posed to their mother. Fatigue.]
This raises an interesting problem. John wasn’t martyred, according to church history. See Acts of John. (Although Tertullian (Chp. 36) indicates John was dipped in boiling oil and survived, so maybe this is sufficient.) So if this was a prophecy about James and John suffering martyrdom…why didn’t John?
Indeed it is this problem that causes Ben Witherington III to claim John WAS martyred and another John wrote…John. Of course, the problem with this alternate view is how it conflicts with church history.
We have no other documents from the first century. None from the second.
Eusebius refers to Clement of Alexandria’s writings probably written sometime around 200 CE called, “The Eight Hypotyposes.” Within them, Eusebius reports Clement of Alexandria stated James’ accuser was converted by James’ demeanor and was beheaded with James. However, it should be noted Later writers considered Clement’s Hypotyposes to be “fables.”
Possibly around 200 CE (it is difficult to date the document, as its authorship is questioned) Hippolytus (listing all the disciples’ deaths.) states James was killed by Herod the Tetrarch. Curious that Hippolytus implies it was Herod Antipas who caused the death, as compared to Agrippa. Note this document calls the ruler “Herod” instead of “Agrippa” and states he was a Tetrarch, not a king. It is very likely the author confused Herods.
James’ account follows our typical pattern. A brief account with in the First Century writings, with little detail as to why or how the person was killed. A long silence, and then the flurry of writings at the end of the Second Century, typifying the person as a martyr. This follows the pattern established by the genre. See Martyrdom of Polycarp (150-160 CE), Acts of Paul, Acts of Andrew (all 150 -200 CE) and even Lucian. 165-170 CE.
James died as a plot device to introduce an element of danger within a story about Peter.