Agrippa I and the Persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem

Agrippa had become so devoted to Judaism, in fact, that he allowed an attack against the Christian church in Jerusalem now headed by the apostle James, the brother of John and son of Zebedee. In these early days of the church in Jerusalem there was a growing antagonism between the Greek-speaking Hellenized Jewish Christians and the Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians. We read in Acts 10 that Peter baptized the first gentile and that Hellenized Jewish Christians were proselytizing and preaching in synagogues both within and outside of Jerusalem. The mission to the gentiles was aggressive and characterized by a new leniency: whereas in the past Jewish converts were forced to take on all aspects of Jewish law, now uncircumcised gentiles were welcomed into the church. This along with the failure of the new converts to observe the food laws or the Sabbath and the fact that they preferred the Greek Septuagint to the Hebrew or Aramaic Bible forced a breach to develop in the incipient Jewish-Christian community between conservative Jewish-Christians and those, like Peter and Paul, who baptized and preached to the gentiles as well as to the circumcised Jews. To summarize the distinction: the Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians still regarded the Torah and Temple worship in Jerusalem as the central features of their worship; the Hellenized Jewish Christians considered Jesus the Messiah and thought that his authority had eclipsed that of Moses. These two groups were further divided on the question of whether all converts to Christianity were to be circumcised as well as baptized.

In recognition of this divide, Agrippa had ordered all the followers of Jesus to cut their hair so that they might be easily identified. Then, to please the Jewish Christians and the non-Christian Jewish priests and nobility, Agrippa authorized an attack against the Hellenized Christian Jews in Jerusalem. To the conservatives, the Messiah's claim that Israel would be restored in a long prosperous reign was irreconcilable with their continued subjugation to Rome. The kingdom of God had not appeared, and now gentiles could call themselves Jews but still flout the conventions and practices of Jewish law. It was perhaps to quell these dissentions that

Agrippa ordered the apostle James, head of the Hellenized Christians, to be killed, and then when he saw that this pleased the Jews he had the apostle Peter imprisoned. The well-known story of Peter's escape, drawn from Acts 12.3, relates that even though Peter was under constant surveillance, his cell was illuminated by an angel who loosened his chains and opened the prison as the guards slept. Fleeing to a gathering of fellow Christians, he reported the miracle and then withdrew to a safer place. According to tradition, it was just after his escape from prison, in the reign of Claudius, that Peter went to Rome.

Agrippa died suddenly at Caesarea in 44 C.E. after only three years as king of the broad territories governed by his grandfather Herod the Great. His children—Berenice, Mariamme, Drusilla, and Agrippa II— were too young to assume his throne and so Palestine was taken over as a Roman territory under a procurator who answered to the governor of Syria. By most accounts his short reign was marked by his advocacy of Judaism and the revitalization of Jewish Temple worship. Yet, the accounts of his "persecution" of the Hellenized Jewish-Christian church in Jerusalem contradict that picture. In this view, Agrippa's persecution of the early church must be considered the catalyst in its final separation from Judaism.

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