Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

A Jewish King Once More.

In taking up again the thread of Judea's story, let its relation to the Roman State be clearly understood. It was under the immediate supervision of the procurator. He in turn was subject to the higher power of the governor of Syria. Both were answerable to the supreme authority—the emperor at Rome. Though the Syrian governors came little in contract with Judea, at times their intervention was important. We may instance Vitellius, who deserves passing mention in Jewish history. In contrast with the behavior of Pilate the procurator, was his consideration shown for Jewish sensibilities by this Syrian governor. "He was the noblest Roman of them all." He exhibited an uncommon forbearance by remitting some burdensome taxes; he sympathetically inquired into the needs of the people and removed from the High Priesthood the unworthy Caiaphas in whose time Jesus of Nazareth was executed. He also ordered Pilate to Rome to answer for his misgovernment.

The Mad Emperor Caligula.

As to the emperors: Some of these gave no thought to the Jews apart from appointing their procurators. With others the Jews came in clashing contact. Such was the case with Caligula who donned the purple in 37. This demented man believed himself to be a divinity, so that obeisance to his image was not merely an act of allegiance, but of worship. The consequences of this sacrilegious command to worship him was the first felt by the Jews of Alexandria; for the Ptolemaic and the Seleucid empires were both Roman now. An actual persecution here took place in which the Jews were besieged in their own quarter, the Delta. Their refusal to obey the emperor's childish demand gave excuse to their tormentors to attack them under the guise of patriotism. Patriotism may be the mantle for so many sins. Synagogues were defiled and many persons were slain. Philo, now advanced in years, led a deputation to Rome, to intercede for his brethren. He made an eloquent plea, assuring the emperor of Jewish loyalty. "They sacrifice for you daily an offering in the Temple." "For me," sneered Caligula, "not to me." The deputation suffered many indignities and returned dispirited.

To Judea likewise came the same blasphemous demand with the threat of similar punishment. At last the mad monarch ordered his image to be set up in the Temple and entrusted the task to the Syrian governor, Petronius, a man of the stamp of Vitellius. He did his best to delay the wanton edict at the risk of the emperor's displeasure. At last yielding to the agonized entreaty of the people he imperilled his life by asking the emperor to revoke the order. Agrippa, a Jewish favorite of Caligula, succeeded in persuading the emperor to renounce the abortive project. Soon, however, he repented and determined on its execution. But relief came to Alexandria and Judea at one stroke—the emperor was murdered in 41.

The next emperor, Claudius, restored to the Alexandrian Jews all the privileges that had been taken from them during the rule of his predecessor, and their rights were more firmly established than before. Religious freedom was now granted to the Jews throughout the whole Roman empire. But best of all, he stopped the regime of the procurators by appointing as king of Judea, one of their own brethren—Agrippa.

Agrippa's Youth.

Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great and Mariamne, thus having both Idumean and Hasmonean blood in his veins. As a child he was sent for his education to Rome. The influences of Rome were not healthy. They made the lad luxurious and extravagant. Loaded with debts he returned to Judea and was assisted by his uncle and brother-in-law, Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. After varied fortunes he came again to Rome, befriended by Philo's brother Alexander. Tiberius, emperor at that time, received him favorably and gave him charge of his grandson. But still his extravagant habits continued, and an incautious word sent him to prison, where he remained till the emperor died in 37.

The next emperor, Caligula, who was mad enough to think himself a divinity, was also sane enough to make Agrippa his friend and even to be dissuaded by him from putting his statue in the Temple. Agrippa's fortunes began now to rise. On the death of tetrarch Philip and on the deposition of tetrarch Antipas, their Palestinian provinces were bestowed on him (see p. 117). He was honored with the titles of King and Praetor, and his iron chain was exchanged for one of gold. So, like Joseph, he was transferred from a prison to a throne. At Caligula's death he assisted Claudius in obtaining the imperial crown. In grateful recognition, Judea, Samaria and Idumea were added to Agrippa's dominions. And thus it happened that Judea had a king again.

Agrippa the King.

His kingdom, uniting the various tetrarchies of Herod's three sons, was now even vaster in area than that of his grandfather, Herod. But he was a very different type of man. In spite of his Roman associations, he possessed strong Jewish sentiment and decided to become the father instead of the tyrant of his people.

The wild habits of his youth he laid aside and he hung up in the Temple the golden chain that replaced his prison fetters, as a mark of thankfulness and humility. His rule was a golden age for Judea—all too brief. Though partly of alien blood, the Pharisees said on one occasion, "Thou art our brother, Agrippa." He was amiable, benevolent, grateful and showed a forgiving disposition. His magnanimity changed opponents into friends.

He entered with hearty enthusiasm into all the ceremonial of Judaism. The Mishna, explained in chap. xxxi, speaks of him in high praise, and tells how he carried the first fruit offering to the Temple with his own hand. He looked after the interests of Jews and Judaism at home and abroad. Through his representation, some statues that had been wantonly put in a Phoenician synagogue were removed. Still, outside of Judea he permitted the amphitheatre with gladiatorial combats, and bestowed gifts upon many Grecian cities and upon some heathen towns of Palestine.

Rabbi Gamaliel.

The Sanhedrin was invested by him with new power and dignity, and under the wise presidency of Rabbi Gamaliel, hazaken (the elder), a descendant of Hillel many liberal laws were made. Gamaliel showed the same consideration to heathen as to Jewish poor. He was so esteemed that the saying arose, "When Rabbi Gamaliel died, the glory of the Torah passed away." One of his teachings ran: "Procure thyself an instructor; avoid the possibility of doubt; and do not tithe by conjecture."

Agrippa Slain.

Agrippa would fain have furthered the hopes of Israel in making them more independent of Rome, but he was watched by envious eyes. A conference of local vassal kings, called by him, was broken up by the suspicious Syrian governor. He wished to strengthen Judea's fortifications, but again the Syrian governor induced the emperor to stop the work. In fact, many jealous Romans feared that a longer continuance of his kingdom might develop into a menace against Rome. So the assassin's knife was called into play! Suddenly at a moment of triumphal glory, he was stricken down at the early age of forty-five. The kindly disposed emperor would have given the kingdom to his son, but he was dissuaded by his counselors. The old regime of the hated procurators was restored once more.

Agrippa II.

It is true this son, called Agrippa II. was given a small dominion, but with little independent power. He was also entrusted with the superintendence of the Temple which he did not always exercise wisely. He was well-disposed to the Jews, and even used his influence at court to intercede in their favor; but he felt akin with them far less than had his father. He imported wood for the Temple use and employed the discharged workmen of the finished Herodian Temple to pave the city with marble. At first, he did all he could in his impotent way to prevent hostilities between Rome and Judea, but his training had been Roman and his spirit was pagan. He moved on the line of least resistance—that meant his ultimate drifting toward victorious Rome. His was a weak nature entirely under the control of his sister Berenice. She became later a favorite of the Roman emperor Titus, who played so large a part in Judea's last days.


Agrippa II. continued to hold his petty kingdom for some time after Judea had fallen, and lived to read Josephus' history about it. He was the Agrippa before whom Paul appeared, and to whom he indolently said, "With little wouldst thou win me over to be a Christian."

Paul also appeared before a later procurator, Felix.

Theme for discussion:—If Agrippa had lived and reigned as long as Herod—?