Herod Agrippa’s Shiny Silver Shirt
Acts 12:21-23; Josephus Antiquities XIX.8.2
On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” 23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (NIV, Acts 12:21-23)
In chapter 12 of Act, writer Luke describes governor Herod Agrippa giving some sort of public address. Apparently this particular appearance was quite impressive to both the crowd which attended and to God. Here’s the New King James translation:
Acts 12:21-23 So on a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat on his throne and gave an oration to them. 22 And the people kept shouting, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” 23 Then immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God. And he was eaten by worms and died. (NKJV)
While the crowd likes this Herod, God does not.
Note Herod in his “royal apparel.” And what is it exactly which excites the crowd? Is it Herod Agrippa’s speaking style or his physical appearance which excites the crowd?
The New American Standard translation says it like this:
Acts 12:21-23 On an appointed day Herod, having put on his royal apparel, took his seat on the rostrum and began delivering an address to them. 22 The people kept crying out, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” 23 And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died. (NASB)
By the way, the “eaten by worms” bit is even worse than it sounds. You can look this up or wait for a Bible Bit on the matter if we ever decide to do a Gross & Disgusting Bible Stuff for Teenage Boys publication.
Today we have the good circumstance to possess an account of this happy event from a first century commentator on Jewish and Roman matters, Flavius Josephus. In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus writes of an “Agrippa.” We are pretty sure this “Agrippa” is the “Herod” of Luke’s Acts 12, and is otherwise known to history as Herod Agrippa I (birth name: Marcus Julius Agrippa), the grandson of Herod the Great. (There are a whole slew of Herods and other confusing royalty names in Herod the Great’s family tree.)
Here is Josephus in Antiquities:
Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea, which was formerly called Strato’s Tower; and there he exhibited shows in honor of Caesar, upon his being informed that there was a certain festival celebrated to make vows for his safety. At which festival a great multitude was gotten together of the principal persons, and such as were of dignity through his province. On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, [though not for his good,] that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.” Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, “I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner.” When he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad every where, that he would certainly die in a little time. But the multitude presently sat in sackcloth, with their wives and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king’s recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground, he could not himself forbear weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign…. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XIX, chapter 8, section 2. Translation by William Whiston, available at Project Gutenberg and many other places.)
This is pretty fascinating stuff, yes?
The “royal apparel” of Luke’s Acts is a robe or outfit of shiny silver. The shining sun gives Herod Agrippa I the appearance of a god. At least the crowd thinks so. Or acts as if they think so, flattering the governor/king.
Luke does not include the owl omen in his account, or, rather, redirects the owl story to his action of our Holy Spirit. Josephus, the Jewish historian, does not of course include the action of a spirit sent by God to bring the final end to Agrippa. At least not in our Christian, hagion pneuma Holy Spirit characterization.
Earlier in Antiquities Josephus reports that Herod had already been seriously ill and had been contemplating his own death by suicide. His death was in fact gruesome, caused perhaps by a chronic kidney ailment coupled with gangrene. And of course, by our angry God. It is worth your while to visit Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews.
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If you choose to reply to this Bible Bit, please include scripture and give pointers to good commentary. There is quite a lot to add, given the scholarship surrounding this event.
We are happy here to simply show a first century source which almost certainly provides an alternate perspective view of Agrippa’s speech and death event.
May God give you, in the name of his son our Lord Jesus the Messiah, many good blessings. God bless you!
Please read the actual Bible for yourself, and occasionally supplement this reading with documents from antiquity and good commentary.