Before his untimely death Herod Agrippa I had been quite smart in his dealings with both Rome and with the Jews. He’d prevented a rerun of the Jewish Revolt by talking Emperor Caligula out of setting up a statue to himself in the Temple at Jerusalem1, and he also followed Jewish custom to the point that Josephus records:
…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.2
He knew his audience and played them well.
He was however not nearly so kind and considerate towards the emerging Christian church – we’re told that Agrippa executed James the son of Zebedee and imprisoned Peter (Acts 12:1-3).
Later in that chapter we come across what is a highlight for many Sunday School students – Agrippa’s gruesome death:
On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. The people kept shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!” And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.3
Being eaten by worms must be a miserable way to go. Josephus records Agrippa’s death in greater detail:
Agrippa… came to the city Cesarea… and there he exhibited shows in honor of Caesar… 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… he put on a garment made wholly of silver… and came into the theatre 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… his flatterers cried out… 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.
A severe pain… 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… 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…4
Josephus’ record matches up with the account in Acts apart from one vital detail: Agrippa’s being consumed by worms. Acts mentions it; Josephus does not. Why did Josephus omit such a gory and horrifying feature of the story?
As is often the case with the slightly bizarre, we’re dealing with an artefact of genre. As Fitzmyer explains, “Luke describes the demise of Herod Agrippa I, using a genre well known in Greek literature”.5 He continues, “The gruesome details are supposed to enhance the account of the death deserved by those who despise God (or the gods)”.6 F. F. Bruce also explains that “such a term is used by several ancient writers in relating the deaths of people deemed worthy of so unpleasant an end”.7
Let’s look at a few examples from history:
Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the man responsible for attempting to stamp out Jewish practice and for sacrificing on an altar to Zeus he’d placed in the Temple at Jerusalem8, is recorded in the second book of Maccabees as dying like this:
2 Mac 9:5–9 But the all-seeing Lord, the God of Israel, struck him with an incurable and invisible blow. As soon as he stopped speaking he was seized with a pain in his bowels, for which there was no relief, and with sharp internal tortures— and that very justly, for he had tortured the bowels of others with many and strange inflictions. Yet he did not in any way stop his insolence, but was even more filled with arrogance, breathing fire in his rage against the Jews, and giving orders to drive even faster. And so it came about that he fell out of his chariot as it was rushing along, and the fall was so hard as to torture every limb of his body. Thus he who only a little while before had thought in his superhuman arrogance that he could command the waves of the sea, and had imagined that he could weigh the high mountains in a balance, was brought down to earth and carried in a litter, making the power of God manifest to all. And so the ungodly man’s body swarmed with worms, and while he was still living in anguish and pain, his flesh rotted away, and because of the stench the whole army felt revulsion at his decay.
The final days of Herod the Great are described by Josephus:
But now Herod’s distemper greatly increased upon him after a severe manner, and this by God’s judgment upon him for his sins: for a fire glowed in him slowly, which did not so much appear to the touch outwardly as it augmented his pains inwardly; (169) for it brought upon him a vehement appetite to eating, which he could not avoid to supply with one sort of food or other. His entrails were also exulcerated, and the chief violence of his pain lay on his colon; an aqueous and transparent liquor also settled itself about his feet, and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly. Nay, farther, his privy member was putrified, and produced worms; and when he sat upright he had a difficulty of breathing, which was very loathsome, on account of the stench of his breath, and the quickness of its returns; he had also convulsions in all parts of his body, which increased his strength to an insufferable degree.9
Not pleasant. Herodotus describes the end of Pheretime like this:
But Pheretime did not end well, either. For as soon as she had revenged herself on the Barcaeans and returned to Egypt, she met an awful death. For while still alive she teemed with maggots: thus does over-brutal human revenge invite retribution from the gods.10
In each instance, being eaten by worms is explained as being the punishment of a god. The passage in Acts in no different – it explains that Agrippa died, “because he had not given the glory to God”. It’s a classic example of the genre.
So, Agrippa died a miserable death – that’s certain. But his death probably didn’t involve worms. In fact, by understanding the term “eaten by worms” literally, we miss the point that would have been obvious to the original first-century audience of the book of Acts. It’s highly likely that the original audience of Acts wouldn’t have thought to imagine that Agrippa’s body was actually eaten by actual worms; they’d have understood the passage within the parameters of the genre it was written in and so would have seen in the phrase an illustration of the fact that Agrippa’s gruesome death was an act of divine retribution.
- Philo Leg. ad Gaium 261-267. Charles Duke Yonge with Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 781.
- Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 522. Antiquities 19.331
- All scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989) unless otherwise noted
- Op. cit. Josephus & Whiston, 523–524. Antiquities 19.343–351.
- Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (vol. 31; Anchor Yale Bible; New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 491.
- F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 242.
- John Whitehorne, “Antiochus (Person),” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 270.
- Op. cit. Josephus & Whiston, 462. Antiquities 17.168–169.
- Herodotus, Herodotus, with an English Translation by A. D. Godley (ed. A. D. Godley; Medford, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920).