Agrippa II: An Archaeological Biography

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In our next bioarchaeography we’ll be exploring the life of the last Herodian King: Herod Agrippa II.  With five different Herods mentioned in Scripture (not to mention a couple of Philips who may also have born the name Herod) it can be difficult to keep them straight, so here’s a quick summary:

  • Herod the Great (King of Judea, ca. 37-4 BC2) – Arguably the greatest of the Herodian kings (hence his moniker), this is the Herod of the Christmas story – the one who tried to kill baby Jesus by killing all the baby boys around Bethlehem (Mt 2:1-12).
  • Herod Archelaus (Ethnarch of Judea, Samaria and Idumea, ca. 4 BC – AD 6) – This son of Herod the Great is mentioned once in Scripture: “But when he [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee.”  (Mt 2:22)
  • Herod Antipas (Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, ca. 4 BC – AD 39) – Anitpas was another son of Herod the Great, whom Jesus called, “that fox” (Lk 13:32). He killed John the Baptist who criticized him for marrying Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip (Mt 6:17, Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.2).  He also interviewed Jesus before his death, although Jesus refused to respond to him (Lk 23:9).
  • Herod Agrippa I (King of Judea ca. AD 37-44) – Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great who killed James and put Peter in prison (Acts 12:1-19).  He was struck by an angel and eaten by worms because he did not give God the glory when people hailed him as a god (Acts 12:20-23; Josephus, Antiquities 19.8.2).
  • Herod Agrippa II (king of Chalcis, later Tetrarch of Batanaea and Trachonitis, ca. AD 50-93) – Agrippa II, the great-grandson of Herod the Great, was the ruler before whom the Apostle Paul made his defense in Acts 25-26.


Agrippa II

Marcus Julius Agrippa (Agrippa II) and his sister Bernice were the children of Herod Agrippa I.  Educated in Rome, the younger Agrippa was still a teenager when his father died in AD 44.Because he was too young to rule, the emperor Claudius, made Judea a Roman Province again.  Four years later, Agrippa II was granted authority over the affairs of the temple in Jerusalem, and then in AD 50, was made king of Chalcis.4 Josephus further records Agrippa’s rise to power: “So Claudius sent Felix, the brother of Pallans, to take care of the affairs of Judea. And when he had already completed the twelfth year of his reign, he bestowed upon Agrippa the tetrarchy of Philip, and Batanea: and added thereto Trachonitis, with Abila. Which last had been the tetrarchy of Lysanias. But he took from him Chalcis; when he had been governor thereof four years.”5  When Nero became emperor he added more territory to his kingdom.  Agrippa collaborated with Rome, and actively sought to keep the peace between the Romans and the Jews, but to no avail.  When the First Jewish Revolt broke out, he sided with the Romans.  In AD 70, he even helped Titus with the final conquest of Jerusalem.6  Herod Agrippa II ruled until the end of the first century, as an inscribed lead weight was found near Tiberias that mentions his forty-third regnal year (AD 97/98).7

Arch_of_Titus_Menorah
A scene on the Arch of Titus in Rome depicts the spoils taken from the Temple during the Fall of Jerusalem. Photo: Derivative of Arc_de_Triumph_copy by בית השלום, made by Steerpike / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Agrippa and Bernice

Agrippa was close with his sister, Bernice, and they frequently traveled together.  Bernice had been married to her uncle, Herold of Chalcis, but when he died in AD 48, she began to travel with her brother as his consort.  In order to quell rumors of incest, she briefly married Polemon II in AD 50.8  During the rule of the Roman procurator of Judea, Porcius Festus (ca. AD 59-62), Agrippa and Bernice came to visit him in Caesarea Maritima.  In Acts 25 we read:

Now when some days had passed, Agrippa the king and Bernice arrived at Caesarea and greeted Festus. And as they stayed there many days, Festus laid Paul’s case before the king, saying, “There is a man left prisoner by Felix…Then Agrippa said to Festus, “I would like to hear the man myself.” “Tomorrow,” said he, “you will hear him.”So on the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought in. (Acts 25:13-14, 22-23)

The Apostle Paul made his defense before Agrippa and Bernice, sharing his testimony of meeting Christ on the road to Damascus and concluding by asking, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.”  Agrippa replied, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:27-28).

CAESAREA'_KING_HEROD'S_SEA_PALACE_AERIALsmall
The Sea Palace at Caesarea Maritima was built by Herod the Great, but was used as the residence of the Roman prefects and procurators after Judea became a Roman province in 6 BC. Paul likely appeared before Festus, King Agrippa and Queen Bernice in this building (Acts 26). Photo: ABRAHAM GRAICER / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The close relationship between Agrippa and his sister, Bernice, is affirmed archaeologically with an inscription that is currently housed in the National Museum of Beirut.  It has been reconstructed to read:

The great King Agrippa Philocaesar and Queen Berenice, children of the great King Agrippa, restored in the colonia of Julia Augusta Felix Berytus, from their own money, this bathhouse (?),  which their ancestor, King Herod, had built and which had fallen to ruins, and re-erected the marble statues and these six columns.9

Agrippa Beirut Inscription
An inscription celebrating the restoration of a building by King Agrippa II and Queen Berenice. Photo: Jona Lendering / Livius.org / CC0 1.0 Universal


Agrippa and Caesarea Philippi (aka Neronias)

Agrippa’s renovations to the city of Ceasarea Philippi was one of his greatest achievements.  Josephus records:

Agrippa built Cesarea Philippi larger than it was before: and in honour of Nero, named it Neronias. And when he had built a theatre at Berytus, with vast expences, he bestowed on them shews, to be exhibited every year; and spent therein many ten thousand [drachmæ.] He also gave the people a largess of corn; and distributed oil among them; and adorned the intire city with statues of his own donation; and with original images made by ancient hands. Nay he almost transferred all that was most ornamental in his own Kingdom thither. This made him more than ordinarily hated by his subjects: because he took those things away that belonged to them, to adorn a foreign city.10

The remains of Agrippa’s palace complex can still be seen today, including the palace courtyard, the hall, and the vaults used as warehouses.

Agrippa Palace2smaller
The ruins of the palace of Herod Agrippa II at Neronias/Caesarea Philippi. Photo: Mboesch / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0


Agrippa’s Coins

Earlier Herodian rulers avoided putting graven images on the coins they minted.  Beginning with Herod Philip, however, Herodian rulers began to put their own images on their coinage, and more often, the images of Roman emperors.  Agrippa II had the longest reign and most extensive coinage of any of the Herodian rulers.  He was in power through the reigns of the emperors Nero, Gabla, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan.11   Professional numismatist, Arthur L. Friedberg summarizes: “In many ways, Agrippa II’s issues were really nothing more than regular Roman colonial coins with the bust of the emperor and typical reverses.  They would sometimes refer to Agrippa by name, but more often not.  Overall, they are indicative of what had become the Herodian dynasty’s total subservience to Rome.”12

Agrippa_II_Judaea_Capta_91000679
Coin of Agrippa II with bust of Titus. Titus (left) and Nike advancing (right), holding palm and wreath. Dated RY 26 (74/5 CE) Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5


Summary

The archaeological evidence of the longest-reigning Herodian ruler provides the historical background to his brief appearance in Scripture.  Agrippa II was a man who knew that he was beholden to Rome for his power and sought to stay in the good graces of the many Roman emperors he served under.  This is consistent with the picture we see in Scripture of his visit to Festus, the new Roman procurator of Judea.

It is amazing when one considers the many points of contact the Herodian rulers had with people in the New Testament.  Herod the Great learned of Jesus’ birth directly from the magi. Herod Antipas liked to listen to John the Baptist and interviewed Jesus before his death. Herod Agrippa I was familiar with the leaders of the early church, arresting Peter and putting James to death with the sword.  King Agrippa II and his sister Bernice heard the gospel directly from lips of the Apostle Paul.  Sadly, despite these many opportunities, there is no evidence that they ever recognized Jesus as Lord and Savior.

 

Title Photo: Rare coin with the bust of Agrippa II, Zev Radovan, http://biblelandpictures.com/product/4164-1-agrippa-ii-coin/ Used with Permission

Endnotes

1 Kenneth Berding, “How Many Herods Are In The Bible?” The Good Book Blog – Talbot School of Theology.  March 3, 2014. https://www.biola.edu/blogs/good-book-blog/2014/how-many-herods-are-there-in-the-bible (Accessed Feb. 3, 2020).

2 There is some debate around when Herod the Great died; the consensus view is that he died in 4 BC, the minority view is that he died in 1 BC. For as summary of the evidence for each side, see Andrew Steinmann’s From Abraham To Paul: A Biblical Chronology, pg. 230-238.

3 Jona Lendering, “Herod Agrippa II.” Livius.org. May 6, 2019. https://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-agrippa-ii/ (Accessed Feb. 3, 2020).

4 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Herod Agrippa II..  Encyclopædia Britannica, January 1, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herod-Agrippa-II (Accessed Feb. 3, 2020)

5 Josephus, Antiquties 20.7.1.

6 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Herod Agrippa II..  Encyclopædia Britannica, January 1, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herod-Agrippa-II (Accessed Feb. 3, 2020)

7 Jona Lendering, “Herod Agrippa II.” Livius.org, May 6, 2019. https://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-agrippa-ii/ (Accessed Feb. 3, 2020).

8 “Agrippa II and Bernice,” in ESV Archaeology Study Bible (ed. John Currid and David Chapman; Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 1656.

9 Jona Lendering, “Beirut, Inscription mentioning Queen Berenice and King Agrippa II.” Livius.org. December 21, 2018.  https://www.livius.org/pictures/lebanon/beirut-berytus/beirut-inscription-mentioning-queen-berenice-and-king-agrippa-ii/ (Accessed Feb. 4, 2020).

10 Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.4.

11 Arthur L. Friedberg, Coins of the Bible. (Atlanta: Whitman Publishing, 2004), 63.

12 Ibid, 63.

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