Archive for July 2009

Acts 12

July 11, 2009

Where the Jewish leaders dared not tread, the political rulers had no qualms. Herod Agrippa I [1], the grandson of Herod the Great who ordered the slaying of the infants in Nazareth, inaugurated the persecution of the Church by the execution of James [2], brother of John [3], and the arrest of others, including Peter [4]. Peter was put under exceptionally heavy guard by sixteen men, two of whom were chained to him, apparently inside the Antonia Fortress. An angel appears, wakes Peter by slapping him in the side [5], striking off the chains, and leading him through the iron gate leading to the city and one block farther before departing.
The Antonia Fortess

A model of the Antonia Fortress produced by Ariely and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons; copyright by Creative Commons

The rest of the chapter follows two arms of sequelae from the escape. Herod cross-examined the guards and executed them. He left Judea to go to Caesarea. Tyre and Sidon [6], which had annoyed [7] Herod, sued for peace through Blastus in order to gain access to the food supply. Herod gave a royal speech. The crowd shouted that this was the voice of a god. Because Herod failed to praise God, an angel struck him (or slew him) and he was eaten by maggots [8].

Peter’s branch of the story is happier. He knocks at the door of Mary, mother of John/Mark. The servant girl Rhoda [9] is so happy that she forgot to open the door, simply running back in and telling everyone that Peter is at the door. After debating whether this is Peter’s angel, they at last let him in. He orders them to be silent, tells them the story of his escape, orders them to tell James [10] and the brothers about the events and leaves for another place [11].

The chapter closes with the return of Saul and Barnabas from Jerusalem, taking Mark and spreading the Word.


1. Herod means “sprung from a hero” (Who’s Who in the Bible). The text says literally that he “stretched out his hands to oppress” (epiballo cheir kakoo), a kind of inverse healing. The word for king is basileus, related to the basilisk which is reputed to bring death with a glance. Note that this Herod is not Herod the Great, but Agrippa I, his grandson (per Who’s Who in the Bible; Cornay & Brownrigg).
2. James is “Jacobus” in Greek, and means “supplanter.” This is James bar Zebedee who, with his brother, was also called Boanerges (“sons of thunder”).
3. John means “God has been gracious.”
4. While other strikes against the church had been against the peripheral members of its leadership, these arrests and the murder of James were aimed at the heart of the church. James and Peter had both been with Jesus at the Transfiguration. Since Herod did these terrible deeds during the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, it was plain that he was acting completely outside of Jewish law. There is a metaphoric resonance with the final plague associated with escape from Egyptian exile, with James being the lamb used to blood the lintel and the doorways, and Herod as the Angel of Death. The fact that “the Jews” (presumably, key Jewish leaders) were pleased with the arrests and execution suggests the religious establishment had become politicized.
5. Side is “pleura,” the same word for the piercing of Jesus.
6. Tyre means rock, Sidon means fishery, and Blastus means “sprout” according to Who’s Who in the Bible. According to that source, Josephus corroborates the general outline of the account in Acts, adding the detail that Herod was clothed in a silver robe and that he died of some kind of intestinal problem.
7. The Greek is thymomacheo, a compound word formed from thymos meaning “angry” or “boiling” or “breathing violently” and a second meaning “hand to hand combat” or its verbal equivalent.
8. The same word, skolex, is used by Jesus in Mark 9 to decribe Hell, where “the worm does not die.”
9. Rhoda means “rose.”
10. The order to notify James seems puzzling, given that James brother of John has just been executed. This may have been James son of Alphaeus, who was among the original 12. In any case, it gives a sense that if one James is stricken down, another will arise.