There are a variety of questions about the internal consistency of the bible, that is, how well its constituent parts fit together. Then there are the questions that arise from comparing the bible with other historical sources, be they archaeological or the records of other historians. This past Sunday I was preaching through Acts 12, a portion of which describes the death of Herod Agrippa:
And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the sentries and ordered that they should be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and spent time there.
Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.
Now the following account from Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century:
Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Cesarea, 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… (Antiquities XIX.8.2).
The points of overlap in terms of place (Cesarea), setting (public ceremony), response (divine praise), and consequence (death) are significant. Furthermore I think the differences actually fit together rather well and will point out a few:
-The Portrait of Herod: Josephus and other Jewish writers tend to portray Herod in a positive light while the bible does not. This is primarily due to the widening rift between Judaism and Christianity as something distinct from its Jewish roots. It would make sense for someone favorably disposed towards Judaism and doing his best to maintain order in a delicate and complex part of the Roman Empire to take action against this “sect” developing within Judaism that seems to challenge central Jewish teachings about God, the Messiah, the hopes of Israel, national identity, ethical purity, and the place of gentiles.
-Oration: There is no speech mentioned in Josephus’ account. However when political figures are introduced, especially on such a public occasion, they are rarely silent. While Josephus highlights Agrippa’s appearance, which is also recorded in Acts, this does not preclude Herod giving some sort of speech as would seem appropriate for this occasion.
-Angel: Josephus also indicate that Herod’s death is divine punishment for his acceptance of such flattery “…Providence thus reproves the lying worlds you just now said to me…”. Angels were commonly understood as God’s servants fulfilling his purposes in this world, either directly or through secondary means (ie. worms).
-Worms: In the ancient world many people carried parasites due to what we would describe as unsanitary food storage and preparation. With sufficient time intestinal parasites could multiply and grow to the point of forming blockages in the intestines which would be incredibly painful and in some instances lead to death. Acts describes Herod as being eaten by worms and this accurately matches the manner of death we see Josephus describing.
-The delay in death: In the account from Acts it seems like an angel simply appears, strikes Herod, and he dies immediately. I think immediately refers to the quick response of God’s judgment, which directly follows Herod’s assumption of divine status. The rest of the verse describes his death attributing it to divine judgment but not necessarily giving a time frame. A contemporary example would be if someone was shot in gang related violence, remained on the edge of death in the intensive care unit for five days, but ultimately dies of his gunshot wounds. We would accurately describe this person as “shot to death” and could even refer to that moment five days ago when the gun was fired to when he was killed. Again, these two accounts seem to corroborate each other.
This brief jump into history should prompt us to look at the bible with a greater sense of it’s historical reliability. What such a jump into history also does is raise complex questions about who God is. If this is merely an ancient fable or some religious lesson detached from this world then we don’t have to take it very seriously. If however there really is a God, who objects to us pretending to be more than we are, we must pause. Why would God strike back at Herod in this way? Once we have my sermons uploaded to our website you can listen to the one on Acts 12, or simply fast forward to the last third where I discuss this specific question.