Herod Agrippa, the father of King Agrippa of Acts 25 and 26, is mentioned by Luke as beginning the second phase of the official Jerusalem persecution against believing Jews. Claudius Caesar had made him king over all the lands of his grandfather, Herod the Great, in order to calm the unrest in Rome’s eastern frontier province of Syria, which included Judea. Caligula had recently brought Rome and Jerusalem to the brink of war, so the new emperor wanted to smooth over Rome’s relations with the Jews and did so by making Agrippa king of the Jews.
Herod was brother-in-law and nephew to Herod Antipas of the Gospels. Josephus tells us that in cir. 38 CE when Caligula made Agrippa the first officially Jewish client king since Herod the Great, Antipas became jealous and at the instigation of Herodias (see Mark 6:17-19), Agrippa’s sister, petitioned Caligula to make him equal with his nephew. Nevertheless, through the political maneuvering of Agrippa, Caligula banished Antipas to Gaul and made Agrippa ruler over his territories [cp. Antiquities 18.6.11 & 18.7.1].
Agrippa’s grandmother, Mariamne was a wife of Herod the Great, but was also a Hasmonian princess, a Jewish royal line. Agrippa was greatly beloved of the Jews due to his royal Jewish heritage. Josephus records that Agrippa “…was very beneficent and generous by nature and wanted to please people with his gifts, and became famous for the massive sums he spent. His delight was in giving and took pleasure in his reputation for it” [Josephus: Antiquities; 19.7.3].
Knowing this, Josephus puts Acts 12:3 in its correct context, because Luke implies Herod felt a need need to “please” the Jewish authorities. Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian, writes well of Agrippa, but he mentions that upon arriving in Jerusalem, the king deprived Theophilus of the high priesthood and gave the honor to Simon, called Cantheras, the son of Boethus. Boethus was the favorite high priestly family of the Herod family. Nevertheless, the Annas family was Rome’s first choice—Annas was Rome’s first appointee when Judea first became a Roman province governed directly by Rome upon the banishment of Herod Archelaus in 6 CE. The Annas family was by far the most powerful and influential family of priests in Jerusalem. Agrippa made a political error in removing Theophilus, especially since he was sent to Jerusalem as Rome’s peace offering to the Jews.
Agrippa’s choice didn’t last much longer than a year before he offered the office to Jonathan, the son of Annas. Josephus doesn’t record any discord between Agrippa and the Annas family, but Jonathan “politely” refused, saying that he already had the honor (cir. 36-37 CE), and asked if the king would bestow it instead upon his younger brother, Matthias. Agrippa agreed, but Jonathan’s refusal should be taken as an arrogant insult to the king, and Agrippa’s overlooking the apparent rude behavior should be seen as his own need to be on the good side of this very powerful priestly clan. It may even be, as some claim, that Agrippa was conceding to the request of Claudius to reinstate the Annas family into that high office. In any event, Jonathan’s refusal cannot be seen as a magnanimous gesture toward his younger brother, because later he did take the office of high priest a second time (see here), just before the time Felix became procurator of the Judean province.
Luke gives no reason for Agrippa’s renewal of the persecution, except that it “pleased the Jews”, i.e. the Jewish authorities, meaning the Annas family. Agrippa chose James, the brother of John, as an example to test the political winds (Acts 12:2-3). James is mentioned second in three of the four lists of the Apostles (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-18; Luke 6:13-16; Acts 1:13), always following Peter, showing his importance in the Messianic community. In all of the lists where only the inner three are mentioned (Peter, James and John), James always comes before John and never the other way around. So, by choosing James, Agrippa sought to secure the good will of the Jewish authorities mentioned in Acts 12:3, and Messianics of lesser significance wouldn’t due.
Luke begins Acts 12 with the words: “Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church” (Acts 12:1 – KJV), and there is a general agreement among most modern translations with how the KJV translates this verse. However, about what time is Luke referring? Is he referring to the time when Agabus’ uttered his prophecy, or is it when the prophecy was fulfilled? Curiously, the Greek translated “about” can also be translated “after” and is so done 65 times as opposed to it being translated “about” only 3 times in the KJV. If it can be translated “after” there should be no controversy, because Acts 12:1 occurs “after” all of what occurred in Acts 11. Wuest, however, gives sense to it all by translating it: “Now at that strategic significant period…” In other words, the whole period of time between Agabaus’ prophecy and its fulfillment is in mind. Not long before James was killed, Paul embarked on his first missionary journey, beginning in Cyprus and ending in Galatia, and reports of his success on Cyprus probably reached the ears of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. Unrest over uncircumcised gentiles, such as Sergius Paulus, being admitted into a Jewish sect with the full approval of the Messianic authorities in Jerusalem was pushed into the political arena and Agrippa, seeking to please the powerful priestly clan of Annas, addressed the issue by seizing and executing James and vexing the Church of God, headquartered there.