King Herod Agrippa I
Messiah (mâšîah, "the anointed one"): Jewish religious concept, a future savior who will, in some sense, come to restore Israel. The nature of both the Messiah and the restoration was a matter of debate, and there were several claimants.
King Herod Agrippa (44 CE)
Sources: Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 19.338-353 and the Acts of the apostles 1219b-23.
Story: The emperor Caligula had appointed Herod Agrippa, a descendant of the famous king Herod the Great, as king of some northern Jewish territories in 37 CE. Because he had good contacts at the court of this emperor and his successor, Claudius, Herod Agrippa managed to reunite all his grandfather's territories in 41. This was remarkable, because it meant that the Romans gave up their province Judaea and gave it to a native, independent king. After these successes, a strange incident took place.
King Herod went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. And he was highly displeased with those from Tyre and Sidon. But they came with one accord to him and, having made Blastus (the king's chamberlain) their friend, they asked for peace, because their country was nourished by the king's country. And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne and delivered an oration unto them. And the people gave a shout, saying, "It is the voice of a god, and not of a man!" And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory; and he was eaten by worms and gave up the ghost.note[Luke, Acts of the apostles 12.19b-23.]
This was the story according to Luke, the author of the Acts of the apostles; he seems to delight in the terrible end of the man who had prosecuted the first Christians. The same story is told by Flavius Josephus:
Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea [...] There he exhibited shows in honor of the emperor [...] On the second day of the festival, Herod put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a truly wonderful contexture, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment was illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun's rays upon it. It shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him. At that moment, 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. 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 he 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."
After he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad 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.note[Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 19.343-350.]
Comment: What to make of this story? It is obvious that Herod Agrippa was regarded by some as a divine being, maybe because he had reunited all Jewish territories and had liberated them from Roman rule. In other words, he had done the things that were expected from a military Messiah. However, it is far from certain that Agrippa was seen as the Messiah. Caesarea was not a Jewish but a pagan city, and we must therefore interpret this incident in a pagan context: it is a theophany, a god appearing to mankind. (Even when the audience were Jewish, it would probably never have called the Messiah "a god", because the Jews usually thought about their liberator as a human being.)