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Not in the Theater: Challenging Josephus’s Location for the Place of Herod Agrippa’s Death

The death of Herod Agrippa I occurred in Caesarea according to both Josephus and the book of Acts. Josephus writes that the king was in the theater when the crowd hailed him as a god and he was struck down. Details in Josephus’s account, however, indicate that the episode occurred in the city amphitheater next door to the temple where the emperor was worshipped.

By Todd Bolen
July 2010

The death of Herod Agrippa I is one of the few events that is reported by both the book of Acts and Josephus. Bible readers recall that Agrippa was struck down by an angel of the Lord while delivering a public address in Caesarea (Acts 12:19-23). The account is brief, but the immediate cause of his illness is clearly given in the text: the crowd hailed Herod as a god and the king passively accepted their praise.

Despite the miraculous elements, most scholars believe that the account in Acts is generally accurate because of a parallel record in Josephus (Ant. 19.8.2 §§343-50). Most scholars believe that the two reports had independent sources, and though they agree in several respects, Josephus’s longer account contains more details, including the incident’s occasion, location, and aftermath.1 Acts records that Herod gave the address in Caesarea, and Josephus places it in the theater of Caesarea. Acts does not say anything about the time of day, but Josephus writes that it occurred early in the morning. Acts connects the episode with the resolution of a quarrel with the people of Tyre and Sidon, but says of the public address itself only that it occurred “on the appointed day.” Josephus relates that Agrippa appeared to the crowd on the second day of a festival intended to honor Caesar. Both sources speak of Herod’s clothing, but whereas Acts says simply that he was “wearing his royal robes,” Josephus describes the garments as made “wholly of silver” and when “illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays . . . was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him.” Josephus indicates that the crowd hailed Agrippa as a god because of his radiant clothing, but Luke’s brief account may imply that they did so in response to the sound of Agrippa’s voice. Both agree that Agrippa accepted the crowd’s enthusiastic praise and consequently died shortly thereafter.

Caesarea palace and theater aerial from the west

Excavations at Caesarea are helpful in reconstructing this event. It is likely that as successor to most of the vast holdings of his grandfather King Herod, Agrippa I took up residence in the promontory palace on the south side of the city.2 About a decade later, Agrippa’s successor, the Roman governor Felix, occupied the same palace (Acts 24:35). Presumably, then, on the morning in which he was struck down, Agrippa left this palace and proceeded to his appointed place in order to address the crowd.

According to Josephus, Agrippa came to the theater (θέατρον) where he so inspired the gathered populace that he was hailed as a god. On this basis, tourists today usually visit the Herodian theater and envision the event occurring in this semi-circular entertainment venue. I believe, however, that Josephus’s designation of the location was inaccurate. Analysis of his account indicates that the amphitheater, rather than the theater, was the setting for Herod’s public address.3

The first clue that Josephus gives is the time of day. He says that it occurred at “the beginning of the day” (ἀρχομένης ἡμέρας). Dressed in a garment made “wholly of silver,” Agrippa dazzled the crowd when his robes were “illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it.” The theater, however, faces west. If the king was positioned on the stage, the sun would not have reached over the multi-storied seating area before mid-morning. And if he was speaking from the seating area, the sun would not have reflected off his clothes until even later. The amphitheater, by contrast, is wide, and the twelve rows of seating would not have blocked the sun. Agrippa could have been addressing the crowd from the western side of the amphitheater where the sun would be able to reflect off his clothes early in the morning.

The second indication that Agrippa was struck down in the amphitheater is the occasion of his death. Acts says only that it occurred “on the appointed day” (τακτῇ δὲ ἡμέρᾳ), but Josephus describes the event occurring on the second day of a festival in honor of Caesar in which a great multitude was assembled. Scholars identify this festival with either the quinquennial celebration of the city’s founding, on March 5, AD 44, or a celebration of Emperor Claudius’s birthday on August 1 of that same year. The former was originally organized by King Herod in 12 BC.4 It was styled after the Olympic Games, but called “Caesar’s Games” (Josephus, War 1.21.8 §415). These games included combats and horse races (Josephus, Ant. 16.5.1 §§136-141), and were conducted in the amphitheater, not in the theater which was designed for dramatic performances. The emperor’s birthday was also celebrated with sports, and thus a setting in the amphitheater is most likely for this event as well.

A third piece of supporting evidence can be adduced from Josephus’s report of an encounter between Pilate and a large crowd about a decade earlier (War 2.9.3 §§172). When the Roman governor sent standards with Caesar’s image into Jerusalem, a large delegation traveled to Caesarea to entreat Pilate to remove these offensive placards. Josephus writes that “on the next day Pilate sat upon his tribunal [βήμα] in the great stadium [μεγάλῳ σταδίῳ].”5 The word for stadium more naturally refers to the amphitheater, particularly with the modifier “great.”6 It is reasonable that the bema was located in the same place in Agrippa’s day, and that he addressed the crowd from the customary place.

Caesarea hippodrome aerial from the northwest

Finally, it should be noted that Josephus’s use of terms designating buildings of entertainment is known to be imprecise. In Jerusalem he states at one point that Herod built a theater and an amphitheater (Ant. 15.8.1 §268), and elsewhere he mentions a hippodrome (War 2.3.1 §44; Ant 17.10.2§255). None of these buildings have been located in Jerusalem today, and most scholars conclude that only one, or at most two, existed, and that Josephus referred to a single building by multiple terms. The model at the Israel Museum (formerly located at the Holyland Hotel), for instance, reconstructs only a theater and a hippodrome in the city.7 In other words, if Josephus could refer to an amphitheater as a hippodrome in Jerusalem, he certainly could have identified an amphitheater as a theater in Caesarea. He appears to have made precisely this mistake in describing sporting events and horse races as occurring in the theater of Jerusalem (Ant. 15.8.1-4 §§269-85).8

The lines of evidence thus converge to locate the amphitheater of Caesarea as the place where Agrippa addressed the people and contracted his fatal illness. It was here that the Roman governor’s bema was located, and it was here where the crowds gathered to hear Agrippa’s address in advance of the day’s games. Unlike the theater, the design of the amphitheater best suits illumination of Agrippa’s garments by the rays of the early morning sun.

One other aspect is elucidated by an understanding of the event’s location. Immediately adjacent to the northern end of the amphitheater was the imperial temple, the center of worship of the emperor and the goddess Roma.9 The crowds that hailed Agrippa that day were very familiar with the practice of honoring the emperor as a god. Only a few years earlier, Agrippa’s close friend, Emperor Caligula, demanded that he be revered as a god. One way that Caligula signaled his desire for worship was by the clothing he wore, oftentimes dressing himself in the attire of one of the deities.10 Unfortunately for Agrippa, the God of Israel was less willing to overlook such blasphemy in a king with Jewish heritage ruling in the Promised Land. The king who called himself “the great” recognized that his punishment was just—the intense pain apparently brought moral clarity—for he declared with irony that “I, who was called immortal by you, am now under sentence of death” (Josephus, Ant. 19.8.2 §347).11


1 One who argues that Acts is dependent upon Josephus is Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, ed. Harold W. Attridge, Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 301, 312–13. Among those who see the accounts as independent is Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, ed. Conrad H. Gempf, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum neuen Testament, vol. 49 (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1989), 166.

2 Netzer, Burrell, and Gleason identified this as a palace built by King Herod (Ehud Netzer, The Architecture of Herod, the Great Builder, Texte und Studien zum antiken Judentum, ed. Martin Hengel and Peter Schäfer, vol. 117 [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006], 106–12), but excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority date its construction to the early Roman governors (Yosef Porath, “Caesarea: The Israel Antiquities Authority Excavations,” in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land: Supplementary Volume, ed. Ephraim Stern, vol. 5 [Jerusalem and Washington DC: Israel Exploration Society and Biblical Archaeology Society, 2008], 1658). Josephus states that Herod adorned the city with a “very costly palace” (Ant. 15.9.6 §331). Richardson observes the architectural similarities between this palace and those attributed to Herod at Jericho, Masada, and Herodium (Peter Richardson, Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans, Studies on Personalities of the New Testament [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999], 181). Whether built during Herod’s rule or after, the palace would have properly belonged to Agrippa when he was king.

3 What Josephus called an “amphitheater” is considered by scholars today as a circus/hippodrome or a hippo-stadium on the basis of clear evidence of horse-racing activity (Porath, “Caesarea,” 1658; Joseph Patrich, “Caesarea: The Combined Caesarea Expeditions Excavations: Areas CC, KK, and NN,” in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land: Supplementary Volume, ed. Ephraim Stern, vol. 5 [Jerusalem and Washington DC: Israel Exploration Society and Biblical Archaeology Society, 2008], 1675; Netzer, Architecture 118). As will be shown below, Josephus’s imprecise terminology here supports the conclusion of this study. This structure will be called an “amphitheater” in the present study to accord with Josephus’s vocabulary and to avoid further confusion.

4 Richardson, Herod, 282n85.

5 Whiston incorrectly translates this as “open market place.”

6 Cf. LSJ, s.v. στάδιον II. The theater seated 4,000–5,000 spectators while the amphitheater in Herod’s day held 7,500. See Netzer, Architecture, 113–15 and Porath, “Caesarea,” 1659.

7 In recent years, the hippodrome has been removed from the model. I speculate that the designers removed it because (1) evidence shows that the hippodrome was certainly not located in the position indicated on the model south of the Temple Mount; (2) no possible location within the city’s walls (and thus the model’s boundaries) is known; (3) Josephus’s record may support locating the building to the southwest of the city beyond the Hinnom Valley.

8 This observation is made by Richardson, who notes that the building where the trophies were hung was for animal contests, yet Josephus calls it a theater (Herod, 187n42).

9 This temple was apparently depicted on Agrippa’s coins in the last year of his rule. See Duane W. Roller, The Building Program of Herod the Great (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998), 139. More details about the archaeological results of the excavation of the temple can be found in Netzer, Architecture, 103–6 and Lisa C. Kahn, “King Herod’s Temple of Roma and Augustus at Caesarea Maritima,” in Caesarea Maritima: A Retrospective after Two Millenia, ed. Avner Raban and Kenneth G. Holum, Documenta et monumenta orientis antiqui, vol. 21 (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 130–45.

10 Caligula’s custom of dressing himself as a living deity has led some to believe that Agrippa was intending to provoke the crowd’s acclamations by virtue of his ostentatious costume. In the temple that Caligula built for himself in Rome, he erected a golden statue, and each day its clothes were changed to match the ones the emperor was wearing (Suetonius, Cal. 22.2; cf. Philo, Embassy 29 §188). At various times, he would act or dress as if he were Jupiter, Neptune, Apollo, or another of the gods or goddesses. See Werner Eck, “Caligula,” in Brill’s New Pauly: Encyclopedia of the Ancient World, ed. Hubert Cancik and Helmuth Schneider, vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 956.

11 Though King Herod is popularly known as “Herod the Great,” this title was never used for him in his lifetime. By contrast, his grandson Agrippa used the title for himself. See Richardson, Herod, 12, 211, 313.