Affairs of state

As if the year 2020 wasn’t complicated enough, it’s an election year. Mud will be raked and slung. Lives and character will be scrutinized. Innuendo and outright fabrication will flood social media.

But whatever gets uncovered about any of our leaders or would-be leaders, here’s a bit of context: they’ve got nothing on the Herods.

Some things never change.

We left the apostle Paul in Caesarea, in the custody of the new Roman governor in Judea. As the new kid on the Judean block, Festus had wanted to curry a little favor with the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem. He knew the high priest wanted Paul transferred there, and it’s almost unimaginable that he wouldn’t have known this could put Paul in danger. But as a political favor to the Jews, Festus asked Paul if he’d be willing to have his case heard there.

Paul immediately saw through the ruse. He scolded the governor, then exercised his right as a Roman citizen to have his case heard by the emperor himself.

This put Festus in a difficult spot. On the one hand, Paul’s appeal to the emperor helped him out of a no-win scenario: should he release Paul, and anger the Jews who got Felix kicked out, or condemn an innocent man and a Roman citizen? The appeal to Rome allowed Festus to duck the responsibility of having to rule on Paul’s case.

On the other hand, what could he say to the emperor that would make sense of why he was sending Paul in the first place? He couldn’t very well say, “This is too hard for me to figure out; why don’t you have a go?” He needed help coming up with a rationale that made him look like he was doing his job instead of dodging political bullets.

As luck would have it, help was on the way: “After several days had passed, King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to welcome Festus” (Acts 25:13, NRSV). This was Herod Agrippa II, the great-grandson of Herod the Great and the son of Herod Agrippa I, whose arrogance brought him to a sudden end in Acts 12.

Agrippa Sr. had been king over Judea. When he died, Agrippa Jr. was just a teenager, and not ready to take over his father’s throne. Junior had favor in Rome, however, and Emperor Claudius eventually appointed him to rule over the small neighboring kingdom of Chalcis, succeeding his deceased uncle (yes, another Herod). Agrippa II’s influence continued to expand under Claudius, and later, Nero.

He came to Caesarea to pay a state visit to the new governor, accompanied by Bernice. It’s easy for modern readers to assume this meant his wife; but Bernice was his younger sister. Luke’s readers would have known who she was, because she was the constant subject of scandalous rumors.

As a girl, Bernice had been married to Herod of Chalcis, her uncle. When Uncle died, she went to live with her brother, Agrippa II. They were seen everywhere together, and rumors circulated that they were having an incestuous affair. Perhaps in an effort to squash those rumors, she married the king of Cilicia. That marriage, however, didn’t last long, and she returned to Agrippa.

These were the people paying a visit to Festus. Agrippa did not rule over Judea, but he did have imperial authority over the Jerusalem temple. In that sense, he was of higher stature than the high priest. He was also known as something of an expert in Jewish matters.

This is perfect, Festus must have thought.  I have no clue how to write the report that I have to send to Rome with Paul; who better to help me than Agrippa? The emperor is sure to take seriously anything that has his stamp of approval. Problem solved.

But nothing is to be taken for granted. Festus, playing the politician, will still need to do a crafty bit of spin-doctoring, as we will see.