In the course of the transactions at Antioch which have lately engaged our attention, probably during the year of Barnabas and Saul’s joint labor there, certain “prophets” arrived from Jerusalem. One of these, named Agabus, impelled by the Spirit, stood up in the congregation of the believers, and declared “that there should be great dearth throughout all the world.” The historian adds that this prediction was accomplished “in the days of Claudius Caesar.” The disciples, having full faith in this intimation, determined that every one of them, according to his means, should send relief to the brethren in Judea. A collection was accordingly made for the purpose, and the amount thus realized was remitted to the elders at Jerusalem, by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.
This is the plain statement of the facts; but out of it one or two questions arise, which are well entitled to our consideration.
Who were these “prophets,” of whom Agabus was one, and the only one to whom any foretellings are ascribed?
The word “prophet” does certainly, in its primary sense, denote one who foretells future events. As, however, such prophets were commonly regarded as public instructors in religion, and as they constantly appear in that capacity in the Old Testament, this more general idea of a public teacher came to be expressed by the word. In this sense it frequently occurs in the New Testament where there is no apparent reference to the prediction of things future. Note: See Rom_12:6; 1Co_12:10; 1Co_12:28; 1Co_13:2; 1Co_13:8; 1Co_14:3; 1Co_14:5; 1Co_14:24. It therefore seems that the “prophets” of the New Testament were such disciples as applied themselves to public teaching and preaching, and who were occasionally enabled, under the inspiration of the Divine Spirit, to foretell things to come which it concerned the church to know. We suppose that although to foretell future events was not the primary function or gift of these “prophets,” and that, although there were probably many who never did predict things to come; yet that, when such predictions were given, they usually came from some one of these prophets. Some also appear to have possessed this endowment more signally, or to have been favored with the Divine intimations of this kind more frequently or usually than others. Thus, the only other notice in Scripture that we find respecting this Agabus, is in connection with a similar prediction; for this is the same person who, at a later period, foretold to Paul that he would at Jerusalem be delivered into the hands of the Gentiles. Act_21:10-11.
The other question is respecting the famine thus predicted, and which we are expressly informed took place in the reign of Claudius Caesar. If such a famine did take place, we should suppose that there ought to be some secular record of it, which it would be satisfactory to produce. Is there any such record? Before proceeding to inquire, it may be well to refer the reader back to the explanation formerly given Note: Evening Series. Twenty-Eighth Week—Thursday. of the limited sense in which such phrases as “all the world,” and “the whole earth,” must sometimes be understood. It was then shown that in the same writer, Luke, this large phrase is used to denote no more than the land of Judea. We may, therefore, look for some indication in the text itself, whether in this place we are to take it in the larger or the narrower sense; and that we are to receive it in the latter seems to be indicated by the fact that those, to whom the prediction is delivered, clearly understood that the brethren in Judea would be. exposed to sufferings from which they would themselves be exempt. And this consideration becomes the more emphatic if, as was probable, the money was not sent till the famine had actually commenced. If the calamity extended to Syria, of which Antioch was the metropolis, the brethren there would have been in as much need of help as those in Judea.
History records that there were not only one, but four famines in the reign of Claudius; but none of them were general to all the world, nor even to all the Roman Empire; and one of them was almost confined to Palestine, or was at least more severely felt there than in other parts.
The first of these four dearths was at Rome, in the first and second years of Claudius, and arose from the difficulties of introducing adequate supplies of corn from abroad. These difficulties must have been chiefly local, for the emperor was considered to have taken the proper measures for preventing the recurrence of a dearth from the same causes, by making at a great expense a port at the mouth of the Tiber, and a convenient passage from thence up to the city. Before this was done, corn could only be brought to Rome in summer, and was stored in granaries for winter use; and this, we conclude, must have rendered the last crop of foreign grain generally unavailable for the service of Rome in winter. This could not have been the dearth predicted by Agabus.
The second scarcity occurred in the ninth year of Claudius, and is only mentioned by Eusebius, Note: Chronicon, i. 79. the sole authority, as afflicting Greece, where a modius of wheat was sold for 6 drachms. This would be 160s. the quarter at the present value of silver; but silver was then of considerably higher value than it is now. This, therefore, would be a truly famine price, being considerably more than double the present (1853) high price of corn with us. Archbishop Ussher has endeavored to show that this famine was universal, and therefore the one denoted by Agabus, but the proof of this fails altogether.
The third dearth was at Rome in the eleventh year of Claudius. It seems to have been of the same nature as the first. From the terms in which it is mentioned by Tacitus, we gather that the granaries had become exhausted, while the ships which might, under ordinary circumstances (if the works of Claudius were then completed), have brought up from foreign ports the produce of the last harvest, were kept away by adverse winds and weather. But this was not of long duration; for when the granaries of Rome were nearly empty, “by the goodness of the gods, and the mildness of the winter, ships arrived with sufficient provisions.” Note: Tacit. Ann. xii. 43. This therefore becoming merely local and temporary, was not the dearth of Agabus.
The fourth dearth, but the second in time, is that which afflicted Judea towards the end of the fourth year of Claudius. It is mentioned by Josephus, and in terms which would alone suggest that this was the famine which the sacred historian had in view. It is adduced by Josephus somewhat incidentally, in connection with Helena queen of Adibene. This princess was a proselyte to Judaism, and had brought up her son Izates in the same faith, in which he was more fully confirmed afterwards by a learned Jew called Ananias. Speaking of the arrival of Helena at Jerusalem, the Jewish historian says—“Her arrival was a great blessing to the people; for the city, at that time laboring under a heavy famine, so that a great many perished for want, the queen sent abroad several of her officers; some to Alexandria for the purchase of corn, others to Cyprus to buy up dried figs. These having used the utmost expedition, as soon as they returned, she distributed food to those who were in need. By this liberality she laid a lasting obligation upon our whole nation. Moreover, her son Izates, having heard of the famine, sent a large sum of money to the chief men of Jerusalem.” Note: Antiquities, xx. 2, 5. Afterwards he refers to the same famine, in such terms as seem to show that it was not confined to one season, but extended over two or three years.
It is clear from supplies of corn being obtained from abroad, that the dearth was confined to, or was felt with most intensity in Judea. That it did not extend to Egypt on the south is clear, and if it had been felt to the northeast, Izates would have wanted his money to feed his own people. In this case we see that Helena and Izates, proselytes to Judaism, do the same thing for the native Jews, which the proselytes to Christianity at Antioch, do for the native Christians. It is well reasoned from this case by Lardner, Note: Credibility of the Gospel History, ch. 11. who has brought together all the information bearing upon the subject, “that the Jews of Judea seem to have expected it as due to them that some particular regard should be shown them by the rest of their countrymen, and all who came over to the worship of the true God, and were admitted to share in any of the privileges of the Jewish nation. Thus St. Paul assures us: Note: Gal_2:10. ‘Only they would that we should remember the poor, the same which I also was forward to do.’ The very last time that St. Paul was at Jerusalem: ‘After many years,’ says he, ‘I came to bring alms to my nation and offerings.’ Note: Act_24:17. Nor was St. Paul’s argument a new thought, though expressed by him with a divine temper: ‘But now I go unto Jerusalem, to minister unto the saints; for it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia, to make a certain contribution for the poor saints that are at Jerusalem. It hath pleased them verily, and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister to them in carnal things,” Rom_15:25-27.