It was this man, such as we described him last evening—“Herod the king,” as he is called by Luke, “Agrippa the Great,” as he liked to be designated, who “about that time,”—that is, about the time of the visit of Saul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, “stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.” The Christian church at Jerusalem had become too prominent to escape his notice; and perceiving how deeply that body was disliked and hated by the Jews, he expected to win some favor with them by manifesting hostility against its leading members. That this was his primary object is clear from the fact, that after he had killed “James the brother of John with the sword,” and perceived that this atrocity “pleased the people,” he caused Peter to be apprehended, with the intention of destroying him also after the Passover.
The leading principle of Agrippa’s life seems to have been to make himself agreeable to all persons whose favor was or might become of any advantage to him. It was now his interest to stand well with the Jews, and he knew that there was no way so conducive to this end, as to affect a zeal for the strict observance of the ancient ritual, though on many occasions he acted contrary to it in order to ingratiate himself with the Gentiles. He was, in fact, a complete man of the world and, as such, he scrupled not to make the passions of other men, in which he had no share, and their prejudices, which he despised, the instruments of his own greatness. How it was that James was selected for the first victim does not appear; but it may be supposed that he had excited the anger of the Jewish zealots by some particular act or discourse. We must not forget, however, that he was one of the “sons of thunder;” and the qualities which rendered that designation appropriate, would be likely to make him very conspicuous among the apostles at Jerusalem, and render him a mark for the enemies of the Gospel. That he was “slain by the sword,” would seem to imply that he was sentenced by the king himself, rather than by the usual Jewish court of orthodoxy which would have condemned him to be stoned; and this “slaying by the sword” is usually, in this case, interpreted to mean beheading; and perhaps rightly so at this period, though under the Old Testament we should rather regard the expression as denoting that a person was thrust through with a sword. There is a tradition concerning the death of James which is worthy of attention, though it is not possible to say how far it may be relied on. It is cited by Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, from a lost work by Clement of Alexandria. It is, that the officer who had the apostle in custody during his trial, or, as some say, his accuser, was convinced and converted by his demeanor before the judgment seat, and having confessed Christ, was led out with him to execution. On the way, he entreated pardon of the apostle. The latter thought a little in silence, and then said: “Peace be with thee;” and kissed him. Such was the first martyrdom among the apostles; and thus early, to him, was the prediction fulfilled, that the sons of Zebedee should drink of the same cup with their Lord, and be baptized with the same baptism. There is, however, something touching in the contrast between the two brothers. “One died before the middle of the first Christian century; the other lived to its close. One died just as his Master’s kingdom, concerning which he had so eagerly inquired, Note: Mar_10:35-45; Act_1:6. was beginning to show its real character; he probably never heard the word ‘Christian’ pronounced. Zebedee’s other son remained till the anti-Christian enemies of the faith were ‘already come,’ Note: 1Jn_2:18; 1Jn_4:3; 2Jn_1:7. and was laboring against them when his brother had been fifty years at rest in the Lord.” Note: Howson, in Life of St. Paul, i. 138. This James was one of the three apostles whom our Lord favored with his special intimacy and confidence; yet he scarcely appears individually in the evangelical history, and there is hardly any one of the apostles concerning whom we have a less distinct impression. His early death—before any of the original apostles had travelled out of Palestine—would seem to exclude his name from the record of apostolic missionary labor. Yet it has long been the general opinion of the people of Spain that he planted the Gospel in that country. He is their St. Jago. But the alleged fact seems so impossible from all the circumstances of the case, and is so unsupported by the testimonies of any ancient writer of credit, that the notion is generally abandoned even by Roman Catholic writers out of Spain.
There is in Jerusalem, upon Mount Zion, within the walls, the Armenian convent of St. James the son of Zebedee. It is the largest establishment of the kind in the place, and is capable of affording accommodation to three thousand pilgrims. Here is a fine library, agreeable gardens, the most extensive in the city, and a church larger and more handsome than any other in Jerusalem. The building is supposed to cover the site of St. James’ martyrdom, and the very spot where he died is pointed out. It was in the eleventh century that a monastery was first built over the spot. But, as Mr. Williams remarks, it is difficult to reconcile this tradition, which is not very ancient, with the established historical fact, that the executions of the ancients took place without the gates. Note: Holy City, i. suppl. p. 23; ii. 559, 560.