copyright 2008 Stephan Huller
There is a strange undervaluation of Agrippa in the surviving texts of Josephus. It has led many (most) scholars to undervalue Marcus Agrippa’s historical significance. I suspect this “de-messianization” of the last king of Israel was deliberate. According to my understanding the same hand who added the Testamonium Flavium to the original (lost) Greek text of Josephus also manipulated the account of Agrippa’s historical value.
These arguments are best left for another work but we should consider for a moment the strange (deliberate) reintroduction of Agrippa’s messianic significance into the late Hebrew copies of Josephus. As has long been recognized by scholars, the so-called “Yosippon” (a corruption of the name ‘Josephus’) represents only one in a series of surviving expansions of a fourth century Latin text of Josephus known to scholars as the work of pseudo-Hegesippus. The Slavonic (Old Russian) text of Josephus is another.
Our familiar Greek texts of Josephus witness that the author did indeed include “messianic commentary” in his historical tome. He references for instance the prophesy from the Book of Numbers where it is said:
I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.
While our familiar Greek texts claim that everyone believed the words applied solely to Vespasian, the head of the Roman army, who would go on to be Roman Emperor, the Old Russian texts seems to imply that at least ‘some’ applied the messianic prophesy to Agrippa. We read in that version of Josephus’ lost original text that “some indeed by this [prophesy in the Book of Numbers] understood Herod [to be referenced] but others the crucified wonder-doer Jesus, others again Vespasian.”
Of course it makes no sense whatsoever to think that Herod the Great was meant here. We have already seen countless witnesses who point to the fact that the Jews did indeed hold their king to be the awaited messiah announced by the prophets. Indeed the only ‘Herod’ alive at the time of the destruction of the Temple was Marcus Agrippa. What’s more coins discovered by archaeologists demonstrate that he did indeed call himself ‘Herod Agrippa.’ Our interpretation is further reinforced by the Hebrew and Latin texts of Josephus where, in the case of the former, we read that “some of the people said that he will be Israel's king, but the sages of Jerusalem and the priests said that he will be the king of the Romans.”
This underlying notion in the Hebrew texts of Josephus or as it is known to scholars – the Yosippon – is very interesting. It preserves a very different version (even ‘versions’) of the same events described in the texts of Josephus and maintained by the various Churches. Most scholars ignore the tradition behind the Yosippon seeing it as little more than “popular historical literature.” Yet, as Bowman notes, “the Yosippon, was the most popular book on Jewish history for the past millennium, and nearly every Jewish male and most females were familiar with its story and its message of national pride.”
The work claims to be the authentic text of the Jewish historian Josephus. This certainly isn’t true. Nevertheless we can argue that the Hebrew text is no more corrupt than the surviving copies of Josephus which circulate among the Gentiles, which offer the service of transforming Josephus into a secret witness for Jesus Christ. All surviving texts of Josephus have suffered from editorial manipulation in one form or another. The more important thing is for us to use all of the available evidence to come up with a proper understanding of the period of the Jewish War – including the Yosippon.
I personally feel that we should approach this text as a collection of specifically Jewish traditions about the events of 70 CE blended into the surviving Latin text of Josephus. No one should be surprised that many of these ‘insertions’ involved quite complex developments of scripture. That just happens to be the way rabbinic minds approached history. In point of fact what should be more surprising is that surviving Latin text on which the Yosippon is based betrays many of the same features. It inserts an ‘interpretation of Daniel’ into the main narrative of a speech between Josephus and the leader of the Zealots much in the way the Jewish author of the Yosippon does throughout his development of the text. The only difference is that this Christian editor manipulates the text in favor of the traditional European messiah Jesus while the Jewish editor of the Yosippon does the same in terms of Marcus Agrippa.
The time is right to deal with the most problematic aspect of the Yosippon. The author takes as his starting point the fact that Marcus Agrippa was indeed the awaited messiah of Israel. This much seems to follow my claims about the last king of the Jews. Nevertheless, the Yosippon couldn’t allow for the fact that Agrippa went on to destroy the temple so it essentially ‘cheated’ and followed the escape route developed for it by the countless generations of rabbis to avoid what actually followed next in ‘real historical time.’
The Yosippon is very aware of the traditional rabbinic interpretation of yakarath – viz. ‘cut off’ - in verse 26. The medieval rabbis had the scroll of Daniel on the one hand and clear testimonies from Jews that Agrippa lived on to reap the rewards of the destruction of the temple and most significantly they also had ‘Rome’ throughout the ages beating and threatening them into submission. At some point they reached a crossroad in their faith and they came up with a compromise that satisfied all concerns (save for truthfulness).
The solutions they found was rooted in that little word karath. Hebrew and Aramaic words can have a wide variety of meanings. In this case the Aramaic word had a range of meanings from ‘removed,’ ‘castrated,’ ‘destroyed’ to ‘killed.’ In order to reconcile two contradictory poles of their existing tradition the rabbis had their Christ ‘killed’ three and a half years before the destruction of the temple in accordance with the words of Daniel.
The underlying point here is that even when the rabbinic tradition and the author of the Yosippon claimed that Agrippa was ‘killed’ in accordance with Scripture, it could not have sincerely believed these claims. The most sacred books in its religion contradicted this claim, not to mention the earlier copies of Josephus that they had originally used to make their claims. Nevertheless none of this should mean that we have to give up employing the Yosippon as a source for the early Jewish veneration of Marcus Agrippa as the messiah. There is simply too much valuable information in it to ignore.
Perhaps the most shocking thing that emerges from the Yosippon is the manner in which this ‘slain’ Agrippa begins to resemble Jesus of the Christian literature. The Yosippon consistently emphasizes that Agrippa was the messiah who succumbed to the wicked treachery of Jews who betrayed him. They falsely accused Agrippa of plotting against Caesar, which leads directly to his execution by Vespasian.
The author’s central claim is that because of what the Jews did to Agrippa the daily offerings in the temple ceased. Agrippa is “cut off” both in the sense of being killed and in the sense of having no heirs. His end is the prelude to the permanent end of the Temple service marked by its symbolic desecration. It was his death, along with Titus’ erection of ‘the Abomination’ mentioned in Daniel’s prophesy, that marked the absolute end of Judaism in the period. The details of the timing of the demolition don’t matter very much after this. Indeed, according to the Yosippon, Agrippa’s “cutting off” is taken to be the real defining moment for Israel.
The reason the wicked Jews conspire to get Agrippa killed is because they reject his theological arguments in favor of accepting the authority of Rome. There is a long quotation, a few chapters earlier, of a long exhortation by Agrippa on the wisdom of choosing peace. It is central to the composition. It resurfaces time and time again as an important reference point. Various Jews end up uttering words to the effect of ‘remember that speech which Agrippa gave about accepting peace.’ Our surviving texts place much of this material in the mouth of Josephus.
The point of the narrative seems to be that Agrippa offered the nation an alternative to the suffering which beset the nation for the next thousand or so years. It is written with later events very much in mind. In the material that follows in the Yosippon about the execution of Agrippa it says, not in words, but by its allusions to words in Daniel 9 and 12, that this collective slander brought about the absolute end of the Anointed line, which immediately brought about the end of the Tamid offering and then eventually the erection of the Abomination of Desolation and the destruction of the building (the Temple) for ever.
This is a most remarkable development for the Yosippon places Agrippa on a timeline that reaches back to Moses and the founding of Israel. It is inferred that there was something unique about Agrippa in the history of this people whereby his being “cut off” leads directly to abandonment of Jerusalem sanctuary. While it is never said explicitly, it has to come down to the fact that he was the awaited messiah, and that the actions of the wicked caused his downfall, since the offerings could no longer continue.
I believe it is impossible to overstate the true significance of this revelation. It is otherwise difficult to explain why the Jews in particular completely gave up on the original sacrificial rituals that came down from Moses. They were, by contrast, maintained to a limited degree in Judaism’s sister culture in Samaria. But in fact, the reason that all but the most radical ultra-orthodox sects simply gave up on everything to do with the old rituals was that Marcus Agrippa was utterly unique.
Indeed the whole text of the Yosippon – and rabbinic theology for that matter - all comes down to that word “cut off.” We see that in the first place, Agrippa, the Anointed, was cut off by being killed. Secondly, the Anointed line of descent was cut off by his execution. Third, the kingship of the second Moses was cut off, so the Temple had no reason to exist. So the end came not upon the destruction of the building but upon the end of Agrippa, unequivocally evident from the end of the Sabbath offering on the day of his death and the lack of any offering on the following Sabbath.
As I mentioned a little earlier there are uncanny parallels here in the text to the rituals of Christianity, especially Easter Sunday. We should recall that the Resurrection was exactly at the end of the Sabbath, at sunset on our Saturday. In the same way the death of Agrippa (in the text) was on the exact day of the last offering. This end of the Temple service and the end of its reason for existence were the direct result predicted in Daniel of such an act, just as the daily offering ended a week after the execution, as a consequence of his being ‘cut off.’
It is necessary to stress time and time again that only one part of this historical equation is true. The ancient Jews must have always venerated the ‘uniqueness’ of Marcus Agrippa’s messianic status. It was only later generations that capitulated to the relentless pressure from ‘Rome’ to find some way out of the acknowledgement of earlier generations that this man was indeed the awaited messiah.
Now we can see why the ghost of the past had to be removed by the permanent desecration of the Temple. Something about Marcus Agrippa made him unique among all the kings, prophets and historical figures who came before or after him. One must infer that it was because he was the one historical messiah predicted by Moses and the prophets who was “cut off” owing to the iniquity of the Jews which led to the destruction of the holy sanctuary.
The only reason these later traditions could fictitiously kill off Marcus Agrippa years before his true, historical death, was because they were sufficiently removed from the historical incidents in question. The earlier rabbinic sources know full well that Agrippa remained king of Israel well into the reign of the Emperor Domitian. They also identified him as being entirely hostile to Judaism. In other words, they knew a most dangerous truth, one that was entirely at odds with their first principles. It must have been clear that Agrippa wanted to destroy the temple. His messianic claims were inextricably tied with this historical event. They also seemed to have knowledge of him claiming to preach a ‘more perfect doctrine’ and to be in the possession of a ‘more perfect Law.’
All of this must have been deeply troubling for the heads of Judaism throughout the ages. Could it be that Agrippa, the acknowledged messiah of Judaism, established Christianity as a new religion for the Jews? We can only get to this answer one step at a time. For the moment there is one last Jewish tradition that spells out Agrippa’s connection with the destruction of the temple which requires our attention. It seems to acknowledge that he did indeed live to not only see the destruction but actively took part in the defilement.
If we look carefully we must acknowledge that the Mishnah undoubtedly also identifies him as the ‘apostle’ who is identified as the ultimate cause of the end of the temple service as we just saw in the Yosippon. It says that three weeks before that fateful day of 10th of August, 70 CE:
the daily-offering ceased (in the Temple), the walls of the City (of Jerusalem) were breached, Apostolos burned the Torah Scroll and placed an idol in the Sanctuary.
Clearly this is another tradition about the events surrounding the destruction of the temple that will help us ultimately put all the necessary pieces together.
If we avoid doing what religious minds tend to do when basing their understanding on Scripture – i.e. literally juxtaposing every line of Daniel’s prophesy against the historical details of the temple – the rival tradition that a figure called ‘Apostle’ was responsible for the destruction is quite instructive. I believe that it allows for the ‘uniquely unique’ Agrippa to finally become liberated from the artificial theological construct in which he is imprisoned in texts such as the Yosippon.
Agrippa was indeed the one for whom a hundred generations of Jews waited. We can also say that the Yosippon was undoubtedly correct in claiming that Marcus Agrippa was intimately connected with the ‘cessation of the daily offering.’ However we should ultimately become very suspicious about the manner in which the Yosippon neatly avoids the second accusation present in the Mishnah – namely that he set up ‘an idol’ in the Sanctuary.
The reader should not be surprised by any of this. In the end I will reveal that this ‘abomination of desolation’ was the most familiar of Christian symbols, the Cross, triumphing over its Jewish rival – viz. the Temple. The idea appears in countless ancient sources including surviving copies of the histories of Josephus.
For the present moment I need only mention that I can state the ultimate reason why Agrippa had to be removed from his original connection with this event. Not only was he the messiah ‘who was cut off’ was ‘left with nothing’ but also the one who ‘established a firm covenant’ through the gospel causing ‘the sacrifice and the offering to cease.’ All that is now required from is for us to step back from our mindless acceptance of the cross as something ‘beautiful,’ ‘blessed’ and ‘beneficent’ and see it for what it really was – a symbol of fear directed originally not to Gentiles but against Jews in the aftermath of the revolt of 70 CE.
To do this requires us to abandon all those preconceived notions that our culture has foisted upon both us and our ancestors. These go back almost two thousand years. We have arrived at the inescapable conclusion that Marcus Agrippa was indeed identified as ‘the Apostle.’ Perhaps at least some readers will now even be prepared to take that one step further and allow the final identification of Marcus Agrippa as ‘the Apostle Mark’ …
copyright 2008 Stephan Huller