Robert Graves on Agrippa the Messiah

My compliments to the most virtuous and beautiful Lady Valeria Messalina, your wife. The more I studied this report, the less I liked it. It looked as though Herod, taking advantage of my preoccupation with Britain, and the presence there of so large an army - which might easily need further reinforcements - was planning a general rising in the East, for which his fortification of Jerusalem had been the prelude. I grew extremely anxious, but there was nothing that I could do except pray' for a speedy victory in Britain and let Herod know that Marcus was keeping me in touch with Near Eastern affairs. I wrote to him at once, giving exaggeratedly cheerful news of the British expedition for at the time of writing Aulus had not yet been able to get into touch with any considerable force of the enemy, who were adopting the same tactics that their forefathers had employed against Julius in his march through Kent - and saying, quite untruly, that since the expedition was only intended as a punitive one I expected the regiments back across the Channel in a couple of months.

This was the first lie that I had ever told Herod, and since I merely committed it to paper without the embarrassment of telling it verbally, I managed to make him believe it. I wrote:

... And are you able to tell me anything definite, Brigand, about this prophesied Eastern Ruler who is destined after his death to become the greatest God that has ever appeared on earth? I am continually coming across references to him. There was one in court the other day. A Jew was accused of creating a disturbance in the City. He was alleged to have shaken his fist at a priest of Mars and exclaimed : `When the Ruler manifests himself, that will be the end of men like you. Your temples will be razed to the ground and you'll be buried in the ruins; you dog! And the time is not far off now.' Under cross-examination he denied having said anything of the sort, and as the evidence was conflicting I did no more than banish him - if you can call it banishment to send a Jew back to Judaea. Well, Caligula believed himself to be this prophesied Ruler and in certain respects the prophecy, as it was reported to me, did indeed seem to point to him. My grandmother Livia had also been misled, by something that the astrologer Thrasyllus said about the year of her death corresponding with that of this prophesied person, into believing that it was she who was meant. She did not realize that it was a God and not a Goddess who was prophesied, nor that his first manifestation should be at Jerusalem - Caligula was there as a child though later he should reign at Rome. Is there anything written about him in the Jewish sacred writings? If so, precisely what? I understand that your learned relative Philo is an expert in such matters. I was talking the matter over with Messalina the other day and she asked me whether anyone had inherited this peculiar obsession from my now deified grandmother Livia Augusta and from my crazy nephew Caligula. I told her, 'I haven't, I swear, in spite of the divinity that Herod Agrippa is always trying to curse me with'. But what about you yourself, my old Brigand? Perhaps you are really the person meant? No, on second thoughts you certainly are not, in spite of your connexion with Jerusalem. The prophesied Ruler is specified as a man off extreme holiness. Besides, Thrasyllus was quite positive as to, the year of his death, the fifteenth year of Tiberius' reign, which was the year Livia was to die - and did actually, die. Thrasyllus never to my knowledge made a mistake in dates. So you have lost your chance. But, on the other hand, if Thrasyllus was right, why have we not yet heard about this dead King? Caligula knew a part of the prophecy, which was that this King was to die forsaken by his friends and that afterwards they would drink his blood. Curiously enough, that was fulfilled in his case: Bubo, one of the assassins, you remember had sworn to kill him and drink his blood in revenge, and did dabble his fingers in the wound he had made and then lick them dry, the madman. But Caligula died nine years too late to agree with the prophecy. I should be very grateful if you would tell me what you know about all this. Perhaps there are two or three prophecies that have got mixed up together? Or perhaps Caligula was misinformed as to the particulars? He was told of the prophecy by the poisoner Martina, the one who was concerned in my poor brother Germanicus's murder at Antioch. But I hear that it has long been current in Egypt, as a pronouncement of the oracle of Jupiter Ammon.

Why I wrote in this way was that I now knew that Herod did really fancy himself to be this prophesied Ruler. 'I had been told all about it by Herodias and Antipas, whom I had visited in their place of banishment during my stay in France. I could not allow them to return to Judaea, though I knew now that they had not been guilty of plotting against Caligula, but I allowed them to leave Lyons and gave them a fair-sized estate at Cadiz in Spain, where the climate was more like the one to which they were accustomed. They showed me an indiscreet letter from Herodias's daughter, Salome, now married to her, first cousin, Herod Pollio's son.

Herod Agrippa is, growing more and more religious every, day. He tells his old friends that he is only playing at being a strict Jew for political reasons, and that he still secretly worships the Roman Gods. But I know now that this is only pretence. He is extraordinarily conscientious in his observances. The Alabarch's son, Tiberius Alexander, who has abandoned the Jewish faith,. much to the shame and grief of his excellent family,, tells me that while he was staying, at Jerusalem the other day he took Herod aside and whispered: `I hear you have an Arabian cook who really understands how to stuff and roast a midnight sucking pig. Would- you be good enough to invite me in some night? It is impossible to get really eatable food in Jerusalem.' Herod went scarlet and stammered that his cook was ill! The truth is that he dismissed this cook long ago. Tiberius Alexander has another queer story about, Herod. You have heard of that farcical occasion when he visited Alexandria with a bodyguard of two soldiers whom he had kidnapped to prevent them from serving a warrant on him, and borrowed money from the Alabarch? It. appears that the Alabarch afterwards went to Philo, that learned brother of his who tries to reconcile Greek philosophy with Jewish scripture, and said, `I have probably been a fool, brother Philo, but I have lent Herod Agrippa, a large sum of money on rather doubtful security. In return he has promised to protect our interests at Rome, and has sworn before Almighty God to cherish and protect His people, so far as in him lies, and to obey His Law.' Philo asked: `From where did this Herod Agrippa suddenly appear? I thought that he was at Antioch.' The Alabarch said: 'From Edom wearing a purple cloak - Bozrah purple - and stepping like a king. I cannot help believing that in spite of his former follies and vicissitudes he is destined to play a great part in our national history. He is a man of outstanding talent. And now that he has definitely pledged himself ...' Philo suddenly grew very serious and began to quote the prophet Isaiah: `Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? This that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength?... I have trodden .the wine-press alone; and of the people there was none with me. But the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my Redeemed is come.' Philo has long been convinced that the Messiah is at hand. He has written several volumes on that head. He builds his argument on the text in Numbers about the Star out of Jacob, and reconciles it with a number of others in the Prophets. He's quite crazy, poor man. And now that Herod has become so powerful and has kept his promise about observing the Law so faithfully and done the Alexandrian Jews so many services, Philo is really convinced that Herod is the Messiah. What finally decided him was the discovery that Herod's family, though an Edomite one, is descended from a son of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah before the Captivity. (This Zedekiah managed to smuggle his newly-born son out of the city and get him safe to friends in Edom before Nebuchadnezzar captured the place.)

Herod (Agrippa) seems to have been persuaded by Philo that he really is the Messiah and that he is destined not only to redeem the Jews from the yoke of the foreigner but to combine all the Children of Shem together in a great spiritual rule of the Lord of Hosts: this is the only possible explanation for his recent political activities which, I must confess, make me feel extremely nervous for the future. Indeed, there seems to be altogether too much religion in the air. It's a bad sign. It reminds me of what you said when we had that mystical idiot John the Baptist beheaded - 'Religious fanaticism is the most dangerous form of insanity.' I have said too much, I think, but I can trust you, my dear mother, not to let the story go any farther. Burn this when you have read it. There was no more news from Marsus and I did not get an answer from Herod himself before I sailed for Britain for, a fortnight after: landing, Aulus was indeed obliged to send for me. But I reckoned that Herod would read between the lines of my letter that I suspected him, though I was careful not to mention Marsus in it, or the wedding celebrations at Tiberias; and that he would be very careful about his next step. I also strengthened the garrison at Alexandria and told Marsus to call up all Greek levies in Syria and give them an intensive drilling letting the rumour go about that a Parthian invasion was expected. He was to do this as if on his own initiative, and not to tell anyone that the orders came from me. [Robert Graves, I Claudius p. 70]

References to the Jewish Belief in Agrippa as the Messiah Prior to the Twentieth Century

  • The Jews who came after him [Josephus], were willing to supply this defect. They have forged to us an Agrippa descended of Herod, whom the Romans, fay they, put to death a little before the destruction of Jerusalem; and they will have it, that this Agrippa, Christ by his title of king, is the Christ spoken of in Daniel . a fresh proof of their blindness! For besides that this Agrippa can neither be the righteous, nor the holy One, nor the end of the prophecies such as the Christ, whom Daniel pointed out in that place, must have been; besides that the murder of that Agrippa , in which the Jews had no hand, could not be the cause of their desolation, as the death of Daniel's Christ was to be; what the Jews say on this head is all a fable That Agrippa descended of Herod was ever on the side of the Romans: he was always well treated by their emperors, and reigned in a canton of Judea a long time after the taking of Jerusalem as Josephus and other contemporaries attest.

  • Thus all that the Jews devise to elude the prophecies, serves but to confute them. They themselves do not rely upon so gross fictions, and their best defence consists in that law, which they enacted, to compute no more the days of the Messiah.[Bousset An Universal History p. 261]

  • [R. Joseph Crooll, a Jewish teacher of Hebrew at Cambridge] first objects to the common rendering of the text 'the Messiah shall be cut off yet not for himself' [Dan 9:26] The Hebrew for the last section is ve-en lo and this our opponent, for very obvious purposes translates 'and not to him' instead of 'yet not for himself' that is, continues he, 'he shall have no successor.' He then proceeds to tell us who this Messiah is of whom it is thus pretended to be asserted that he shall have no successor; and our English readers will be somewhat surprised at finding, that, on the interpretation of the present writer, 'the messiah here alluded to, instead of being our Savior is Agrippa.'

  • For though Jews, in opposition to Christians, say that the Messiah mentioned in the 25th verse is Cyrus, and that the Messiah mentioned in the 26th verse means King Agrippa, it is clear that the Messiah spoken of in the 25th verse, is the same Messiah mentioned in the 26th Verse ; the connexion is not in the least broken, nor is there a second person mentioned before the latter part of the 26th verse, when the Roman Emperor is introduced, who is only called prince, and not MESSIAH or ANOINTED. Surely if the petty King Agrippa was worthy of the title anointed, because he was a king, the Emperor of Rome had as great a right to such an appellation. But they say, 'the king was the Lord's anointed,' as David says with regard to Saul, Sam i, 26, 29 for who can stretch forth his hand against the Lord's anointed. The kings of the Jews were not more the anointed of the Lord after the Babylonish captivity, than the idolatrous kings were the anointed of the Lord, neither can the Messiah of the 25th verse be applied to Cyrus ... nor can the Jews to this day make the Messiah of the 26th verse — shall Messiah be cut off- — apply to King Agrippa, who is said to have been put to death by Vespasian, about four years before the destruction of the temple; for it is evident from the account given by their own historian, Josephus, that he lived many years after the destruction of Jerusalem [Classical Journal, 1822, On the True Age of Christ at the Crucifixion, and the Fulfillment of the Seventy Weeks of Daniel p. 170]
  • As for the marked expression 'and not for himself' [Daniel 9:26 KJV] Mr. [David] Levi gives a very singular interpretation of it indeed. "Agrippa," fays he, " was put to death by Vespasian about four year* before the destruction of the temple: as was also his son: which is shewn by the words and not to him, ie there shall be no more of him: for since his death, there has been no more kingly power in the Jewish nation to this day' [Letters to the Jews by Joseph Priestly 1787 p. 66]
  • Your celebrated Rabbi [Abraham ben] Isaac [a sixteenth century Karaite] in his celebrated treatise entitled the Bulwark of the Faith, says, that the seventy weeks of Daniel are a period of four hundred and ninety years, to be reckoned from the worrd of God to Jeremiah concerning the return from the Babylonish Captivity, or from the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar to its destruction by Titus. He also says, that Messiah, the prince, in the former part of the prophecy means Cyrus, who is called the Messiah, or the anointed, by Isaiah; and that by the Messiah who is to " be cut off," in the latter part of the prophecy is meant the last king of the jews, or Agrippa the younger, who is said by a spurious Josephus (never quoted by any writer before the twelfth century) to have been killed by Vespasian before the taking of the city.[The Theological and Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Priestly Vol 20 1780 p. 242]
The fact that Karaites also shared this interpretation of Agrippa as the messiah of Daniel is quite significant as the official break between Rabbanites and Karaites occurred in the eighth century. Many scholars, including myself, date the origins of the Karaites back much further perhaps as far as the Sadducees. The fact that the Karaites maintained the same understanding of Agrippa as the messiah of Daniel makes absolutely certain that the tradition is very, very old undoubtedly dating back to the first century as I have suggested all along.