Agrippa II and Bernice

© 2007 Dr. Barbara Thiering

At the heart of the Christian party history lie the unhappy pair, Agrippa II and his twin sister Bernice. That they were twins is not stated directly, but implied by the information Josephus gives about their ages at the time of their father's death in March 44 AD. Agrippa was in his 17th year, that is 16, and Bernice was 16 years old. (Josephus, Antiquities 19, 354). They had been born in September 27 AD.

Their personalities were totally different. Agrippa II was timid, easily dominated, so that the advisers in his court held the real power. After the schism of 44 AD that defined the Christian party, those advisers were the leading Christians - Matthew Annas and Paul, who had been the prince's tutors, and Peter. Agrippa himself was baptized as a Christian. When he used the name Christian in 60 AD (Acts 26:28) he was affirming which Christian party he belonged to - that of Matthew Annas and Peter who used that name, as against that of Paul who preferred the name "Roman".

Agrippa II never married. It was rumored - and the pesher confirms it - that he had committed incest with his sister Bernice. She was sexually dominant to the point of licentiousness, flamboyant and adventurous. It may be readily understood that her brother clung to her and never escaped her emotional control.

At the time of his father's death the prince was in Rome, to be educated there as all the Herod princes had been since the days of his grandfather Herod the Great. They were brought into imperial social circles, schooled with the sons of emperors. The Herod princes were regarded as exotic foreigners, to be cultivated in order to maintain Roman control over their province of Judea. The prince came so close to the emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) that Claudius said he had brought him up himself (Josephus, Antiquities 20, 11). When his father was assassinated it was advised that he was too young to take on the responsibilities of kingship, and his uncle Herod of Chalcis performed the religious duties that the Herods had exercised, including the appointment of high priests. (Josephus, Antiquities 19, 360)

The modern mind might account for Bernice as a victim of child abuse. Josephus described her as profligate, yet a heroine in the final war. In Revelation 17:3-6 she figures as the Scarlet Woman, symbolising the evil of Rome. It is interesting that the really scandalous part of her history, when she became the mistress of Titus the conqueror of Jerusalem and seemed on her way to be empress of Rome, is tactfully not mentioned by Josephus, although his Life was written after that date and he was in close touch with her brother. It is known from the Roman writer Dio Cassius.

In the Herodian court marriages were entirely for political and property reasons, usually within the family, among the offspring of Herod the Great and his nine wives. It was taken for granted that Bernice would be used for political alliances by her father Agrippa I. By the age of 15 she had been married, to the son of the Egyptian alabarch, and widowed at his death in the same year. At the age of 16 she was given by her father to his own full brother, her uncle, Herod of Chalcis. The Herods had no objection to niece marriage in order to keep power in the family. Herod the Great was condemned for the practice in the Temple Scroll (66:15). Herod of Chalcis was in middle age, having been previously married. Bernice had two sons with him (Antiquities 20, 104).

Herod of Chalcis died in 48 AD, and thereafter Bernice lived for a long time as a widow. During this period it is noted that she bore malice towards her younger sister Drusilla because of Drusilla's beauty (Josephus, Antiquities 20, 142-143). It was in this period also that the report gained currency that she had committed incest with her brother. To cover her reputation, "she induced Polemo king of Cilicia to be circumcised and to take her in marriage ... Polemo was prevailed upon chiefly on account of her wealth. The marriage did not, however, last long, for Bernice, out of licentiousness, according to report, deserted Polemo." (Antiquities 20, 145-146).

She appears again in the final war. Since Agrippa never married, she acted as queen consort, and was called the queen (Josephus, Wars of the Jews 2, 312-335). It is in this role that she and Agrippa appear together in Acts 25:13. Her brother's timidity made him shrink from confrontation with the oppressive Roman governor Gessius Florus, who in 66 AD "fanned the flames of war". But Bernice boldly faced him, expressing the feelings of Jewish soldiers whom he had cruelly treated. He refused to listen to her, and turned his soldiers loose on her, forcing her to take refuge in the palace in Jerusalem. At the time she was under a Nazirite vow, vowing abstention from wine, and shaving her head. She came barefoot before the Roman tribunal and made supplication to Florus. It had little effect, the revolutionaries being again put down. As the conflict continued, Agrippa summoned the people to a part of Jerusalem overlooked by the palace of the Hasmoneans. He placed Bernice in a commanding position on the roof, and delivered a long speech, one point of which was that God was on the side of the Romans. He and his sister both burst into tears, trying to persuade the people to pay their taxes to Rome, thus pacifying the governor. But the revolutionaries paid little respect to Agrippa, and he was forced to retreat (Josephus, Wars of the Jews 2, 336-407).

She remained politically active during the next few years, influencing her brother in decisions. In 67 AD Vespasian arrived to conduct the war, and was replaced for its final stage by his son Titus. The story of Bernice then becomes intertwined with that of Titus. According to Dio Cassius (Epitomes, Books 65,66), in 75 AD "Bernice was at the very height of her power and consequently came to Rome along with her brother Agrippa...she dwelt in the palace, cohabiting with Titus. She expected to marry him and was already behaving in every respect as if she were his wife; but when he perceived that the Romans were displeased with the situation, he sent her away. For, in addition to all the other talk there was, certain sophists of the Cynic school managed somehow to slip into the city ... and first Diogenes, entering the theatre when it was full, denounced the pair in a long, abusive speech, for which he was flogged; and after him Heras, expecting no harsher punishment, gave vent to many useless yelpings in true Cynic fashion, and for this was beheaded." (65, 15, 4-5). When Titus succeeded his father as emperor, Bernice came to Rome again, but he sent her away (66, 8, 1). (reference)

Bernice was the Scarlet Woman of Revelation 17:3-6, the Great Harlot. She inherited that role from Helena, the mistress of Simon Magus, who was head of the female order of Asher based in Tyre. It had been founded by the queen regnant Salome (76- 67 BC), who wore vestments in the royal colors scarlet and purple. Bernice claiming royal power did the same. But for the writer of Revelation she symbolised the evil of Rome and of women priests. Her vestments were interpreted as a sign that all women wanted to be both priests and kings, wearing the levitical colors of scarlet, purple and blue, those of the priests in the Qumran War Scroll 7:9-12.

The original mission to the Diaspora, whose income was owned by the Herod family, had been attractive to Gentiles partly because of its strict ethical standard, in marked contrast to the profligacy of Roman society. When it split in AD 44 between Christians and the following of Simon Magus, the ethical emphasis remained important for the Christians, but Simon's party became associated with every kind of immorality, financial fraud and a sexual double standard. In the internal politics, the house of Agrippa went with the Christians while Bernice's house followed Magian ways. From the point of view of the writers of Revelation, for whom Simon was Beast 666, Bernice was no better than the immoral pagan Rome that the Christians had set out to reform, and she would fall with the predicted fall of Rome.

Agrippa II reigned, nominally, until soon after 100 AD. By that time the Christians held both the goodwill and property that had been that of the Herod kings. There were no more Herod kings, but in their place a new religion that practiced the qualities that many pagans yearned for, ethical strictness, intellectual integrity, and a self-sacrificing personal discipline.




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