Acts Devotional Commentary [Acts 12:1-5] James Executed and Peter Imprisoned

James Executed and Peter Imprisoned

Acts 12:1-5

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3 When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. 4 After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.

5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.


How many Jameses?

There are a number of interesting parts of this passage that merit some discussion. The first is that James is listed as the brother of John and not the brother of Jesus, nor James the son of Alphaeus.

He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. (Acts 12:2)

The James who was murdered was indeed NOT the brother of Jesus. He was one of the 12 Apostles and was a son of Zebedee. Mark 3 describes him in positive terms saying,

These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), 17 James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), 18 Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Mark 3:16-19)

There was, however, a second apostle that went by the name of James and is listed in Mark 3:18 (shown above). Many traditions exist that trying to demonstrate that James the son of Alphaeus was, in fact, the brother of Jesus and not a separate person. Unfortunately, there is no clear solution from the biblical text. The scripture seems mixed on the matter. First, when Jesus calls his disciples, James the son of Alphaeus was not described as a brother of Jesus and it would be strange that Jesus would call his own brother as a disciple without not mentioning this fact. Furthermore, Mark lists a number of siblings of Jesus in Mark 6.

Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:3)

Thus, Jesus has 3 brothers (James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon). How is also said to have sisters but they are not named. Mark 15:40 appears to list one of Jesus’ sisters but strangely only mentions one sister and also fails to list Judas and Simon as siblings.

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. (Mark 15:40)

Why would Mark go through the trouble of listing James’ brother Joseph and his sister Salome, but fail to mention the other brothers and the fact that they were the siblings of Jesus? Many claim that this is proof that there are 3 Jameses, not two. This theory is buttressed by the fact that the Book bearing John’s name claims that Jesus’ brother had not believed Jesus while he was still alive.

But when the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near, 3 Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. 4 No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For even his own brothers did not believe in him. (John 7:2-5)

The book of Matthew seems to pickup on this issue and attempts to clarify the problem. Every time James is mentioned in the book of Matthew his is described as either the son of Zebedee or Alphaeus. This clears a few things up and confirms the account of John that Jesus’ brother, James, was not one of the 12 disciples and was also not a son of Alphaeus.

Why is Agrippa murdering disciples?

Another question is why Agrippa finds it expedient to murder the disciples. Herod Agrippa was appointed by Roman Emperor Caligula and Caligula was a volatile and violent emperor. He was petulant and vindictive and not afraid to put down peasant revolts. He grew up as royalty and he murdered and thieved his way through life. He would even sleep with the wives of his officials and brag about it publicly. With a boss like that, one can see why Agrippa would be quick to quell any type of Jewish turmoil in Judea. Another Jewish revolt could result in Agrippa losing his position and likely his head.

Easter or Passover?

Another fascinating thing happened as Agrippa went about murdering the Christians; he puts off murdering Peter until after the Passover. However, the King James Bible states that he waited until after Easter. This interpretive translation of Passover has caused a flurry of KJV-Only followers to try to muster a good defense for the translation of Easter, even though there is no way the book of Acts was referring to Easter.

When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. 4 After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. (Acts 12:3-4)

There are a few reasons why Easter is a poor translation but foremost is that the word “Easter” simply did not exist in the early church. I would be hundreds of years before the Germanic celebration of the Eostre month (April) would be merged with the practices of the Catholic church. Some KJV advocated believe there is a connection between the name “Easter” and the goddess “Ishtar”, however, Ishtar was not a deity recognized by the Jews nor the Romans. Moreover, her ancient Mesopotamian feast days were in the fall, not the spring. More modern KJV advocates, such as the author of, throw out the idea that Easter was referring to a pagan deity. This is a refreshing move but we are still left with the fact that Herod and the Jews knew nothing of the earliest practices of the first Christians. There is no doubt that during the first few hundred years of the church Christians referred to their Easter celebrations as Passover since the resurrection and the Passover were roughly the same time period and the first Christians were Jewish and did not see themselves as separate from the Jews. Therefore, early Christians used the Passover as their Easter celebration, thus, it’s possible that Luke is referring to the Christian Passover in 12:4. However, this argument doesn’t explain the fact that the reason Agrippa waited was because of the Jewish festival going on, not the Christian version of it. It’s irrelevant from Luke’s point of view, how or when the early Christians practiced Passover.

Additionally, nothing from ancient literature describes her symbology to include springtime symbols like eggs or bunnies. For more on this matter I highly suggest reading the following articles.

Who Was Ishtar and What is Her Connection to Easter?

Who is Ishtar in the Bible? [A Comprehensive Study]

Origins of Easter [Where does Easter really come from?]

Translation Errors In The KJV – Acts 12:4 (Easter or Passover?)

It is important to note that Agrippa is the King of the Jews. It’s his job to keep them pacified. Thus, waiting until the completion of the Jewish holiday of Passover would have been a wise move as he wanted the execution to not happen during a holy celebration.

It is telling that the early Christians endured such treatment as to be publicly executed and they still held strong in the face of opposition. Many people over the centuries have given their lives for a religion or a cause but I can think of only a few that were so willing to be made into a public spectacle. The early church father, Tertullian, spoke of the willingness to die thusly,

Your cruelty is our glory. Only see you to it, that in having such things as these to endure, we do not feel ourselves constrained to rush forth to the combat, if only to prove that we have no dread of them, but on the contrary, even invite their infliction. When Arrius Antoninus was driving things hard in Asia, the whole Christians of the province, in one united band, presented themselves before his judgment-seat; on which, ordering a few to be led forth to execution, he said to the rest, “O miserable men, if you wish to die, you have precipices or halters”. If we should take it into our heads to do the same thing here, what will you make of so many thousands, of such a multitude of men and women, persons of every sex and every age and every rank, when they present themselves before you? How many fires, how many swords will be required? (To Scapula, 5)

Indeed, it was the suffering of the early church that propelled it’s growth while those who persecuted it believed it was aiding in the church’s destruction. In reality, those who persecuted the Christians were working against their own interests.


1 thought on “Acts Devotional Commentary [Acts 12:1-5] James Executed and Peter Imprisoned”

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.