A Treasury of Jewish Letters: Letters from the Famous and the Humble - Vol. 1

By Franz Kobler | Go to book overview

11
King Agrippa I defends the Sanctity of the Temple against the Emperor Caligula

IN the year 40 C.E. the Jews of Palestine passed through a grave crisis. The newly enthroned emperor of Rome, the megalomaniac Caligula, decreed that statues of himself should be placed in all temples within the Roman Empire - which included Judaea - and there receive divine honours. His command was obeyed everywhere save in Jerusalem. Here the Jews made energetic representations to the Roman procurator of Syria, Petronius, pointing out that their Law categorically forbade them to allow images to be placed in the Sanctuary, and declaring their determination to perish rather than suffer such a desecration. The impetuous pleading of the Jews induced Petronius to postpone the execution of Caligula's order and to send a request for new instructions. But there was an imminent danger that Caligula, whose obstinacy and cruelty matched his pathological self-adoration, would take the rebellious Jews at their word.

This national disaster was averted by a man whose early career gave little prospect that he would one day become the saviour of his people, and its last beloved king. This was Agrippa, the son of Aristobulus, a grandson of the Idumean tyrant, Herod the Great, by his Hasmonean wife Mariamne. Agrippa had been brought up in Rome, where he had led the dissolute life of a Roman man of fashion and had become the bosom friend of the young Gaius Cæsar Caligula. On becoming emperor, Caligula not only released Agrippa from the prison into which he had been cast by Tiberius, but made him also ruler of one of the Syrian tetrarchies with the title of king. From this moment, Agrippa underwent a remarkable transformation: he ceased to be Roman in outlook and identified himself completely in sentiment with his own people. Soon this moral regeneration was put to a crucial test.

Agrippa happened to be in Rome when the alarming news of the Jewish opposition against Caligula's order reached the capital. He at once tried to persuade the Emperor to withdraw the fateful command. His exciting but fruitless conversation with the raging Caligula ended with his complete breakdown. He was carried back to his lodgings in a state of unconsciousness. When he had been brought to himself with the help of friends and physicians, he realized that one choice only was left to him: to take the risk of possible martyrdom. With this prospect before him, he addressed the following remarkable letter to the Emperor:

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