Paul and the Incestuous King

Posted on April 20, 2022


By David Ettinger

Paul’s Famous Trial
I thought this title would get your attention. But, I can assure you, it’s absolutely true!

In Acts Chapters 23 through 26, we read of the apostle Paul’s prolonged trial in Caesarea before the Judean governor Felix, who was eventually replaced by Porcius Festus while Paul was imprisoned there.

Paul’s case, however, baffled Festus, and he sought help from King Agrippa. Paul would deliver the Gospel to this monarch, who in turn mocked Paul. (You may want to take a few minutes and read the account.)

Who was King Agrippa – and Bernice, the woman who accompanied him? Let’s look at the cringe-inducing facts.

Another Herod Descendant
Agrippa II (Acts 25:13-26-32) was the son of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:1) and great-grandson of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1), whose many descendants ruled over Middle East provinces.

Agrippa II, who was only 30 years old when he heard Paul’s testimony, began his political life when he was appointed the tetrarch in Chalcis (modern-day northern Syria) in about A.D. 50. His reign was eventually extended to include Galilee and Jerusalem.

King Agrippa II was highly regarded by the Roman imperial family and was awarded the privilege of appointing the Jewish high priest AND was made the custodian of the temple treasury. Both responsibilities were odious to the Jews of Israel.

However, these duties also meant Agrippa was familiar with Jewish law, making him better qualified than Festus to judge Paul’s case.

A Loaded Verse
After Festus summoned the young king to Caesarea, we read in Acts 25:23: “The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high-ranking military officers and the prominent men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul [who was in chains, Acts 26:29] was brought in.”

This may seem like a run-of-the-mill explanatory sentence, but going deeper, we realize it is loaded with meaning.

First, we read of Bernice, the woman who accompanied Agrippa. Without looking at her background, one would assume she was Agrippa’s wife. But – and this should not surprise us when it comes to the family of the Herods – this was not the case.

Bernice, a widow, was the sister of King Agrippa. A brother caring for his widowed sister is admirable, and had this been the only link between the two, King Agrippa would have been acting benevolently.

History, however, tells us otherwise. Though Bernice had a favorable relationship with the Jewish people and was familiar with their beliefs, she nonetheless lived a debauched life, its ugliest manifestation being her incestuous relationship with Agrippa.

Though brother and sister, they shared the same bed, and she accompanied Agrippa to Paul’s trial as a wife would accompany her husband (as did Drusilla with Felix).

Pomp vs. Humility
Second, note in verse 23 how “Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room.” This godless couple used the occasion of Paul’s trial to display their position, stature, and wealth.

They made the trial about themselves, their arrogance a striking contrast to the shackled, God-fearing Paul. On display was pomp vs. humility, the deeds of godlessness vs. the fruits of faith in the God who created Heaven and Earth.

Ridiculing Response
When Paul came to the end of his testimony, he asked the monarch a direct question: “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do” (Acts 26:27).

Paul wished to engage in conversation with the purpose of bringing this man to faith in Christ (v. 29), but Agrippa returned Paul’s compassion with ridicule: “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (v. 28). In essence, he was saying, “Paul, do really think you can lure a man like me to your faith based on such a brief conversation. It will take far more than that!”

We then read that Agrippa and Bernice left the premises with no hint that either ever engaged Paul again. To them, this was solely a judicial matter, but what Agrippa and Bernice failed to realize was that a righteous man of God could care enough about a sin-stained incestuous couple to share with them the way in which they might be saved.

Tragic negligence indeed!