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Acts 12:21-23 says Herod Agrippa was struck down by an angel and eaten of worms:

Acts 12:21-23: And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.

On the other hand, the Jewish historian, Josephus makes no mention of this, instead telling us:

Antiquities 19.8.2: […]and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god; and they added, "Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature." Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, "I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death … And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign.

Is Acts of the Apostles correct when it describes Agrippa as being struck down by an angel and eaten of worms?

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One of the best known aspects of Jewish dietary rules is to not eat pigs. Pigs are notorious carriers of a species of Round Worm that causes the eater to become infested, with a likelihood of death from the worm:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trichinosis

Because of this observant Jews avoided this terrible disease.

Herod is not held up in scripture as pious. He's an establishment Jew that Rome could work with because he had few scruples.

It is possible that it was popularly recognized that pig-eaters would be inclined to get this infection and so the readers of the account might come to think that one who died of this was not an observant Jew. So the point of the account and the visibility of the worms might be to show that not only was Herod vain but he died the death of a pagan.

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I really don't see much of a problem with this text. Similar "problems" appear throughout scripture. I've observed that the Holy Spirit does not waste time and space trying to fill in all the details of an account in order to justify what He is communicating but only what is necessary for conveying what He wants to be said.

I believe that challenging the historicity of the Acts account takes the text down a slippery slope towards a liberal challenge of the authority of the scripture.

On the one hand, I feel @Susan's explanation concerning the "deaths of bad people" genre intriguing.

On the other hand, however, I don't see how one can dismiss the historicity of the Acts account. "Immediately" can be seen as an adverb modifying "struck him down" but not necessarily all of the verbs in the passage. Despite the fact that all the verbs are in the aorist tense, in my humble opinion, does not necessarily mean that all of the aspects of the singular event necessarily happened at the same period of time.

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Interesting extrapolation of a conclusion, from probabalistic extensions of the unproven. Given the fact that it is somewhat de rigueur to doubt the biblical narratives (and has been, largely since Darwin), the multiplied confirmations of their factuality, where those narratives can and have been determined accurate, tend to make the 'poo-pooing' of this historical record seem contrived, not derived - certainly less credible than the record, itself.

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  • Welcome to BH.SE! Please take the tour to get a feel for how the site functions. Your answer hasn't addressed the question that was asked, "Did King Herod die with worms coming out of his flesh?". Please edit your answer to do so, or delete it and start again. – enegue Dec 5 '17 at 1:05
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What is significant in this context is that Josephus reports Herod the Great, grandfather of Herod, as suffering the very same symptoms the author of Acts attributes to Herod Agrippa:

Antiquities 17.6.5: But now Herod’s distemper greatly increased upon him after a severe manner, and this by God’s judgment upon him for his sins; for a fire glowed in him slowly, which did not so much appear to the touch outwardly, as it augmented his pains inwardly; for it brought upon him a vehement appetite to eating, which he could not avoid to supply with one sort of food or other. His entrails were also exulcerated, and the chief violence of his pain lay on his colon; an aqueous and transparent liquor also had settled itself about his feet, and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly. Nay farther, his privy-member was putrified, and produced worms; and when he sat upright, he had a difficulty of breathing, which was very loathsome on account of the stench of his breath, and the quickness of its returns; he had also convulsions in all parts of his body, which increased his strength to an insufferable degree. It was said by those who pretended to divine, and who were endued with wisdom to foretell such things, that God inflicted this punishment on the king, on account of his great impiety …

It seems a quite improbable coincidence that Herod the Great and his grandson Herod Agrippa both suffered the same abhorrent ailment. The author of Acts must have had sources for his historical material, and we will never know for certain what sources he used. Richard Carrier concludes in 'Luke and Josephus' that Luke almost certainly knew and drew upon the works of Josephus. If so, Luke may have drawn on Josephus’ accounts of the deaths both Kings Herod, to create a gratifying account of the death of an enemy of the early Christians. Taking Josephus’ story of the death of Herod Agrippa as a base, including the cries that he was a god, Luke could add the nauseating flesh-eating worms from Antiquities 17.6.5. and replace Josephus’ owl by an angel.

Analysis and conclusion

First of all, the histories of Josephus are regarded by scholars as not always accurate. Magen Broshi says, in ‘The Credibility of Josephus’, his inaccuracies range from vagueness to blatant exaggeration. In spite of this, Josephus’ account of the final days of Herod the Great are almost universally accepted as authorative, with some medical experts vying to diagnose the strange set of symptoms that Josephus reports Herod as suffering. The account may not have been entirely historical, because Herod the Great was almost universally hated by the Jews and Josephus might have been reporting a spiteful legend or creating his own spiteful legend. A similar example is in Josephus’ Against Apion where he describes a very similar death for Apion, who had accused the Jews of being unfaithful to the emperor:

Against Apion II.14: … which makes me think that Apion is hereby justly punished for his casting such reproaches on the laws of his own country; for he was circumcised himself of necessity, on account of an ulcer in his privy member; and when he received no benefit by such circumcision, but his member became putrid, he died in great torment.

Whether or not the depiction of worms issuing out of the elder Herod’s putrified genitals is historically true, what is important is that if Luke relied in any way on the works of Josephus, he would have seen the story of worms eating his flesh.

The author of Luke-Acts is anonymous, but is known as Luke in keeping with second-century attribution. The Acts of the Apostles was once considered an entirely reliable history of early Christianity, but this has now changed. Colby Townsend says in ‘The Historical Reliability of the Book of Acts of the Apostles’ that what the author wrote fulfilled his own biases. This is the view of many biblical scholars, such that it is no longer possible to accept unreservedly the historicity of every account in Acts.

By an improbable coincidence, both Kings Herod supposedly suffered worms eating their flesh: Herod the Great is depicted this way by Josephus; Herod Agrippa is depicted this way by the Christian historian, but not by the Jewish historian. Coupled with the perceived unreliability of Acts and the evidence that the author of Acts is likely to have relied on the works of Josephus, this leads to a conclusion that Herod Agrippa probably did not suffer from flesh-eating worms.

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  • What are “flesh-eating worms”, anyway? cf. 2 Macc. 9:8-9 (of Antiochus Epiphanes). Also...later.... Lucian, Alexander 59 (of Alexander the imposter); Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 8.16.3–5 (of Galerius); Theodoretus, Ecclesiastical History 3.9 (of the uncle of Julian the Apostate). I think it’s just how bad people die. – Susan Sep 16 '15 at 3:00
  • @Susan That's why I am trying not to be bad :) On a more serious note, Kasher & Witztum (King Herod: A Persecuted Persecutor) believe Josephus was influenced by 2 Macc. 9:8-9. – Dick Harfield Sep 16 '15 at 3:20
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    :-) I think my point (albeit obliquely posited) was that I suspect that Luke didn’t intend to offer a precise physiologic description and that his readers were expected to understand this (as part of a genre called “how bad people die”), in which case it need be neither a contradiction nor an indication of Luke’s dependence on Josephus (a topic about which I have no opinion). Worms that start with live hosts, AFAIK, generally prefer to keep them that way. – Susan Sep 16 '15 at 5:24
  • @Susan We may never know whether 'Luke' intended Acts to be considered history. However, (i) the revolting death of both Herods is now taught as fact and (ii) a quick Google shows that some highly qualified medical specialists have sought to diagnose the illness of the elder Herod, a futile pursuit if the ancients had a recognised genre called “how bad people die”. Personally, I think that the “how bad people die” stories of the two Herods and Judas Iscariot were meant to be believed by the intended audiences. – Dick Harfield Sep 16 '15 at 5:41
  • Two quick thoughts: (1) I note Dick is not simply taking Josephus at face value, but it is well to bear in mind that Jos's work needs assessment and interpretation, too (and yet more from Mason if that's of interest). (2) Scientists can be surprisingly credulous and literalistic when it comes to understanding the Bible (and other ancient sources, no doubt), well documented by Mark Harris. It's possible that biblical scholars are equally uncritical in reading the work of scientists. FWIW. – Dɑvïd Sep 16 '15 at 7:03

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