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.