Acts 12 reports that James the son of Zebedee was put to death by Herod Agrippa I:

1 Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.

2 And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.

This is generally held to indicate a death by beheading (though other forms of execution via a sword are possible).

Agrippa was a vassal of Rome, suggesting he may well have used Roman punishment (e.g. crucifixion), but he was also (at least in theory) a Jewish ruler, suggesting he may have used the Jewish method of execution (stoning).

Why would James have been executed by beheading? Wasn't this the more humane Roman method of execution reserved for Roman citizens? Was James a Roman citizen, or otherwise sufficiently prominent to treated with more respect than Jesus or Stephen?

Note that early Christian historians indicate that Peter was executed by crucifixion--but Paul, a Roman citizen, was executed by beheading.

1 Answer 1


The most helpful comment I found was in the Cambridge commentary which says:

with the sword This was the third in order of the modes of execution appointed among the Jews. These are stoning, burning, decapitation, and strangulation. In connection with the execution of James the words of the Mishna are interesting: “The manner of putting to death by the sword is as follows: the man’s head is cut off with the sword as is wont to be done by royal command.” See Surenhusius on Sanhedrin p. 238 (misprinted 248), where there is a discussion about the position of the prisoner, whether he should stand erect or have his head on a block.

Ellicott is less specific -

(2) He killed James the brother of John with the sword.—Had the Apostle been tried by the Sanhedrin on a charge of blasphemy and heresy, the sentence would have been death by stoning. Decapitation showed, as in the case of John the Baptist, that the sentence was pronounced by a civil ruler, adopting Roman modes of punishment, and striking terror by them in proportion as they were hateful to the Jews. The death of James reminds us of his Lord’s prediction that he, too, should drink of His cup, and be baptised with His baptism (Matthew 20:23).

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