The Apostle Paul's Shipwreck:

An Historical Examination of Acts 27 and 28 - page 2

Evidence and Paul's Journeys
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The Adria (Acts 27.27)

Luke states that the ship drifted on the Adria for fourteen days, the gale continuing the whole time. Today, the Adriatic Sea is a body of water between Italy and the Balkans, a finger-like extension of the Mediterranean Sea. But in antiquity, the term denoted a more extensive area. In the second century AD, the geographer Pausanias and the astronomer Ptolemy both refer to the Mediterranean as far south as Sicily and Crete as being the "Adria." (13)

Drifting 14 Days in the Storm

Luke records that the ship drifted for fourteen days in the gale and then shipwrecked on the island of Malta, halfway across the Mediterranean. This account of a fourteen day gale, followed by a shipwreck on a remote island, reads like a tall tale. However, the meteorological and nautical evidence demonstrates, in rather spectacular fashion, that these events must have occurred just as Luke records them.

The most important piece of evidence is the compass bearing of the gale. This bearing can be established by means of three separate calculations.

First, Luke states that Euraquilo struck shortly after they left Fair Havens. In other words, the ship must have been less than halfway to their intended destination at Phoenix. This would put it somewhere between Cape Matala and a point seventeen miles W.N.W. of the Cape when the gale struck.

Second, there is the relation of the island of Cauda to this start point. Cape Matala is on a bearing of east 7 degrees north from the eastern edge of Cauda, while the halfway point to Phoenix is east 40 degrees north. For the ship to get behind Cauda, Euraquilo must have been blowing from a point somewhere between these two bearings. The point midway between these two figures is east 25 degrees north (or E.N.E. 1/4 N.). This cannot be more than a point and a half off the actual direction of the wind.

Third, Luke states that when they got behind Cauda, the sailors were afraid that they would be blown onto the Syrtis sandbanks of the north Africa coast. However, for them to have been blown onto those banks from Cauda, Euraquilo would have had to have been blowing from a point somewhere between east 18 degrees north and east 37 degrees north. The point midway between these figures is east 27 degrees north. This figure is only 1/4 point off the mean figure of the previous calculation.

These three calculations establish that the direction from which the wind was blowing could not have been more than a point off the designation E.N.E. 1/2 N.

Map: Paul's Voyage to Rome and Shipwreck

This brings us to another dramatic piece of evidence. As the ship drifted west from Cauda, it would have been pointed due north. We know this because it could not have been pointed directly into the wind without capsizing. In other words, it had to have been pointed just off the direction from which the wind was blowing. Using this information, we can calculate with some precision both the direction and rate of the ship’s drift to the west.

Ancient records reveal that Egyptian grain ships were the largest vessels of the time, being about the size of an early nineteenth century sailing vessel. This size is implicitly confirmed by Luke’s statement that there were 276 people on board.

Since their ship was pointed due north, while the wind was from the northeast, we can roughly calculate the direction of the ship’s lateral - or sideways - drift. The azimuth, or direction, of the ship’s drift from Cauda would have been approximately west eight degrees north. The island of Malta is not directly west of Cauda. Instead, Malta’s bearing from Cauda is exactly west eight degrees north.

This brings us to yet another piece of evidence. Luke states that it took them fourteen days to drift to Malta. The distance from Cauda to the easternmost point of Malta is 476.6 miles. To calculate the westward rate of drift of their ship, it is necessary to know two things: the size of the ship and the force of the gale. We know the approximate size of the ship and it is possible to establish the mean intensity of the gale. We can then calculate an average rate of drift for Paul’s vessel. This calculation reveals an average westward drift of one and one half miles per hour. Thus it would take Paul’s ship about thirteen days to drift to Malta. Luke records that it took them fourteen days. (14)


Midnight on the Fourteenth Day  (Acts 27.27-.32)

If you visit the island of Malta today you will find an inlet that is called St. Paul’s Bay. Ancient tradition has hallowed this bay as the site of Paul’s shipwreck. The earliest document mentioning this tradition was written more than four hundred years after Paul’s shipwreck. However, given the bearing on which their ship was drifting, this bay is the first possible point of contact that they would have had with the island of Malta. Also, there is other evidence that points to this bay as the scene of the shipwreck.

Luke states that at midnight on the fourteenth day the sailors sensed that they were near land. This is a curious statement. Accomplished seamen are sometimes able to smell land while it is far away, but the gale driving them would not have permitted land smells to reach their vessel. It is possible that they dimly heard the sound of waves crashing against the shore, but this must remain a conjecture since Luke does not say why they thought land was nearby.

 Interestingly, we have the record of a nineteenth century British court martial that deals with a shipwreck in St. Paul’s Bay. The circumstances of the wreck are not quite the same as those found in Acts. While the British ship’s approach to the bay was also at night, there was no storm. The shipwreck was caused by the negligence of those on watch. But the general course of the British ship was the same as Paul’s vessel eighteen centuries before. Both approached the bay from the east.

Map: St. Paul's Bay - Site of the Shipwreck

For a ship to enter St. Paul’s Bay from that direction, it first must pass close to the Point of Koura, which juts out into the surrounding sea. It was at this point that the British lookout was first aware that land was nearby, since he could see the surf crashing against the Point. The gale that was driving Paul’s ship would have made the surf even more visible and the breakers would have been heard even before they were seen. Perhaps this is what Luke meant when he said that the sailors "sensed" that land was nearby. (15)

Luke records that, following this, the sailors dropped a line and measured twenty fathoms. A little further on, they dropped the line again and found fifteen fathoms. Now any ship that nears land will first pass over twenty fathoms, then over fifteen, as it closes with the shore. But the route of Paul’s ship was more complicated than simply closing with the shore. His vessel was not headed directly toward Malta, but was drifting leeward on a course almost parallel to it.

For the ship to have entered St. Paul’s Bay on this course, it would have had to pass within a quarter mile of Koura Point. You can follow the approximate line of the ship’s drift on the map of St. Paul’s Bay. Within a quarter mile of passing Koura Point, there is an average depth of twenty fathoms. A little farther west lies the fifteen fathom mark. Again, it needs to be emphasized that these depths are not found on a course that is closing with the island, but on one almost parallel to it.

Luke says that, when the sailors sounded fifteen fathoms, they threw out the anchors because of fear that they would end up on the rocks. You will notice, on the map of St. Paul’s Bay, that Salmonetta island is just west of Koura Point, about one quarter mile west of the fifteen fathom mark. This small island is made up of breakers that would not only have been heard at this point, but would have been seen. Their only possible chance for avoiding shipwreck was to try to anchor the ship and halt their drift until morning. At daybreak, they would be able to see whether it was possible to beach the vessel on shore. (16)

An attempt to anchor in the teeth of a gale is always an act of desperation. The anchors of ancient ships were incapable of holding in most bays during a storm. But the bottom of St. Paul’s Bay has a clay of unusual characteristics. This is remarked upon in official British navy sailing directions from the nineteenth century. The directions state that anchors in St. Paul’s Bay will never pull loose, no matter how bad the storm, because of the local clay. This is an unusual environmental condition.

Luke states that they anchored the ship from the stern. Sailing ships, both ancient and modern, anchor from the front, or prow, since it is impossible to maneuver a ship that is anchored from the stern. But it makes sense that they would anchor from the stern in this case, since the wind would then swing the front of the ship around and point it directly into the bay. In the morning, after looking for the best place to run aground, they could cut the anchors loose and drive the ship onto the beach. If they had anchored from the front of the vessel, with the rear facing toward the shore, they would not have had time to turn the ship around to face the shore and would have capsized.

Luke does not tell us why the anchoring was done from the stern. We discover the reason by analyzing the nautical evidence. Ancient literary sources reveal that this technique of anchoring from the stern was known. Appian reports that Rome won a naval battle against the Carthaginians by using this tactic, their ships suddenly wheeling in unison to meet the enemy. In the nineteenth century, Lord Nelson won the battle of the Nile against the French by this maneuver. (17)

At this point in Luke’s narrative, a short drama occurs. Some of the sailors let down the ship’s boat under the pretense of laying more anchors, but their real intention is to escape. Some scholars have argued that this episode must be fictional, since it would have been suicide for the sailors to make for an unknown shore at night on stormy seas. The argument is valid – it would have been suicide – but this does not mean that it did not happen. After all, the anchors holding the ship could have given way at any time during the night, or the ship might have begun breaking up under the pounding of the waves. They had been running in a gale for fourteen days, so the ship must have been in very poor condition. An attempt to make for shore may have seemed worth the risk. (18)

The Wreck (Acts 27.33-.44)

 At dawn, none of the sailors recognized the coastline. Since Malta’s harbor was on the other side of the island, this was understandable. Even sailors who had been to Malta would have had no reason to recognize this particular bay.

Luke records that there was a sandy beach facing them. The modern St. Paul’s Bay does not have a sandy beach, but it is geologically possible that there was one two thousand years ago.

In preparation for running aground, the sailors cut the anchor ropes, untied the steering oars, then raised a sail on the prow. These details fit what we know about the handling of ancient ships. There were two steering oars in the stern that acted as rudders. For the ship to have been successfully anchored from the stern the previous night, those oars would have to have been lifted out of the water and lashed together. Luke did not mention that this occurred the night before, but he now reveals that it happened by saying that they untied the oars. The raising of the foresail makes sense, since the mainsail yard-arm had probably long since disappeared in the storm. The small foresail would give the ship some maneuverability.

In verse forty-one, Luke states that the ship ran aground on a sandbank. However, Luke’s Greek can be translated in more than one way. It can mean a sandbank, a shallows, or, more literally, "a place of two seas." This last phrase denotes two bodies of water separated by a sandbar. In St. Paul’s Bay, there is a narrow inlet of water between Salmonetta island and the Malta mainland. If they ran aground on a sandbank near this inlet, and this is the likeliest place for them to have run aground, it could legitimately be called "a place of two seas." (19)

 According to Luke, the front of the ship went aground, but did not break up. It remained intact while the rear gradually disintegrated under the force of the waves. The passengers made their way ashore either by swimming or by floating on pieces of the vessel. Miraculously, there was no loss of life.

This is a very unusual event. For a wooden ship to embed itself in a sandbar without breaking apart, it must run into a mud that will slow it down, then its hull must lodge in a clay tenacious enough to hold it in place. As previously noted, St. Paul’s Bay possesses a clay capable of this. However, it is unusual to find mud at the depth of a ship’s hull close to a shore. Mud can be found where a creek empties into the sea, but even then it is usually carried away by the current. Only under certain conditions is the water close to shore calm enough for a deposit to form at hull level. As it happens, St. Paul’s Bay contains two creeks, as well as the necessary conditions for mud to form near the shoreline.

In short, there are two unusual geological conditions in St. Paul’s bay, both of which are necessary for the event that Luke describes. (20)

Acts 28

Once ashore, they discover that they are on the island of Malta. Because of the cold rain, the inhabitants gather wood and build a fire for them. As Paul is throwing some sticks on the flames, a viper crawls out of the wood and bites him. The Maltans expect him to die. When nothing happens they say that he must be a god.

In modern Malta, there are almost no trees. Nor does the island have poisonous snakes. However, in Paul’s time, much of the Mediterranean basin was still wooded. There may also have been poisonous snakes on Malta, although there is no evidence for this apart from the Acts record.(21)

In verse seven, Luke states that they were the guests on Malta of a man named Publius, who was called "the first man of the island." Ancient inscriptions reveal that the head official on Malta had the title "First Man of the Island." (22)

In verse eleven, Luke records that they stayed at Malta for three months before sailing for Italy. There is some disagreement among ancient authorities over when the spring shipping season began. According to Pliny, the Mediterranean was considered open for navigation when the west wind began to blow on February eighth. Vegetius states that the sea lanes were closed until March tenth. In reality, it was probably the weather that dictated the beginning of the sailing season. Paul’s vessel wrecked in the first half of November, so three months would have carried them to the middle of February. (23)

Boarding ship at Malta’s harbor, they sailed to Syracuse in Sicily, and then to Rhegium in Italy. The following day, a wind began to blow from the south and they made Puteoli in two days. The distance from Rhegium to Puteoli is 230 miles. Sailing before a south wind at 5 knots, they could easily have covered the distance in two days. In the first century, the port of Puteoli was the regular terminus for the Egyptian trade, being the second most important port in Italy after Rome’s port of Ostia. (24)

Some scholars have argued that Luke’s statement (in verse fourteen) that they stayed with Christians in Puteoli for a week cannot be accurate since Paul was a prisoner and not a tourist. It is true that if they stayed in Puteoli for a week, it could only have been because the Centurion agreed to the delay. He would also have had to agree to Paul’s staying with local Christians. How likely is this?

Under the Roman system, the Centurion had the obligation to deliver his prisoners to the authorities in Rome, but possessed complete discretion in what he did with them in the meantime. How and when he got them to Rome was up to him. Since they landed at Puteoli after several days at sea, the Centurion may have wanted to delay the overland trip to Rome.

Because Paul was a Roman citizen, with all the privileges that accompanied that distinction, the Centurion may have wanted to accommodate him. Paul and the Centurion had endured much together over many months. It is not impossible that the Centurion delayed a week in Puteoli.

The delay may even have been necessary if they were waiting for government transport to Rome. They would have been better fed and lodged by local Christians than if they had used local public facilities.

Unlike modern armies, the Roman military had no quartermaster corps to provide food or lodging. The army supported itself by requisition from the local population. Military requisition, even more than taxation, was a cause for complaint and unrest in the empire. Puteoli was a major port for military traffic. Historical records reveal that the inns and boarding houses of Puteoli, and on the road to Rome, were of extremely poor quality during this era. Because these establishments were forced to provide free food and lodging to military and government officials, there was no reason for them to be well maintained. Thus a Christian offer of assistance may have been welcome to the Centurion. (25)

Luke records that, after his arrival in Rome, Paul was kept under house arrest for two years while awaiting trial before the emperor’s court. Other ancient authorities confirm that prisoners who appealed to the emperor were sometimes kept waiting for years before their case was tried. (26)

The book of Acts ends at this point, without revealing whether Paul was ever brought to trial. Because the narrative concludes without Paul being tried, some scholars argue that the book of Acts was probably written during those two years.

According to a tradition that dates to the second century, Paul was tried before the emperor and then released. He went on another missionary journey, this time to Spain. He was then re-arrested and returned to Rome during the first real persecution of the church by the Emperor Nero. It is said that on this occasion Paul died a martyr’s death. Such is the tradition. Unfortunately, we possess no contemporary record of these events. (27)

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