Studies in the Book of Acts
Paul sails for Rome (Acts 27:1-28:15)
Luke as eyewitness (Acts 27:1)
Sometime after Paul’s meeting with Agrippa, Festus made arrangements for Paul to be taken to Rome. Luke wrote: “When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius” (27:1). Luke resumed the “we” narrative section, which he had broken off when Paul and the delegation met with James in Jerusalem (21:18). The present “we” section continues until Paul reaches Rome (28:16). This is the longest of the four “we” panels. (To review them, they were: 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16.)
Luke apparently was with Paul during the entire eventful journey. As we shall see from the vivid details he provided, the narrative of Paul’s sea voyage was an eyewitness report. Luke described eastern Mediterranean ports-of-call, wind directions, and mentioned places of safety and danger for ships. As far as historians are able to verify, all of Luke’s nautical details are as they should be.
Luke’s account of Paul’s voyage to Rome stands out as one of the most vivid pieces of descriptive writing in the whole Bible. Its details regarding first-century seamanship are so precise and its portrayal of conditions on the eastern Mediterranean so accurate…that even the most skeptical have conceded that it probably rests on a journal of some such voyage as Luke describes. (Longenecker, 556)
In support of the accuracy of Luke’s account, commentators often refer to the classic study of Paul’s final sea voyage by James Smith (1782-1867). Smith was an experienced yachtsman and a classical scholar. From ancient sources, Smith had carefully studied the geography, weather conditions and navigational practice of Paul’s time. Smith was also intimately acquainted with the eastern Mediterranean Sea. With 30 years’ experience in yachting behind him, he spent the winter of 1844-5 on Malta. From there he investigated the sailing conditions in the areas mentioned in Luke’s account.
In 1848 Smith published his book The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul. The book remains the classic study of Paul’s last journey by sea. Smith concluded that the voyage was a true account of real events, written by an eyewitness. Smith himself said of Luke’s description of the voyage: “No man not a sailor could have written a narrative of a sea voyage so consistent in all its parts, unless from observation.”
“We put out to sea” (Acts 27:1-2)
Paul was under the charge of Julius, a centurion of the Imperial Regiment, or the “Augustan Cohort.” David Williams writes, “This has been identified as the Cohors I Augusta, a regiment of auxiliaries attested by inscriptions to have been in Syria after A.D. 6 and in Batanea (Bashan, east of Galilee) in the time of Herod Agrippa II (ca. A.D. 50-100). A detachment of the cohort may have been stationed at Caesarea” (427).
Luke, continuing to speak in terms of “we,” said the prisoners and crew boarded a ship from Adramyttium “about to sail for ports along the coast of the province of Asia, and we put out to sea” (27:2). Paul’s dangerous adventure was about to begin. Presumably, the party boarded the ship at Caesarea, though Luke didn’t mention this. The coast-hugging vessel they were on had its home port at Adramyttium, a seaport of Mysia on the northwest coast of Asia Minor, opposite the island of Lesbos.
The ship probably moved in daily legs from one coastal port to another. This seemed to be the way coastal ships scheduled their journeys. We’ve seen this type of hop-and-skip sailing before in Acts (20:13-16; 21:1-3). It must have been difficult to make precise travel arrangements in this catch-as-can environment; much depended on the wind and weather.
Luke mentioned that Aristarchus, a disciple from Thessalonica, was with Paul’s party as it began its voyage (27:2). Perhaps Luke and Aristarchus were Paul’s physician and servant, respectively. Luke had already identified Aristarchus as a Macedonian (19:29). He was a Thessalonian member of the delegation bringing the relief fund to Jerusalem (20:4). Colossians 4:10 describes Aristarchus as Paul’s “fellow prisoner.” Both in this epistle and in Philemon he is listed as one who is sending his greetings. If these two letters were written during Paul’s Roman imprisonment, it suggests Aristarchus travelled with Paul all the way to Rome.
Kindness to Paul (Acts 27:3)
The first stop for the merchant vessel was Sidon, the ancient Phoenician port about 70 miles from Caesarea. No doubt some time was required for loading or unloading cargo. In the meantime, “in kindness,” Julius allowed Paul to visit the disciples at Sidon “so they might provide for his needs” (27:3). As did the other centurions in Luke’s account (Luke 7:1-10; 23:47; Acts 10:1-7), Julius received a favorable portrayal. (See also verses 31-32, 43.)
The church at Sidon probably began shortly after Stephen’s death (11:19). Paul had visited the churches in the area at least twice, and probably knew many of the disciples in Sidon (15:3; 21:4, 7). Luke called the disciples “his friends,” or more literally, “the friends.” Interestingly, John sometimes referred to Christians as “the Friends” (3 John 15). This may have been a title Christians sometimes used to define themselves, after Jesus’ example (John 15:14-15). We don’t exactly know what the church at Sidon provided for Paul. Presumably it was money to help defray the expenses of the trip to Rome, or even winter clothes.
Trouble brewing (Acts 27:4-8)
Paul’s ship left Sidon and sailed northwest toward Cyprus. It hugged the protective east coast of the island, which Luke called “the lee of Cyprus” (27:4). Contrary winds were becoming a problem, and the land mass offered some protection from the gales. The ship struggled across the open sea, and then crept along the Cilician and Pamphylian coast until it came to Myra in Lycia (27:5).
This ship would then be proceeding around the southwest coast of Asia Minor and north into the Aegean. The centurion therefore had to book passage on another ship, one bound for Italy. After making inquiries, he found an “Alexandrian ship” that met his needs (27:6). Luke didn’t mention what kind of ship this was, but he did say its cargo contained grain (27:38). Since the vessel was heading from Egypt to Italy, commentators surmise that it may have belonged to a fleet of imperial grain carriers.
Egypt had for a long time been the granary of the empire, and the securing of regular shipments from Alexandria to the city was a constant concern for the emperors faced with a large and often restive urban population and periodic shortages of food. Claudius, for example, guaranteed insurance coverage for the loss of ships and a special bounty for shipments that came across in the dangerous winter months. (Johnson, 446)
Keeping sufficient grain moving from Alexandria to Italy was extremely important to Rome’s political stability. Suetonius described how the emperor Claudius was cursed and pelted in the Forum after a series of droughts had caused a scarcity of grain. “As a result he took all possible steps to import grain, even during the winter months—insuring merchants against the loss of their ships in stormy weather” (The Twelve Caesars, “Claudius” 18).
Apparently, this was one of the grain carriers making a winter run. Its owners would have made a handsome profit on their cargo—or collected insurance for loss, as this ship would eventually have to do. (In the second century, Lucian of Samosata in The Ship narrated the voyage of a Sidonian grain ship whose trip remarkably paralleled Paul’s.)
The grain ship with Paul and company on board left Myra, but a buffeting wind slowed its progress. It finally reached Cnidus, the last port of call on Asia Minor before ships had to sail across the Aegean to the Greek mainland (27:7). The ship left Cnidus but was knocked off its intended course. It then “sailed to the lee of Crete” (a 160-mile-long island southeast of Greece) and arrived at the island’s eastern port of Salmone (27:7). Then the ship struggled halfway along the south coast of the island, finally making port at Fair Havens, near the town of Lasea (27:8).
Fair Havens is the modern Limeonas Kalous (which means “Good Harbors”). The winds that blew into the open bay during the winter made it a dangerous place for ships to anchor.
Sailing was dangerous (Acts 27:9)
Luke explained why the eastern Mediterranean was so stormy: “Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Day of Atonement” (27:9). Navigation in this part of the Mediterranean was deemed dangerous after September 14, and impossible after November 11. Vegetius (On Military Affairs 4.39) and Hesiod (Works and Days 619) are cited as authorities.
Festus is thought to have arrived in Judea in the early summer of the year in which he took office, perhaps A.D. 59. He would have heard Paul’s case soon thereafter. After deciding to send Paul to Rome, he was put on board ship perhaps in autumn of that year. The ship may have left Caesarea before the beginning of the storm season. But sailing became unexpectedly difficult. Due to the slow going, much time had been lost, and now the storm season was in full swing. There seemed little hope of reaching Italy before winter.
When the ship arrived in Fair Havens it was already the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), which fell on the 10th day of the lunar month Tishri (in the Hebrew calendar). Since months in the Jewish calendar were based on the moon, with each month beginning at the new moon, the position of the months varied vis a vis the seasons from year to year. Depending on the year, Atonement fell roughly between the latter part of September and the first part of October. In A.D. 59, Atonement fell on October 5. Since the Day was over, it was likely mid-October when Paul’s ship arrived at Fair Havens.
Paul gave a warning (Acts 27:10-12)
The weather was terrible, and sailing out of Fair Havens seemed an unwise course of action to Paul. He warned the captain and owner against leaving the harbor. “Men,” he said, “I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our lives also” (27:10). Paul was a seasoned traveler. He had experienced dangers at sea, so he knew something about the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean. Three times he had been shipwrecked (2 Corinthians 11:23-25). He must have felt that his opinion on the situation had merit.
The pilot (“captain”) and ship’s owner, along with the centurion, discussed the situation. After weighing their options, they decided not to winter in Fair Havens (27:11). Their goal was to winter in the larger and safer Cretan port of Phoenix, about 40 miles west (27:12). They had apparently abandoned any plans of reaching Rome before spring.
Unexpected gale strikes (Acts 27:13-15)
The ship’s officers were waiting to sail as soon as the wind changed in their favor. Soon the storm seemed to have abated and a gentle south wind began to blow (27:13). This is what everyone was waiting for, and the crew hastily hoisted the anchor and began to sail along the south shore of Crete.
But the ship never reached Phoenix. Without warning, the wind changed again. Luke tells us that a wind of hurricane force, called a “Northeaster,” swept down over the mountains of Crete (27:14). The ship was helpless in the open waters. It couldn’t keep its forward course and was driven southward away from land by the violent storm.
No sooner had they rounded the cape and entered the gulf than they were caught in a hurricane coming from Mount Ida to the north. Sailors called this wind the Euroquilo (Greek, Eurakylon) —a hybrid word from the Greek euros meaning “east wind” and the Latin aquilo meaning “north wind”—so ‘Northeaster’ (NIV). Before it they were helpless. (Longenecker, 560)
Fighting the storm (Acts 27:16-19)
The ship was driven towards the sheltered side of the small island of Cauda (modern Gozzo), about 23 miles (37 kilometers) southwest of Crete. In the relative calm, the crew struggled to make the lifeboat secure (27:16). Normally, the ship’s lifeboat was tied to the stern and towed through the water. However, in a large storm the dinghy might be cut loose from the ship and become lost. Or it the waves could batter it against the larger ship. To prevent this, the crew and passengers hoisted the lifeboat aboard the ship, and made it secure (27:16-17).
The crew “passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together” (27:17). Apparently, ancient vessels had cables that could be used to create a corset for their hulls, to keep them together during violent storms at sea. It’s not clear exactly what “passing ropes under the ships” meant, as it could refer to at least three different procedures. First, ropes could be passed under a ship and then be secured above deck to reinforce the hull. Second, ropes could be tied above a ship’s hull (either internally or externally) to achieve the same purpose. Third, ropes could be used to tie the stem and stern together lest the buffeting sea should break the ship’s back.
The crew feared that the ship could be driven to the southwest. If it were, it would eventually end up on “the sandbars of Syrtis” (27:17). This was the Greek name for an area of shallows in the Gulf of Sidra, on the coast of North Africa. The Syrtis was the “Bermuda Triangle” of its day. It is well documented in ancient writings (Dio Chrysostom, Oration 5:8-11; Pliny, Natural History 5:26). Josephus called it “a place terrible to such as barely hear it described” (Wars2:381).
To help prevent them from being driven onto the Syrtis, the crew “lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along” (27:17). The meaning of “sea anchor” is uncertain. The Greek is more like “the gear” or “the equipment.” One suggestion is that Luke meant they lowered the mainyard which held the mainsail. But the storm continued to batter the helpless ship, and drove it beyond the shelter of Cauda. In order to lighten the ship, some of the cargo was jettisoned the next day (27:18). The following day the ship’s tackle or gear—perhaps the heavy mainsail and yard—was pushed overboard (27:19).
“Keep up courage” (Acts 27:20-26)
The ship’s situation looked bleak. The storm had blotted out the sun by day and stars by night. Since these were the two compasses of the time, the navigator could not calculate the ship’s whereabouts or plot its course. (The ancients had neither sextant nor compass.) The ship was drifting helplessly and the crew was unable to ascertain whether they were heading for land, rocks or shoals. The ship must also have been leaking and threatening to break up. No wonder Luke wrote, “We finally gave up all hope of being saved” (27:20).
That’s when Paul got up and, in effect, told the crew, “I told you so.” He insisted they could have spared themselves the damage to the ship and loss of equipment and cargo—as well as being threatened with death in the sea. But he also encouraged them. “Not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed,” he said (27:22). Paul could be confident in such a hopeless situation because he had received another vision from God.
“Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and to whom I serve stood beside me,” said Paul. The angel told Paul: “Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you” (27:23-24). In a time of great crisis, Paul again received a comforting message—which he passed on to crew and passengers. The angelic message confirmed an earlier vision that he would reach Rome (23:11).
Paul told everyone to keep up their courage, and that he had faith in God that things would turn out exactly as he had been told in the vision (27:25). However, the ship would not get safely to port. “We must run aground on some island,” said Paul (27:26).
Driven across the Adriatic (Acts 27:27-29)
For two weeks (since either Fair Havens or Cauda), the ship had been driven across the central Mediterranean, then called the “the Adria” (or Adriatic Sea). Today, it is the name of the sea between Italy and the Balkans. In ancient times, the Adriatic was applied to a much larger area of water. About midnight, the sailors began to sense that they were approaching land. They couldn’t see anything, of course. Perhaps by this time the storm had abated somewhat.
The sailors’ suspicions were confirmed when they took soundings. These were probably lines weighted with lead, which were tossed overboard and fed out until the lead hit bottom. The first time the line was fed into the water it measured the water depth as being 120 feet deep (20 fathoms). A short time later, the line was fed out a second time, and it indicated a water depth of only 90 feet (15 fathoms) (27:28). This indicated that the boat was approaching land. The sailors had no idea where they were. They feared that the ship might be broken up on a rocky shore or find itself stranded on an offshore shoal.
The crew decided to keep the ship where it was for the night. Luke says “they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight” (27:29). They hoped the anchors would serve as a brake. When daylight came, they might be able to ascertain what kind of situation they were facing.
Lifeboat cut away (Acts 27:30-34)
The sailors panicked, and tried to leave the ship, hoping to save their lives. They pretended they were going to lower some anchors from the ship’s bow. Their real goal was to lower the lifeboat into the water in order to escape (27:30). The sailors’ action would have endangered their own lives, and made it even more unlikely that the passengers could get to shore. Someone discovered their plan (perhaps Paul) and told the centurion.
Paul became the center of action by telling the centurion, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved” (27:31). This time the centurion heeded Paul’s advice and cut the ropes that held the lifeboat, letting it fall into the sea (27:32).
At the same time, Paul recommended that everyone have something to eat. “I urge you to take some food,” said Paul to everyone. “You need it to survive” (27:34). Luke told us earlier that the crew had “gone a long time without food,” perhaps since being caught in the storm off Crete (27:21). Now we learn that the sailors had not eaten in two weeks. Luke didn’t tell us why they had not eaten. Nor is it clear whether he meant they had missed all regular meals or if they had eaten absolutely nothing.
The crew was probably sea-sick from living on a storm-tossed vessel, and their appetite was gone. Cooking may have become impossible as well. Luke Timothy Johnson refers to the autobiographical Sacred Tales of the ancient writer Aelius Aristides. He described being adrift for 14 days, with no one on board being able to eat during that time (2:68) (Johnson, 455).
David Williams writes, “In ships of that day there were no tables spread or waiters to carry the food. Anyone who wanted to eat had to fetch the food from the galley himself. Thus Paul may have meant that they had not gone for their regular rations—either having lost the heart or the stomach for eating or because the galley could not function during the storm” (439).
Perhaps there were elements of religious superstition involved in the sailors not eating. That is, they may have been fasting to beseech the gods to save them from the storm. This possibility is seen by what Paul did next.
Not lose a hair (Acts 27:34-37)
Paul told the crew and passengers, “Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head” (27:34). This was a proverbial saying that God would save everyone from death (1 Samuel 14:45; 2 Samuel 14:11). Jesus had used this saying to encourage his disciples that God would save them (Matthew 10:30; Luke 21:18). Here, Paul assured the crew and passengers, in the name of the God of Israel, that their lives would be spared.
Paul took some bread and gave thanks to the one true God for saving them from the storm (though they had as yet not made it to land). Paul broke the bread and began to eat. “They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves” (27:36). It is as though up to this moment everyone feared being lost—and were hoping their gods would save them. But Paul’s words quieted them and they believed they would be saved—but by the God whom Paul worshiped. As Marshall puts it, “Paul is in effect telling them that their prayers have been answered, and there is no need to fast any longer” (413).
Some commentators suggest that Paul’s action of breaking the bread meant that he was offering the Lord’s Supper (the eucharist). Marshall says:
The description resembles that of the procedure of Jesus when feeding the multitudes (Luke 9:16), celebrating the Last Supper (Luke 22:19), and sitting at table with the disciples journeying to Emmaus (Luke 24:30). It is, therefore, not surprising that many commentators have seen in the present incident a celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or as Luke calls it, the Breaking of Bread. (413)
Paul’s offering the bread was more than a simple “saying of grace.” The circumstances were too extraordinary for that. But to make of this event a true eucharist seems to be going too far. (No mention is made of Paul taking wine and offering it, as Jesus did during Passover.) Everyone was eating a simple meal after fasting; the procedure was similar for all meals. In that context—of the crew being saved from drowning—Paul was presenting God as one who saves us from all our trials, including death.
No doubt the few Christians on board (Paul, Luke and perhaps Aristarchus), would have understood the deeper significance of Paul’s prayer. God is our Savior who sees us through the trials of life—and is the one who gives us eternal life. To the Christians, being saved from the storm-tossed ship demonstrated the presence of God and Jesus, and this was certainly a time to thank him for his salvation.
Luke portrayed Paul as a man who was in touch with God. He was practical, cool under pressure and exuded a positive faith that got the attention of even salty and pagan sailors. Paul predicted the future safety of the crew and passengers, and that prediction had come true. When the disciples were threatened with death on the stormy Sea of Galilee, Jesus came to them and said in his own name, “Be of good courage, it is I” (Matthew 14:27). Now, Paul rallied others to courage with a prediction of safety in God’s name (27:22-25, 34-36). (He didn’t seem to mention Jesus’ name to these pagan sailors, prisoners and soldiers.)
Preparing to beach (Acts 27:38-40)
After eating, the crew and passengers began to prepare to abandon the ship. They threw the cargo overboard to make the ship ride higher in the water. This, they hoped, would make it run ashore further up the beach. Some of the cargo had been jettisoned previously (27:18), but the rest apparently had been kept on the ship. It may have served as ballast to keep the ship low in the water, a protection against being capsized. If it was grain, then it was a valuable commodity to Rome, and perhaps the crew had tried to save it. Or the crew may have simply been unable to get to the main hatches during the storm.
When daylight came, the crew saw the land but didn’t recognize it. Luke would shortly tell his readers they had arrived at the island of Malta (28:1). What the sailors did see was a bay with a sandy beach, at which point they hoped to run the ship aground (27:39). They had no more use for the anchors, so they dropped them into the sea. The crew released the ropes that held the steering paddles (which served as rudders), apparently to allow the ship to be maneuvered more easily. Finally, the sailors hoisted a small sail. It caught the breeze and the ship began to move towards the shore (27:40).
Stuck in a sandbar (Acts 27:41)
The unexpected happened as the ship entered the bay. The sailors hadn’t noticed they were heading into something like a reef or shoal. The ship ran aground and the bow was stuck in the sand. Meanwhile the surf was pounding so hard against the ship that the stern was breaking up. The Greek which the NIV translates “struck a shoal” is literally “having fallen into or lighted upon a place between two seas” (27:41). William Neil suggests that it “could be a submerged spit of land lying between two stretches of deeper water” (253). The traditional site of where this occurred is called St. Paul’s Bay on the northeast coast of Malta. It is about 8 miles (13 kilometers) northwest of Valletta, the capital of Malta. Even today, at the entry to the bay there is a shoal that may be the one on which the vessel ran aground.
The ship had travelled about 475 nautical miles from Fair Havens. And the ship had moved in the right direction—toward Rome! It had reached Malta—almost. But now the ship was mired offshore, and it was breaking up.
Kill the prisoners (Acts 27:42-43)
Apparently it appeared to the soldiers that the prisoners were going to jump ship, try to get to shore, and escape. As mentioned previously (12:19; 16:27), military regulations stipulated that guards who let their prisoners escape could suffer the penalties their prisoners would have suffered. The soldiers were ready to kill the prisoners to prevent their escape. But the centurion stopped them because, according to Luke, he “wanted to spare Paul’s life” (27:43). Why he should want to save Paul is not explained.
We can probably surmise that after all that had transpired—with Paul assuring everyone in God’s name that they would be spared—the centurion must have felt Paul was in some way a special person. The Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar in his limited understanding of God recognized that “the spirit of the holy gods” was in Daniel (4:8, 9, 18). In the same way, the pagan centurion Julius must have seen Paul as one who was in touch with deity.
Thus, Paul and the prisoners were saved. Julius freed the prisoners from any shackles and ordered those on board who could swim to jump into the water and make for land (27:43). The non-swimmers were to use any piece of the broken ship they could find and ride it into the beach. “In this way,” wrote Luke, “everyone reached land safely (27:43). As Paul had said, God was going to bring each person on board the ship to safety (27:24).
Luke filled chapter 27 with detail upon detail of the perilous trip to Rome. Why did he take the time and space to give his readers a blow-by-blow description, when he often skipped over years of Paul’s life with nary a detail? A ship lost at sea and shipwreck made fascinating reading, particularly for those who lived around the waters of the Mediterranean. Stories of dangerous sea voyages with storms and shipwrecks were a staple of ancient literature. Johnson writes, “So predictable were the voyage, storm and shipwreck that satirists poked fun at the conventions…or parodied them. The setting of storm and shipwreck could also, however, be used for the teaching of moral lessons” (450-451).
Luke’s story is not fiction but a true happening. He told it in order to show how and why Paul got to Rome. Despite every adversity and hardship from prison to shipwreck, God guided him so he could preach the gospel in the capital of the empire. But Paul did not get to Rome because he wanted to. On his own, he would have either died from an assassin’s sword in Jerusalem, languished in prison, or died at sea. But God guided Paul through the trials and dangers he faced, not by stopping them. Things did not go well in Jerusalem and Paul was almost killed. There was no miraculous prison intervention by God in Jerusalem or Caesarea (as there had been in Philippi). No converts were made in either city by Paul’s preaching. Neither did God silence the storm or save the ship.
Like Paul, Luke’s readers are caught in depths beyond their control: they too are always close to death in the risky adventure of living, they too are caught as prisoners of complex social entanglements. Their faith in God must not be focused so much on the elimination of these circumstances…but on God’s power that enables them to “endure” and so “gain possession of their lives.” (Johnson, 459)
Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012