, Research Paper
Shipping in the Book of Acts
The account of St.Paul’s ill-fated journey to Rome in the New Testament’s Book of Acts provides some useful insights into shipping practices during the first century of the common era. In this paper, I intend to summarise the information and clues provided in the Book of Acts and present an overview of some of the basic interpretations of the relevant passages. It is important to understand that the Book of Acts is a continuation of the gospel according to Luke and any reference to him here is in his capacity as writer of the Book.
St.Paul, as a Roman prisoner, had been put in the charge of Julius, an officer in the “Emperor’s Regiment” who was to take the prisoners to Rome to see the Emperor. At Caesarea, Julius had his prisoners board a ship from Adramyttium and they sailed overnight to Sidon. The next leg of their journey was more difficult as the winds were again against them. As such, they sailed the ship on the sheltered east side of the island of Cyprus, then west to Myra.
In Myra, Julius moved his prisoners to a boat from Alexandria which was bound for Italy. The first leg of their journey aboard this new ship was difficult as the winds were against them. It took several days to reach Cnidus. With the wind against them still, they were forced to sail south, hoping to take shelter behind the island of Crete. Keeping close to shore, they eventually arrived at Safe Harbours, on the southern coast of Crete. Here they stayed for several days and the Book of Acts notes that St.Paul advised against continuing as the Day of Atonement had already past (Acts 27:9-11).
The Day of Atonement is the traditional day at which shipping would stop for the winter in anticipation of the poor weather to come. It is normally marked towards the end of September or the start of October.
However St.Paul’s advice fell on deaf ears and Julius chose to accept the advice of the ship’s owner and captain. They pressed on towards Phoenix (on Crete’s west coast) which offered better winter harbour. Their plans were soon smashed by a strong wind from the north-east which blew them terribly off course. Helpless, the crew allowed the ship to drift. As they passed to the south of the island of Cauda (which provided a brief period of shelter against the wind), St.Luke notes that “…we managed to make the ship’s boat secure. They pulled it aboard and then fastened some ropes tight round the ship.” (Acts 27:16-17) These verses are of special importance to Landels. Landels notes that St.Luke is writing about under-belts or hypozomata, which are essentially large ropes tied around the hull of a ship in order to keep it together in rough weather (Landels 1981, Pg. 138). This was necessitated by the type of hull construction employed, called “carvel” construction” which required the hull to be built within an “exoskeleton” of sorts which would not make up part of the finished hull. This method was typical of ship construction of the Mediterranean at the time. (Landels 1981, Pg. 137)
According to Today’s English Version from the Canadian Bible Society, the ship’s crew then lowered her sails and continued to drift with the violent north-easterly winds. However, Farrar (1879) notes that the English version does not describe the sail work well enough. His description is a succinct model of clarity, I present it here:
There was only one way to save themselves… to lie to, by rounding the prow of the vessel on the starboard tack as near to the wind as possible, to send down the topsail and cordage, lower the ponderous yard to such a height as would leave enough of the huge mainsail to steady the vessel, set the artemo, or storm-sail, and so… let her drift on, broadside and leeward, at the mercy of wind and wave. (Pg. 568)
Over the next two days, equipment and cargo were dumped overboard (in that order) to lighten the load. Farrar (1925, Pg. 569) notes that earlier versions of the Book (Syriac, Coptic, etc.) refer to the dumping the vessel’s “huge mainyard” overboard. This would have lightened the load considerably.
According to the Book of Acts, the ship and all souls on board drifted until the ship’s crew believed they were nearing land on the fourteenth night since passing Cauda. A claim brought into question by Acts 27:33 in which St.Paul implores his fellow travellers to eat as they have not eaten for fourteen days. It seems clear that either they had eaten during those fourteen days, or their length of time adrift was far shorter than the claimed two weeks. Death by way starvation would otherwise have been their fate.
As the sailors suspected they were near land, they dropped a weighted line from the ship’s bow twice and found the water to be shallowing out very quickly. The crew dropped four anchors from the stern. This was not the usual method of dropping anchors from a ship of the period. Anchors were normally dropped from the ship’s prow1. In this case however, Farrar (Pg. 570) notes that, as they were quickly nearing shore, the crew feared that the stern would swing around and into the rocks were they to anchor her from the prow. The holes which normally held the steering oars (long since removed to allow the ship to drift) served to tie the anchors in place.
Soon, St.Paul observed the crew preparing to abandon ship using the ship’s boat. He advised Julius to stop them as they were the only ones capable to bringing the ship to safety. Julius agreed and his men cut the ropes on the boat, letting it fall to the sea – and preventing the crew’s escape.
At dawn, St.Paul asked the men to eat (Acts 27:33) and they dumped the remaining wheat overboard. The light of day revealed a bay with a beach that the sailors did not recognise but believed would be appropriate to beach to ship. They cut the anchor ropes and raised the sails, heading for shore. But a sandbank lay between them and shore and the ship ran aground. As the waves began breaking up the stern, they abandoned ship and swam to shore – all survived.
Navigation of the period did not benefit from external aids such as magnetic compasses. Seafarers – especially sailors – were instead obliged to keep sight of land or be able to sight stars in order to navigate properly (Landels, Pg. 156). This is an important consideration in light of Acts 27:20, which reads “For many days we could not see the sun or stars, and the wind kept on blowing very hard. We finally gave up all hope of being saved.” This brings to light a very important consideration when studying shipping of the period. The sheer hopelessness experienced by the ship’s crew and passengers is certainly understandable as their only means of orientation – and, as they had dumped their equipment overboard, their only means of navigation – were unavailable for several days.
Also of note here is the absence of any mention of rowing. Merchant ships of the period were ill-adapted to rowing due to their necessarily large beam widths (Landels, Pg. 154).
St.Luke’s mention of the dumping of equipment overboard is an indication that the ship was quite probably experiencing some severe leaks. By lightening the ship’s load, less water would be taken on. (Farrar, Pg. 568-569)
It is widely believed that they ended up on the island of Malta, just south of Italy. However, there are those who believe that the ship was in fact wrecked on the shores of Mljet, also known as Melita, southernmost of the Dalmatian islands. Angus Acworth treats this alternative wreck site quite thoroughly in his article on St.Paul’s shipwreck. He notes that the incident involving a snake biting St.Paul soon after their arrival on the island would be quite out of the ordinary on Malta, as there were virtually no snakes there at the time (as at present). However, Mljet was infested by snakes until the turn of the 20th century. Further Acworth notes that St.Luke described the inhabitants of the island as “uncouth peasants” – a description which would not fit the typical cosmopolitan Maltese of the period, but might well fit the inhabitants of Mljet. Further still, St.Luke clearly states (Acts 27:39) that the Alexandrian sailors did not recognise the coast of the island. Acworth contends that the Malta would have been recognisable – whereas Mljet would not have been familiar.
This final mystery in the life of St.Paul may never be truly solved. However, I believe Acworth makes a solid case for a landing at Mljet and I wonder if the day will come when the technology will available to conduct underwater archaeological inquiries in order to finally establish the true site of what was probably the most famous shipwreck in history.
Acworth, Angus “St.Paul’s Shipwreck” In, Paul: Teacher and Traveller Bulmer-Thomas (ed.) Leighton: Faith Press, 1975
Provides an excellent overview of evidence relating to possible shipwreck location being at Mljet rather than commonly accepted site of Malta.
Bradford, Ernle. Paul The Traveller Plymouth: Clarke, Doble & Brendon Ltd., 1974
Disagrees with accounts that dropping anchor from the stern was out of the ordinary.
Chevallier, Raymond. Voyages et Deplacements Dans L’Empire Romain Paris: Armand Colin: 1988
Although not directly used for the completion of this paper, Chevallier’s overview of Roman shipping provided very useful background information with which to approach the study.
Farrar, F.W. The Life and Work of St.Paul London: Cassell and Company, 1879
An excellent analysis of the Book of Acts using several versions of the Bible and being especially critical of the Modern English Version for its inaccuracies.
Good News Bible, with Deuterocanonicals/Apocrypha – Today’s English Version Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co., 1986
Landels, J.G. Engineering In The Ancient World Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981
With regards to the St.Paul, Landels does not go into great detail, but his chapter on shipping sheds a great deal of supporting information on the subject.