Acts 27:1-44

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In view of the acceptance of his appeal to Caesar, Paul had to sail to Italy. Likely Festus designated the centurion Julius to be in charge of Paul and certain other prisoners. Julius is identified as being speíres Sebastés, variously translated “of the Augustan Cohort” (NJB, NRSV, REB), “of the Cohort Augusta” (NAB), “who belonged to the Imperial Regiment” (NIV), “who served in the emperor’s army” (NCV), and “from the Emperor’s special troops.” (CEV) A cohort consisted of one tenth of a legion (between 400 and 600 men making up a cohort), but there is considerable uncertainty about the nature and size of the military division to which Julius belonged. (27:1)

It appears that no ship then anchored at Caesarea was directly en route to Italy. The vessel Paul and the others boarded was from Adramyttium, a port on the northwestern coast of Asia Minor. On its apparent return voyage from Caesarea, this boat was to stop at various ports. At one of the harbors, all persons traveling to Italy were to board another ship that would take them there. (27:2)

The reference to “us” in verse 1 indicates that Luke accompanied Paul, as did Aristarchus, the Macedonian from Thessalonica who had traveled with the apostle to Jerusalem. Possibly Luke and Aristarchus had been able to arrange to join Paul as a prisoner by representing themselves as his servants, which they were from the standpoint that they had labored in advancing Christ’s cause as the apostle’s assistants. (27:2)

The next day the ship arrived at Sidon, about 80 miles (c. 130 kilometers) north of Caesarea. Whether the ship then anchored at Sidon to load or unload cargo is not stated in the account. Julius revealed his kindly disposition toward Paul, granting him the liberty to go to his friends (fellow believers) in the city and to enjoy their hospitality. The Greek term for what Paul would be receiving from his friends is epiméleia, meaning “care” or “attention,” and could include their supplying him with whatever he may have needed. (27:3)

The Greek word hypopléo denotes to “sail under the lee of” an island. With the contrary winds doubtless blowing from the west, the ship captain would have chosen a course north of the island of Cyprus. When heading to eastern locations (in the opposite direction), ships would have sailed to the south of the island. (27:4; compare 21:3 and see the Notes section.)

Coming from the east, the ship sailed across the sea south of the region of Cilicia and the neighboring Roman province of Pamphylia in Asia Minor and then (“fifteen days” later, according to a number of manuscripts) arrived at Myra in Lycia. The city of Myra was situated inland. Strabo, in his Geography (XIV, iii, 7) wrote, “Then one comes to Myra, at a distance of twenty stadia above the sea, on a lofty hill.” The nearby harbor (Andriace) appears to have served as a major port for transshiping grain to Rome and other regions of the Roman Empire. Much of the grain came from Egypt. (27:5; see Myra for pictures of and comments about Myra and Andriace.)

In the harbor, the centurion Julius found an “Alexandrian ship” on which Paul and the others could sail to Italy, and he had them go on board. The later reference to lightening the ship by casting the wheat into the sea (verse 38) indicates that this vessel must have been a grain ship. Alexandria, Egypt, lay directly south of Myra. On account of the westerly winds, grain ships from Egypt may have sailed northward first and then navigated westward, taking advantage of the more favorable route along the coast of Asia Minor. The “Alexandrian ship” may have been anchored at the port of Myra on its usual course from Alexandria. Another possibility is that the ship had not been able to continue the voyage to Rome because of unfavorable weather conditions. (27:6; See ships for pictures of ancient Roman vessels.)

The progress of the ship from the harbor of Myra proved to be very slow because of contrary winds. With good sailing conditions, the ship could have reached Cnidus (Knidos) in one day, but a considerable number of days passed before the ship approached the southwest corner of Asia Minor, where Cnidus is situated on the Datça Peninsula. Probably a northwest wind made it impossible to continue navigating westward and so the vessel sailed southward toward the eastern extremity of the island of Crete. Salmone is commonly thought to be Cape Sidero. (27:7; see Crete for pictures of and comments about the island.)

The words “with difficulty sailing along it” (mólis te paralegómenoi autén) could relate to sailing around the cape (Salmone) or along the southern coast of the island. A number of translations are explicit in rendering the Greek text to mean the coast. (27:8) “Then, as the wind continued against us, off Salmone we began to sail under the lee of Crete, and, hugging the coast, struggled on to a place called Fair Havens.” (REB) “We sailed under the lee of Crete off Cape Salmone and struggled along the coast until we came to a place called Fair Havens.” (NJB) “With yet more difficulty we sailed along the coast.” (HCSB) “We went slowly along the coast.” (CEV)

The ship finally came to Fair Havens, “near the city of Lasea.” Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (Book IV, chapter 20), mentions “Lasos” (probably Lasea) as one of “the more remarkable cities of Crete.” The ancient city is thought to have been at a site not far to the east of Fair Havens, a bay situated about 5 miles (c. 8 kilometers) from the southernmost location of Crete known as Cape Matala. The modern Greek name for this bay is Kaloi Limniones (Fair Havens [the same designation as the ancient Greek name]). (27:8; see Kaloi Limines for pictures of Fair Havens.)

Contrary winds had slowed progress considerably, and the ship appears to have remained anchored at Fair Havens for some time. Possibly the time spent at Fair Havens was on account of waiting for more favorable sailing conditions. It was then, however, not a good time for an attempt to sail to another location. The “Fast” (the Day of Atonement [on Tishri (mid-September to mid-October)] 10, the observance of which included fasting) had already passed. Weather conditions made navigation hazardous. Therefore, when consideration was being given to sail to a better harbor on the island for wintering, Paul advised against it. Although he was a prisoner, he may have been regarded with respect on account of being a Roman citizen, and this may, in part, explain why he could freely offer his recommendation. (27:9, 10)

Paul had experienced dangers at sea, including shipwrecks. (2 Corinthians 11:25, 26) Apparently speaking from firsthand knowledge, he recommended remaining at Fair Havens, for setting sail would prove to be hazardous, with resultant loss of the cargo, the ship, and the lives of those on board. (27:10; see the Notes section.) The centurion Julias, however, decided to take the advice of the shipmaster (kybernétes) and the shipowner (naúkleros). The Greek designation kybernétes applies to the shipmaster who chose the crew, whereas the naúkleros selected the shipmaster. (27:11)

This particular vessel appears to have been in the service of the Roman state, which is indicated by the role of the centurion making the decision not to act on Paul’s recommendation. Therefore, the naúkleros likely was a contractor responsible for transporting grain in the service of Rome. As the man with the highest rank on a ship in the service of Rome, the centurion would have been the one whose word was final. (27:11)

The majority did not consider Fair Havens to be a good winter harbor, probably because it did not seem well enough protected from wind. They favored leaving what appeared to them as an unsuitable location and hoped to reach Phoenix, remaining anchored there for the winter. Phoenix is described as a “harbor of Crete” that looked “toward the southwest and toward the northwest.” If Phoenix is correctly identified as being Loutro (Lutro), the Greek text could be understood to mean that the harbor faces the direction in which the southwest and the northwest winds blow. This is so because the harbor at Loutro faces eastward, not westward. (27:12; see Loutro for pictures.)

When a south wind began to blow moderately, the majority thought that they would be successful in reaching Phoenix. The voyage commenced, with the ship sailing close to the Cretan coast. (27:13)

Soon, however, conditions changed. Apparently after the vessel passed the southernmost point of Crete (Cape Matala) and was much farther away from land, a “fierce” (typhonikós) northeasterly wind known as “Euroaquilo” began to batter the ship, forcing it off course. This wind likely would have been a gregale, which can blow continuously from one or two days up to as many as five days and is accompanied by showers. This strong wind can attain hurricane force. The Greek adjective typhonikós does, in fact, describe a wind that is a typhoon or a hurricane. The designation “Euraquilo” (euroakýlon, which is the reading with the superior manuscript support) identifies the wind as from the “east” (Latin, eurus) and “north” (Latin, aquilo). (27:14)

The crew could not sail the storm-tossed ship in the desired direction, but had to allow the gale to drive it south toward the island of Cauda (Gavdos). When the ship came under the shelter of the island’s southern coast (apparently approaching from the east), the crew took advantage of the reduced force of the wind. To a line at the stern of the ship, a skiff had been attached. This small boat was used to reach the shore whenever the ship remained anchored near the coast. It may have been filled with a considerable quantity of water and had to be hauled out of the water to prevent it from becoming completely swamped or wrecked. With considerable difficulty, the crew (possibly also with the assistance of others, including Luke [“we hardly were able to take control”]) succeeded in getting control of the skiff. (27:15, 16) After the skiff had been hauled up, the crew undergirded the ship to better withstand the force of wind and waves. From one side of the hull to the other, they would have passed ropes or chains under the hull and then fastened them to the deck. Fearing that the gale would drive the ship aground on the Syrtis, they “lowered the gear.” In this case, the “Syrtis” probably is to be understood as meaning the treacherous sandbanks of the Gulf of Sidra (Sirte) on the northern coast of Africa. (27:17)

The context is not specific enough to determine what was involved in lowering the “gear” (skeúos). The Greek word skeúos, depending on the context, can designate equipment, a vessel, a container, a utensil, an instrument, a weapon, an item, an object, or a thing. Perhaps the reference is to the lowering of everything possible that projected from the deck and which the wind could strike. James Smith, in The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul, includes a quotation relating to a parallel situation, “Such exertions were made that, before morning, every stick that could possibly be struck was down upon the deck.” Commenting on the last two Greek words in verse 17, he concluded, “When we are told that ‘they were thus borne along,’ hoútos ephéronto, that it was not only with the ship undergirded and made snug, but that she had storm sails set, and was on the starboard tack, which was the only course by which she could avoid falling into the Syrtis.” (27:17)

The next day brought no relief from the gale, and the ship continued to be tossed about violently. Therefore, to increase the vessel’s buoyancy, the crew (possibly with the assistance of passengers) began to cast items overboard to lighten the ship. (27:18)

There is uncertainty about what was tossed overboard on the third day. As in verse 17, the Greek word is skeúos. The expression autócheir describes action undertaken “with one’s own hand.” In the context, this suggests that the cooperative effort required many hands. Therefore, James Smith reasoned that, in this case, the skeúos could have designated the main yard, “an immense spar, probably as long as the ship, which would require the united efforts of passengers and crew to launch overboard.” (27:19)

Weather conditions did not improve. For many days, neither the sun nor the stars could be seen, and the ship continued to be at the mercy of unfavorable wind. With no indication of relief from the dire circumstances, the passengers and crew gave up all hope of being saved. (27:20)

The crew and passengers must have been exhausted, seasick, and sleep deprived. No one would have felt like eating. After numerous days had gone by without anyone’s partaking of nourishment, Paul stood up in their midst to provide encouragement. Probably to stress that what he was about to tell them should be taken seriously, he reminded them that they should have heeded his advice not to set out from Crete and thus to have avoided damage and loss. (27:21)

He recommended that they cheer up, ceasing to be discouraged and downcast, for not “one soul” among them would perish. Only the ship would be lost. (27:22) Paul then explained the reason for his confidence. That night an angel of the God to whom he belonged and whom he served had stood by him. (27:23) This angel said to him, “Fear not, Paul, for you must stand before Caesar, and, see, God has given you all those sailing with you.” In view of God’s purpose for Paul to bear witness concerning his Son before the highest human authority in the then-known world, the lives of all were to be saved. God would give them to Paul from the standpoint that they would live on his account. (27:24; compare Genesis 18:23-32.)

God’s message conveyed through the angel was the basis for the apostle’s exhortation for all to cheer up or to be of good courage. With unshakable confidence in the certain fulfillment of the words the angel had spoken to him, Paul continued, “I trust in God that it will occur just as I have been told.” (27:25) All of the crew and passengers were to expect to be cast ashore on an island. (27:26)

On the fourteenth night of drifting on a storm-tossed sea, the sailors, at midnight, suspected that they were approaching land. The sea of “Adria” appears to have included what is presently known as the Adriatic Sea, the Ionian Sea, and the waters of the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and Crete. Possibly the sailors perceived the sound of breakers dashing against the rocky coast, making them aware that land was near.(27:27)

The crew then took soundings (probably using a specially designed lead weight of about 11 pounds [c. 5 kilograms] and with a sturdy lug to which a rope had been attached) and found the depth to be 20 fathoms (c. 120 feet [c. 36 meters]). (See sounding weight for a picture.) Basing his conclusions on a ship coming from the east and the location being what has been called St. Paul’s Bay under the then-existing conditions, James Smith estimated that, about a half hour later, the sailors found the depth to be 15 fathoms (c. 90 feet [c. 27 meters]). (27:28; See St. Paul’s Bay for pictures of the bay at Malta.)

Fearing that the ship might be dashed against a rocky shore, the sailors dropped four anchors from the stern, and anxiously waited for daylight to come. (27:29) “The proximate cause of anchoring,” James Smith observed, “was no doubt that assigned by St. Luke, namely the fear of falling on the rocks to leeward; but they had also an ulterior object in view, which was to run the ship ashore as soon as daylight enabled them to select a spot where it could be done with a prospect of safety; for this purpose the very best position in which an ancient ship could be, was to be anchored by the stern.”

While the sailors did everything possible at that time of the night to prevent a total disaster, this did not assure their personal safety. Paul appears to have remained vigilant, carefully observing what the sailors did. They began lowering the skiff, pretending to let down anchors from the bow (which act would not have afforded any possible advantage). Their real objective was to escape in the skiff when the circumstances made it possible. (27:30)

Paul spoke up quickly, telling the centurion Julius and the soldiers under his command, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” The nautical skills of the sailors were absolutely essential for getting the vessel to the shore. (27:31) To prevent the sailors from escaping, the soldiers cut the ropes to which the skiff was attached, setting the small boat adrift. (27:32)

Close to daybreak, Paul urged everyone to partake of food. It was then the fourteenth day since they had not eaten. During this time they had been anxiously waiting, worried about their fate. In their state of suspense, they had continued to abstain from food. (27:33) So it was in their best interests to eat. This would be for their “deliverance,” as the nourishment would give them the needed strength to safely make their way from the ship. Paul then reassured them, “No one of you will lose the hair from [your] head.” This idiomatic expression indicated that every single one of them would survive. (27:34)

He then set the example. Taking bread, he gave thanks to God in the presence of everyone, broke off a piece of bread, and began to eat. (27:35) His confidently expressed words and example appear to have breathed new life into everyone. They were cheered or felt encouraged and started to partake of food. (27:36)

According to what appears to be the superior manuscript evidence, the number of “souls” or persons on board was 276. Other manuscripts, including those of ancient translations, read “about 76,” “176,” “270,” “275,” “522,” and “876.” (27:37)

After everyone had eaten sufficiently, the portion of wheat that had not been jettisoned earlier to lighten the ship was then cast overboard. The reduced weight would have served to facilitate beaching the ship. (27:38)

When morning came, the sailors did not recognize the land, but did see a bay with a beach. On this beach, they, if possible, wanted to run the ship aground. (27:39)

They released the ship from the four anchors that they had dropped from the stern during the night, leaving them in the sea. The crew “loosed the lashings of the rudders.” Regarding the rudders, James Smith commented in a footnote, “Ancient ships were steered by two large paddles, one on each quarter. When anchored by the stern in a gale, it would be necessary to lift them out of the water and secure them by lashings or rudder-bands.” With the ship no longer anchored but prepared for beaching, the lashings needed to be loosened. (27:29, 40)

With the cables attached to the anchors having been cut, the rudder lashings loosed, and the “foresail” (the probable meaning of artémon) hoisted to the wind, the crew made for the beach. (27:40) According to a literal reading of the Greek text, the ship then “fell into a place of two seas.” (27:41) James Smith drew the following conclusion regarding this development: “From the entrance of the bay, where the ship must have been anchored, [the crew] could not possibly have suspected that at the bottom of it there should be a communication with the sea outside; this unexpected circumstance naturally attracted the attention of the author [Luke], and served to mark the spot where the ship was wrecked. Selmoon Island [Selmonetta], which separated the bay from the sea on the outside, is formed by a long rocky ridge, separated from the mainland by a channel of not more than a hundred yards [c. 100 meters] in breadth.” He reasoned that it must have been near this channel that the sailors ran the ship aground.

The bow of the ship got immovably stuck, and the powerful waves began to dash the stern to pieces. (27:41) The conditions at St. Paul’s Bay fit this development. “The rocks of Malta,” James Smith wrote, “disintegrate into extremely minute particles of sand and clay, which, when acted upon by the currents or by surface agitation, form a deposit of tenacious clay.” In view of where the ship would have encountered the clay, it is understandable why the bow became stuck. James Smith continued, “In Admiral Smyth’s chart of the bay, the nearest soundings to the mud indicate a depth of about three fathoms [c. 18 feet (c. 5.4 meters)], which is about what a large ship will draw. A ship, therefore, impelled by the force of a gale into a creek with a bottom such as that laid down in the chart, would strike a bottom of mud graduating into tenacious clay, into which the fore part would fix itself and be held fast, whilst the stern was exposed to the force of the waves.”

The soldiers feared that the prisoners might swim away and escape, leading to their being held accountable and liable for severe punishment. Therefore, they planned to kill them. (27:42)

The centurion Julius, however, wanted to preserve Paul’s life and stopped them from carrying out their plan. He commanded all who could swim to jump overboard and be the first to make their way to land. (27:43) He ordered the rest to use boards and other pieces from the ship to help them get ashore. So in this manner and by swimming, all made it safely to land. (27:44)


James Smith, in The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul, quoted the words of a French navigator who similarly encountered contrary winds (verse 4) in the vicinity of Cyprus. “The winds from the west, and consequently contrary, which prevail in these places during the summer, forced us to run to the north. We made for the coast of Caramania (Cilicia) in order to meet the northerly winds, which we found accordingly.”

Comments that provide background material relating to the voyage from Caesarea to Rome are primarily drawn from St. Paul’s Voyage and Shipwreck by James Smith (first published in 1848, [with the last published edition (the fourth) appearing in 1880]. This work is that of an accomplished yachtsman who was well acquainted with the Mediterranean and the hazards a sailing ship would encounter. In view of its enduring value, the book has been reprinted repeatedly.

Based on the observations of his friend and relative George Brown and late surveys, James Smith commented on Paul’s advice (verse 10), “Fair Havens is so well protected by islands, that though not equal to Lutro [considered to have been Phoenix], it must be a very fair winter harbour; and that considering the suddenness, the frequency, and the violence with which gales of northerly wind spring up, and the certainty that, if such a gale sprang up in the passage from Fair Havens to Lutro, the ship must be driven off to sea, the prudence of the advice given by the master and owner was extremely questionable, and that the advice given by St. Paul may probably be supported even on nautical grounds.”

The information about the sounding weight is based on finds from ancient shipwrecks.