Acts 27:1–44 is a very long story—so long that an ancient tradition of biblical manuscripts called the D-text of Codex Bezae has given us a fifth-century ‘Readers Digest’ version of it that is 30% shorter. The prose features the hifalutin vocabulary of the Odyssey: the ship (naus, not the more prosaic ploion) ‘ran aground’ (epokellō); the lifeboat is a skaphos, the Homeric term for a dinghy (27:41). These archaisms, harking back to the storied shipwrecks of ancient Greek literature, along with their obscure nautical terms and detailed geographical references, fill out this colourful, overwritten melodrama.
Paul is the hero, the kibitzer, and the Cassandra of this tale of nautical catastrophe. It is the tale of a voyage troubled from the start. Along the coasts of Asia Minor, Paul and the Roman military police detail in whose custody he had been remanded hitch a ride first on a ship from Adramyttium (up the Aegean coast towards the Troas, v.2), then on a ship laden with wheat from Alexandria, the breadbasket of Rome.
The account opens revisiting the ‘We’ discourse of Acts 16:1, the narrator continuing to speak in the first person plural from Adramyttium all the way to Malta. As the story goes, things looked good at the outset. But only for a minute: the season threatens that the weather must change—for the worse (v.9). Worse than the captain thought: even ‘Fair Havens’, on the southern coast of Crete, turns out not to be so fair (v.12). A freighter would find no shelter among the small bays on its rocky coast.
‘After hoisting it up they took measures to undergird the ship; then, they became afraid that 'they would run on the Syrtis’, (27:17), that is, the notorious sandbanks of Syrtia off the North African coast. The ship lists adrift in the sea of Adria—not the modern Adriatic but the ‘Ionian Sea’, as the Greek novelists called the open sea between Crete, Sicily, Italy, and North Africa. With neither sun by day nor stars at night (v.20), hope fades. So too does appetite (vv.20–21): food is mentioned seven times in six verses (vv.33–38), but on the eve of a shipwreck, neither passengers nor crew have the stomach for it.
Though Paul initially claims that the voyage will be fatal, ‘with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives’ (Acts 27:9–10), he later emends his dire prediction, declaring to passengers and crew that ‘none of you will lose a hair from your heads’ (27:34), a prophecy that goes on to be happily fulfilled.
Such is the salvation here: everyone is saved. Yet everything is lost: an entire vessel, reduced to fragments and flotation devices. The motive of the voyage was to transport cargo: the ship is an Alexandrian trading vessel bound for Rome, bearing one of those shipments of Egyptian grain destined to be ground into flour for the bread of ‘bread and circuses’ fame. It is this grain that, after the ship’s other cargo and even its tackle, is thrown into the sea by the crew (27:18, 19, 38). In any shipwreck, valuables have no value, and cargo becomes but unwanted ballast. In this shipwreck, the important question is not how much something costs, but how well it floats.
If the seas always afforded smooth sailing, there would be no need for the salvation dramatized here in the book of Acts. Salvation, after all, presupposes some life-threatening thing from which to be saved. This salvation, however, does not evade catastrophe: it restrains it. Pace Ludolf Backhuysen I’s grand tableau, it is a salvation reserved exclusively for people—not for parcels. And unlike the drowned sailors in the scene from the life of St Martinian, none of those on the Alexandrian freighter are at risk of becoming naked corpses beneath their vessel’s ruined hull. The Apostle Paul, his captors, and the sailor at the rudder pictured in the illumination of the Commentary of Petrus Lombardus, along with their 272 fellow travellers, make it to shore—each and all, safe and sound.
Pervo, Richard I. 2009. Acts: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)
27 And when it was decided that we should sail for Italy, they delivered Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion of the Augustan Cohort, named Julius. 2And embarking in a ship of Adramytʹtium, which was about to sail to the ports along the coast of Asia, we put to sea, accompanied by Aristarʹchus, a Macedoʹnian from Thessaloniʹca. 3The next day we put in at Sidon; and Julius treated Paul kindly, and gave him leave to go to his friends and be cared for. 4And putting to sea from there we sailed under the lee of Cyprus, because the winds were against us. 5And when we had sailed across the sea which is off Ciliʹcia and Pamphylʹia, we came to Myra in Lyʹcia. 6There the centurion found a ship of Alexandria sailing for Italy, and put us on board. 7We sailed slowly for a number of days, and arrived with difficulty off Cniʹdus, and as the wind did not allow us to go on, we sailed under the lee of Crete off Salmoʹne. 8Coasting along it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens, near which was the city of Laseʹa.
9 As much time had been lost, and the voyage was already dangerous because the fast had already gone by, Paul advised them, 10saying, “Sirs, I perceive that the voyage will be with injury and much loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” 11But the centurion paid more attention to the captain and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said. 12And because the harbor was not suitable to winter in, the majority advised to put to sea from there, on the chance that somehow they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete, looking northeast and southeast, and winter there.
13 And when the south wind blew gently, supposing that they had obtained their purpose, they weighed anchor and sailed along Crete, close inshore. 14But soon a tempestuous wind, called the northeaster, struck down from the land; 15and when the ship was caught and could not face the wind, we gave way to it and were driven. 16And running under the lee of a small island called Cauda, we managed with difficulty to secure the boat; 17after hoisting it up, they took measures to undergird the ship; then, fearing that they should run on the Syrʹtis, they lowered the gear, and so were driven. 18As we were violently storm-tossed, they began next day to throw the cargo overboard; 19and the third day they cast out with their own hands the tackle of the ship. 20And when neither sun nor stars appeared for many a day, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.
21 As they had been long without food, Paul then came forward among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me, and should not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. 22I now bid you take heart; for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23For this very night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and lo, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ 25So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 26But we shall have to run on some island.”
27 When the fourteenth night had come, as we were drifting across the sea of Aʹdria, about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land. 28So they sounded and found twenty fathoms; a little farther on they sounded again and found fifteen fathoms. 29And fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let out four anchors from the stern, and prayed for day to come. 30And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the boat into the sea, under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, 31Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the boat, and let it go.
33 As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. 34Therefore I urge you to take some food; it will give you strength, since not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” 35And when he had said this, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. 36Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37(We were in all two hundred and seventy-six persons in the ship.) 38And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea.
39 Now when it was day, they did not recognize the land, but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned if possible to bring the ship ashore. 40So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea, at the same time loosening the ropes that tied the rudders; then hoisting the foresail to the wind they made for the beach. 41But striking a shoal they ran the vessel aground; the bow stuck and remained immovable, and the stern was broken up by the surf. 42The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape; 43but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their purpose. He ordered those who could swim to throw themselves overboard first and make for the land, 44and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all escaped to land.