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Unknown Italian artist

Martinian of Palestine: Scene, encountering shipwrecked woman, from Vitae patrum, c.1350–75, Illumination on vellum, 356 x 252 mm, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, MS M.626, fol. 100r, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

Ludolf Backhuysen I

Paul's Shipwreck (Shipwreck of Apostle Paul on Malta), 1690, Oil on canvas, 151 x 204 cm, Ostfriesisches Landesmuseum, Emden, akg-images

Unknown Spanish artist

The Apostle Paul's Shipwreck, from Pauline Epistles with commentary by Petrus Lombardus, 1181, Illumination on vellum, 365 x 248 mm, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, MS M.939m, fol. 194r, Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

We All Were Sea-Swallowed

Comparative Commentary by

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, 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 grounded 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.

 

References

Pervo, Richard I. 2009. Acts: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)