The Shipwreck of Paul

 

Luke was a master storyteller.  The two volume treasure that is Luke-Acts presents the captivating story of our extraordinary God who accomplishes His purposes through extraordinary events.  Within this work is the tale of the Apostle Paul and a now famous shipwreck that occurred just prior to his imprisonment as recorded near the end of Acts in chapter twenty-seven.  This paper will inductively examine the background and context of the passage with attention to its author and date, the intended recipient, the genre and its context (both biblically and through external sources).  The exegesis will parse the chapter into three sections; Preceding the Storm (Acts 27:1-12), The Storm (Acts 27:13-26) and The Shipwreck (Acts 27:27-44).  The chapter will be examined relative to its topic, point and purpose with attention to linguistics (within the limited skill of this writer).  The meaning of Acts 27 is that though powerful and adversarial forces may try to prevent it, God’s purpose will be accomplished, and this may be known with certainty.

Author and Date

It is generally agreed that the author of the Gospel of Luke is also the author of Acts.  It is likewise universally accepted that the two documents are intrinsically connected as two volumes of a work that must be considered holistically.  Beyond that, universal agreement ends.  There is disagreement (for example) as to whether the author planned a third volume, but it is immaterial to this analysis.[1]  The author of both chose to remain anonymous but from Irenaeus on the consensus of Luke’s authorship has been generally undisputed and his authorship will be assumed throughout this paper.  Conservative scholars date the work during the years immediately preceding the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD with the most likely time being during Paul’s imprisonment in the mid-60’s when both Paul and his companion Luke were prevented from travel and at leisure to write.[2]

Of Luke himself, little is known.  He is named three times in the New Testament, each in the “greetings” sections of Paul’s epistles.[3]  In Col 4:14 he is called “the doctor” by Paul and some lengths have been taken to link his occasional use of medical vocabulary to this fact, though that has most recently been discounted by contemporary scholarship.[4]  Most notable of the three New Testament references is the last mention chronologically in 2 Tim 4:11 where Paul, writing near the end of his life says “only Luke is with me.”  The close relationship between these two men is at least implicit and goes far to explain Luke’s endearing treatment of Paul in Acts.  Beyond these references, everything else is speculation, including the possibility that he was a freedman from Antioch.[5]

Recipient

Both Luke and Acts are written to a certain “Theophilus” and the similarity and content of each preamble is notable.  Given that nothing else is known of this individual apart from these mentions (until comments from the early church fathers) there has been a great deal of speculation and curiosity.  Theophilus is generally considered to be an actual individual who might have occupied a positon of wealth and/or authority given the title “most Excellent” given to him by Luke in the Gospel (Luke 1:3).[6]

A larger question is whether the writing was to him exclusively as private correspondence.  The scholarly consensus is that Luke expected broader readership and as Longenecker has suggested, had a catechetical purpose in mind.[7]  The elegance and formality of the prologs are similar to such work including Against Apion by Josephus where, in likewise two volumes he address one “most excellent Epaphroditus.”[8]  The name “Theophilus” means “Lover of God” and could be generalized as the heading to a symbolic and representative recipient but it is more likely that the work was primarily intended for a specific individual who would share the correspondence.

Genre

Luke’s stated purpose in writing to Theophilus was to write “an orderly account…so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4).  His research included numerous sources, including eyewitness testimony.  There is also a jarring shift in perspective midway in Acts (including our examined passage) from third person to first person plural – the so called “we” passages.  These passages reinforce the historical presentation perspective of an eyewitness, and the detail of our examined passage in particular is striking.  Some scholars have suggested that the use of “we” is a common motif for sea adventure tales and that Luke, separate from writing history was spinning a tale that would remind the reader of classic literature, but this argument has been effectively countered by many; most prominently Colin Hemer.[9]  It is also noteworthy that in the early 1800’s, an experienced sailor and scholar named Scot James Smith devoted many years of research to Paul’s sea voyages.  Smith found that our examined voyage in Acts 27 was likely to be an accurate log and his writings on the matter have been referenced since publication.[10]  Dissuasions almost all go back to F.C. Baur of the Tubingen school of the nineteenth century who questioned all of the historical value of Acts.  His arguments have been effectively countered.[11] As Bence successfully argues, Luke by admission edited his research material and it was not necessary that he produce an encyclopedic document to present himself as a reliable historian.[12]  Less likely still are arguments that Luke was acting in some kind of defense counsel role for Paul by preparing a document validating his innocence.[13]  As Utley notes, “Acts is to the New Testament what Joshua through II Kings is to the Old Testament: historical narrative”.[14]

Acts 27 is historical narrative, but beyond history, our examined passage is spiritually focused.  As previously noted, Luke-Acts is generally considered a literary masterpiece and numerous scholars have extensively examined parallelisms between the two books.  N.T Wright in particular has written on Luke’s literary excellence and holds Acts 27 in parallel to Luke 23, saying the shipwreck corresponds to Jesus’ crucifixion and that both works together are in fact a continuous story of Christ.[15] While few extend the Luke-Acts parallelisms as far as Wright, most conservative scholars align with Talbert that the two volume set is a continuous whole and a “narrative of fulfillment”.  Luke clearly intended his work to be understood as describing the actualization of God’s plan through prophetic fulfillment.[16]

Context

Acts 27 and 28 are the couplet of chapters concluding the book.  The title of Acts (placed after Luke’s writing) is over generalized because the book primarily follows the journeys of The Apostle Paul – specifically through the end of the book.  As Paul tirelessly took the Gospel throughout the world, he was told by the Lord in a vision that he would testify in Rome (Acts 23:11).  From that point forward, Acts chronicles the journey that would conclude with his imprisonment there.  Our study is a long passage detailing the shipwreck that occurred during his transport.  Chapter 28 follows the aftermath and ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome in generally favorable conditions.  While the book ends there, it is generally accepted that Paul was released and continued his missionary work until he was arrested again under less favorable circumstance, ultimately leading to his martyrdom, but this is inferred and not confirmed.[17]

The Old Testament

One must first consider the foundation of the Old Testament to appreciate Luke’s writing.  Extensive use is made of Old Testament references to both validate and affirm the described events and recorded speeches.  At every critical juncture, Luke reminds the reader of prophecy and precedent to establish God’s mandate in the accomplishment of the task at hand.  Beyond Luke’s appreciation for detail and his storytelling excellence, the length of description afforded to the Acts 27 shipwreck is the rich legacy of Old Testament parallel.  The “through the sea as deliverance” motif resonates from stories like Noah’s Ark and Moses parting the Red Sea.

A number of passages are related but none more closely than the story of Jonah who himself was passenger on a ship caught in a violent storm.  Like the story of Acts 27, the sailors faced horrific weather and were in fear of losing their lives.  They jettisoned cargo and ultimately despaired of helplessly succumbing to the waves.  The key difference between the stories (as eloquently described by Polhill) was that conversely to Paul, it was Jonah’s presence that gave rise to the storm and his absence that delivered all aboard. In Acts 27, it was Paul’s presence that assured delivery.[18]

Exegesis of Acts 27

Chronologically, the events of Acts 27 follow Paul’s trial before Festus and Agrippa and was specifically related to Paul’s appeal to Caesar, exercising his right as a Roman citizen (Acts 25:11).  During the trial, Paul was treated with interest if not respect and ultimately Agrippa remarked to Festus that Paul might have been freed absent his appeal (Acts 26:32).  This general attitude toward Paul apparently set a favorable tone with the centurion Julius to whom Paul was entrusted with transport.  This writer imagines some measure of relief to the centurion who (as a career solider) must have been accustomed to dealing with far more notorious criminals.  This is not an insignificant point because the innocuous (if not ultimately respectful) attitude of Julius towards Paul contributed greatly to the story’s favorable conclusion.

Preceding the Storm: Acts 27:1-12

The first twelve verses of chapter twenty-seven set the stage for the journey from Caesarea to Puteoli and is often noted for its attention to detail (a general remark for the following sections as well).  In verse one, Luke reintroduced the first person plural tense and thereafter used either “we” or its derivative to describe the events. While some have considered this detail superfluous or even indicative of secondhand reporting, Polhill and others have observed this to be a mark of first hand narrative rather than the allegorical tale proposed by Baur in the nineteenth century.  As W.R. Nicoll wrote, Luke possessed suburb literary skills and clearly expected the reader to understand that he himself was eyewitness to the events as he had previous set disclaimers when otherwise.[19]    As Smith (referenced earlier) concluded, Luke’s use of nautical terminology, while somewhat technical, is consistent with the notes of a nonprofessional eyewitness observer.  The work is written like a journal and interpretation is most logically achieved when other theories are set aside.

The port of embarkation was remote to the empire and it was necessary for the centurion to arrange an itinerary that would accommodate a connection to Rome at a major hub of commerce.  Verses two through six describe this early part of the journey through favorable weather, and Luke makes special note of Julius’ generosity in verse three as Paul was allowed to visit his friends in Sidon for provision of his needs.  Scripture is unclear about whether Paul remained under arrest during this visit or was afforded “trustee” status, but in either event no escape was attempted and Paul returned for continuation of the journey.  Julius successfully procured passage on a large Alexandrian grain ship in the port of Myra and the bulk of the itinerary was commenced.

Verses seven through twelve introduce the developing inclement conditions in both weather and relationships.  Luke notes a change in the winds that caused difficulty and delay until the ship safely arrived in Fair Havens (verse eight).  Until that time, no indication was given that Paul had acted in any manner other than the prisoner he was, but here he assumed the office of prophet.  There is no indication of God’s direct revelation (unlike later in verses twenty-three and twenty-four) of impending disaster to Paul, but the apostle nonetheless stepped forward to dissuade further travel in spite of his unfavorable circumstances.  Kostenberger describes the prophetic office as both “foretelling” and “forthtelling” and cites Acts 27 as example.[20]  Like the prophets of old, Luke presents Paul as the voice of God and though his counsel was not heeded, this initial speech grounded another to follow during the height of the storm.

The Storm:  Acts 27:13-26

Verse thirteen begins with “a gentle south wind” but “before very long” the ship encountered a storm of hurricane force.  The vessel was a grain ship that would have been both large and heavy, and there was little the crew could do other than implement a series of defensive measures.  As Luke states in verse fifteen, “we gave way to it and were driven along.”   The verses following describe increasingly desperate measures to secure the ship with each failing to assuage the situation.

The climax of the story is reached in the twentieth verse as Luke describes a point, “after many days” of seeing neither sun nor stars when “we finally gave up all hope of being saved.”  Linguistically, verse twenty is striking for Luke’s use of the words “we” and “saved.”  By including himself in the condition of despair, Luke was inclusive of the general gloom and his language states that hope (as Nicoll has it) “was being gradually stripped away.”[21]

The key verses in Acts 27 are verses twenty-two through twenty-six.  At the peak of the storm and the depth of despair, Paul addressed the people, saying he had received a special revelation from God by way of an angel who appeared to him in the night.  The angel’s message contained two points – that Paul would indeed stand trial before Caesar and that all of the crew would be saved.  The passage calls to mind Jonah in a number of ways.  During the storm described in the first sixteen verses of Jonah, the crew likewise fought helplessly by throwing cargo overboard and calling on their gods.  When Jonah addressed the men, he said the storm was his fault and that “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land” (Jon 1:9).  Paul likewise invoked “the God to whom I belong and whom I serve” as his authoritative source (Acts 27:23).  Paul was quick to remind them that he had given them counsel (which they ignored) previously which had now proved sound and fortunately his message was one of encouragement.  Faw’s commentary contains a bright section here on Luke’s occasional use of humor as Paul did not resist an “I told you so” moment of (what is now) comic relief.[22]  While the ship would ultimately be lost, each of them would be saved.

The Shipwreck:  Acts 27:27-39

Few shipwrecks have been recorded with such fluid and vivid literary skill.  Luke begins the sequence in verse twenty-seven by saying two weeks had passed as the mariners helplessly rode the crippled vessel through the sea.  Sensing their approach to land, they took “soundings” which Hemer describes as a technical term referring to the use of a special anchor.[23]   Evoking Homeric language, Luke says in verse twenty-nine that the sailors “dropped four anchors and prayed for daylight.”[24]  Bruce describes Luke’s use of classic motif in detail citing numerous similarities.[25]

Adding drama, Luke also included an escape attempt in the lifeboat by the sailors which was thwarted by Paul.  The incident’s inclusion is significant because it clearly highlights the influence of Paul as the soldiers heeded his instructions to prevent the sailors’ escape.  Verse thirty-two says that the soldiers cut the lifeboat loose and “let it drift away”; a notable act of faith from a group in such despair.

Verse thirty-three marks a turning point in the story.  With bold leadership, the apostle spoke to the men “just before dawn” and urged them to eat by setting the example himself and encouraging them that God’s promise of their safety was assured.  The use of food consumption as a setting for teaching is a particular Lukan device.  Polhill’s extensive commentary is especially rich here and rewarding for further study.[26]

For the first time (verse thirty-seven) Luke informs the reader that there were “276 of us on board”.  Given the shipwreck that was to come it is remarkable that this large number accepted that they would all be saved as Paul said and (verse thirty-nine) ate “as much as they wanted” before throwing the grain into the sea. The text is absent of any indication of grumbling or disunity among the crew or passengers.

At dawn, the sailors saw the beach of an unknown island and decided to run the ship aground by cutting the anchors, untying the rudders and setting the foresail (verses thirty-none and forty) but the heavy ship became inextricably stuck in a sandbar, helplessly victimized by the pounding waves.  As the stern began to break-up, the soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners to prevent their escape – no doubt in concern for their own lives, but Julius prevented it because of his desire to save Paul.  Instead, he ordered those who could to swim to shore and the others to drift in on pieces of the ship (verse forty-four).  As Paul prophesied, all were saved.

Conclusion

God placed Rome in Paul’s mind in Ephesus (Acts 19:21) and from that time forward, each event in the apostle’s life reinforced God’s direction in the matter.  In spite of trial and storm and often because of it, God’s will would not be thwarted through the obedience of the Apostle Paul.    Utley describes Luke’s purpose as the description of God’s predetermined and unhindered plan fulfilled.[27]  The story of Paul’s shipwreck is the grand finale of Luke’s two volume masterpiece of God’s extraordinary work and the triumph of the Gospel.  Echoing Polhill “It is God-triumphalism, a triumph of his word in Christ.  Nowhere is this clearer than in the shipwreck narrative.”[28]  Acts 27 is a beautiful story of our extraordinary God accomplishing His purposes through extraordinary events, and Luke’s inspired writing enables his readers, from Theophilus on to know that with certainty.

Grace and peace,

 

 

Bibliography

Bence, Philip A. Acts : A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition. Indianapolis, Ind.: Wesleyan Pub. House, 1998.

Bock, Darrell L. Acts. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007.

Bruce, F. F. The Book of the Acts. Rev. ed. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1988.

Faw, Chalmer Ernest. Acts. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993.

Hemer, Colin J., and Conrad H. Gempf. The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament,, 49. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1989.

Homer, and Robert Fagles. The Odyssey. New York: Viking, 1996.

Josephus, Flavius, and John M. G. Barclay. Against Apion. Flavius Josephus, Translation and Commentary, 10. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2007.

Köstenberger, Andreas J., and Richard Duane Patterson. Invitation to Biblical Interpretation : Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011.

Lenski, Richard Charles Henry. The Interpretation of the Acts of the Appostles. Columbus, Ohio.,: Lutheran book concern, 1934.

Longenecker, Richard N. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary : John – Acts, with the New International Version of the Holy Bible. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary ; Vol. 9. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1981.

Nicoll, W. Robertson. The Expositor’s Greek Testament. 5 vols. London,: Hodder and Stoughton, 1897.

Polhill, John B. Acts. The New American Commentary, 26. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1992.

Smith, James. The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul: With Dissertations on the Sources of the Writings of St. Luke, and the Ships and Navigation of the Antients. London,: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1848.

Talbert, Charles H. Reading Acts : A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. Rev. ed. Reading the New Testament. Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys Pub., 2005.

Utley, Bob. Luke the Historian : The Book of Acts. Marshall, Tex.: Bible Lessons International, 2003.

Wade, John William. Acts : Unlocking the Scriptures for You. Standard Bible Studies. Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Pub., 1987.

Wright, N. T. Acts for Everyone. 2 vols. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

Endnotes

[1]W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (London,: Hodder and Stoughton, 1897).49

[2]Richard Charles Henry Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Appostles (Columbus, OH,: Lutheran book concern, 1934).243

[3]John B. Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary, 26 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992),24

[4]Richard N. Longenecker, Acts, in vol.9 of  The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Baebelein and J.D. Douglas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981),239

[5]Richard Charles Henry Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Appostles.(Minneapolis, MN; Augsburg),9

[6]John William Wade, Acts : Unlocking the Scriptures for You, Standard Bible Studies (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Pub., 1987),10

[7]Richard N. Longenecker, Acts,220

[8]Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, in Against Apion, vol. 10 of Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, trans. by John M. G. Barclay, ed. By Steven Mason (Boston: Brill, 2007).10

[9]Colin J. Hemer and Conrad H. Gempf, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament, (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1989).49

[10]James Smith, The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul: With Dissertations on the Sources of the Writings of St. Luke, and the Ships and Navigation of the Antients (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1848).

[11]Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007),8-9

[12]Philip A. Bence, Acts : A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Pub. House, 1998).10

[13]Chalmer Ernest Faw, Acts, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993).19-20

[14]Bob Utley, Luke the Historian : The Book of Acts (Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 2003).5

[15]N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, 2 vols. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008),223-224

[16]Charles H. Talbert, Reading Acts : A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Rev. ed., Reading the New Testament (Macon, GA.: Smyth & Helwys, 2005).76

[17]F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, Rev. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988),511

[18]John B. Polhill, Acts,522

[19]W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor’s Greek Testament.vol. 2, 5

[20]Andreas J. KöStenberger and Richard Duane Patterson, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation : Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011).343

[21]W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor’s Greek Testament.527

[22]Chalmer Ernest Faw, Acts.23

[23]Colin J. Hemer and Conrad H. Gempf, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History.147

[24]Homer and Robert Fagles, The Odyssey (New York: Viking, 1996).151

[25]F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts.474

[26]John B. Polhill, Acts.49

[27]Bob Utley, Luke the Historian : The Book of Acts.5

[28]John B. Polhill, Acts.512

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