The Albatross

The Albatross
Martin Gardner

from The Annotated Ancient Mariner

It was Wordsworth who proposed to Coleridge that an albatross be brought into his ballad and that the shooting of the bird provide the Mariner’s “crime.” The idea had been suggested to Wordsworth by his reading of A Voyage Round the World by the Way of the Great South Sea, by Captain George Shelvocke, London, 1726. Shelvocke speaks of a “disconsolate black albatross” . . . that followed the ship for several days “hovering about us as if he had lost himself, till Hatley, (my second captain) observing, in one of his melancholy fits, that this bird was always hovering near us, imagined, from his color, that it might be some ill omen. That which, I suppose, induced him the more to encourage his superstition, was the continued series of contrary tempestuous winds, which had oppressed us ever since we had got into the sea. But be that as it would, he, after some fruitless attempts, at length, shot the albatross, not doubting (perhaps) that we should have a fair wind after it.”

Continue reading “The Albatross”

Fighting God

Shipwreck Off Nantucket by William Bradford 1861

Herman Melville

But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul; and more strange and far more portentous—why, as we have seen, it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity; and yet should be as it is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind. Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink?

JOB 38

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said,
2  “Who is this that darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
3  “Now gird up your loins like a man,
And I will ask you, and you instruct Me!
4  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding,
5  Who set its measurements? Since you know.
Or who stretched the line on it?
6  “On what were its bases sunk?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
7  When the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?

8  “Or who enclosed the sea with doors
When, bursting forth, it went out from the womb;
9  When I made a cloud its garment
And thick darkness its swaddling band,
10  And I placed boundaries on it
And set a bolt and doors,
11  And I said, ‘Thus far you shall come, but no farther;
And here shall your proud waves stop’?

12  “Have you ever in your life commanded the morning,
And caused the dawn to know its place,
13  That it might take hold of the ends of the earth,
And the wicked be shaken out of it?
14  “It is changed like clay under the seal;
And they stand forth like a garment.
15  “From the wicked their light is withheld,
And the uplifted arm is broken.

16  “Have you entered into the springs of the sea
Or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17  “Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
Or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
18  “Have you understood the expanse of the earth?
Tell Me, if you know all this.

19  “Where is the way to the dwelling of light?
And darkness, where is its place,
20  That you may take it to its territory
And that you may discern the paths to its home?
21  “You know, for you were born then,
And the number of your days is great!
22  “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
Or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
23  Which I have reserved for the time of distress,
For the day of war and battle?
24  “Where is the way that the light is divided,
Or the east wind scattered on the earth?

25  “Who has cleft a channel for the flood,
Or a way for the thunderbolt,
26  To bring rain on a land without people,
On a desert without a man in it,
27  To satisfy the waste and desolate land
And to make the seeds of grass to sprout?
28  “Has the rain a father?
Or who has begotten the drops of dew?
29  “From whose womb has come the ice?
And the frost of heaven, who has given it birth?
30  “Water becomes hard like stone,
And the surface of the deep is imprisoned.

31  “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,
Or loose the cords of Orion?
32  “Can you lead forth a constellation in its season,
And guide the Bear with her satellites?
33  “Do you know the ordinances of the heavens,
Or fix their rule over the earth?

34  “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
So that an abundance of water will cover you?
35  “Can you send forth lightnings that they may go
And say to you, ‘Here we are’?
36  “Who has put wisdom in the innermost being
Or given understanding to the mind?
37  “Who can count the clouds by wisdom,
Or tip the water jars of the heavens,
38  When the dust hardens into a mass
And the clods stick together?

39  “Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
Or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40  When they crouch in their dens
And lie in wait in their lair?
41  “Who prepares for the raven its nourishment
When its young cry to God
And wander about without food?

In a personal letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne upon completing Moby Dick, Melville said, “I have written an evil book.” What is it about the book that he considered evil? The answer has been debated by literary scholars since the book was published, and I agree with the view that sees the whale as God, with vengeance fueled Ahab in pursuit.

Given that so few people have actually read Moby Dick, it seems necessary to give a spoiler alert here: It doesn’t end well for Captain Ahab.

It’s hard to fight God.

C.S. Lewis, once an atheist himself, said he knew very few true atheists. He said it’s not that most people don’t believe in God but rather they are angry with God for not existing.  Now there’s a starting point. Accepting the sovereignty of God does not require understanding Him.  Really now, how small would God be if we could wrap our minds around Him?  God wants us to bring Him our pain and questions, but not in the grip of a rebellious fist.

The beginning of understanding is worship.

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.



D I G  D E E P E R

Art: Shipwreck Off Nantucket by William Bradford 1861

On August 8, 1859, the whaling ship Nantucket ran aground during the night at Nashawena Island, Massachusetts, part of the Elizabeth Islands at the entrance to Vineyard Sound. The next day, Bradford left his studio in New Bedford to observe the scene in preparation for painting this large, epic depiction of the shipwreck. He had recently worked alongside Albert Van Beest, who had been trained in the tradition of Dutch marine painting, and the dramatic effect of heavy seas and tilting ship show the other artist’s influence. Bradford’s impressive knowledge of seagoing vessels, however, is seen in the careful delineation of the deck of the whaler and the small craft that surround it.

Literature: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Moby Dick has often been called The Great American Novel and that’s true for every wrong reason. On the eve of its debut, Melville’s heart soared with confidence that the public would embrace his masterpiece. Of course, this was not to be.  The version released in England had a botched ending and the reviewing critics were merciless. Though the book had been corrected before it’s US release, the reviews preceded it, and the die was cast.

The reception was horrific and Melville never recovered.

Today, decades later Moby Dick is recognized as an epic masterwork, but still, very few people have actually read it.  Truthfully, that’s partly Melville’s fault.  The book is a mule choker, both long and descriptively detailed in the technicalities of nineteenth century whaling. Yes, the story is textured and timeless but the reader is often burdened with unnecessary commentary. Sure, it proves he knew what he was talking about, but it takes a real toll on the story’s momentum.  It’s a little like trying to read the Bible and getting bogged down in the Book of Numbers.

If America wasn’t ready for Moby Dick when it came out, America is less so now. Our attention spans are short and we want fast action in big screen high def color. Moby Dick exceeds all of that in the theater of the mind, but only yields its treasure to patient lovers of lore and language.

All that said, I’m glad I read every word.

Rick Wilcox

The Redemption of Hester Prynne by Gregory Wolfe

Gregory Wolfe

Because it has been a staple of the high school classroom, it is nearly impossible to approach The Scarlet Letter with the sort of wonder and respect it deserves. Somber and at times melodramatic, The Scarlet Letter is an altogether quieter book than, say, Moby Dick, which can make it feel tame by comparison. But that is an unfortunate misperception. In this tale of American origins and purposes, Nathaniel Hawthorne found the form that he had sought for so long: a historical tale of “human frailty and sorrow,” tinged with tragedy, rich in ambiguity and symbolism, and supported by a profound understanding of the philosophical undercurrents running beneath the surface of American life—a book that continues to speak with urgency to us today.

The tendency has been to reduce The Scarlet Letter to a morality tale pitting a passionate feminist heroine, Hester Prynne, against the repression and hypocrisy of theocratic Puritanism. This view looks upon the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, with whom Hester committed adultery, to be at worst a cowardly hypocrite and at best a romantic poet trapped in Puritan garb. And it largely ignores Roger Chillingworth, a scholar whose dabblings in the murky zone between science and magic are overlooked in favor of his conventional role as elderly cuckold.

But in the story of Hester Prynne it is possible to see how Hawthorne, a writer with a deeply theological imagination, responded to the cultural conflicts of his time, particularly in the ways that nature and grace had been riven from each other.

In most readings of the novel, Hester’s tale is about liberation: “nature” breaking free from the bonds imposed by “grace,” insofar as grace is defined as a transcendent force of spiritual or civil law. This is made clear in the most startling change that the 1995 film version makes to the novel’s plot. At the end of the film, Hester, her daughter Pearl, and Dimmesdale ride out of town in a carriage whose wheels grind the discarded scarlet letter into the mud. In this vision, Hester becomes Huckleberry Finn, lighting out for the territories, rather than the protagonist of Hawthorne’s novel, who voluntarily chooses to live out her life within the community that once condemned her.

The Scarlet Letter has been misinterpreted for a host of reasons, but perhaps the most salient is that Hawthorne intended it to be misinterpreted. He was aware that, even in the relatively strait-laced world of 1850, Hester would be viewed as the heroine of the novel. But for all the language that conveys her beauty, passion, and independence, there are hints that she is flawed, given to temptations far more insidious than sexual desire.

This is not to suggest that Hawthorne’s indictment of religious fundamentalism isn’t a central part of the story, nor that he lacked sympathy with Hester. But as poisonous as Hawthorne believed Puritan fundamentalism to be, he was equally preoccupied with the rise of modern ideologies. In particular, he became a searching critic of transcendentalism, a form of philosophical and political idealism epitomized by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. These writers inherited the Enlightenment belief in the self-sufficiency of human thought as the organizing principle of society, but they couched their vision in romantic rather than neoclassical terms. Instead of extolling reason, they used words like soul, intuition, and spontaneity.

In his public statements, Hawthorne treats Emerson with deference and lightly veiled irony, but in his notebooks and fiction, the sage of Concord looms as his most significant antagonist. Emerson’s gospel of nature freed from the dead hand of human history is evident in the opening words of “Nature”: “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”

Like the early British romantics, Emerson saw nature as a truer source of wisdom than the biblical revelation that underpinned western civilization. “In the wilderness,” he wrote, “I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages.”

One of the most famous scenes in The Scarlet Letter takes place in the wilderness. Hester takes Pearl into the forest in an attempt to intercept Dimmesdale and tell him of Chillingworth’s plot to uncover him as Pearl’s father. As they set out, they move into “the mystery of the primeval forest,” which Hester feels is an apt metaphor for the “moral wilderness” in which she has wandered for years. When she and Dimmesdale spot each other, they “questioned one another’s actual and bodily existence, and even doubted their own,” looking to one another like ghosts. But as they talk, Hester overcomes Dimmesdale’s moral self-criticism and self-doubt with the single-mindedness of her passion. Having returned to the scene of their lovemaking, they warm to their subject, transforming from ghosts into embodied beings. They agree that Chillingworth’s sin is worse than theirs, because he has attempted to violate “the sanctity of the human heart,” whereas they have not. “What we did,” Hester says, “had a consecration of its own. We felt it so!”

As she makes her declaration, all nature seems to approve the choice: a flood of sunshine illuminates the forest gloom. Hester removes the scarlet letter for the first time and throws it away. Letting her hair down, she removes the last vestige of social restraint.

But just at this moment the action begins to shift. The narrator’s comment on the sunbeam contains a hook: “Such was the sympathy of Nature—that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth—with the bliss of these two spirits!” In addition to the reminder that we are in the realm of nature untouched by law or grace, Hawthorne uses the word “spirits” to refer to Hester and Dimmesdale. They are souls as well as bodies.

The next step in the conversation is also perfectly modulated. For just as Hester reveals her womanhood in all its sensuality, she immediately thinks of the fruit of their love, Pearl. Hawthorne reminds us that Pearl is herself the embodiment of their love. And it is Pearl who, for all her wildness, remains adamantine that her mother put the scarlet letter back on. Hester explains to Dimmesdale that it is merely because Pearl has never seen her without the letter, but the perceptive reader senses that something else is going on. In the previous chapter, Pearl created her own letter A out of green things, a symbol of hope that nonetheless acknowledges the “higher truth” that nature has in some mysterious fashion been marred by sin and error.

Hester has become a disciple of Emerson. What she says in the forest is what Emerson says in “Self-Reliance”: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.” Hester wants the private truth of the passion she and Dimmesdale shared to be true for all. Because the world seems to resist her, her only alternative seems to be escape.

In joining with the spirit of the emancipated intellect, Hester assumes “a freedom of speculation.” But the positive aspect of this freedom—the need to reconstitute society in a way that is more just to women—is shadowed by a darker problem. In withdrawing from society, Hester moves away from her embodied nature and becomes an abstracted intellect, ironically becoming like her estranged husband.

Emerson separated nature and grace in a way that mirrored what the Puritans had done before him. As Hawthorne makes clear, the Puritans look upon nature as not only wild and heathen but inherently evil. In denying the natural world the goodness that enables it to become the sacramental bearer of grace, the Puritans fell into the ancient gnostic heresy, which sees the created order as evil, trapping the pure spirit in matter. Alienation from nature led them to elevate industry as the highest civic virtue, paving the way for the rise of pragmatism as a powerful force in American thought and culture.

According to the critic Marion Montgomery, Emerson shared with the Puritans a type of “inverted Platonism”: the belief that the world is the shadow of the mind. Emerson, according to Montgomery, “transfers Calvinistic election from the province of God to that of Nature.” Dispensing with evil, the past, and human institutions, the Emersonian “great man” divinizes himself. But to maintain his divinity, the “great man” must abandon passive faith and engage in a constant round of activity and domination. In this sense, Melville’s Ahab is a better portrait of the Emersonian superman-gone-bad than the parasitical Chillingworth. But there can be little doubt that Hawthorne sees Chillingworth, a Faustian figure who has sold his soul to reductionistic scientism, as the kind of monster that the mild-mannered Emerson would unleash on the world.

Hawthorne sensed that the Puritans and transcendentalists split nature from grace. Did he also have an inkling that both schools of thought would feed directly into the frenetic pace of modern life, our worship of technology, our desire to manipulate the environment, our preoccupation with moralistic, ideological posturing, our temptation to idolize the great man as conqueror or redeemer?

More to the point at hand, why does Hawthorne tempt us to misinterpret his story and side with the Hester Prynne of the forest scene, the Emersonian heroine who would liberate nature from the clutches of grace? Perhaps it is because, as R.W.B. Lewis writes in The American Adam, the constant pattern of Hawthorne’s novels is one of attempted escape and the absolute necessity of return. But return does not necessarily mean capitulation, the triumph of the social order over the individual. The Scarlet Lettermakes it clear that social and ecclesiastical institutions can and will become repressive and unimaginative. What Hawthorne opposes to this is not rebellion or revolution, but art, penance, and sacrifice.

Even while Hester is dreaming about becoming the prophetess of a new social order, she is experiencing an inward change, and she is already bringing about change in her society, albeit in a quieter way. Her needlework is described in terms that suggest consummate artistry. Her “rich, voluptuous” nature becomes incarnate in handkerchiefs, collars, baby clothes. It shows up in the least likely of places: scarves worn by soldiers, the ruff of the governor himself. Domestic though this form of artistry may seem, it nonetheless becomes a pervasive influence, in daily contact with human flesh.

Then there is penance. When Hester meets Dimmesdale in the forest she tries to assuage the guilt that gnaws at his heart. She tells him that he has exorcized it through good works. But Dimmesdale points out that for all his works, nothing has changed within his soul. So long as his sin is concealed, he is unable to achieve the spirit of penitence. His death on the scaffold, after his public confession and embrace of Hester and Pearl, takes place in accord with the Puritan tradition he represents.

Hester’s way will not be so conventional. The model she decides to follow is not the single moment of conversion, so beloved of our American religious culture, but a lifetime of quiet sacrifice. By choosing to remain in the community and wear the scarlet letter, she does not merely capitulate to society; rather, she brings about change in the only way lasting change can ever be achieved: in her daily, ordinary encounters with others. She will not be self-reliant but will exist in a web of mutual interdependence. “Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence.”

In Hester’s return, her refusal to escape from the flawed community she inhabits, and her infusion of beauty into the mundane, she weaves nature and grace back into the seamless garment they were always intended to be.

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.


Gregory Wolfe is the founder and editor of Image—one of America’s leading literary journals. He also edits a literary imprint, Slant Books, through Wipf & Stock Publishers. In the fall of 2018, Wolfe will serve as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin Visiting Scholar in Catholic Studies at Loyola University, Chicago. He was the founding director of the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing program, where he continues to teach. Wolfe’s writing has appeared in numerous publications, including the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, First Things, Commonweal, and America. His books include Beauty Will Save the World, Intruding Upon the Timeless, and The Operation of Grace. Follow him on Twitter: @Gregory_Wolfe.

This essay appeared originally in Image issue 96.  It is reproduced here in its entirety by permission of its author.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville


Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Moby Dick has often been called The Great American Novel and that’s true for every wrong reason. Published in London on October 18th in 1851, Melville’s heart soared with confidence that the public would embrace his masterpiece.  This was not to be.

The version released in England had a botched ending and the reviewing critics were merciless. The book was corrected before its US release, but the reviews preceded it and the die was cast.  The reception was horrific and Melville never recovered.

Today, decades later Moby Dick is recognized as an epic masterwork, but still, very few people have actually read it.  Truthfully, that’s partly Melville’s fault.

The book is a mule choker, both long and descriptively detailed in the technicalities of nineteenth century whaling. Yes, the story is textured and timeless but the reader is often burdened with unnecessary commentary. Sure, it proves he knew what he was talking about, but it takes a real toll on the story’s momentum.

It’s a little like trying to read the Bible and getting bogged down in the Book of Numbers.

If America wasn’t ready for Moby Dick when it came out, America is less so now. Our attention spans are short and we want fast action in big screen high-definition. Moby Dick exceeds all of that in the theater of the mind, but only yields its treasure to patient lovers of lore and language.

All that said, I’m glad I read every word.

John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

Praying for Daylight

shipwreck-1854-jpglargeMOBY DICK
Herman Melville

It is not down on any map; true places never are.

On this day, February 10th in 60 AD, tradition says the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked off the coast of Malta. The exact date is disputable, but the shipwreck is not.

The Bible described it as “the fullness of time.”  For hundreds of years, God’s people were subjected to one cruel ruler after another and each seem bent to out-do their predecessor in horror.  When Jesus was born the power was mighty Rome and many had risen-up to fight back, but ultimately learned as Martin Luther King Jr. said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.

The journey of Paul at the onset of Christianity seemed to be coming to a horrific halt with the wreck of a ship, but in truth he was on the verge of a climatic adventure that would take him to an audience with Nero.  The world was enslaved by a Caesar, but God was up to something bigger.

When Jesus came into the world, the people knew they needed a Deliverer, but they didn’t understand the depth of their captivity.  Rome was only a metaphor of the storm of destruction sin was wrecking on their lives.  Like sailors in a midnight hurricane, all they could do was hang on and pray for daylight.

It was from this darkness that the voice of John the Baptist was heard as his father Zechariah prophesied in Luke’s Gospel:

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Deliverance was coming.


Acts 27:27–29

On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight.


Dig Deeper

Art: Shipwreck by Ivan Aivazovsky  (Original Title: Тонущий корабль) 1854

This painting is a testament to the artist’s skill of portraying light and dark. With nothing more than a pencil and gouache on paper, this scene illustrates the strong winds and crash of the waves with violent intensity. This intensity makes you fear for the safety of the standing observers, as if the waves threaten to dash the ship against the cliff, upon which they are standing, and throw them into the sea. Three seagulls fly over the ship, creating the slight sense that all hope is not lost, and seeming as if is not impossible to hope that the ship may not yet be lost.

Literature & Liturgy – The Shipwreck of Paul by Rick Wilcox

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.


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.