Seemingly out of place among the narrative in Acts, the saga of the shipwreck on the journey to Rome stands alone in its intention. A scene by scene journey illuminates not only the characterization of the players but the purpose of its inclusion in the Acts of the Apostles as told by Luke.
The narrative begins in Luke 27:9. The ship transporting Paul along with other criminals was docked in Fair Havens near Lasea. As Fitzmyer informs, the time of the Fast as mentioned in v9 is indicative of the time of the autumnal equinox, a time in which the Mediterranean could no longer be safely navigated, a time the Romans had termed mare clausum or the closed sea (Fitzmyer 775). Luke, a fellow prisoner, observes Paul advising Julius, the centurion, his warden, not to depart during this dangerous season. Not only does Luke portray Paul as a competent advisor, but also one commanding the respect of the crew.
Paul makes the forecast that the voyage is doomed to failure, and as Praeder points out, the inclusion of a forecast in a narrative is a strong sign that the forecast will come true (Praeder 690). Unfortunately, the centurion, taking the advice of the experienced crew, overlooks Paul’s advice and pushes forward.
Upon departure, the forecast comes true. Witherington highlights the severity of the torrential wind as a tusonikos, similar to a “typhoon”, swirling clouds in ancient times that were a sign from the gods (Witherington 775). In the next few verses, Luke shows a series of steps in battling the storm that has slowly descended the crew into panic.
After days at the mercy of the wind, v20 states that the crew had lost all hope. At this moment that the narrator causes Paul to arise from silence and give words of encouragement through a prophetic vision of salvation. Fitzmyer points out that Paul has now been elevated to status of prophet (Fitzmyer 775). Witherington adds that, given the hopelessness and panic that had engulfed the crew, Paul’s ability to opportunely deliver a placating message of encouragement was the sign of a true philosopher (Witherington 772)
Land Within Reach
A change in the plot occurs when soundings revealed that the ocean bed was getting dangerously close to the ship’s underbelly. The crew quickly lowers anchors to avoid running into dangerously shallow waters. It was during this halt in v29 that the sailors attempt a panic-induced escape, abandoning the prisoners and Romans to the whim of the storm. Lenski contends that this was more than just a spur-of-the-moment escape attempt, but a scheme which required coordination available at the higher levels of leadership. No doubt the captain and the sailing master were involved (Lenski 1087). A second time, Paul intervenes. First to the centurion, he informs that none should leave the ship. Second to the entire crew, again imparting words of encouragement and even in the presence of the storm, giving thanks in the breaking of the bread. Luke continues to depict Paul as the only calm and steady force in the narrative.
The non-stop action continues as the ship runs aground on the reef. This time, it is the soldiers, not the sailors who are to be feared. The soldiers, understanding their vow to death in their position, realize any escaped prisoner was a threat to their own lives. Fitzmyer states that Roman custom was that for soldiers to be killed for the escape of even one prisoner, so better to kill them then run the risk of even one escaping to shore (Fitzmyer 780). Lenski adds that, similar to the sailors’ premeditated mutiny, the soldiers had coordinated their efforts in order to present a “resolution” to their centurion (verse 42) (Lenski 1096). The centurion chooses in favor of Paul and the prisoners. Lenski further contends that the choice to save all the prisoners was unusual. If his interest was to save Paul, he could have still satisfied the soldiers’ fear by killing the other prisoners. However, the decision to save all the prisoners indicates a complete faith in Paul’s prophecy (Lenski 1097). Ironically, he orders the prisoners along with the sailors to reach land first in order to aid with the recovery of the remaining passengers. In trusting the prisoners, his faith in Paul’s prophecy is again illustrated.
The Maltese Ministry
The crew of 276 reached the island of Malta intact; the prophecy is fulfilled. The narrator introduces us to a new set of characters, the local Maltese natives and the “leading citizen,” Publius (Acts 8:7). These set of characters seemingly form a transition in the plot. Lenski highlights how the Maltese accommodated “us all”, the 276 crew for three months (Lenski 1099), and Praeder extends the same characterization of kindness to Publius who also takes in the entire crew in a gesture of extreme hospitality (Praeder 702). Luke is drawing the narrative to a close by indicating the setting of Maltese kindness and comfort as a resolution to the turmoil of the sea that has besieged the crew for these many days. In addition, no longer does the narrator continue with the actions of the centurion, sailors, soldiers, or prisoners. These were the cast of the first scene of the storm at sea. That scene has come to a close, and so the narrator has closed their involvement in the plot. The constant in the narrative is Paul.
This new scene is not only one of kindness, but one that highlights the miracle workings of Paul in the eyes of this pagan community. Paul is not only elevated but, as Praeder stipulates, justified in the eyes of the natives through the concept of natural justice, tried by the viper’s venom, yet overcome by Paul in his miraculous healing (Praeder 1101). In contrast to the long narrative at sea which elapses over a mere two weeks, the final movements in the plot, though brief in comment, are three-months in duration. The stay on the island is hallmarked by three activities involving Paul. He receives kindness, is deified, and heals the community of many illnesses. Paul is elevated to God-like status, not only in the eyes of the natives but perhaps in the eyes of the crew and the narrator as well.
The Development of Paul
The narrator’s personal involvement in the narrative itself is a bit unpredictable. The transitions over the narrative from first-person plural pronouns to third-person plural pronouns, keeps the reader guessing as to whether the narrator was in fact on the board ship during this adventure. As Gilchrist notes, upon further study, the “we” sections of narrative are relatively large in comparison with the “they” sections. The text shows a pattern of heightened emotion in the “we” parts which further confirm that the narrator was in fact part of the journey (Gilchrist 32). Verse 18’s description of “exceedingly tempest-tossed” is a “we” passage. Verse 28’s loss of hope in salvation is a “we” passage. Verse 8:2’s comment on the degree of Maltese kindness, “the natives showed us unusual kindness” is another “we” passage. The narrator, Luke, was clearly emotionally connected with the events of this story, and the acts of Paul were a salvation to the narrator himself.
A comparison of the trajectory of the plot to the trajectory of the characterization of key characters shows a stark contrast and in a sense illuminates the purpose of this passage. The Day 1 smooth sailing is the only positive comment in the plot until the reader is brought to the island of Malta. The plot takes one step further into tragedy at every turn. However, through the entire narrative, Paul is elevated. The graph below shows this rapid ascent.
Lenski restates Ramsay’s point that Paul’s impact transitions from advice, to prophet, to savior, to one who is justified, to divine healer. (Lenski 1092) The ascension of Paul in comparison to the actions of the centurion and the crew is also of note. While the centurion slowly redeems himself from his original unbelief in Paul’s advice to not journey. The crew, both sailors and soldiers, share moments of intense panic and ethical mutiny.
The constant intervention of Paul, a prisoner, in the journey taken by this crew, shows the respect and emphasis that the narrator, Luke, has for Paul. Fitzmyer concludes that “even though he was technically a prisoner, he is still Luke’s hero. (Fitzmyer 775) This is clearly depicted throughout the narrative and serves as the final, fitting climax to a lifetime of mission that Luke had the privelege to witness and record in his book, the Acts of the Apostles.
Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Acts of the Apostles. New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 1998. Print.
Gilchrist, J M. “The Historicity of Paul’s Shipwreck.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 61 (1996): 29–51. Print.
Lenski, Richard C. H. Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles 1-14. Minneapolis, Minn.: Ediciones Sigueme, 2008. Print.
Praeder, Susan Marie. “Acts 27:1-28:16 : Sea Voyages in Ancient Literature and the Theology of Luke-Acts.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 46.4 (1984): 683–706. Print.
Witherington, Ben. The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich. : Carlisle, U.K: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997. Print.