The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping.
But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land.
The rest were to get there on planks or on pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land in safety.
Note 108: Planned to kill the Prisoners
Would Roman soldiers really just kill prisoners? You bet they would. Remember we are talking about a culture that had slaves, ruled the Mediterranean world with an iron fist, and invented Gladiatorial games. After the revolt lead by Spartacus they crucified approximately 6,000 prisoners along the road leading into Rome. They crucified Jesus and would later burned Jerusalem. We also know the Roman army used severe discipline on it’s own troops. The word decimate is derived from the Roman practice of beating to death every tenth man in a legion who showed cowardice on the battlefield. We know from other historical documents, the price paid by any soldiers who allowed a prisoner under their care to escape was death or he was forced to take the place of the escaped prisoner. If you were in their place would you plan to kill the prisoners? I know I would have killed them had I been a Roman soldier.
Note 109: The Centurion
The real question is did the centurion stop the troops and why? Luke states he stopped them and immediately (reading like it was almost in the same breath) gave the soldiers the order to abandon ship. Luke further states that the REASON the Centurion stopped the soldiers was he wanted to spare Paul’s life.
Note 110: Why?
This action begs the question…Why did the centurion want to spare Paul’s life?
The best answer is simply; I don’t know?
- Maybe he just wanted to deliver Paul to Caesar.
- Maybe it was the fact they had spent 14 days together and he wanted to spare everyone. Maybe he thought Paul was special or that Paul’s God really was about to deliver them all.
- Maybe Julius had seen or heard the angel Paul said had visited him.
- Maybe God just made him change his mind so he would save them.
- Maybe he just liked Paul,
I just don’t know, but apparently there was some reason why he spared Paul along with all the other prisoners. I am certain Luke reported the facts as they occurred.
Note 111: New Orders
Next the centurion gave the following order: He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land He ordered those who could not swim to get on planks or on pieces of the ship.
As I read this text, the soldiers plan to kill the prisoners was replaced with a plan for an orderly abandoning of the ship. This Centurion order would accomplish several objectives. It is obvious it stopped the killing of Paul. It also stopped the killing of the other prisoners. It gave each group of soldiers what they needed to survive. The sequence put guards in front and on the beach first. They could help the other soldiers and even prisoners get out of the water once these groups arrived. It put guards on the beach when prisoners arrived. It also may have put a group of guards behind the prisoners. We are not told the specifics for the entire maneuver, but it could have surrounded a group of prisoners with two groups of guards. I believe Julius would have stayed on board until all the soldiers were in the water or maybe even ashore. Luke tells us that Julius, the Centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and this plan would accomplish that.
Note 112: Promise
Next the text states “In this way everyone reached land in safety.”
The owner’s ship was destroyed, but he was safe to return home. The crew managed to steer this ship close enough to shore so they abandoned ship and were saved with the 276 souls. The centurion, Julius managed to get his men safely on shore along with all the prisoners. He had spared Paul’s life. Luke lived to write his eyewitness account. Paul would stand trial before Caesar and write his letters from prison. Everything about this story is consistent with other nautical and historical data from other shipwrecks and voyages throughout the centuries. So everything is in its proper place.
I have to think back to the time when Paul stood up and repeated what God had told him through an angel ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you. So keep up your courage men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me.
It appears that everything turned out just as Paul told them his God promised it would.
But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.
Note 101: Well here we are.
We have reached the critical event of the wrecking process – the impact. This is the most important passage in the entire shipwreck account of Acts 27. Not only does verse 41, describe what happens to this ship, but also and more importantly, it tells exactly HOW the ship came apart.
From the beginning of this project, I have written my analysis of Acts 27 from the perspective of a shipwreck researcher, searching for evidence of the disaster. Luke gives a precise description of how this ship died.
Note 102: …BUT
Verse 41 is just a continuation of the previous verse. They had made a plan, made all the necessary preparations, cut the anchors and restored steering, raised the sail. They are underway and making for the beach. Then there is the infamous word…BUT. Have you ever noticed there always seems to be a BUT? It seems just when things were looking good you hit a snag, or a sandbar, or a reef or something. So let’s examine the text to find out what they actually hit?
Note 103: Where two seas met
The King James Version states events this way. “And falling into a place where two seas met, they ran the ship aground”(KJV). The New American Standard states it this way: “But striking a reef where two seas met, they ran the vessel aground;”
The term, ‘where two seas met’ is generally thought to mean a place where two currents or wave patterns come together. It could mean a place where water flows from one place and runs into water coming from another direction. There are several other theories that I will skip here because this phase could mean many things. This part of the passage is describing something these people could actually see, yet this phrase is not the focus of the event, nor the most critical description of the grounding. The most critical description is the next part of the translated phrases which states “They ran the ship aground (KJV) or the “ship…ran aground”
Note 104: The ship runs aground
I do not believe the text describes something they intentionally did when it says ‘they ran the ship aground’ as stated in the KJV. The structure of the sentence is not consistent with the theory of intentional grounding. Where this ship hits the bottom is not the spot they were aiming for. We know this because the text says they were aiming for a beach. Second, when these two verses are combined into a single sentence they read like this: “Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach, BUT…(emphasis added)” If this were the beach they where they meant to run the ship aground, then Luke would not have used the word “but”. Running aground, at that moment, at that spot was not the plan. It was what happened, but it was not where they wanted to end up because now they abandon ship and swim for their lives. The location of this grounding sounds like an unfortunate accident instead of a deliberate act by the crew.
Note 104: Was it a reef?
Striking a reef. The varying translations of this text throw us a little curve when some translators say they struck a ‘reef’. We must decide which type of obstacle stopped the ship. Though it may seem like a minor detail, determining whether the ship struck a sandbar or a reef is critical in the quest to find this shipwreck because each of these obstacles produces dramatically different results when struck by a wooden vessel.
A reef is hard, very hard, they are most often thought of as a coral reef consisting of the hard limestone left by coral colonies. It can also describe a large underwater rock formation, which Malta has an abundance of. This rock type ‘reef’ would also be consistent with the ‘two seas’ comment as well. It is quite possible for the bow of a wooden ship to hit and become stuck fast in a reef. This obstacle could be consistent with the narrative. However, it is highly unlikely that any ship stuck on a rock reef would break apart as described here by Luke. Any wooden ship stuck in rocks by the bow, would have been torn apart AT the bow, where the softer wood and the hard rocks meet.
Note 105: Was it a sandbar?
In a high energy surf zone, it is common for the bottom sand to become loosened by the action of the water so it turns into a thick soupy mixture. When the bow of a ship hits this loosened sand, it creates a pressure wave that then compresses the sand around the hull of that ship. This compression creates a suction action against the hull and causes that bow to get stuck and held immovable in the sand. The wave action would have little effect on the stuck bow, which is buried, however, the effect on the stern would be an entirely different matter. Since the bow is held fast in the cement like grip of the sand, the entire length of the ship then acts as a gigantic lever working to tear itself apart. In this case, the pressure from pounding waves tears the stern away from the bow. Other wooden ships have been destroyed in exactly this manner and the description of those ships would read exactly like Luke provides in this narrative. I am convinced this ship became stuck in sand and the leverage exerted on the stern by the surf tore the stern away from the bow.
Note 106: Luke’s Narrative
Luke’s account perfectly describes a ship becoming stuck in a sandbar as opposed to a rock reef. The narrative further details that the bow of his ship remained stuck on, or rather ‘in’ the sand bottom. In fact, the bow was stuck so firmly that the winds of ‘hurricane force’ plus the ‘pounding surf’ could not dislodge it from the sand. Even the leverage applied against the bow by the stern being torn away could not pull the bow free from the grip of the sand. The physics described in Luke’s narrative about this shipwreck is consistent with how other ships have become stuck in sand bottoms over the years. The difference in his case is that the pounding of wind and waves actually ripped this ship apart. The crucial element of Luke’s narrative is the guidance it gives us about whether the entire ship was destroyed or there were portions of the ship that were not destroyed that morning. Luke provides a precise description about how his ship was torn apart. Given Luke’s description of where the vessel actually separated, it is clear that the bow was embedded in the sand and was there to stay.
Note 107: My Conclusion
I have concluded that a portion of this vessel was indeed left behind that day and might still be below the sand and grass of a bay in Malta to this day.
Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach.
In verse 39, the crew saw the spot where they would attempt to ground the ship. Notice how the wording of Luke’s dialog changes here. It is short, quick and to the point. It projects the rapid actions and urgency of the crew as they take the necessary actions to get the ship to the beach.
Note 96: Cutting loose the anchors
The very first action the crew undertook was to cut all the anchor ropes. Notice they cut them and did not pull them up, which is exactly what any crew would do. If they are successful in grounding the ship, they won’t need the anchors anymore. If they are unsuccessful in grounding the ship, then they won’t need the anchors either. This is a time critical event, so the faster they could get the bow around the better their chances. So, they cut those babies loose. Again, Luke’s version of events is logical and historically accurate.
Note 97: left them in the sea
Notice the short, quick phrasing describing the actions. The actions described were being done with urgency. The phrase “they left them in the sea” is music to a shipwreck hunters ears. As a result of leaving the anchors we now know, off the coast of Malta, in less than 90 feet of water, this ship left four anchors. In modern times, quite a few Roman anchor stocks have been recovered from the waters off Malta. In fact, the largest Roman era anchor stock ever recovered in the Mediterranean, was brought up in Malta. Another Roman anchor stock was found by diver, Mark Gatt from Malta. It was found and recovered with the names of two Egyptian gods of ISIS and SARAPIS still visible on them. (check the map section for a photograph of this anchor)
Note 98: untied the ropes that held the rudders
Notice in the narrative, where Luke says “and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders.” This phrase indicates this action was done as they were cutting the anchors. This is a logical move and actually vital to the success of the intended maneuver. The anchors were controlling the ships movements, or rather it’s lack of movement, but as the anchors were cut loose they no longer held the ship and therefore the crew would need a way to steer the ship. On a personal note, we often dive in the dark rivers of South Carolina, searching for fossils and artifacts. The current is very swift and can change while divers are submerged. If a diver surfaces and can’t reach the boat the captain must go get them. The procedures we use is to first start the motor, then untie the anchor. Likewise in this situation, the crew must be able to control the vessel once it becomes free. The act of securing the oars on deck was a procedure necessary under the circumstances of the voyage, as the oars would likely have been destroyed by the violence of the storm. We are not told when the crew actually tied up the steering oars (they were not actually rudders, but long oars near the stern), but we know they untied them as they cut the anchors.
Note 99: the foresail
The verse describes for us what they did next, “Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind” The foresail (the artemon) here is a smaller sail in front of the mainmast closer to the bow of the ship. In the earliest days, the function of this foresail is thought to be primarily an aid to steering, and not providing power for sailing. The context here would seem to agree with that functionality. The foresail would not only help provide control, but would also provide some extra speed that might help in pushing the ship farther onto the beach, if they made it that far. It seems clear that the foresail is important to the over all mission of grounding the ship, whether by steering control or providing extra speed.
Note 100: committed
I love the entire phrase and the tenseness it injects into the narrative. But my favorite part of the entire text is the last four words. After fourteen days at sea, almost no food, rain, wind, cold, seasickness, they put a plan in motion and then they “made for the beach.” I know I sound like a movie critic, but this gives me the impression that they were all of one mind at this point – They were determined, anxious, desperate, and holding on with white knuckles. I can visualize how everyone on board must have been leaning forward in grim determination to reach that beach. All eyes were focused on the common goal. At this point, there was no rich or poor, slave or free, soldier or prisoner, only desperate individuals moving with a single purpose – to be saved. Right or wrong, the moment for action was here. Live or die they had passed the point of no return. They were committed.
I love shipwreck stories!
When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could.
Note 91: Daylight
Now that it was daylight, all eyes were scanning the island for a way to land safely. These people had to be getting more tense with each passing moment. At least now the darkness is gone and they could see. Isn’t it amazing how things seem to get better once you shed some light on them.
Note 92: Why didn’t they recognize Malta?
This verse also reveals to us “They did not recognize the land”. This comment has always been a major talking point for critics who do not believe the story ever happened or who do not believe the location was Malta. First, the critics point out that Malta is very close to Italy and it was on the trade route from Egypt, so the crew should have known where they were. Second, Malta had several busy ports in the first century, just as it does today. Given these facts, the critics assume that these sailors should certainly recognize Malta if indeed that is where the ship was actually anchored. I disagree with that idea. If you have ever approached a coast at dawn or are awakened from sleep and suddenly find yourself close to shore, most people would not recognize where they are. This is true even if they have actually been close to that section of coast before. The ship of Acts 27 was not about to enter a busy port and it is highly unlikely they were even near a known harbor. So, at early dawn in this verse these people found themselves off the coast of some rocky shore. In my experience it would have been far more unbelievable if the narrative had said …and when daylight came they knew exactly where they were.
Note 93: A Bay or a Creek?
The verse now says “(NIV) but they saw a bay with a sandy beach,”
However, the King James Version says it this way “but they discovered a certain creek with a shore,” (KJV). The different versions translate the Greek as either creek or bay, and either sandy beach or shore. The actual Greek word used by Luke may have had more meaning in the first century than we know today. However, I am of the opinion that this passage is more accurately describing a bay or a gulf. I have seen very few ‘creeks’ in Malta, but there are a number of small bays and inlets that could fit the description. Regardless of the exact meaning, the passage is clear in one respect, there was some break in the shoreline that led them away from the open sea and in toward the island, they could tell the area they saw before them offered a better chance of survival.
Note 94: A Sandy Beach or a Shore
The narrative describes a ‘location’ that attracted their attention, either translated as a sandy beach or as a shore. Don’t think of this term ‘beach’ like a beach we see along the Florida coast. The island of Malta is a large rock in the middle of the Mediterranean sea; sandy beaches are few, small and not really very sandy. However, Luke’s narrative does point out that the crew did see some feature on the shore that the crew determined was an attractive location for them to try to run the ship aground at that particular spot. Believe me, most of the shoreline on Malta is obviously not suitable for trying to land a ship. There are actually are very few landing spots that even appear to be survivable.
Note 95: if they could?
The verse goes on to say that the sandy beach/ shore, they spotted would be “where they decided to run the ship aground if they could.” I love the last part of the phrase where they say they would run it aground ‘if they could’. On the face of the statement, they are trying to ground a ship – just how hard can that be? How hard would it be to intentionally wreck your car? Maybe it is harder than we imagine. The passage actually refers to the act of steering the ship to a particular place, which means maneuvering it into the exact position, and then getting the keel of the ship to clear any bottom obstacles to get it up onto dry land. The owner wanted to save the ship therefore running it aground was his only choice. The crew wanted to get the ship in as close as possible to dry land, to save themselves. The passengers didn’t care how they got off – they just wanted off that ship and the sooner the better. However, the fate of everyone on board was tied to how far they could drive that ship onto a dry beach. The phrase used here was a comment about the difficulty of steering the ship to the small target beach across a rough bay. The crew would have to first turn the bow of this large ship to the port (left) side. Next they must steer the ship through the choppy waves and cross currents of the bay. They would also be required to gain as much speed as possible in order to actually push the ship onto the intended beach. They would be required to take all these critical actions and accomplish them with precise timing, in order land safely on the selected beach… if they could !
Altogether there were 276 of us on board.
When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.
Note 88: 276 Souls
When I discussed verse 27:30, I made a comment about the nautical tradition of calling people on board a ship “souls.” This tradition comes from our English background. The King James version of 27:37 reads “And we were in all in the ship two hundred threescore and sixteen souls.”
Note 89: So just how big was this ship?
The placement of verse 37 has always seemed to me to be a very strange location in the text. It just really seems to be randomly inserted. I don’t now why Luke places it here rather than verse 1, or 6, or 44 or at any other point in his narrative. But Luke places it here. To me it just seems a little out of place in verse 37 and, for someone reading the bible for perhaps the first time, this verse may seem completely unimportant and not necessary in the text at all. However, from a shipwreck narrative perspective, verse 37 provides critical information. This ship was a grain carrier of the Alexandrian trade, a supertanker, and the larger it was the more special its design had to be. The emphasis of this ships design was on the cargo of grain, not passengers. It was the cargo that paid for the ship, the expenses of travel and of course any profit. The ship architects probably didn’t care about passengers, yet here we are told that, in addition to its grain cargo, it also carried 276 people. It is much more difficult to design a ship to accommodate people as opposed to accommodating grain and grain doesn’t complain. A passenger count of 276 was a huge number of people especially when it was in addition to a cargo of grain; thus, the ship had to be quite large in order to accommodate all that it was carrying. The USS Constitution, a ship that measured 175 ft (53 m) long and 43 ft 6 in (13.26 m) wide and about 45 feet from deck to Keel, carried nearly 500 people but absolutely no cargo other than necessary supplies. It is interesting to note that the USS Constitution used nearly 60 acres of trees to build and had copper spikes and copper sheathing. We can only speculate how big the Acts ship was, but to carry all the grain and 276 people it had to be very large. With this in mind, this shipwreck hunter is very happy that Luke decided to include the passenger count in his narrative.
Note 90: They threw cargo overboard.
In verse 38 Luke informs us that the people on the ship ate “as much as they wanted” and then began throwing the remaining grain overboard. Throwing cargo overboard to lighten a ship is a common practice during perilous times. In fact, lightening the load was perhaps the only way to ensure that the most people survived and that the ship made it as close to shore as possible (since the closer the ship could get to dry land the more people would survive). It is unclear if they dumped ALL the grain overboard or, if not all, exactly what percentage got tossed. Nonetheless, lightening the cargo load of a ship is very common when an ordeal such as this begins.
Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food-you haven’t eaten anything.
Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.”
After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat.
They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves.
Note 82: Paul speaks one last time
Just before dawn, probably more dark than light, and still not light enough to start making the life critical decisions needed to prepare themselves for whatever lies ahead, Paul speaks one last time. Regardless of your personal religious beliefs, it must be noted that Paul once again gives these people great survival advice, which is critical in their situation. The encouragement he provides and example he sets are in the best tradition of compassion and leadership, especially in a nautical crisis.
Note 83: Paul points out the problem
The first thing Paul does is state the challenges they face, which will set the stage for the advice he is about to provide. He reminds them of three important facts:
First, he reminds them how long they have been in peril: “For the last fourteen days.” Second, he emphases the intensity of the stress they have been subjected to: “you have been in constant suspense…” I’m sure everyone who is reading this has been under stress due to something during their lifetime. Do you remember how draining that suspense or stress was on you physically and mentally? Stress is terrible and it can be a killer. Here he tells them the stress they have thus far endured has been constant. They have had no relief. Third, Paul states the most important fact under these circumstances when he says, “you have gone without food – you haven’t eaten anything.” Today, medical science can scientifically tell us why not eating causes a person to get sick, be weakened, and not perform to their very best. In a survival situation, lack of food and the resulting loss of energy and alertness can be a death sentence. Even if we didn’t know the scientific reasons why, we would still know that we need to eat to keep up our strength. Keep in mind that eating now will not only help them survive the wreck, but may help them to survive once they make it to shore. This may be the only food they will get for days to come, even once they are safe on land.
Where ever they end up, feeding nearly 300 extra people will be a substantial task for the local native population.
Note 84: Paul urges them to take action
Paul tells them what to do about this situation: “Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” It is important to note here that these people have been on a violently tossing boat in terrible seas for two weeks and that most, if not all of them have been seasick the whole time. They almost certainly haven’t wanted to eat and probably do not feel like eating right now.. I also find it interesting that here he tells them, “You will need it to survive.” Earlier, Paul told them an angel had told him that God had graciously granted him all their lives. Now they need to eat in order to survive? Is this a contradiction? I don’t think so.
Personal Note 85: Follow the plan
Let me illustrate with a couple of examples. The first is a personal one. When I was a SCUBA instructor, I taught a couple of hundred people how to dive and dive safely. I always told my students that the sport of diving was safe and that once they completed my course they would be safe divers. I genuinely believed then, and still do today, that this was factual. However, it was always understood by those students that they MUST listen to what I said, do what I told them to do, and do it the way I told them to do it. Even if I didn’t say all those words, they were implied in my promise to them that they would be safe. When I taught diving I could teach anybody to dive safely, but they had to follow through and then DO what they were taught.
Back in verse 23, 24, Paul told everyone on the ship that God promised Paul everyone would be saved….but he never said they would have no responsibility or task they would have to perform. His promise placed on each individual the responsibility to do what they needed to do to be saved.
Need another example? If the authorities tell you there is a hurricane coming and you need to evacuate your home to save your life then you need to leave, and leave immediately. Remember Katrina! Hundreds died. Why? They died for the most part, because they wanted to do things their way. This is not an editorial comment, just a fact. You always have some responsibility to save yourself. So why would that rule be any different if it is a promise from God?
Note 86: Leadership
After telling them what they need to do to be saved, Paul then leads the way by following his own advice. Paul took some bread, then gave thanks to God in front of them all. Aside from the obvious need for a follower of Christ to pray and give thanks, the prayer was also an important act that needed to be done in front of non-believing pagans. The prayer reminded them that Paul had said this was all controlled not by the ship owner, captain, crew, centurion, soldiers or even luck, but by the God that Paul served and to whom he belonged. Next, Paul simply took the bread, broke it, and began to eat it.
Note 87: I love it when a plan comes together
And Luke tells us in Acts 27:36, “They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves.”
Then Paul said to the Centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.”
So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it fall away.
Note 80: Paul speaks again
Once again Luke quotes Paul directly. This time, he is addressing the Centurion and the soldiers. It would not be normal for the soldiers to act without orders from the Centurion but it is apparent that they hear Paul’s comments at this point. I will condense Paul’s statement; “Unless….you cannot be saved.” It appears that once they learn of the crew’s plan, the soldiers waste no time in taking action. These passages are written in a way that appears to imply they moved quickly and without delay. Understandably so, based on Paul’s description of the consequences of the crew’s actions to the soldiers: “…YOU cannot be saved.”
Note 81: Soldiers take the necessary action
Paul does not say why or from where he gets the information about the consequences of the sailors’ intended actions, but it is interesting to note that the soldiers seem to react based solely on Paul’s statements. Maybe they react because Paul has earned some credibility with the soldiers based on his previous statements and their eventual validation. Maybe they simply acted as you or I would have. Their reaction seems logical enough to me. Ask yourself the following question: If you were on a ship, in a storm, for 14 solid days and nights, and the ship is now likely going to smash into the rocks, would YOU let the crew, off the ship? Not me and certainly not these soldiers. Their reaction may have been due to the combination of Paul’s track record and plain logic. At any rate, Paul probably gains more credibility with Julius and the soldiers by pointing out what the crew is about to do.