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The Shipwreck of St Paul

The Shipwreck of St Paul

Around 62 AD St Paul was on his way from Jerusalem to Rome when the Egyptian grain ship of Alexandria on which he and St Luke were passengers encountered a violent wind and a storm off the south coast of Crete.

The clouds were so heavy that the ship could not navigate by the ‘sun or stars’ and was lost at sea for a fortnight until finally it approached an island and ran aground ‘in a place between two seas’.

The ship was ’destroyed by the force of the waves’ and her entire complement of two hundred and seventy six people made it safely to shore. Here they learned that the island was called Μελίτη’ or, in English, Melita. 

This story is found in the New Testament, in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 27. St Luke, who wrote it, had a reputation for being meticulous about details, and his story is often considered the most accurate account of an ancient shipwreck ever recorded. 

But where was Melita?

There were up to four ancient contesters for this controversial island, but today the argument has resolved in favour of two, Malta and Mljet, near Dubrovnik in Croatia.

In the sixteenth century, the powerful Knights of St John moved from Rhodes to Malta and proclaimed Malta to be the Melita of St Paul. In those days, to have a famous saint on board was huge and, even today, all Bibles write that Paul was shipwrecked on Malta.

To be fair, Dubrovnik was also powerful, so a saint would have looked good in their armoury as well.

Putting aside that rivalry for a moment, I would like to take a look at three things which concern me about Acts 27. Firstly, why did Luke write this: ‘As the wind did not permit us to go further, we sailed to one side of Crete’?  

What did he mean by ‘go further’? 

Let’s take a look at the standard map of Paul’s voyage in which he is shipwrecked on Malta:

Standard map of Paul’s voyage in which he is shipwrecked on Malta.
Standard map of Paul’s voyage

Luke records their route: Sidon, the ports along the coast of Asia, the sheltered side of Cyprus, and the sea off Cilicia and Pamphylia (modern Turkey). Here, at Myra, he and Paul changed ships to a vessel carrying wheat from Alexandria that was on its way to Rome.

Luke then records this ship sailing in the sea off the coast of Cnidus. It is at this point that he writes ‘the wind did not permit us to go further’, so they sailed south past Cape Salmone at the eastern end of Crete and continued along its south coast, where the storm struck.  

This route is important because we learn from the adventures of another grain ship, the Isis, what the typical route of a Roman ship often looked like. In about 150 AD the Isis, carrying twice the number of people as Paul’s ship, also left Egypt to take its cargo of wheat to Rome. 

They set sail with a moderate wind from [Alexandria] and sighted Acamas (the western cape of Cyprus) on the seventh day. Then a west wind got up, and they were carried as far east as Sidon.

After that they came in for a heavy gale, and the tenth day brought them through the Straits to the Chelidon Isles (between Cyprus and mainland Turkey); and there they very nearly went to the bottom…[Afterwards they went] into the open sea on their left [then] they sailed on through the Aegean, bearing up against the Etesian winds, until they came to anchor in Piraeus (the port of Athens) [on] the seventieth day of the voyage.

Had [they] taken Crete on their right, they would have [avoided] Cape Maleas (southern Greece), and been at Rome by this time.   

 Works of Lucian, Vol. IV: The Ship: Or, The Wishes (sacred-texts.com)

So, in other words, in order to take advantage of the prevailing winds, the Isis wanted to do this:

Standard map of Paul’s voyage #2

But because of bad weather, it was forced to do this:                                          

Standard map of Paul’s voyage #3

I wonder why the ship from Alexandria that Paul boarded in Myra was so far off the route that the Isis had wanted to take – the route that seemed acceptable for an Egyptian grain ship on its way to Rome. 

The standard map of St Paul’s journey to Rome is not actually correct, because it was two ships, not one.

The course of his second ship that was wrecked may more properly have looked like this:

Standard map of Paul’s voyage #4

Another possibility is that it was too late in the year to sail safely, so Paul’s ship had decided to hug the coast, and this is why ‘the wind did not permit us to go further’, since they had actually intended to sail west close to the Aegean islands and not south into the open sea at all. 

The map might then have looked like this:

Standard map of Paul’s voyage #5

It seems like a long and perilous voyage just to deliver wheat to Rome but, to put it another way, the Mediterranean is littered with shipwrecks. 

Roman grain ships didn’t have banks of oars hauled by miserable, underfed slaves.

Roman Ships and Sailing – Latin – YouTube

They had a sail and a rudder and, while large numbers of them sailed safely north in summer to Cyprus  then west to Rome, in the autumn they were very much at the mercy of the dangerous north east winds.

Luke and Paul’s ship had ‘sailed slowly for a number of days and arrived with difficulty off the coast (of modern Turkey)…Much time had been lost and sailing was now dangerous because even the Fast had passed.’ This Fast was the Jewish Day of Atonement and fell late in September.  

I would like to know whether in writing ‘the wind did not permit us to go further’ Luke was implying that they had not planned to go the route the Isis had initially wanted to take, which kept first Cyprus on your right and then Crete. If so, had they planned to brave the treacherous Cape of Malea and continue along the coast until they got to the Straits of Otranto, then finally cross over to Italy?                                           

Three months after the shipwreck on Melita, Paul and Luke got a lift to Rome on yet another Alexandrian grain ship, the Castor and Pollux. This is my second question. How did it get there? 

Once you reach the Straits of Otranto between Italy and Albania, the current goes up the east coast of the Adriatic, and the first big island you hit is another ancient Melita, today called Mljet, near Dubrovnik. Remember that, without oars, if you sailed in autumn and were caught by bad weather you might find yourself trapped by the winds and currents as Luke tells us that Paul was. 

So, could the route of the Castor and Pollux have looked like this?

Route of the Castor and Pollux.

The Caster and Pollux spent the winter at Melita, wherever Melita was. We know that ships didn’t sail in winter, so had the Caster and Pollux done what the Isis had been forced to do – what St Paul’s ship may have planned to do – that is, abandon its intended route?

Had it hugged the coast, got into trouble and drifted with the current? Mljet is slightly further away from Crete than Malta, but not much, and it has a safe harbour. Or had the Caster and Pollux, having gone the summer way – Egypt, Cyprus, Crete, Italy – wintered in modern Malta and met Paul there?

My third and last point concerns these words of Luke: ‘they did not recognise the land’. 

I find that strange. I think at least one person out of the two hundred and seventy six on board should have recognized Malta because it is a port mentioned by ancient authors.

ancient maritime trade networks & intermodal hubs | Ancient Ports – Ports Antiques (ancientportsantiques.com)

Most ports are mentioned between five and ten times in ancient literature, including the ports that Paul visited: Malta (6), Sidon (6), Syracuse (over 10), Rhegium (7), Puteoli (5). Myra, where Paul and Luke joined the fatal ship, does not rate a mention because it is recorded less than five times. 

In conclusion

I don’t believe it can be proved on which island Paul and Luke were shipwrecked. 

There is another controversial story about Paul and the Maltese viper. I might leave that for another time. 

Margaret Walker

Through Forests and Mountains | Mysite (mwalkeristra.com)