“Your Word Is Truth”
Paul’s Voyage to Rome
THE Christian apostle Paul had been held prisoner two years in the seaport city of Caesarea. Now, at his own request, he was being taken to Rome to appear before Caesar. Paul and other prisoners were in the charge of an army officer named Julius. Luke, who recorded the account of the voyage, accompanied Paul.a
Boarding a boat, they proceeded north along the coast. The next day they landed at Sidon. Putting out to sea again, the boat sailed past the northeastern tip of the island of Cyprus, and then along the Asia Minor coasts of Cilicia and Pamphylia. Progress was slower here, but finally the busy port of Myra was reached. At Myra, Julius was able to secure passage for his party on another boat. It apparently belonged to the grain fleet that regularly traveled between Alexandria, Egypt, and Rome.
From Myra, hugging the coastline of Asia Minor, the large boat slowly worked its way along against the wind. Thus it took “quite a number of days” to get from Myra to Cnidus, a coastal city north of the island of Rhodes. From Cnidus the boat would have to face the open sea if the decision was to travel west past the southern tip of Greece and on to Rome. But apparently strong winds dictated against such a decision. Instead the boat ran south toward the island of Crete.
Reaching Salmone on the east coast off Crete, the boat worked its way around the island to Fair Havens. Because of the delays due to the wind, “atonement day had already passed by.” This meant that it was probably October by now. Further navigation at this time of the year would be hazardous. But because the harbor of Fair Havens was inconvenient for wintering, the decision was made to try to reach Phoenix, another harbor some forty miles farther along the Cretan coast.
Storm and Shipwreck
The crew’s confidence in this decision increased when a gentle south wind sprang up. But then a furious east-northeast wind suddenly burst upon the boat, seizing it and driving it along! The shelter of the small island of Cauda offered the briefest respite from the gale. During it the skiff being towed behind was quickly hauled aboard, and available ropes and cables were used to undergird the boat to keep it from splitting apart.
What terrorized the crew was that the gale was blowing them toward the Syrtis quicksands on the coast of Libya, North Africa. The crew worked furiously to turn the boat and hence avoid shipwreck. The boat was also lightened by throwing cargo overboard. Seaman Edwin Smith commented concerning this critical part of the voyage in the March 1947 issue of The Rudder:
“In this instance they would lay the ship to on the starboard tack, that is, with the right-hand side facing the wind. She would thus be pointing about north, or away from the African coast and the Syrtis; and any headway she might make while hove-to would be carrying her on her course towards Italy, while her broadside motion (drift) would be, generally speaking, to the westward.
“On the following day when the gale continued unabated they lightened the ship. Every step hitherto taken indicates skillful seamanship, and so here, for all works on seamanship recommend this as one. of the things which should be done.” The measures taken turned the boat on a westerly course, avoiding shipwreck on the dangerous African coast.
Neither sun nor stars appeared for many days as the boat was driven along westward. Hope for survival was all but abandoned. But, then, at midnight on the fourteenth day after leaving Crete, some of the crew began to suspect that they were drawing near to land. Depth soundings confirmed this. The four anchors were thrown out, and the boat slowly stopped.
Finally dawn came. The crew cut away the anchors, unlashed the steering oars, hoisted the foresail and headed for the beach. But the ship ran aground and began to break up in the thundering surf. At the command of Julius, all jumped into the sea and made it safely to land, some swimming and others clinging to anything available from the ship.
The island was identified as Malta. Here they wintered, and when it became safe in the spring for travel, they continued the voyage on another Alexandrian boat. In time, the boat passed by the southeastern point of Sicily, putting in at Syracuse for three days. It then proceeded on to Rhegium on the “toe” of Italy, and from there made it to Puteoli. Here the party disembarked and completed the last lap of the journey overland to Rome.
A Reliable Account
This Bible account underlines the limitations imposed on ships in the first century—their need to find safe harbors, to use natural advantages offered by coastlines, and to avoid the open sea at certain times of the year. The sails, anchors, steering oars, and the skiff towed at the stern all agree with the descriptions of boats of the time. The undergirding and the lightening of the boat were methods resorted to in just such circumstances.
Reference to the grain boat from Alexandria agrees with the situation in the Roman world at the time. There was such a fleet in the Imperial service then, and an army officer became senior in command, as the Bible account shows.
The account vividly highlights the problems of a ship in working to windward, and the type of wind prevailing at the time of year in that part of the world. With a leading westerly wind, the some seventy miles from Caesarea to Sidon took about a day, but with a favorable south wind a fast passage of about a day was possible from Rhegium to Puteoli, a distance of about 200 miles.
Also, the accuracy of the boat’s course toward the Syrtis sandbanks occasioned by the wind blowing off the mountains of Crete is noteworthy. The subsequent alteration of course possible in such a wind could bring the boat precisely to Malta.
Seaman Edwin Smith was moved to conclude his comments on the voyage: “We have seen in our examination that every statement as to the movements of this ship, from the time when she left Fair Havens until she was beached at Malta, as set forth by St. Luke has been verified by external and independent evidence of the most exact and satisfying nature . . . All of which goes to show that Luke actually made the voyage as described, and has moreover shown himself to be a man whose observations and statements may be taken as reliable and trustworthy in the highest degree.”
Invariably it is the case that the more closely Bible accounts are examined, the greater becomes one’s appreciation of their reliability and trustworthiness. The account of Paul’s voyage to Rome is just another example of the Bible’s accuracy.