A relatively large seagoing vessel. The Bible generally makes only incidental mention of ships, shipping, and ship’s gear, but it does afford some clues as to ships of Biblical times. Other descriptions of ancient ships are derived from historical annals of various nations or from pictorial representations of merchant ships, marine battles, and so forth.
Egyptian. Papyrus reeds, woven and lashed together, provided material for a wide variety of Egyptian boats. They ranged in size from small riverboats that could hold one or just a few hunters or fishermen, and that could be swiftly paddled along the Nile, to the large sailing vessel with upturned prow and the sturdiness to ply the open seas. The Ethiopians and the Babylonians likewise used reed vessels; Babylon also possessed a large fleet of galley ships.
A relief at Medinet Habu depicts Egyptian vessels that had a mast with a sail and a crow’s nest atop the mast. They were also powered by oars, with a large paddle at the stern for a rudder. The prow is fashioned in the figure of a lioness’ head having the body of an Asian person in its mouth.
Large ships with rectangular sails and more than 20 oars, probably having a center keel, made long journeys across the Mediterranean Sea. That ships already were plying the seas in the time of Moses is shown by Jehovah’s warning on the Plains of Moab that, if disobedient, the Israelites would be brought “back to Egypt by ships,” there to be offered on the slave market.—De 28:68.
Phoenician. In picturing the city of Tyre as a pretty ship, the prophet Ezekiel (27:3-7) gave details that evidently provide a description of a Phoenician ship. It had planks of durable juniper, a single mast of cedar from Lebanon, and oars of “massive trees” from Bashan, probably oak. The prow, likely high and curved, was made of cypress wood inlaid with ivory. The sail was of colored Egyptian linen, and the deck covering (perhaps an awning above the deck to provide shade) was of dyed wool. The ship’s seams were caulked. (Eze 27:27) The Phoenicians were skilled sailors, carrying on extensive trade in the Mediterranean area, even going as far as Tarshish (probably Spain). It is believed by some that in time the term “Tarshish ships,” or “ships of Tarshish,” came to signify the type of ship used by the Phoenicians in trading with that distant point, that is, a seaworthy vessel able to make a long voyage. (1Ki 22:48; Ps 48:7; Isa 2:16; Eze 27:25) Possibly Jonah fled on a ship of this type. It had a deck, allowing space in the hold for cargo and passengers.—Jon 1:3, 5.
One of Sennacherib’s sculptures portrays a Phoenician ship with a superstructure deck, a double bank of oars, a sail, and a screen around the upper deck on which shields were hung. The prow of this fighting ship was long and pointed.
Hebrew Ships. When settled in the Promised Land, Dan was spoken of as dwelling for a time in ships (Jg 5:17), possibly referring to its assigned territory by the Philistine coast. (Jos 19:40, 41, 46) The territory of Asher was along the seacoast and included the cities of Tyre and Sidon (though there is no evidence that these cities were ever taken by Asher). The tribes of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Judah had territory along the Mediterranean Coast, so that they, too, were quite familiar with ships. (Jos 15:1, 4; 16:8; 17:7, 10) Manasseh, Issachar, and Naphtali also held land on or near the Sea of Galilee.
While Israel had apparently used boats from early times, Solomon was evidently the first ruler in Israel to put emphasis on commercial shipping. With the help of Hiram, he built a fleet of cargo ships that sailed from Ezion-geber to Ophir. (1Ki 9:26-28; 10:22; 2Ch 8:17, 18; 9:21) These vessels were jointly manned by Israelites and experienced seamen from Tyre. Every three years the ships would come in with cargoes of gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.—1Ki 9:27; 10:22.
King Jehoshaphat of Judah later entered into partnership with wicked King Ahaziah of Israel in building ships at Ezion-geber to send to Ophir for gold; but Jehovah warned him of His disapproval of the alliance. Accordingly, the ships were wrecked at Ezion-geber, and Jehoshaphat apparently rejected a request by Ahaziah to give the project a second try.—1Ki 22:48, 49; 2Ch 20:36, 37.
During the First Century C.E. In the first century C.E., numerous merchant ships of various types plied the waters of the Mediterranean. Some of them were coastal vessels, such as the boat from Adramyttium in which Paul, as a prisoner, sailed from Caesarea to Myra. (Ac 21:1-6; 27:2-5) However, the merchant ship that Paul boarded at Myra was a large ship carrying a cargo of wheat and a crew and passengers totaling 276 persons. (Ac 27:37, 38) Josephus reports that he once sailed on a ship carrying 600.—The Life, 15 (3).
Paul had done much traveling in ships; he had experienced three shipwrecks prior to this journey. (2Co 11:25) The one he was on this time was a sailing ship that had a mainsail and foresail and was steered by two large oars located in the stern. Such ships often had a figurehead representing certain gods or goddesses. (The ship that Paul boarded afterward had the figurehead “Sons of Zeus.”) (Ac 28:11) A small boat, or skiff, was pulled behind the ship. It was used to get to shore when the ship was anchored near a coast. To prevent its being swamped or crushed, the skiff was hauled up during storms. In this voyage of Paul’s, the violence of the storm that arose caused the sailors to undergird the ship (this was apparently the passing of ropes or chains under the hull from one side to the other to hold the ship together), lower the gear (evidently the rigging), dump the cargo of wheat overboard, throw away the tackling, and lash up the rudder oars (to prevent their being damaged).—Ac 27:6-19, 40.
The Sea of Galilee. The Gospels frequently mention the presence of boats on the Sea of Galilee. Evidently these were mainly used for fishing with nets (Mt 4:18-22; Lu 5:2; Joh 21:2-6), though fishing with hooks was also done. (Mt 17:27) Jesus sometimes used a boat as a convenient spot from which to preach to crowds on the nearby shore (Mt 13:2; Lu 5:3), and he and his apostles used them often for transportation. (Mt 9:1; 15:39; Mr 5:21) Such a boat was powered by oars or a small sail. (Mr 6:48; Lu 8:22) Though the Bible does not describe these fishing boats, some of them were large enough to accommodate 13 persons or more.—Mr 8:10; Joh 21:2, 3; see GALLEY; MARINER.
Anchors. The first anchors, as far as is known, were of stone and were let down from the bow of the ship. Later wooden anchors of hook form, weighted with stone or metal, were used in the Mediterranean. Some had lead arms. A specimen discovered near Cyrene weighs about 545 kg (1,200 lb). Eventually, anchors made entirely of metal were used, some were of the familiar form and others were double fluked. The sailors of the ship in which Paul was sailing cast out four anchors from the boat’s stern (the practice sometimes followed when riding out a gale). (Ac 27:29, 30, 40) A sounding lead was used to determine the depth of the water.—Ac 27:28.
The apostle Paul uses the term “anchor” figuratively when he speaks to his spiritual brothers in Christ, calling the hope set before them “an anchor for the soul.”—Heb 6:19; compare Eph 4:13, 14; Jas 1:6-8.