Map showing Paul’s voyage and shipwreck
Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson July 31–August 6: Acts 22–28.
We read in Acts chapters 27-28 of Paul’s perilous voyage and shipwreck in the Mediterranean. Acts 27:1-2 tells us, “And when it was determined that we [see below*] should sail into Italy, they delivered Paul and certain other prisoners unto one named Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band. And entering into a ship of [or from] Adramyttium, we launched, meaning to sail by the coasts of Asia; one Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, being with us.”
*The Bible Dictionary states that Luke, “…was also the writer of the third Gospel and of the Acts. In all passages in the latter book in which the first person plural [we] is used (Acts 16:10), we can assume that Luke was Paul’s fellow-traveler.”1
The Pulpit Commentary states of the “Augustus’ band” in verse 1, “This σπεῖρα Σεβαστή, cohors Augusta, was probably one of the five cohorts stationed at Caesarea, consisting of auxiliary troops…” Of verse 2 it states, “…Adramyttium (now Adra-myti, where ships are still built), on the north-western coast of Asia Minor [modern Turkey], south of Troas [by the Bosporus Strait]…describing the ship as a coasting-vessel, trading between Adramyttium and other ports on the coast of Asia. She was now on her homeward voyage.”2 Therefore, the ship was not bound for Italy and the passengers would have to trade ships, which occurred in Myra. Luke states in Acts 27: 5-6, “And when we had sailed over the sea of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we came to Myra, a city of Lycia. And there the centurion found a ship of [from] Alexandria sailing into Italy; and he put us therein.”
The Bible Dictionary says of Aristarchus of Macedonia (Acts 27:2): “A native of Thessalonica and a devoted fellow-laborer of Paul (Acts 19:29; 20:4; 27:2); with him in prison (Col. 4:10; Philem. 1:24).”3
There were no strictly passenger ships at this point in history, so the “ship of Alexandria” must have been an extremely large grain ship, as it could carry 276 passengers (Acts 27:37). We may conclude that this was a grain ship because we are told in verse 38 that they “…lightened the ship, and cast out the wheat into the sea.” The wheat was probably packed in large ceramic vessels, which the crew, and apparently the passengers, jettisoned to lighten the ship when its sinking seemed inevitable.
The Mediterranean Sea was a chaotic place for first-century mariners. Vedran Bileta, a doctoral researcher in Ancient History, especially late Roman history, in Budapest, has stated, “Sailors had to deal with fickle Mediterranean winds, unpredictable storms, fierce waves, and shifting tides. Yet, despite the dangers of sea travel and its seasonal limitations, sailing was the preferred way to travel. The Mediterranean had a vital role for the ancient Romans, allowing fast and efficient communication between all parts of the vast Empire. Ships could transport anyone to their destination quickly, in relative comfort. In ideal conditions, a voyage by sea from Rome to Alexandria would last less than a month, whereas traveling strictly by road could take almost half a year…One such route, leading from Alexandria to Ostia [Italy], was of utmost importance for the Empire since it carried an uninterrupted supply of grain, feeding Rome’s growing populace… However, sea lanes were partly restricted by seasons. In antiquity, the high point of the sailing season was from May to October. The winter months hindered coastal navigation due to reduced visibility and hours of daylight. The open-water lanes remained open for navigation, but crossing deep waters in a ship with a shallow bottom carried a risk.”4
Luke says in Acts 27:12 that they planned to overwinter in the Cretan harbor of Phoenix: “And because the haven was not commodious to winter in, the more part advised to depart thence also, if by any means they might attain to Phenice [misspelled in the King James Bible; only 45 miles away], and there to winter; which is an haven of Crete, and lieth toward the south west and north west.”
However, the sailing ships of the time were at the mercy of the winds, and we are told in verse 14 that, “But not long after there arose against it a tempestuous wind, called Euroclydon.” A Euroclydon is a northeastern cyclone that occurs in the Mediterranean, mostly in the fall and winter.5 Then in verse 15, we are told that, “And when the ship was caught, and could not bear up into the wind, we let her drive.” The crew lightened the ship and the passengers even helped jettison some of the ship’s tackle (verses 18-19). They didn’t see the sun or stars for days, as the cyclone continued (verse 20). Then Paul stood up and said that the crew should have listened to him and not left [apparently the haven] on Crete (verse 21); and then he prophesied in verses 22-26, “And now I exhort you to be of good cheer: for there shall be no loss of any man’s life among you, but of the ship.”
The ship was driven for fourteen days by the cyclone across the middle of the Mediterranean. Luke states in Acts 27:27, “But when the fourteenth night was come, as we were driven up and down in Adria, about midnight the shipmen deemed that they drew near to some country.” Luke is apparently using the term “Adria” to refer, in general, to the Mediterranean Sea. Other authors of the time, such as Ptolemy and Josephus apparently made similar references.6 The Romans called the Mediterranean Sea the Mare Magnum, the “Great Sea.” The term Mediterranean, which means the “inland” sea was not used until at least the 3rd century AD.7 Adria is a town on the far northeast coast of Italy and gives its name to the Adriatic Sea, which separates Italy from Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Albania.
As the ship appeared to be approaching “some country,” the crew prepared to abandon ship and lowered a lifeboat (verses 27-30; one fathom is six feet). Paul warned that if the soldiers left the ship they could not be saved (verse 31). So the soldiers cut the ropes and let the lifeboat fall into the sea (verse 32). The passengers had been fasting, but Paul then told them to go ahead and eat meat and bread (verses 33-36). Paul promised them that “not an hair [shall] fall from the head of any of you.” (verse 34) They did not know where they were and what country they were approaching, but they found a “creek-mouth” toward which they navigated (verse 39).
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers says about verse 41, “And falling into a place where two seas met…At the west end of St. Paul’s Bay lies the island of Salmonetta. From their place of anchorage the crew could not have seen that it was an island, and in trying to run the ship on the beach they grounded on a mud-bank between the small island and the coast. The waves swept round the island and met on the bank, and the position of the ship was accordingly one of extreme danger, the prow imbedded in the mud, the stern exposed to the billows.”8 So the area was neither a creek nor where two seas came together but the flow of water around a small island. The crew “…ran the ship aground; and the forepart stuck fast, and remained unmoveable, but the hinder part was broken with the violence of the waves.” (verse 41) St. Paul’s Bay, where the ship ran aground and broke apart, is located on the northern coast of the island of Malta.
Luke described what happened next, in verses 42-44, “And the soldiers’ counsel was to kill the prisoners, lest any of them should swim out, and escape. But the centurion, willing to save Paul, kept them from their purpose; and commanded that they which could swim should cast themselves first into the sea, and get to land: And the rest, some on boards, and some on broken pieces of the ship. And so it came to pass, that they escaped all safe to land.”
Acts 28:1 states that, “And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita [Malta].” Luke continued, “And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold.” (verse 2) Strong’s Concordance defines the Greek word βάρβαροι (barbaroi) as a foreigner, one who speaks neither Greek nor Latin. The word is of uncertain origin.9 However, Wikipedia defines βάρβαρος (bárbaros) or “barbarian” as the antonym of πολίτης (politēs), “citizen” (from πόλις – polis, “city”).10 According to this definition, the Greeks considered anyone who was not a citizen to be a barbarian. Even the Persians, Medes, Phoenicians, and Egyptians were barbarians to the Greeks. Apparently, even Paul used this Greek definition, as he stated, “I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise.” (Romans 1:14) The Romans apparently adopted the same idea that anyone not Roman was a barbarian. One must remember that, to the Romans, Paul’s companions were also barbarians (Paul was a Roman citizen).
So how barbarous, in the more modern sense of the term, were the first century Maltese? It is difficult to know who the first-century Maltese actually were because, as the result of invasion and genocide by Arabs from northern Africa in the ninth century, Malta was barely inhabited by the turn of the tenth century AD and, subsequently, likely was repopulated by settlers from Sicily and Calabria. As a result, the unique identity of the first century Maltese, if even there was such a unique people by then, has been swamped out by subsequent waves of newcomers over the past two thousand years. Little or no unique DNA data apparently exist from the earliest inhabitants of the island.11
The earliest known inhabitants of Malta probably came from Sicily around 5000 BC, bringing sheep, goats, cows, and crop seeds with them. Then, over an 1100-year period from 3600 BD to 2500 BC, the “Temple People” of Malta built some thirty temple complexes over Malta and the near-by island of Gozo —the second oldest free-standing structures on Earth, second only in age to Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. This early Maltese temple-building phase suggests a cult-like obsessed with life and death, much like that of the contemporary Egyptians and British. Yet the Maltese temples are unique, with no parallel structures in other locations. In addition to the temples, the Temple People constructed intricate burial complexes and left grave gifts, indicating a deep respect for the dead. Sexual statuettes were common, with many phallic shapes and fertile obese female figurines all over the temple sites.12 The Romans and Greeks were still barbarians, in the modern sense of the term, when the Temple People of Malta were building their amazing, spectacular temples.
Three sacrificial altars in the Ġgantija Temple, Xagħra, Gozo
A cache of figurines from the Xagħra Circle, Gozo. The highest figurine stands at 18.5 cm (Photograph: Daniel Cilia and Heritage Malta).
Furthermore, art flourished during the temple-building phase. One type of early Maltese art depicted androgynous human figures with elaborate hairdos, dressed with decorated skirts, belts, and necklaces—all with very straight lines—suggesting a high level of sophistication and definitely not barbarous (see the photo above). The figurines don’t appear to be objects of worship, but rather representations of deceased ancestors. There were many other figurines, including obese female figures, abstract pieces, as well as representations of domestic animals, birds, fish, and reptiles.13
Then around 2500 BC, the temple-building culture disappeared and no one knows why. The skeletal remains of people buried throughout the temple period show that they did not suffer from any obvious disease, starvation, or apparent invasion. They grew and consumed a range of plants, including wheat, barley, lentils, fruit, and olives. They also consumed a considerable amount of meat from sheep, goats, and cattle, but they ate no seafood except some mollusks. They practiced ritual sacrifice and/or ritual feasting in their temples. According to Anthony Bonanno in the Department of Classics and Archaeology, University of Malta, “The Temple people came and left, [and] ‘we cannot find a successor.’” 14
After the temple builders disappeared around 2500 BC, Malta apparently remained uninhabited for several decades. Then a group of new settlers arrived; they were a tribe of Bronze Age people who brought with them the idea of smaller, single-chamber megalithic burial structures called dolmens, which can be found all over Europe and Asia, from western Europe to the Korean Peninsula. They also brought a new culture of cremating their dead. In some cases, these later Bronze Age people built their own structures over the Neolithic temples.15
Next came the Phoenicians (Carthaginians), who conquered Malta around 400 BC and used the Maltese archipelago as a convenient harbor along their maritime trade routes. They called the main island “Maleth,” which means “shelter.” The Carthaginians ruled Malta for around 250 years, until the Romans seized the islands in 218 BC during the second Punic War. They changed the island’s Phoenician name, to the Roman name “Melita.” By 117 AD, the Maltese islands had become a flourishing part of the Roman Empire and Malta was even awarded the status of Municipium, which meant that it belonged to the second-highest class of Roman cities.16
It was the Romanized Melita onto which Paul’s company was shipwrecked. Yet Luke used the word βάρβαροι (barbaroi)—barbarian to describe the people there—perhaps the descendants of the Bronze-Age inhabitants, conquered by the Carthaginians and Romans, but not annihilated by them. The Bible Dictionary says that Luke was a gentile17 and he was highly educated in Greek literature and philosophy. One wonders if he considered himself a Greek and, therefore, not a barbarian. He seems to have used the term “barbarous” in a somewhat prejudicial, derogatory way in speaking of the non-Roman Maltese, as he seemed surprised that they showed the shipwrecked travelers “no little kindness” (Acts 28:2). The Greeks even considered the less-cultured members of their own society to be barbarous. The verb βαρβαρίζω (barbarízō) in ancient Greek meant to behave or talk like a barbarian, or even to interact with barbarians.18 It is highly likely that neither he nor everyone else at the time was aware of the illustrious Maltese history.
Paul and his companions wintered for three months on Malta (Acts 28:11) before sailing on toward Rome in the spring. “And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.” (Acts 28:30-31) Then Paul’s life ended and so did the book of Acts.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD
1. churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bd/luke?lang=eng; retrieved 21 July 2023
2. biblehub.com/acts/27-1.htm; retrieved 21 July 2023
3. churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bd/luke?lang=eng; retrieved 21 July 2023
4. Bileta, Vedran, Ancient Mariners: Sailing the Roman Mediterranean, thecollector.com/ancient-mariners-roman-mediterranean, 1 January 2023; retrieved 21 July 2023
5. wiktionary.org/wiki/Euroclydon; retrieved 21 July 2023
6. Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers; biblehub.com/acts/27-27.htm;retrieved 23 July 2023
7. Wikipedia: “Mediterranean Sea”
8. biblehub.com/acts/27-41.htm; 21 July 2023
9. biblehub.com/acts/28-2.htm; retrieved 21 July 2023
10. wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbarian; retrieved 21 July 2023; the references cited in this Wikipedia entry are not very helpful here
11. So who are the ‘real’ Maltese? Times of Malta, 13 September 2014; Duca, Edward, The death of the temple people, Malta Today, 22 December 2014; Megalithic Temples of Malta, UNESCO World Heritage Convention; whc.unesco.org/en/list/132; retrieved 21 July 2023
15. malta.com/en/about-malta/history/prehistory; retrieved 22 July 2023
17. churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bd/luke?lang=eng; retrieved 22 July 2023
18. Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, 9th edition, Oxford University Press, 1940