Acts 27 – Luke’s Theology and Shipwrecks

If Luke has carefully designed his two-volume history, we should probably pause to wonder why he includes such lengthy description of the journey to Rome. This must be more than an exciting story (did he think readers were getting bored?), nor was Luke trying to fill out a scroll (as if he was a student trying to make it to 10 pages for a paper). Was Luke with Paul in the shipwreck? There are literary and theological reasons for Luke’s inclusion of Paul’s shipwreck.

Paul's Shipwreck

First, Luke is traveling with Paul. On the one hand, this accounts for the details. But often ancient historians narrate a story up to the time in which they are living and then include themselves in the story in order to build credibility. Josephus summarized all of Jewish history up to the time of the Jewish revolt and included himself in the story as a leader in Galilee. Thucydidies wrote a history of the Peloponesian War and included his own participation at various points. This shipwreck functions to give Luke credibility – he witnessed the events himself and was a participant in the history he tells. A Greco-Roman reader would expect this sort of thing if the book of Acts was to be seen as credible.

Second, there is more going on here than Luke’s interest in travel. If someone (say, Theophilus) has been reading through Luke and Acts, he would notice some similarities between Paul and Jesus. Both are arrested by the Jews and handed over to the Romans, both are tried by a secular authority (Pilate and Herod; Felix/Festus and Agrippa) and both are the victims of a miscarriage of justice motivated by the religious establishment in Jerusalem.  Will Paul suffer the same fate as Jesus?  Will he be executed by the Romans as a political undesirable, or will he receive justice from Rome?

Third, we need to remember Luke’s theme for the whole book: “beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.”  Luke knows that Paul will go to Rome to testify before the Emperor, but the reader may think that Paul will be killed along the way.  As James Dunn has observed, Luke is trying to show that “come what may, God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach the good news in the very heart of the empire.”

Fourth, some scholars question the historicity of the shipwreck based on parallels with other ancient literature, including Homer’s Odyssey.  Often a guilty man will try to escape justice (or fate), head out to the seas to avoid capture, but ultimately he will suffer and die anyway.  Paul is escaping from the Jews, yet is shipwrecked and eventually nearly killed by a snake, it is thought that Luke is patterning this story after the archetypal Greco-Roman novel plot-line.

There is something to the parallels and it may be Luke tells this story in such detail because shipwrecks were popular in literature at the time. But this does not necessarily negate the historicity of the story.  Paul went to Rome, the best way to do that is by ship. It is entirely plausible Festus would send him off in this way.  Shipwrecks were in fact common, so much so that Paul has already suffered shipwrecks twice in his travels (2 Cor 11:25)!

While I think Paul did travel to Rome by ship and experienced a shipwreck, Luke’s theological motivation is that nothing will hinder the Gospel getting to Rome.

18 thoughts on “Acts 27 – Luke’s Theology and Shipwrecks

  1. I couldn’t help but see parallels between these chapters and that of classic epic poetry. The key components are all there, a man who has faced injustice, is sent on a long adventure, faces numerous trials, is put in life-threatening situations, and ultimately faces either death or an unfortunate homecoming. Luke’s descriptive details of the shipwreck and sailing in general help pain a broad picture of what Paul had to endure. Was it truth? I believe it was–in fact I think Luke displayed the reality of the hardships of ship-travel to a tee. You can almost hear Paul saying “I Sail. I’m a Sailor. I Sail.” (Thanks, “What About Bob”!) Honestly though, Luke displays the reality that nothing will stop the Gospel from going out into all the world. Think of how Paul has been completely protected up until this point and continues to be protected. Yet, we need to remember that even Paul can’t hinder the spread of the Gospel. When he does eventually die, the Gospel continues on. Perhaps it is for this reason that Luke ends the book of Acts with the subject of the Gospel continuing on without hindrance. We need to remember that we are blessed to be used by God to further his message, but we also must remember that He doesn’t need us. Reminds me of the quote that goes something like, “We need God, but don’t want Him and He doesn’t need us, yet wants us desperately.” How beautiful is that reality, it is for that reason that I count it a blessing to be able to proclaim His truth and spread His love to those around me.

  2. I think this story is incredibly significant to the story of Acts. As you brought up, the reader would almost expect the demise of Luke, Paul, and the rest of the crew in the storm. It seems impossible that they would be able to survive it, which is wha makes it so powerful when they all reach land alive. A story like this speaks volumes to the strength and providence God has over creation, and that if He wants something done (in this case, Paul going to Rome to testify before Caesar), then you can know it’s going to happen. It does seem peculiar how much detail Luke gives as to the storm and everything that happened out at sea. Perhaps as Luke was thinking about writing it, it seemed like too good of a story to leave anything out or give a shorter version. All of the factors of the story add to the wow-factor of their survival. It also would have solidified the fact that he was there, because to go into that much detail requires that you actually saw it for yourself.

  3. The significance of this particular story seems to have a lot to do with the final verse of the book, which is “with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:31). P. Long said in class the conclusion appears to be that no matter what, the gospel will spread. Thus it makes sense that Luke would choose to include these dangerous traveling experiences that Paul went through as it shows how even though Paul and the message he was to preach were in great danger, God chose to protect Paul and the gospel was brought to Rome. It comes back to the passage in Acts 5:39 in which Gamaliel says that if what Peter and John are saying is from God, then nothing can stop it. Just as Luke has pointed out the reason behind the success of John and Peter, he points out the success of Paul with this idea of God is the reason for the success. The only reason the gospel can go out without hindrance and with boldness is by the power of God. Thus Jesus was truly who he said he was since God is behind the message.

  4. I never realize how much of a parallel there was between Paul and Jesus. It definitely shows that God is sovereign. He will work out HIs plan for HIs good. Paul used His faith to minister to others. He had enough passion to reach to different people even though he knew the risk of it. It is also alarming how much control the Jewish community had over the law. Because the Jews put up a fuss, the law got involved and caused Paul to go through the whole process of being redirected to different people. There needs to be more people like Paul to be willing to go to the ends of the earth to do ministry. Throughout Pauls struggles he continued to rely on God even though most people warned Paul not to go to Jerusalem and Paul had to endure mockery from those who did not understand the truth. God has a plan and it will be seen to the end because God is in control of what goes on in this world.

  5. Luke’s literary style in the account of the shipwreck as well as the rest of the book of Acts is an interesting aspect of the overall understanding of the book. As we’ve discussed in class, Luke’s style of writing and the information that was included and left out really depict what the book’s main theme was about. Also, some aspects of his writing leave much up to interpretation, which can make it difficult to understand exact details or specifics in the book. For example, throughout Acts, Luke describes many
    events with words like “many believed” (Acts 9:42) and “the whole city was in an uproar”(Acts 19:29). The specifics of the book may not have been important to him as he focused on emphasizing the fact that nothing could hinder the spread of the gospel. The fact that the book of Acts never explains what happened to Paul also shows that the focus of the book is not to simply teach about Paul and his life, but the importance of how many people came to believe in Jesus.

  6. It makes sense that Luke would emphasize the ship wreck and all the woes surrounding it for they could have only prevailed with God’s help and guidance. The odds were stacked against them, and Luke wanted to make sure that he included all the details to not only add authenticity but also to emphasize those odds. Quarles writes that “Paul’s bold faith in God’s promise that they would all survive and his genuine gratitude for God’s providence encouraged them all” despite their circumstances (235). All 276 passengers had survived (Quarles, 237) and Luke included all the details to support that they all survived only because God fulfilled His promise.

  7. All great stories need a big climax of excitement and this shipwreck was Paul and Lukes. We find in the movie Gladiator that Russel Crowe’s character is to fight the emperor himself while he has been poisoned infront of a packed theater. Much likes said above me, you might think this is the end and the good guys are about to meet the end. Unlike the movies however, you see an angel come from the heavens and ruin the story by saying the boat is going to sink and everyone is safe. I feel this gives credibility to the story oddly in that it takes the excitement out of the story.

  8. I think that it is the final point that really drives the point home. All of Paul’s trials up to this point have not all looked like certain death like this shipwreck would have. I think that Luke chose to go in depth with this story because of the Greek history behind it all. In Greek Epic poems, there was a common theme of a guilty man that flees to the sea but is apprehended by the sea gods and the goddess Justice. With all that Paul has been accused of in this book, this act of survival would have shown the Roman and Greek people that Paul was still innocent through it all. I also agree with the theme that the Gospel will be hindered by nothing.

  9. It seems that the detail in the accounts of Paul’s trials in these chapters really exist to illustrate the fact that the work of God cannot be hindered by any means. Luke constructs the literary “perfect storm” in this section of Acts. Paul gets arrested, faces death threats, fights through years of political injustice, gets shipwrecked, and then bit by a vipor. However, Paul planned to go to Rome and God got him to Rome His way. It’s almost as if Luke included every painful detail to make a point. In that way, its almost like Homer’s Oddessy, too legendary to be historical, but it’s a testiment to the sovereignty of God and the power of the gospel.

  10. It seems to me that these “some scholars” who are questioning why Luke included something or wrote a certain way are forgetting that Luke is not writing to a future church – he was writing to a specific audience at a specific point in time. Is there still practical application to today’s world, culture, Christians? Certainly so, and this is a much better place for the discussion of Luke’s writing style to be discussed.

    Practical applications from the life of Paul often go back to his missionary strategy, and I would agree with P.Long when he stated that Luke’s underlying point is that nothing would keep the Gospel away from Rome. The parallels of Paul to Jesus do not seem to be any sort of coincidence, rather a exhortation to the church that if Paul could live like Christ, so should every believer.

    As it says in Isaiah 25:11 “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.” – Luke’s writings were first and foremost through the power of the Holy Spirit. And yes, this includes literary and theological areas in necessary detail for themtrip to Rome.

  11. This story definitely seems to be the climax of Acts, the point to drive the whole story home. It does make sense that Luke would include these details in order to prove his credibility, but it also does make sense that he would put them in in order to show that no matter what, God’s work would be completed. This story also contrasts the Greek literature. Most Greek stories have a hero that goes to sea and ends up being punished or dying, but in this story, Paul survives everything. This could be a direct stab at the Greek or Roman gods, saying that the God of the Christians was more powerful and could keep his people alive on the seas.

  12. “But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘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. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island” (Acts 27:22-26).
    This chapter is bookended first by Paul being handed over to a centurion and boarding a boat, and lastly by the centurion allowing the prisoners and Paul to save their lives and to jump the ship. The verses above are located right in the middle of the chapter and emphasize the point that Paul is the Lord’s to do with what He will. As P. Long and other posters have commented on, no storm or centurion or hunger or ship was going to keep Paul from accomplishing the mission God has given him. Without this understanding of where Luke is coming from theologically, it is easy to become discombobulated as to why he would include such a lengthy writing on the shipwreck.

  13. Acts chapter 27 details the shipwreck of Paul on his way to Rome. Some people have questioned why Luke would dedicate such a large amount of time to describe how the events of the shipwreck unfold. As Long notes, Luke carefully constructed the book of Acts, not adding unnecessary details and useless information. His inclusion of this event indicates to the reader that there is significant theological and literary reasoning for its addition. Firstly, Luke narrates this event from a firsthand account, he personally witnessed the events that unfolded. In the ancient world, this would bring credibility to the reader of the account being told. Other ancient authors such as Josephus and Thucydides used this method of firsthand accounts to produce credibility to the information being presented. On a Literary level, Luke is most likely attempting to draw a parallel between Paul and Jesus. For example, they both are arrested by the Jews, tried by the Roman authorities, and both suffer miscarriages of justice. It serves to express a sense of tension inside the narrative being portrayed, will Paul suffer the same fate as Jesus? Will he die before he gets to Rome? Furthermore, on a theological level, it serves to display, as James Dunn notes, that God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach in heart of the empire, Rome. Some readers might think that Paul will die before he reaches his destination, however, this event, shows that God will allow the gospel to be spread. While some initially may not understand Luke’s reasoning for including this event, after evaluating the text, the literary and theological implications justify its inclusion.

  14. It is interesting that including oneself in the story in the Greco-Roman era was an element that gave credibility to the historicity, whether or not the historian actually was there. Today, on the other hand, especially on a western society, such practice could mar the credibility of the story instead and be deemed fake or a fantasy. I think it is very cool that God still deems all Scripture breathed out by Him while still allowing the personality and intentionality of the human co-authors in the books of the Bible such as Luke. Such consistency with the historical writings of the time and the ability to still capture the attention of readers today. Other than historically accurate and relevant on his presentation, Luke interweaves theology in it majestically, connecting back to themes related in the beginning of Acts and paralleling the ministries of Jesus and Paul. I wonder if this level of historicity interwoven with major theological themes can be done relating to the history of the church today. What elements would be highlighted? How would it challenge the present and future generations? Would it be met with disappointment of the state of the Church or with praise to the work of Holy Trinity across the globe? Would it also depict major transitions in ministries just like from focusing on Israel to including Gentiles too or like from the ministry of the Twelve to the ministry of the Apostle Paul? Would it share any similarities with the ministry of Paul, Peter, or Jesus?

  15. It is very interesting to see the connections made to poetry, I think it’s a good connection to make especially since some people might make connections to literature popular during this time. A lot of popular novels feature shipwrecks and the character development that comes with it. When I read about Paul’s shipwreck it makes me wonder if this significant event (as well as other shipwrecks biblically) may have had an impact on the current literature at the time. It’s easy for us to make the correlation between two things, but which one ‘influenced’ the other… I’d be very interested to know the answer even though it’s something we can only theorize about and come up with educated guesses in regard to the topic.

  16. Not only is the detail included in the shipwreck story proof of Luke’s credibility, but it also points to Luke’s ability to make a statement. Paul has suffered much and the shipwreck is a massive and dangerous situation that could very likely end in death for Paul and the sailors. It demonstrates how there is nothing that can stop God’s power and plan for Paul’s life. Paul was going to make it to Rome one way or another despite what challenges may attempt to stop him.
    I also found the connections to The Odyssey fascinating as I had to read The Odyssey for a class this semester. The literary connections between the two stand out. Although clearly there are no gods “out to get” Paul for his criminality, Luke plays on the common themes and ideas of Greek literature within Paul’s journey. But why? Does he do this to appeal to a wider audience, or just because of the literary value? Similarly, one Paul lands on the island of Malta, he is bitten by a snake. The people on the island assume that the goddess, Justice, is trying to kill Paul because he is a criminal. However, Paul does not die. Polhill (2008) makes a connection to Acts 14 and the incident in Lystra here (p. 2144). Although the Maltese people don’t assume Paul is a god like the Lystrans did, this situation offers an opportunity for Paul to witness to the people.

  17. Though there are many parallels between Paul and Jesus, something to keep in mind is that Paul is just a mere man who cannot compare to Jesus Christ. Something we learned in class today was that Luke knew the importance of The Gospel and Jesus’ story; that’s why he didn’t add the ending of Paul’s story or The Apostle Peter’s ending to the rest of the story, because at the end of the day, it’s about Jesus (Long). This was one of those points that hit home; sometimes churches and Christians tend to idolize a certain person or character in The Bible, but it’s not right because Christ is the one who deserves all the glory. Since Luke was with Paul during this sea voyage, it explains why he gives so much detail in this story, and he also is establishing credibility (Long). Polhill mentions that to know the rest of Paul’s story, one must pull from “extrabiblical sources” in order to piece together the full story (p. 2145). Though Paul was in prison for a long time in his life, those years weren’t wasted; God had a purpose and a perfect plan for Paul. That’s when he wrote a lot of the letters to believers, so the time was used wisely. During all the times that Paul suffered hardships and even another shipwreck written in 2 Cor 11:25, those times were extremely useful and eternally impactful!

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