Acts 27 – Lost at Sea

There are eleven or twelve accounts of Paul traveling by sea in the book of Acts, about 3000 miles in all.  Yet this chapter gives bay far the most detail of a journey by sea in the Bible, and even in the rest of ancient literature.  Given the fact that Luke has carefully designed the rest of this two volume history, we should probably pause to wonder why he includes such a great amount of detail to the journey to Rome.  It is not just that it is an exciting story (his readers were getting bored?) or that he was trying to fill out a scroll.  There is a literary and theological reason for Luke’s inclusion of this lengthy story.

That Luke is traveling with Paul may account for the detail.  Often ancient historians would write up to the time in which they are living and include themselves in the story in order to build credibility.  Consider Josephus, who summarized all of Jewish history up to the time of the Jewish revolt.  So too Thucydidies, who wrote his 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.

But 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?

Beyond these parallels, 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” (Dunn, Beginning in Jerusalem, 968).

Some have questioned the historicity of this story 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, some scholars argue that Luke is patterning this story after an archetypal Greco-Roman novel plot-line.

There is something to the parallels, and it may be that 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 had to go to Rome and the best way to do that is by ship, it is entirely plausible that 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 Luke has written this story along the lines of a story expected by a Greco-Roman reader, there is nothing implausible about the whole adventure.

5 thoughts on “Acts 27 – Lost at Sea

  1. I think that it makes sense that Luke would write a detailed chapter about this shipwreck because he was part of it and it definitely gives him credibility as an author. Not only does this chapter give him credibility but I also think it adds a lot to this book that Luke has written. This story grabs my attention when I read it because Luke does a great job of describing this scene. I like verse 20 where Luke says, “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved” (NIV). This verse along with the verses before, create this very dramatic scene (as it would be) in Acts 27. I also think that there can be a lot of contemporary applications in this text as they find themselves in a situation where they have lost hope, but Paul tells the men to keep courage and faith in God in verse 25. Obviously you can see where you can go with the metaphors of storms and shipwrecks, as we often come to times in our lives where we face storms and ship wrecks that seem to try and drain us of all hope. But after the shipwreck, in the end of this chapter it says that they all reached land safely.

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  2. Do the storm narratives in the Gospels lend themselves to an allegorical interpretation–the church being the boat and the sea being the historical tribulations that threaten to sink it? Jesus is seemingly absent (sleeping or away), but comes to his disciples in their need. I know the prophets sometimes use the image of a storm or flood to depict a coming historical crisis so perhaps this isnt too outlandish. I wonder if other ancient writers used ships and rough seas as metaphors.
    In this story in Acts we have a pagan crew saved on account of a Christian onboard to whom they become obedient. But the ship itself is lost. The ship of the church stays afloat but the Roman ship is abandoned…

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  3. Luke’s history shows he is a detailed write, he gets this through his occupation of being a physician. So, it is not too surprising that he writes in detail of this journey. We look at why this particular journey was more significant than others and why he includes more detail than other stories written. In Acts 27, we see Luke is traveling with Paul, which may be a factor to the detail added. Luke is seeing and experiencing the situation with his own eyes. Other factors that we look at to see why so much detail was given is to point out the similarities between Jesus and Paul in regard to the suffering and injustice they both faced. We look back to the beginning of Acts and note that the gospel is to be shared everywhere, part of this makes individuals question, will Paul die on this journey. The answer is no, rather we see time and time again of God’s faithfulness and promises lived out. In this Paul gets the opportunity to share with more people the work of the Lord and Jesus’ testimony. I thought it was interesting the connection of the Odyssey, honestly, I never thought I’d think about this book again after high school. The Odyssey has several parallels and general story line, which is both set up as Greco-Roman literature. Regardless, to travel to Rome, going by ship was the best way to go and not at all odd that Festus would send him this way, and shipwrecks were not uncommon during this time. Overall, this was not a story put in just for entertainment.

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  4. The first thing to pop into my mind when reading Acts 27 was the story of Jesus on the ship during the storm. P Long, in this article you discuss the idea of the parallels seen between Jesus and Paul when it comes to matters such as being arrested and handed to the Romans and tried by authority figures. To me, this story seems like another parallel to Jesus because both were on ships in the middle of a storm with men who were afraid. A theory of why Luke wrote this story in Acts could be because it shows how Paul, just like Jesus, was called to do something great. Jesus was called to save us of our sins and Paul was called to spread the good news to the end of the earth. By giving another story that showed how much Paul went through and endured what Jesus had showed he truly was called to be doing what he was doing.

    Also, I do see how this story could help in the credibility of Luke because since during this time pictures and videos were not possible this is what writers were known to do to prove credibility. I think this is another important step in the writing of the Bible because if one does not have credibility in his writing others will not believe what he writes. By doing little things such as gaining trust in his credibility allowed Luke to help spread the Bible.

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  5. the reason Luke mentions this travel story is something that I had never really put much thought into before. it makes sense though that he would of course have a motive behind it and I think the idea that the theme is God’s will be done is a good way to look at it. if you look at the lead up to this ship travel story Paul has had nothing but hardship and trial up to this point for quite some time. even with that though God continues to provide and keep Paul on the path toward Rome. the fact is this whole story shows that when God wants something to happen God will make sure it happens one way or another. this story reminds me of Jonah’s boat travel in that way for the fact that in the end Paul much like Jonah ends up where God wants him to be. the huge difference being Paul was willing Jonah was not.

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