Acts 28:11-16 – Paul in Rome

Front of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls - Roma - Italy

Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome

Christianity came to Rome before Paul, but we have very little idea of how it got there or how closely it was aligned with Jerusalem.  As Luke tells the story, Christianity did more out from Jerusalem, to Samaria and Judea, then to major Diaspora Jewish communities – Antioch, then Asia Minor, Greece (Corinth) and finally Ephesus.  Paul’s mission to the gentile world began at Antioch in the Synagogue and his normal strategy was to find the synagogue in a community in order to reach the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles first, then he moved into the marketplace in order to reach Gentiles.

It is possible that the Roman church was not Pauline in theology, having been founded by Jews after Pentecost.  We know that the letter to the Romans was sent five years before this time to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, but we have no idea how that letter was received by the community in Rome.

Ben Witherington suggests Paul was the first to bring the gospel of grace through faith and gentile salvation apart from the Law to Rome (Witherington, Acts, 785).  This is entirely possible, since the only reference we have to pre-Pauline Roman Christianity is Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18) and the reference in Tacitus to Jewish rioting over Chrestus.  It there appears as though pre-Acts 28 Christianity in Rome was quite Jewish.

The similar questions arise when thinking about the Jewish community.  To what extent were the Jews in Rome in contact with Jerusalem?  What authority did the Sanhedrin have over synagogues in Rome?  (Or anywhere, for that matter.  In Acts 9 the High Priest requests that Christians be turned over to Paul, he does not order the synagogue to do anything!)   There is therefore a tension in Paul’s arrival – how will he be received?  Have Jews from Jerusalem managed to arrive before him?  If they had left about the same time as he did from Jerusalem they could hardly have traveled faster given the time of the year.  Paul has no idea if he will meet Jewish Christians who are predisposed to attack him, or whether they will be like the Bereans, more open to his teaching.

This uncertainty does not seem to bother Paul.  Once he finds lodgings in Rome he begins to meet with individuals in order to explain his presence in Rome and, likely as not, to explain his “side of the story.”  He is still the apostle to the Gentiles and his imprisonment will permit him to reach the household of Caesar.

Acts 28:1-6 – Paul on Malta

Just as Paul had prophesied, all the passengers make it to the shore. There they are met by the people of the island of Malta. The island was known as Μελίτη in Greek and Melite Africana in Latin. About 58 miles south of Sicily and 180 miles north of Tunis, the island is only about 100 square miles. Since Carthage controlled the island from the sixth century B.C., Keener suggests they spoke Punic. He cites bi-lingual inscriptions from the period as evidence Punic was the majority language on the island (Keener, 4:3668). Some have argued the island was actually Kephallenia, but most commentators disagree with this identification. (Kephallenia does have poisonous snakes, see below on this issue).

Luke describes as “barbarians.” The word βάρβαροι simply meant they did not speak Greek. Most English translations avoid the stigma of the word by translating the word “native people,” I prefer “the locals.” Do not think of these people as a tribe of savages from some old movie! These are likely local fisherman who saw the ship grounded and were waiting to give whatever aid necessary to the survivors.

The locals are “unusually kind” (φιλανθρωπία) toward the castaways and help to build fires to warm up. The word is rare in biblical literature, usually referring to the kindness or clemency of a foreign ruler towards their people (3 Macc. 3:15; TDNT 9:109). For example, Josephus used the word when describing “the generous and clement conduct of the Romans” (JW 2.399). The word is used by someone making a public speech honoring his benefactor, praising them for their generous patronage. Acts 27:3 used the adverbial form of the word for the kindness of Paul’s Roman escort Julius when he permitted Paul to visit friends in Sidon. They may be barbarians, but they demonstrate “they have the best of Hellenic manners” (BDAG).

While gathering wood for the fire Paul is bitten by a viper. The locals think this is a deadly snake and assume Paul is a murderer since he survived the storm only to be bitten by a snake (v. 4). Most commentators will point out there are no poisonous snakes on Malta (supported by the modern Times of Malta). BDAG suggests this was “vipera ammodytes, commonly known as sandviper.” But this sort of thing is typical of a good Greek story, the guilty cannot outrun their fate. The gods will avenge the murderer. Most modern translations capitalize Justice (ἡ δίκη), acknowledging the people are referring to divine Justice.

But Paul is not guilty, he simply shakes off the snake and goes about his business. When he does not die immediately, the locals watch him to see if he “swells up and dies.” Since he does not, they conclude that he is a god (v. 6). This is not the first time Paul has been mistake for a god (at Lystra, Acts 14:8-10). In both cases the local people do not understand a miracle and make assumptions about the source of Paul’s power based on their own worldview.

This is as far as Luke takes the story, but it is not surprising that Christian readers have wondered about this snakebite. Some have argued this is a fulfillment of Mark 16:18, “they will pick up serpents with their hands” and healing the sick by the laying on of hands. Aside from the textual problems associated with long ending of Mark, Paul does not strictly speaking pick up the snake, but in the next story he does lay hands on a sick man and he recovers. Luke 10:19 does say Jesus gave his disciples “I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions.” Various writers in church history have considered this verse and the snake in Acts 28 as an allusion to the power of Satan (see Keener 4:3674 for references). I would suggest the story in Acts has influenced the author of the longer ending of Mark, Paul overcomes poisonous snakes and heals the sick, demonstrating his apostolic authority.

What is the point of this story of unusual hospitality? Joshua Jipp suggests this is an example of a common motif, “unwitting hospitality” toward a god. He argues Luke is drawing a contrast between these barbarians (who treat Paul with unusual hospitality) and the Jews in Rome in 28:17-25 who reject Paul and his Gospel.

For Luke, there is nothing which can stop Paul from getting to Rome. Paul has survived an assassination attempt, a terrible storm and shipwreck, and hidden (and possibly satanic) dangers on an unknown island. Whatever the danger to Paul’s life, God will protect him and bring him to the court of the Empire.

 

Bibliography: Joshua Jipp, “Hospitable Barbarians: Luke’s Ethnic Reasoning in Acts 28:1-10,” JTS 68 (2017): 23–45).

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.

Acts 27 – The Storm

Paul and his companions were booked as passengers on a grain ship bound for Rome.  There was no such thing as a passenger ship, so this was a commercial vessel and Paul’s passage was likely commandeered by the Romans (Dunn, Beginning form Jerusalem, 995).  It is possible these was a financial bonus for delivering grain to Rome before the end of the sailing season, explaining why the captain attempted to sail so late in the season.  Acts 27:9 tells us that they did not sail until after the Day of Atonement (“the Fast”), which is late September, early October.  Paul advises they not sail until spring, since after mid-November sailing to Rome would be impossible.

Ancient boats were not built to handle sailing into the wind, and the sailors try to keep the ship together during the storm.  Verse 17 describes the lashing of ropes to hold the ship in one piece, it is difficult to know how they did this. The area to the south of Crete was a kind of “Bermuda Triangle,” a part of the sea feared by the sailors.  They were in no real danger of going that far south, but they knew that the sandbars were dangerous.  Cargo is tossed overboard, then the extra equipment.  This was done to lighten the load (although one wonders if the extra weight would keep them from being overturned).  The clouds are so thick that they cannot make a sighting on stars or the sun, so they have no way of knowing which way the are headed.  The sailors become despondent, thinking they are not going to survive.

Paul speaks again and tells the captain that he has been told “by an angel” that they will all survive.  There is a bit of “I told you so” in his speech, but it is not an angry condemnation either.  Paul  knew what he was talking about in the first place, and now his knowledge was based on something more that sailing skill, it was based on divine revelation!

Paul encourages them, and tells them that he knows from an angel of God that they will survive, even though the ship will be destroyed.  Why an angel?  In other cases, the Lord simply speaks directly to Paul.  This is likely an accommodation to the Roman sailors who would have no idea who “The Lord” is, or respect his revelation over their own superstitions and beliefs.  An angel can be taken as a “divine messenger” here.

Paul’s message (verses 23-25) is that they will all survive because the God he serves has told him so. This speech is a remarkable statement of faith:  It is the God whom Paul belongs that will save the people on the ship.  The God Paul worships is the God who is in divine control of these events.  Paul is once again promised that he will stand trial before Caesar despite the fact that the ship will run aground.  No one will be lost even if the ship is destroyed.

Acts 27 – Travel to Rome

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.

Roman Ship

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