November 11, 2013

Biblica Nautica III: ...of Shipwrecks and Wrecked Ships

Seashore with Shipwreck by Moonlight
Caspar David Friedrich
Oil on Canvas
Most Christians know the story of Paul’s shipwreck at Malta in the end of the book of Acts. What many might not know is there are peculiarities in the narrative that can be drawn out to give us a clearer picture of the ships origins, its manifest or purpose and facts or data about its passengers.

Acts 27:5-6 ~ “And when we had sailed across the open sea along the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we came to Myra in Lycia. There the centurion found a ship of Alexandria sailing for Italy and put us on board.

Here we can ascertain that the ships origin or first port-of-call with Paul and Luke aboard. It was in the city of Myra in Lycia. This is in the southwestern portion of Asia Minor or modern-day Turkey. We see that it is a centurion or the one guarding Paul in route to Rome that finds the ship. Since Acts is written by Luke and this passage is written in the first-person because it says “ἡμᾶς/us”, it can be implied that both Paul and Luke are put on the ship.

When the ship got stuck we can clearly see the thing that impedes the ship: The Syrtis which is the shallow sandy gulf on the coast of Libya probably formed by eons of wind-blown Saharan sand that has made its way into the Mediterranean Sea. We also see the driving force for the ship: Wind. Probably the same hot desert air blowing off the desert over top the cooler Mediterranean Sea. Because these gulfs are so close to modern-day Libya we can see just how far they had been blown off course in route to Rome. They were literally heading to the wrong side of Mediterranean Sea. They are heading towards the southern coastline instead of the northern coastline. Instead of Italy…they somehow ended up pointed towards North Africa. Talk about losing one’s bearings in a storm! What convinces someone even more that this was the north coast of Africa is that it is a place none on the ship recognized (Acts 27:39).

Acts 27:15-17 ~ “And when the ship was caught and could not face the wind, we gave way to it and were driven along. Running under the lee of a small island called Cauda, we managed with difficulty to secure the ship's boat. After hoisting it up, they used supports to undergird the ship. Then, fearing that they would run aground on the Syrtis, they lowered the gear, and thus they were driven along.

Why were the Syrtis so dangerous? The sailors on a grain ship like the one carrying the Paul and Luke knew they were doomed if they hit the Syrtis sands. The grain ships like the one they were on in this passage were the largest ships plying their trade on Mediterranean Sea at that time. They had and extraordinarily deep hold therefore an extrememly low keel, and they would easily have gotten grounded on a sandbar in the middle of no-where many miles from any shoreline. More than likely they would’ve died of dehydration as they would’ve run out of water on a salt sea. Water, water everywhere...but not a drop to drink.

We know of the total number of passengers.

Acts 27:37 ~ “We were in all 276 persons in the ship.

Having eaten a last meal the crew and persons on the ship cast much of the cargo off the ship. What was the cargo besides people? They were carrying wheat.

Acts 27:38 ~ “And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea.

Because of Luke’s meticulousness historical documentation, we even know when and where the shipwreck occurred.

Acts 28:1 ~ “After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta.”

Acts 28:2 ~ “The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold.

Luke tells us in verse 2 that it was raining and cold. What does this tell us? It is wet and cold off the northern coast of Africa.  Acts 28:11 further tells us that they later set sail on another ship that had wintered three months on the island. The shipwreck occurred at Malta in the beginning of winter which makes travel on the Mediterranean treacherous.

Acts 28:11 ~ “After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the twin gods as a figurehead.”

We learn one additional fact about this ship from this verse….its name. It is the only named ship in the entire Bible (at least indirectly)

The Greek translation for “the twin gods as a figurehead” in this passage is παρασήμῳ Διοσκούροις or parasemo/side-marked/named: Dioskoupois / Zeus Juveniles or the sons of Zeus. So indirectly Luke is telling his readers that the names or label on the side of the ship were Castor and Pollux. In Greek mythology, Castor and Pollux or Polydeuces were twin brothers. Together they were known as the Dioskouri...the sons of Zeus.

If we jump to the very end of the Bible we smack into the Revelation of Jesus Christ. We see something that looks like a mountain burning with fire that destroys one-third of the living creatures along with one-third of all maritime vessels. We witness more wrecked ships through John's vision in the Spirit.

Revelation 8:8-9 ~ “The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood. A third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.”

We will see the second angel sound his trumpet and the sounding of the trumpet and this would be the signal that one-third of the ships at sea will be destroyed. This will be a substantial destruction of many a naval vessel as today’s navel fleets are quite substantial with multi-billion dollar aircraft carriers and the like. Man’s mighty arsenals will be as miniature plastic soldiers in a miniature dirt war compared to the Almighty God. Even with our nuclear capabilities we have no more power than the navies in the Roman and Greek Empires in the Bible when matched up against God. For God it will be like sinking toy boats in a bathtub.

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