Why does the Christian author of Acts bother to tell readers (in 28.11) that Paul’s ship had the figurehead of two pagan gods?
Why does the author of Acts use words that are only elsewhere found in fictional shipwreck stories in Homer?
Is there anything truly distinctive about Paul’s shipwreck to set it apart from fiction? Is Paul’s adventure at sea anything other than stereotypical?
1. Stories of storms at sea were so common that satirists could write:
Why repeat the many details of his [the captain’s] story — huge sea, cyclones, hail, and all the other evils of a storm? (Lucian, Toxaris 19)
The whole thing resembled a storm in a poem, exactly the same horrors took place. (Juvenal, Satire 12)
2. “the unusual nautical terminology in Acts 27”
The following list of nautical terms in Acts 27 is selected by Dennis MacDonald (in his article Shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul, NTS, 1999) because they also appear in the well-known sea narratives in Homer’s Odyssey. For additional terms found in common between Acts 27 and other non-Homeric literature he refers readers to Praeder’s thesis “Narrative Voyage”.
(Since Greek fonts are a challenge here, at the end of this post I have uploaded a gif image that explains the Latin-Greek transliteration)
LIMHN = harbour
PRWRA = prow
KUBERNHTHS = pilot
NOTOS = name of the South Wind
PELAGOS = open sea
PHDALION = rudder
PRUMNH = stern
3. Acts 27:41 “they ran the ship aground” = EPEKEILAN THN NAUN
This is a distinctively poetic (Homeric) phrase.
This is the only time in the New Testament “NAUS” is used for a “ship”. Everywhere else the author of Luke-Acts uses PLOIA (Lk.5.3, 7, 11; 8.22, 37; Acts20.13, 38; 21.2, 3, 6).
Another word used nowhere else in the NT (nor even in the LXX) is EPIKELLEIN = “to ground”. “In fact, EPIKELLEIN and [its uncompounded form] KELLEIN are poetic forms; prose prefers EPOKELLEIN or OKELLEIN.” (MacDonald, p.94)
Commenting on EPEKEILAN (“beached”) the Lake and Cadbury commentary on Acts says: “According to Blass this is an Homeric form not found in prose-writers, who used OKELLW and EPOKELLW, . . . . He compares Odyssey IX 148 . . . and 546. . . . It is also remarkable that the word NAUN is used only here in Acts, which always has the ordinary Hellenistic word PLOION. Blass’ suggestion that there is a conscious reminisence of Homer in this collocation of two unusual words is very attractive. If Luke was acquainted with Aratus and Epimenides, his knowledge of Homer is easily credible.” (p.339)
“F. F. Bruce calls it one of Acts’ ‘unmistakable Homeric reminiscences‘. According to Susan M. Praeder, ‘Little else except a reminiscence of the Odyssey would explain the only appearance of EPIKELLEIN and NAUS in the New Testament‘.” (MacDonald, p.95)
The Lake/Cadbury commentary continues with a note on the next phrase: Acts 27:41 “the bow was hard and fast/stuck fast” [=EREISASA] “cf. Pindar, Isth. i.1.52. The cumulation of classical words not found elsewhere in the N.T. is remarkable.” (p.339) MacDonald comments that this rare word is also Homeric (p.94).
4. Comparing Acts 27-28 with the maritime adventures in the Odyssey
There are two shipwreck scenes in the Odyssey. In book 5 Odysseus suffers alone and in book 12 Odysseus loses his entire crew. MacDonald observes that other writers, Apollonius Rhodius and Virgil, composed shipwreck scenes that drew on both these Homeric accounts, and that Paul’s shipwreck scene similarly contains elements of both.
While citing MacDonald’s article I am not pressing here MacDonald’s case that the author of Acts drew on Homer. He may have, but he may also have drawn on any number of other stories based on the same. These sorts of scenes were common enough to be the subject of parody, after all. (I follow MacDonald in citing Od.12 ahead of Od.5 each time because that was the chronological sequence of the two shipwrecks.)
Prediction of disaster: Acts 27:9-10 — cf Od.12 (portents predict disaster) and Od.5 (Odysseus fears disaster)
Sail out in fine weather: Acts 27:13 — cf Od.12 and Od.5 (Odysseus set sail in good weather)
Storm soon follows: Acts 27:14 — cf Od.12 (Zeus soon sends a storm) and Od.5 (Poseidon later sends a storm)
Winds, waves and darkness: Acts 27:14, 18-20 –cf Od.12 (south, east, west, north winds) and Od.5 (south, west winds) and traditional Greek names for the winds used in both Acts and Odyssey.
Abandon all hope: Acts 27:20 — cf Od.5 (Odysseus abandons hope) The abandonment of all hope was a topos in ancient storm stories (Praeder: ‘Sea Voyages’, 692)
Winds drive the helpless ship: Acts 27:15, 17 — cf Od. 12 and Od.5 (the word is FERW, “to drive”)
Expect to die: Acts 27:20 (except for Paul) — cf Od.5 (Odysseus expects to die at sea)
Fulfilled prophecy: Acts 27:21 — cf Od.5 (Calypso’s prophecy came true)
Divine figures suddenly appear: Acts 27:23 — cf Od.5 (goddess Ino appears to Odysseus in the middle of the storm)
The divine figure tells the hero none will be lost but the ship: Acts 27:22 — cf Od.5 (the divinity tells Odysseus he will survive but his ship will not)
The divine figure assures the hero of his ‘fate’: Acts 27:24 — cf Od.5 (it is the ‘fate’ of Odysseus to escape as it is the ‘fate’ of Paul to stand before Caesar)
Why believe a divinity?: Acts 27:30 — cf Od.5 (Odysseus did not trust the message of the goddess any more than the crew on Paul’s ship trusted the word of the angel – both continued to attempt managing on their own.)
Shipwreck: Acts 27:41 — cf Od.12 and Od.5 (Ship is wrecked; Odysseus’ crew all drown – none on Paul’s ship drown)
Everyman for himself: Acts 27:43-44 — cf Od.12 and Od.5 (Odysseus rides a plank, in Acts some swim and others ride planks)
An island to the rescue: Acts 28:1 — cf Od.12 and Od.5 (Odysseus arrives on an island)
Friendly locals: Acts 28:2 — cf Od.12 (Calypso shows generosity) and Od.5 (locals show generosity)
Hero experiences cold and warmth: Acts 28:2-3 — cf Od.5 (Odysseus gathered leaves when cold; Paul gathered firewood when cold)
Locals are most unimpressed by the hero: Acts 28:4 — cf Od.5 (locals recoil in fear at Odysseus’s appearance, just as they rejected Paul as a murderer doomed to divine punishment)
Locals subsequently see the hero as a god: Acts 28:6 — cf Od.5 (locals believe Odysseus must be a god because of his appearance, just as they later believed Paul was a god for surviving the snake bite)
Wild beasts: Acts 28:3 — cf Od.5 (Odysseus feared wild beasts; Paul was bitten by one)
The hero is highly honoured: Acts 28:9-10 — cf Od.5 (Phaeacians entertain and honour Odysseus with many gifts for his stories as Maltese entertained and honoured Paul for his many healings)
Locals provide the necessaries and a new ship: Acts 28:10 — cf Od.5 (Alcinous provided Odysseus with a ship to continue his journey)
Smooth sailing from then on: Acts 28:11-14 — cf Od.5/13 (The renowned Phaeacian sailors drove Odysseus’s ship to his destination with astonishing speed; Paul’s ship led by the Dioscuri (the twin gods Castor and Pollux, protectors of ships and sailors) and with help of a NOTOS (south wind) arrived quickly at Puteoli.)
5. Why the Dioscuri figurehead on the ship?
Here is hymn #33 about the Dioscuri from The Homeric Hymns (Dioscuri = Sons of Zeus, Castor and Pollux, Kastor and Polydeukes, Gemini):
Concerning the Sons of Zeus, you black-eyed Muses, speak,
The sons of Tyndareos, fair-ankled Leda’s splendid boys —
Kastor tamer of steeds, Polydeukes who has no flaw.
. . . . to these saviours of earthly men
And their speedily faring ships. When wintry tempests rage
Across the implacable deep, in prayer the sailors call
On the Sons of mighty Zeus with while lambs at the edge of the stern.
The strong gale and surge of the sea have sent the ship under! But now
They come, propelled through the sky on rustling wings. At once
They still the fierce blasts, and smooth the waves on the frothing deep.
Fair signs are these for sailors, and mark their freedom from toil;
At the sight the sailors rejoice, and with dismal toil have done. . . .
But the Dioscuri were not only saviours at sea and guarantors of a swift safe sea voyage, thus appropriately placed on a ship that gave Paul a swift final leg of his trip to Italy. Castor and Pollux were also punishers of the wicked and rewarders of the righteous.
Paul had managed to save 276 lives (Acts 27:37) on the eve of his hearing before Caesar.
By introducing “The Twin Brothers” as the figurehead of the ship the author is drenching the reader in the irony of Paul being delivered to Caesar as an “evil doer”.
6. One more literary comparison
Odysseus tells a porkie in Od.14:
With a good stiff breeze from the north the ship took the central route
and ran down the lee side of Crete . . . .
When we had put Crete astern and no other land, nor anything but sky and water, was to be seen, . . . .
The men were all flung overboard . . . .
But in this hour of affliction Zeus himself brought into my arms the great mast of the blue-prowed ship,
so that I might even yet escape the worst.
Compare Acts 27
When the south wind blew softly . . .
they sailed close by Crete . . . .
Now when neither sun nor stars appeared for many days . . .
The centurion . . . commanded that those who could swim should jump overboard. . . .
and the rest, some on boards and some on broken pieces of the ship.
And so it was that they all escaped safely to land.
6. Back to the “obvious” meaning of the we-passages
It is all too easy to jump to the conclusion that the “we passages” in Acts point to a true historical involvement in the story. It only takes a moment of reflection, however, to realize that such an assumption poses more questions than anyone has yet been able to answer conclusively. (Outside of the field of faith-based biblical studies I find it difficult to imagine anyone jumping to the conclusion that a story was factual because it was told in the first person.) Nowhere in Acts is the “we” assigned an identity, — and there really are some questions that modern scholars have not yet been able to conclusively answer, as much as some find that hard to accept. I conclude with a paragraph from an online article by Susan Praeder — the full pdf article can be found by clicking on the title.
The Problem of First Person Narration in Acts
Susan Marie Praeder
Novum Testamentum, Vol. 29, Fasc. 3. (Jul., 1987), pp. 193-218.
“In fact, the issue of first person sea voyages aside, ancient histories still offer no parallels to first person narration in Acts and no proof that first person narration refers to factual or fictional participation by the author of Acts. Quite a few ancient historians participate in their own histories. Ammianus Marcellinus, Cassius Dio, and Velleius Paterculus refer to themselves as first person singular participants and to themselves and others as first person plural participants. Caesar, Josephus, Thucydides, and Xenophon refer to themselves as third person participant. If Acts is a first person ancient history, then it is alone in its lack of first person singular participation. If Luke was referring to his factual or fictional participation by portraying himself as one of several first person plural participants, then his self-portrayal was not influenced by the practice of ancient historians who refer to themselves as first person participants. They clearly refer to themselves as first person singular participants who are responsible for first person narration.” (p.17)
The following table is copied from the Kata Markon page. If it’s too small then righ-click on it to view it as an image.