The sea adventure of Acts 27 an eyewitness account?

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is in response to a lengthy citation from a work by Loveday Alexander arguing reasons for believing that the sea travel story of Acts 27 was an eyewitness account. Against that one point the following demonstrates that Alexander’s reason is relatively weak when balanced against the weight of other literary factors worthy of consideration in this chapter.

Thanks to JDWalters for providing the text. I won’t quote it here, but it can be found in full in his comments on my “Comparing the sources for Alexander and Jesus”.

Why 60 verses on this story?

Why does the author spend 60 verses on the voyage to Rome when he failed to find space to describe the other sea voyages in similar detail, not to mention informing us what became of Peter, the ultimate fate of Paul, the founding of churches in so many from Alexandria to Rome, the reception of Paul’s collection in Jerusalem, and many more? One cannot brush the question aside by appealing to the shipwreck in this particular voyage because according to 2 Cor. 11:25 Paul suffered shipwreck several times.

One answer is that storm and shipwreck stories were a staple of ancient adventure writings. Historians had no need to liven up their material with a shipwreck, but composers of fiction did, often enough to inspire parodies. (Pervo, p.51)

Historians liked to include as set pieces accounts of sieges or orations for dead soldiers, not shipwrecks.

A unique story?

As for shipwrecks being a staple of ancient adventures, see:

  • Odyssey 5.291-92
  • Aeneid 1.81ff
  • Euripides, Helen 408ff
  • Plautus, The Rope
  • Juvenal, Satire 12
  • Horace, Odes 1.3, 5.13-16
  • Phaedrus, 4.23
  • Dio Chrysostom, 7
  • Lucian, Philosophies for Sale 1
  • Testament of Naphtali (in Test. of the 12 Patriarchs) 6
  • Ninus
  • Metiochus
  • Herpyllis
  • Chariton 3.3.5
  • Xenophon of Ephesus, Ephrasiaca 2.12
  • Heliodorus 1.22 ff, 4
  • Achilles Tatius 3.1-5
  • Petronius 114
  • Longus 1.31
  • Chion of Heraclea 4
  • Jonah
  • Pseudo-Clementine Homilies 1.12
  • Acts of Philip 3.33
  • Acts of John 8-9 (Prochorus)

(Pervo, p.156) — I am sure the full texts of most of these can be found online.

What of the details in Acts, however? Aren’t these evidence that the author was writing from personal experience?

Compare the distinctive details in Acts with those found in fiction:

  • a late departure after end of season: Chariton, 3.5.1; Heliodorus 5.17 et al
  • passengers who know more than the captain: Herpyllis; Philostratus’ Apollonius of Tyana 5.18; Chion 4 et al
  • jettisoning the cargo: Jonah 1.5; Juvenal’s Satire 12.74; Achilles Tatius 3.2.9
  • crews attempting to preempt the small boat: Achilles Tatius 3.4; Petronius 102; Heliodorus 5.24
  • friendly (or hostile) barbarians on strange coasts: Xenophon of Ephesus, Ephrasiaca 2.2.4; Petronius 114; Dio Chrysostom 7.5 (cf Lucian, A True Story 1.28-29; 2.46)
  • unusually fierce and longlasting storm
  • hungry passengers who abandon all hope

No doubt all these things did happen many times in reality. And their regular occurrence in fiction suggests a set of stock literary motifs that authors describing shipwrecks drew upon when they set out to narrate such an event.

The last two points listed above were standard fare in too many stories to cite. (They, too, were the subject of parody by Lucian in his “A True Story” 1.6.)

And the literary style?

What of the technical style of Acts 27?

Within Acts 27 are nearly thirty instances of literary allusions and elegant usage, as well as two oblique optatives, twelve genitive absolutes, and ten occurrences of the particle te. This is the most sustained passage of good writing in Luke-Acts and thus relatively difficult, as many students of New Testament Greek have discovered. (p.52)

I am not an expert on Greek so rely on Pervo’s comments here. He appears to me to imply, in my own words however, that this higher level of literary skill is a little suggestive of the author “cheating” — “borrowing” from some other person’s work for this passage.

And the literary function?

Why would the author introduce such a piece of narrative here? The sea voyage and storm and wreck add nothing to the advancing of the church or gospel. Pervo cites Ramsay:

it is highly important as illuminating the character of Paul, showing how, even as a prisoner and a landsman at sea, he became the dominating personage in a great ship’s company as soon as danger threatened. (p.52)

Those who argue that the difference between the Apocryphal Acts and canonical Acts is that the former tend to make a dominant personality the focal point of their interest need to reconsider that judgement in the light of Acts 27. (p.52) When Paul appears on the scene the author of Acts invariably makes him the centre of the spotlight and all other characters quickly fade except those being used to demonstrate his superiority. So much so that when Acts 27:21 depicts Paul “standing in their midst” to deliver a public oration in the middle of a gale, Haenchen argues:

The author has no real idea of the situation.” (p.53)

Contrast here Haenchen’s view with those who argue the author was an eyewitness on the grounds that he writes of details like the winds and tackle! (Other critics also question the plausibility of the prisoner Paul taking over the leadership of the ship to save them at sea, and it would be interesting to know if those who argue on the basis of tackle, port and wind details for the first-hand nature of the account if they also accept the scenario of Paul standing in the midst and commanding the attention of all with a public address in the middle of the storm.)

Pervo however disagrees with Haenchen here. He cannot believe that any first-century writer understood so little about the conditions of sea travel during his own time. He believes rather that the author is quite intentionally using literary artifice to build up Paul’s greatness of unparalleled character. He is using a technique common in the Apocryphal Acts. Lesser characters are there as foils to help magnify the central person.

This is the literary technique of novelists, not of historians.

The above is principally notes taken from Richard Pervo’s Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles.

More questions open up if an eyewitness

One other point re the argument that Acts 27 is an eyewitness account cannot be overlooked. If it really is an eyewitness account then this view must be judged against the weight of other arguments that relate to the dating of Acts, and the role of Paul in the church, which are far too complex to discuss here. My point is that it is simplistic to argue on the basis of a face-value reading of one piece of datum for an eyewitness account (or two, actually — Loveday Alexander draws in the prologue to support her view as well) when there are so many other larger questions about Acts that could overturn any such narrowly based assessment.

Comparing other examples

So against the detail that the author of Acts must be writing a firsthand account because of unusual knowledge of seafaring data and placenames (even tediously listed), lets compare voyages as told in some of the most popular literature of the first and second centuries:

Compare this one for detailed knowledge of being on a ship (including the mention of the wind with the detail of its direction):

And now, out of the West, Athene . . . called up for them a steady following wind and sent it singing over the wine-dark sea. Telemachus shouted to the crew to lay hands on the tackle and they leapt to his orders. They hauled the fir mast, stept it in its hollow box, made it fast with stays, and hoisted the white sail with plaited oxhide ropes. Struck by the full wind, the sail swelled out, and a dark wave hissed loudly round her stem as the vessel gathered way and sped through the choppy seas, forging ahead on her course. (Odyssey 2)

And for that tedious list of place names and insignifcant detail surely no fiction would want to touch?

Next he commanded us to fling hawsers from moorings and uncoil and ease the sheets. South winds stretched our sails. We fled over foaming waves where the wind, and the helmsmen, chose us a course. And now the wave-girt wooded island of Zacynthus came into view, and then Dulichium, Same, and Neritos with its steep stone cliffs. We evaded the rocks of Ithaca where Laertes had reigned, and cursed the land which had given birth to the savage Ulysses. Presently there appeared before us the cloud-capped headland of Leucate, and Apollo’s temple on the mainland promontory . . . Very soon we saw Phaecia’s airy heights sink behind us, and skirted the shores of Epirus till we approached the harbour of Chaonia and the finally reached hill-city of Buthrotum. (Aeneid, Bk3)

And listing the otherwise pointless detail of insignificant names of those on a voyage? Apollonius of Rhodes goes to the painstaking trouble of naming all fifty-one – 51! – crew and providing the reader with a brief account of each, even though most will not appear again in the remainder of the narrative! What more proof could one want that Apollonius really did know those persons — or at least that they really did exist — who sailed on the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece!

Loveday Alexander’s claim

The above examples demonstrate that Acts is not so completely bereft of the motifs found in popular literature, including epics. For Loveday Alexander to try to claim an exception for the author of Luke-Acts on the strength of such points as relative statistics of place-names to personal names and the face-value reading of the prologues carries little weight when balanced against the broader literary techniques and functions of the Acts 27 as discussed by Pervo. Alexander’s claim is surely bold given our ignorance of the identity of the author let alone the questions over when and for whom the story was written. And I suspect she is selective in assigning which parts of Acts 27 are “true” given much in the chapter that goes beyond the natural.

Does it logically follow?

The author certainly is familiar with some seafaring and geographic knowledge. It does not logically follow that the author was therefore writing a story that was historically true. There is no way of knowing if the author’s knowledge came from personal experience or the abundant literature referencing such details in similar adventure stories, — although we can have some suspicions given Pervo’s observation of the higher literary quality of Acts 27.

The story is clearly fictional, drawing on the common sea adventure motifs of the day. The author is opting to entertain by devoting 60 verses to this story alone when so many other “historical” points of interest he has raised would go unanswered.

The literary function of this adventure story is to dramatize in an entertaining manner the greatness of Paul. It is just as gripping and ‘realistic’ as other sea adventures common to the popular fiction of the day.

It is quite disturbing that in the 21st century a story that opens with a man flying up into the air through the clouds is still taken by so many as “history” simply because the (anonymous) prologue says it’s true!

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13 thoughts on “The sea adventure of Acts 27 an eyewitness account?”

  1. I hope you actually went to the book and read the relevant chapters instead of launching a critique just based on concluding comments. Alexander is well aware of Pervo’s arguments about literary construction and in fact much of her book is in dialogue with Pervo, Robbins and other proponents of literary/rhetorical readings of Acts. She would be the first to acknowledge that there are similarities between Acts and the romances, but there are also significant differences.

    I can’t comment on everything in detail just now. I certainly agree with you that the factuality of certain aspects of Acts’ narrative does not by itself prove that Acts is reliable history. Actually, that’s the point that I was trying to make earlier when you demanded to see Acts proven right on even ‘one’ point by Hemer. I said earlier that no accumulation of accurate details concerning sea voyages, ports of call, other historical events, etc. can ‘prove’ that Acts is reliable. The judgment of the reliability of Acts must be based on a cumulative judgment of its overall character, possible dating and authorship, etc. just as you say. Alexander is well aware of that as well, as you would have seen if you had actually read the relevant chapters. This kind of isolated point-by-point discussion is not very useful in such a complex field as literary criticism, without taking broader discussions into account.

    From Pervo’s comments I can see that judgments concerning literary technique are very subjective. He and Haenchen are incredulous that Paul would have been able to stand up straight in a ship in the middle of a storm and deliver an ‘oration’ which would only have taken about 1 minute to deliver. I can easily imagine Paul clinging to some mast, shouting to make himself heard above the wind and the rain, giving a message of encouragment which the rest of the crew needed to hear. Nothing about it strikes me as implausible or artificial.

    And I should thank you for posting these parallel passages of details from other literary works which I was not aware of, because it is so clear how different they are from the descriptions in Acts. In Homer, for example, we have a wind sent by a goddess “singing over the dark-wine sea”. Compare with Acts: “But soon a violent wind, called the northeaster, rushed down from Crete”. The grandiose description in the Odyssey is clearly intended for literary effect, as opposed to the pedestrian description of Acts. Or consider the descriptions of the locations which the voyagers in the Aeneid pass through: “the wave-girt wooded island of Zakynthos”, “Neritos with its steep stone cliffs”, “the cloud-capped headland of Leucate”, etc. This is obviously a veritable cornucopia of exotic, colorful locations, more generic than factual (Leucate would obviously not be cloud-capped all the time!). Compare now Acts: “After we had sailed across the sea that is off Cilicia and Pamphylia, we came to Myra in Lycia…we came to the place called Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea”. What? Shouldn’t that be “Cilicia of the colorful fields” or “the golden city of Lasea”? No, because the author is not interested in painting an exotic picture of faraway lands for his readers, he is simply giving an account of places he passed through on his journey with Paul.

    And as for the selectivity in narration of Acts, the same holds true and more so for many of the other historians of Antiquity. How much more of 1st-Century Judaism would we have liked Josephus to tell us? How much more would we have wished to know from Herodotus, or Tacitus about the respective events which they narrate? All historians in antiquity were selective, most probably following Lucian’s advice to recount what would be profitable and edifying for the readers (note that this tempers Pervo’s conclusions about the ‘edifying’ or ‘entertaining’ nature of Acts: this is something which all historians were conscious of in late antiquity).

  2. More than once now when I ask you for a detail or to address a detail, you have said that it is only in the “cumulative judgment of the overall character” of a text (or words similar) that the reliability of a text can be assessed.

    On what can any ‘cumulative’ judgment be based except the details?

    You seem determined to avoid addressing the details but ask me to read a whole book and apparently to make a cumulative judgment based on its overall character. Well I can’t read all the books so you will have to support the “cumulative judgments of the overall character” of the books you read by showing me how they get the details right.

    Or if my arguments are invalid then you will have to show me how they are wrong in the details. If the details don’t stand up then the whole edifice collapses.

    And you are spot on right about the differences we find between the styles of epic poetry and a prose narration. Unfortunately this is a digression from the point I made.

    The point you and Alexander made in the extract you supplied was the content, not the style. A comparison of the content is not a subjective exercise. You complain that “judgments concerning literary technique are very subjective”, so let’s focus then on the actual nonsubjective points I was addressing:

    1. the detailed seafaring knowledge displayed by the narrator
    2. the “tedious” list of place names in the story

    These nonsubjective features were the basis on which it was argued that the narrator was an eyewitness or participant in the events of Acts 27.

    I have demonstrated that any author could have picked up such details from the literary genres of the day. I also said in the previous post that personal experience could also have been a source of his information, but even if that was the case it simply does not logically follow that the story was a true experience of the author. (That’s not extreme scepticism: it’s basic logic and a common truism we all well understand.)

    (And contrary to your implication I did restrict my comments on Alexander to what I read from the extract and made no implications about her broader views.)

    I can easily imagine Paul clinging to some mast, shouting to make himself heard above the wind and the rain, giving a message of encouragment which the rest of the crew needed to hear.

    ‘rest of the crew’? Was Paul one of the crew?

    Why would the ‘rest of the crew’ have needed to hear Paul telling them that the god he worshipped had sent an angel to him?

    “Neritos with its steep stone cliffs” “the cloud-capped headland of Leucate”,

    If this was in Acts, you would then find 20 peer-reviewed articles pointing out that only an eye-witness could have given such an accurate description of the steepness of the cliffs at Neritos, or Luke’s astounding knowledge that the headland of Leucate very rarely had totally blue skies above it……

  5. Steve Carr,

    My apologies. I should have referred to Paul addressing the crew, of which he is not a part. As for your second question, if this crew was like any other in late antiquity, they would have been happy for any promise of divine intervention or providence, from whatever god or divine patron happened to be available.

    On the contrary, you would most likely find about 20 peer-reviewed articles arguing that this proves the generic nature, as well as the entertainment aspect of Luke-Acts. There are enough such monographs and articles as is. The job of Pervo, et al. would only be made easier by the use of such obviously decorative descriptions by the author of Acts.

  6. JD: “And as for the selectivity in narration of Acts, the same holds true and more so for many of the other historians of Antiquity.”

    My response: Once again this is avoiding the critical details. My point (or rather Pervo’s) was the very specific one about what particular sorts of topics historians as opposed to storytellers select and elaborate. You have directed your response away from this inconvenient detail to a generalized “selectivity in narration of Acts”.

    No fair. You are headed towards a cumulative judgment based on the overall character of Acts as seen from the distance up in Heaven — with the result that all the inconvenient details on the ground that give the lie to that divine viewpoint are blurred out of view.

  7. One more comment: The prologues of Luke and Acts inform us that the implied narrator wants his implied readers to take his accounts as serious history. One problem: the real author can only supply his implied narrator with motifs from the fiction genre. That’s not a subjective judgment but an examination of the details on the ground. I will probably supply more of them in a future post.

    The only defence the author of Acts has left, therefore, against the charge of contradicting himself (prologue asserting history vs narrative drawing on fiction motifs) is to tone down the poetic flourish. But given Pervo’s intimation about the advanced stylistic accomplishment of much of Acts 27, perhaps the author’s natural lack of literary ability was his greatest asset.

    But then again there is evidence the author did draw on the historian Josephus. Wonder where a study of the style in that context would lead . . . . ?

    Just a thought. Not the argument. Just a plausible explanation if the principle argument is accepted.

    But the real problem here is I fear that I took up a challenge to supply examples of comparable factual details in other literature as we find in Acts. And when I cited passages that gave too many such details it was as bad as if I found a passage with too few. I think I need to find another exact copy of Acts . . . . .?

    (okay, that was two, not one, last comments)

  8. Are you referring to Pervo’s single comment about state historians preferring eulogies for dead soldiers to stories of ship wrecks? I hope you don’t seriously think that that ‘detail’ proves that the author of Acts was not drawing on historical motifs.

    I really shouldn’t have to say this, but think of whose history Luke is writing and at what time. He is writing (at the latest) about 100 years after the beginning of Christianity. There were no dead soldiers in Christianity to commemorate, unless they were martyrs! And there certainly weren’t any Christian seiges of cities to commemorate either. Well, Luke might have commented on the siege and destruction of Jerusalem…unless he was writing before that happened. And don’t tell me that if he was writing enough years after the event he wouldn’t have mentioned it either. Eusebius writing at the end of the third century devotes several sections to it.

    So the author of Acts can only come up with fictional motifs, eh? Then where’s the love story? Where are the exotic tales of barbarians? How come Acts only tells us about mundane things like missionaries struggling to spread an unpopular, paradoxical message about a crucified yet “smeared” (christos) savior? Where are the naked Theclas going for a swim in a tub full of hungry seals?

    You took up the challenge to find passages with comparable factual details, but I pointed out that they’re not really comparable after all, because their ornamental value is very clear in those passages as opposed to that of Acts. I suppose you’re complaining that I am setting the standard of comparison impossibly high. I don’t think so. I think you are glossing over obvious differences in style and content between the Greek novels and Acts. Find another influential ancient work that was regarded as history up until the 20th century when it was ‘proven’ to be fiction, and let’s see why people thought so.

  9. You wrote: “Find another influential ancient work that was regarded as history up until the 20th century when it was ‘proven’ to be fiction, and let’s see why people thought so.”

    My response: Are you advocating a return to assessing ancient literature through the scholarly and educational standards of the previous 19 centuries?

    But what I find depressingly familiar in your response here is the tone. Efforts at a dispassionate intellectual discussion that grants a respectable plausibility or intellectual integrity to the other view appear to suddenly collapse when pressed on the details. Even more so when you implicitly admit that the author opted to devote so much space to just one of Paul’s supposedly frequent shipwrecks when he could have told his readers about martyrs!

    You wrote: “I can easily imagine Paul clinging to some mast, shouting to make himself heard above the wind and the rain, giving a message of encouragment which the rest of the crew needed to hear. Nothing about it strikes me as implausible or artificial.”

    My response: Haenchen and others are probably just too much the inbred ivory tower scholarly types to have the requisite (Boy’s Own Adventure/Hollywood?) imagination.

  10. “Efforts at a dispassionate intellectual discussion that grants a respectable plausibility or intellectual integrity to the other view appear to suddenly collapse when pressed on the details.”

    Where did you see that? You gave some details, I countered them. I don’t think they prove your point. And I don’t automatically grant another viewpoint ‘a respectable plausibility or intellectual integrity’ just because it’s another viewpoint. That’s like what Michael Fox was complaining about in his artcile on faith-based scholarship. I will grant plausibility where it is due, and I just don’t think that the identification of Acts with an ancient novel is a very plausible view. And not because I need it to validate orthodox Christian history either.

    “Even more so when you implicitly admit that the author opted to devote so much space to just one of Paul’s supposedly frequent shipwrecks when he could have told his readers about martyrs!”

    It’s one of the ‘we’ sections. It would only make sense that, if the writer were an eyewitness, he’d give more space to describing events in which he himself was a participant. It seems like now you are operating under a pre-conceived notion of what an early Christian history would tell us about.

    “Haenchen and others are probably just too much the inbred ivory tower scholarly types to have the requisite (Boy’s Own Adventure/Hollywood?) imagination.”

    I couldn’t agree more:) It’s like the comparative religionists of the first half of the 19th century, who insisted that field work just couldn’t hold a candle to the meticulous theorizing of the great metropolitan university centers in Geneva, Holland, Brussels, etc. Actually, I think that’s a major problem afflicting biblical studies these days, that most scholars spend so much time studying the secondary literature that they have no feel for the actual conditions of life which would have prevailed in the 1st Century. Think how much ink has been spilled on how the Gospels are related literarily to one another, or how they developed without taking into account how this sort of process really would have worked in the ancient world. I also find it interesting that those most convinced of the reliability of Acts were actual travelers (i.e. William Ramsay) or seafarers (James Jones). The ivory tower imagination is indeed extremely limited, not to mention hampered by various ‘politically correct’ ideologies.

  11. Haenchen’s full comment was: “the author has no real idea of the situation: with the howl of the gale and the pitch of the ship Paul could not deliver an address as on the Areopagus”.

    Maybe the reason his speech had no effect on the crew was because the wind prevented it from being heard by anyone. Paul probably had to go to Luke afterwards and tell him everything he had said so everyone could read what he tried to say. 🙂

  12. the respondent ” can easily imagine Paul clinging to some mast, shouting to make himself heard above the wind and the rain, giving a message of encouragment which the rest of the crew needed to hear. Nothing about it strikes me as implausible or artificial.” A difficulty with this view is that the narrator does not state that Paul was clinging to a mast, etc. he states that he took a stand in the midst of the group. The critic is writing fiction. One can “easily imagine” much. the issue is what the narrator says

  13. Of course — you make it sound so obvious. The author expresses no concept of mast-holding but only of a Paul-node emanating calm to the distraught victims. Easy imaginings of the sort expressed here are surely born of easy wish-it-were-a-true-story fantasies.

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