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
- 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
- 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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