2007-04-27

Ancient historians’ accounts of shipwrecks

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by Neil Godfrey

Some of my recent posts on the shipwreck scenes in Acts have been referred to another site where they have been critiqued without link to this site thus making it impossible for my original pieces and their contexts to be crosschecked against that review. (Why do some sites do that? Seems the essence of unethical netiquette to me!)

The most space seemed dedicated to strongly implying I was saying that there is no such thing as a mention of a single shipwreck in Greek or Roman history. My whole point was, following Pervo’s lead on this, to give an explanation for why the author of Acts spends as much as much as 60 verses on this narrative in Acts. The critiquer sophistically argued that the reason was that our verses were introduced into the bible in the middle ages and not part of the original. Oh dear. What silly duffers Pervo and I are for not thinking of that!

But the critiquer nowhere addresses the point Pervo makes and that I attempt to underline — the proportion of space devoted to such a story is all out of whack in comparison with ancient histories. And not only the proportion, but extent of dramatic detail to boot. So by ignoring this central point that I was presenting — or mischievously and worse explaining it away by allusion to when “chapters and verses” were introduced into the bible text — the critiquer goes on to cite many examples of historians referencing shipwrecks.

One such text was the passage in Josephus’s Life. I happened to have posted something on that recently so no need to discuss that one here again.

Probably the longest is in Polybius, Histories, 1.37 (one paragraph — from the LacusCurius website, linked)

They had crossed the strait in safety and were off the territory of Camarina when they were overtaken by so fierce a storm and so terrible a disaster that it is difficult adequately to describe it owing to its surpassing magnitude. For of their three hundred and sixty-four ships only eighty were saved; the rest either foundered or were dashed by the waves against the rocks and headlands and broken to pieces, covering the shore with corpses and wreckage. History tells of no greater catastrophe at sea taking place at one time. The blame must be laid not so much on ill-fortune as on the commanders; for the captains had repeatedly urged them not to sail along the outer coast of Sicily, that turned towards the Libyan sea, as it was very rugged and had few safe anchorages: they also warned them that one of the dangerous astral periods was not over and another just approaching (for it was between the rising of Orion and that of Sirius that they undertook the voyage). The commanders, however, paid no attention to a single word they said, they took the outer course and there they were in the open sea thinking to strike terror into some of the cities they passed by the brilliancy of their recent success and thus win them over.

Another is by Quintus Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander, 4.3.16-18 which is not online, but consists of all of 16 lines in my Penguin edition.

Another is in Tacitus, Annals 2.23-24. I can’t find a downloadable copy of that online either but my paperback text gives it 9 lines.

Another is in Herodotus, The Histories, 3.318; 7.188 — 3 lines and 13 lines

Others in Thucydides, The Pelopennesian War, 2.6.26; 6.20.104; 8.24.31 and 8.24.24 — I only located the last 2 of these, 4 lines and

One reason I am no longer a Christian is because I eventually checked for myself to find that many of the claims proved to be false or misrepresentations or misunderstandings of the case being made on the other side. Looks like the tradition is alive and well, still.

Other responses to the critique:

The critique successfully refutes”Neil’s attempt to group all ancient narratives of sea voyages int a genre of ‘ancient adventure writings’ indicating that all such are fiction completely fails.” The critique is unremarkably successful in achieving this because it completely fabricated any attempt on my part to do any such thing. More than once the critique objected that I was asserting there was a “genre” of “ancient adventure” (apparently in addition to genres such as romance novels, satire, history) where nowhere did I ever assert such a thing.

The critique picks up on one point I cited from Pervo that related to a single feature of the Apocryphal Acts (a point so generic I could have made by comparison to almost any other novel) and thought thereby he was countering my argument by citing other criticisms of a more general nature against Pervo’s treatment of the Apocryphal Acts.

The critique objects that I “never really engage [Loveday] Alexander’s argument”. Well, no, I do stand guilty. I never intended to, never claimed to. Only addressed one point of hers as cited to me in an exchange in this blog and hence within a limited context.

The critiquer quotes questions I pose but then proceeds to answer them himself as if I was raising them without hope of an answer. No hint given as to what my answers were or even that I was proposing any. Maybe the critiquer was presented with an edited copied of my posts.

And so on and on.

One thing my experience in christianity taught me was to never sweep details under the carpet. Always check out every niggling doubt. You might find the whole house about to collapse. And it seems nothing has changed in many quarters of “christian critiques” of sceptical views.

  • 2007-04-28 01:30:01 UTC - 01:30 | Permalink

    “But the critiquer nowhere addresses the point Pervo makes and that I attempt to underline — the proportion of space devoted to such a story is all out of whack in comparison with ancient histories.”

    How did you get that idea? The whole first post (http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/2007/04/what-does-acts-27-tell-us-about-acts.html) is an answer to that very question, viz. why the author decided to devote so much space to the description and narration of this single shipwreck. Read the comments again and you will find a detailed explanation both of the amount of space Luke devotes to this account and to the level of detail.

    I might add my own explanation, which I’ve posted before in response to Pervo’s comment that ancient historians generally preferred to lavish detail on other things, like sieges and orations for dead soldiers: obviously a history of 1st-Century Christianity (and only of its 1st 25 years or so at that) would not have such materials available! All that a writer could plausibly have from this period are the very things Acts talks about: the spread of the preaching of the Gospel, the missionary voyages of Paul, accounts of persecution, etc. It seems to me that many attempts to show that Luke couldn’t have been writing history because he doesn’t talk about many of the things other historians liked to talk about can be traced back to this oversight: they have failed to take into account WHOSE history Luke is writing about.

    “not only the proportion, but extent of dramatic detail to boot.”

    Oh, really? Your quotation from Polybius is actually very instructive in this regard:

    “they were overtaken by so fierce a storm and so terrible a disaster that it is difficult adequately to describe it owing to its surpassing magnitude.”

    “the rest either foundered or were dashed by the waves against the rocks and headlands and broken to pieces, covering the shore with corpses and wreckage.”

    “History tells of no greater catastrophe at sea taking place at one time.”

    Compare to Acts:

    “But soon a violent wind, called the northeaster, rushed down from Crete”

    “we were scarcely able to get the ship’s boat under control”

    “We were being pounded by the storm so violently that on the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard”

    If I had to decide which of these was the ancient novel or epic, I’d go with Polybius as the novel! Also note in Polybius’ account such ‘stock motifs’ as deciding to sail at an inopportune time despite better advice, and ‘an unusually fierce and longlasting storm’.

    “More than once the critique objected that I was asserting there was a “genre” of “ancient adventure” (apparently in addition to genres such as romance novels, satire, history) where nowhere did I ever assert such a thing.”

    I agree that here Chris perhaps misread your intentions. But the fact is that both you and Pervo appeal to stock motifs of tales of shipwrecks as found in ‘ancient adventures’:

    “One answer is that storm and shipwreck stories were a staple of ancient adventure writings.” (Pervo, quoted)

    Here it definitely seems like Pervo has a particular genre of literature in mind.

    “As for shipwrecks being a staple of ancient adventures…” (your words)

    You yourself specifically compare the details in Acts to those in fiction. But you seem to have chosen to ignore the comment that you also make that “No doubt all these things did happen many times in reality.”

    “The critique objects that I “never really engage [Loveday] Alexander’s argument”. Well, no, I do stand guilty. I never intended to, never claimed to. Only addressed one point of hers as cited to me in an exchange in this blog and hence within a limited context.”

    Please explain what the difference is between ‘addressing one point’ and engaging with the argument produced in support of that point. It actually seems very disingenuous to make that distinction, as in your lengthy 3 posts you do just that (i.e. engage with what you take to be Alexander’s arguments), but now you seem to want to insulate them from criticism by insisting that they are not actually ‘engaging’ Alexander’s arguments.

    And I should also point out that you have completely misrepresented Alexander’s ‘point’ in the first place. You say that Alexander gives “reasons for believing that the sea travel story of Acts 27 was an eyewitness account.” Nowhere did she do any such thing. The gloss that Alexander’s observations might more plausibly point to an eyewitness account was my own, as you will see if you re-read the post where I posted excerpts from her work. The context of the first excerpt was a comparative analysis of narrative maps and toponymic detail between Acts and the ancient novels, particularly those of Chariton and Xenophon. At most in that post she argues that Luke was trying to create the IMPRESSION of autopsia, and then in my own comments I asked why we should assume that he was only CREATING that impression and not that he actually did produce autopsia. The context of the 2nd excerpt was a chapter-long discussion of the distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ in the ancient world, and in which category the ancient reader would have classified it. She argues that while some features of Acts might lead it to be classified as fiction, overall the prologue and the weight of literary style and content would probably lead ancient readers to classify it as factual. Again, no argument for eye-witness participation.

    That’s why I and Chris stressed the importance of actually reading Alexander’s work. Unless you didn’t mean to engage Alexander at all, and only used her comments as a springboard to address the generic question of whether Acts was written by an eye-witness? But I initially posted quotes from her book in response to your request for specific claims to engage with: “And Luke’s storm at sea is as generic as it is unique like other storm at sea episodes in ancient literature. Why not cite the relevant sections in Alexander for me if they establish this is not so?” Alexander does just that, but in the wider context of her arguments in the chapters I initially referred to.

    As an afterthought, what is one to make of a situation like this: in reference to whether Acts most resembles ancient novels or not, you say:

    “Well I’ve read many ancient novels and epics and Luke’s level of detail is no different in kind from what I read in those.”

    But in Chris Price’s response to your posts he says:

    “[Alexander] finds that [Luke’s level of detail] is unlike that of the ancient novels. Having read many ancient novels, I would agree with her.”

    The same background (having read many ancient novels), diametrically opposite conclusions. What does that say about subjectivity in assessing literary parallels and/or borrowings?

  • 2007-04-28 04:49:24 UTC - 04:49 | Permalink

    Neil,

    APOLOGY

    First, I apologize for not including a link to your cite. I meant to and realized this morning that I had not. I’ve fixed that. I do not have a “no link” policy to skeptics I criticize. Just the opposite in fact.

    REVISIONIST REFLECTING

    You are making arguments now that you did not make in your original post.

    Neil Before: “Historians liked to include as set pieces accounts of sieges or orations for dead soldiers, not shipwrecks.”

    Neil Now: “But the critiquer nowhere addresses the point Pervo makes and that I attempt to underline — the proportion of space devoted to such a story is all out of whack in comparison with ancient histories.”

    You did not say that Historians included shipwrecks but did not devote as much space to them as Luke does in Acts. You said they had no reason at all to include them. In fact, in your original post you did not make any mention of the length of accounts of sea voyages in ancient histories. If I missed it, please point it out to me.

    You also made no mention of the length of the accounts in the “ancient adventure” you cited. How could you have ignored such details if you were intent on proving something about the length of the accounts? If the whole point was a comparison of lengths of such accounts how come you neglected to mention such details? In fact, let us look at some of your examples from “ancient adventures”, starting with the Acts of Phillip (http://www.gnosis.org/library/actphil.htm):

    >>>“And he came to the sea in the borders of the Candaci and found a ship going to Azotus, and agreed with the sailors for four staters, and sailed. A great wind came, and they began to cast out the tackle and say farewell to each other and lament.

    Philip consoled them: Not even the ship shall be lost. He went up on the prow and said: Sea, sea, Jesus Christ by me his servant bids thee still thy wrath. There was calm, and the sailors thanked him and asked to become servants of Jesus. And he instructed them to forsake the cares of this life. And they believed, and Philip landed and baptized them all.”>>And again, after seven months, I saw our father Jacob standing by the sea of Jamnia, and we his sons were with him. And, behold, there came a ship sailing by, full of dried flesh, without sailors or pilot: and there was written upon the ship, Jacob. And our father saith to us, Let us embark on our ship. And when we had gone on board, there arose a vehement storm, and a tempest of mighty wind; and our father, who was holding the helm, flew away from us. And we, being tost with the tempest, were borne along over the: sea; and the ship was filled with water and beaten about with a mighty wave, so that it was well-nigh broken in pieces. And Joseph fled away upon a little boat, and we all were divided upon twelve boards, and Levi and Judah were together. We therefore all were scattered even unto afar off. Then Levi, girt about with sackcloth, prayed for us all unto the Lord. And when the storm ceased, immediately the ship reached the land, as though in peace. And, lo, Jacob our father came, and we rejoiced with one accord.

  • 2007-04-28 04:50:09 UTC - 04:50 | Permalink

    Hmmm, appears to be too long. I’ll post it on my blog.

  • 2007-04-28 16:52:51 UTC - 16:52 | Permalink

    Response to Layman:

    I originally said (was I quoting Pervo?): “Historians liked to include as set pieces accounts of sieges or orations for dead soldiers, not shipwrecks.”

    And I stand by that and it does not contradict what I later said at all. Firstly there is the blog context — I have sometimes thought of collating several of my blogs and editing to become discrete essays, but till then a blog post is just one of a series of ongoing discussions and has a claim to be seen in that context unless otherwise indicated. That’s one of the values and reasons for blogging as opposed to formal publishing.

    Secondly, yes, shipwrecks in histories are not by any means given the same treatment as accounts of sieges or orations. Not one of the shipwreck depictions displays any of the “set piece” characteristics we find in common between Acts 27 and fictional shipwreck stories — which I have in other posts listed in some detail. So I still say:“Historians liked to include as set pieces accounts of sieges or orations for dead soldiers, not shipwrecks.”

    As an ex ancient history student/teacher I am reasonably familiar with much of the ancient literature and knew immediately what Pervo was addressing with that comment. I even posted something on Josephus’ shipwreck account soon afterwards to highlight the stark contrast between the treatment of a shipwreck in Josephus’ works and that in Acts. Seen against the shipwrecks in the clearly historical literature there is simply no comparison with the Acts 27-28 narrative. It is probably even overstepping the normal meaning of the term to refer to any shipwreck scene in any of the histories as “narratives” in their own right.

    As for you saying I was not addressing the length of the passage in Acts, I have surely said enough that should be obvious.

    I have no idea of your point re the Acts of Philip, and glazed over it merely, since I can see no relevance for this gospel on the question I was addressing. My passing reference to an apocryphal gospel was just that, and as I pointed out I could just as well have made the same point by other comparisons. I have no interest in the Acts of Philip in this context — you will have to take up any arguments you have with that with whoever is interested.

  • 2007-04-28 17:31:00 UTC - 17:31 | Permalink

    JD wrote: “The same background (having read many ancient novels), diametrically opposite conclusions. What does that say about subjectivity in assessing literary parallels and/or borrowings?”

    I have no idea without knowing the details of exactly what was said or meant. I have already listed the many set piece details, and some of the specific jargon and verbal details, that are in common. I doubt LA would deny any of those. But maybe it means that rather than throw the baby out with the bath water such disagreement should encourage others to read the texts and think for themselves. Otherwise its a bit like saying that because evolutionary biologists debate the techniques of evolution we should throw the whole idea of evolution out the window! Now really!! 😉

    JD wrote: “She argues that while some features of Acts might lead it to be classified as fiction, overall the prologue and the weight of literary style and content would probably lead ancient readers to classify it as factual.”

    I have no quarrel at all. Acts is clearly meant to be taken (by its final redactor at least) as a piece of literature meant to be treated as serious history by the “implied reader” (a term I am not taking the time to explain now). This does not deny its many Hellenistic novelistic features. I know, I’m not explaining everything here in this one reply. Only have 24 hours in the day.

  • 2007-04-28 17:44:04 UTC - 17:44 | Permalink

    My reference was to the “implied reader” (tech term from literary analysis) — in part because I have not been able to figure out for sure who the original audience of Acts was meant to be. Several competing candidates.

  • 2007-04-29 01:48:16 UTC - 01:48 | Permalink

    “Acts is clearly meant to be taken (by its final redactor at least) as a piece of literature meant to be treated as serious history by the “implied reader” (a term I am not taking the time to explain now). This does not deny its many Hellenistic novelistic features.”

    What is the textual and internal evidence that Acts had more than one author?

    If it was meant to be taken as serious history, and it is in fact factually accurate in dozens of details concerning pre-70 Jerusalem Temple practice, Roman politics and officials, major events of contemporary history, city architecture, travel conventions, etc. what reason is there for not giving it the benefit of the doubt? Do we always have to assume that those devious early Christians were out to deceive everyone?

    Its ‘many’ Hellenistic novel featuers boil down to it featuring shipwrecks and travel, and the occasional literary stylistic device borrowed from Homer and the epics (most ancient historians did this as well). Let’s not get carried away here.

  • 2007-05-01 10:08:57 UTC - 10:08 | Permalink

    When I say “by its final redactor at least” I mean to make clear I am discussing the text in the form in which it appears to us. (The textual history certainly informs us that it has not been without redaction.)

    No one is assuming “devious Christians” in the way you imply here. You misread the intent of my post, motivated as you are by your own admission to promote a faith based interpretation of the text.

    Your last paragraph is equally fallacious but I find it pointless discussing with someone more interested in ideological persuasion than historical exploration.

  • 2007-05-01 13:15:28 UTC - 13:15 | Permalink

    I inadvertently deleted JD’s reply to the above while removing spam. (Shamefully careless of me! 🙁 ) Hence his reply appears here in this format.

    JD’s Comment:
    And I find it pointless to keep on engaging with someone who insists on psychologizing his conversation partners and making blanket criticisms.

    What do you mean ‘faith-based’ interpretation? The question I have been exploring whether Acts is a reliable historical source. Sure, if Acts is generally reliable we have more ‘pieces of the puzzle’ of Christian origins which support a more conservative interpretation. But even if Acts is generally reliable, it does not mean that the resurrection took place or that Jesus really appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. So while I do have what you might call a ‘stake’ in whether Acts is reliable or not, it has little to do with faith as usually construed in the Christian tradition. An atheist could easily hold that Acts gives us a basically reliable outline of the spread of Christianity and the missionary activity of Paul. For her it is yet another tale of religious fervor, high hopes and human frailty.

    My response:
    Please JD, try to get out of your head that I have some agenda to “disprove” the historicity of Acts. Capital T truth may be the be all and end all of fundy mindsets but I am not interested in such debates and even less in responding to persistent attempts to frame everything I write within that mindset.

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