Sunday, April 25, 2010

Paul's Shipwreck on Malta

A 360 Degrees Historical Perspective of Acts 27 & 28

Tracing the Apostle Paul's missionary journeys, he was arrested in Judea, tried, and then transported as a prisoner to Rome. From the standpoint of historical evidence, the account found in the book of Acts recording Saint Paul's voyage and shipwreck is supported by a wealth of detail. History provides us with a striking meteorological and nautical confirmation of the biblical record.

Acts 27.12 - 28.1

Luke records that the ship drifted for fourteen days in the gale and then shipwrecked on the island of Malta, halfway across the Mediterranean. This account of a fourteen day gale, followed by a shipwreck on a remote island, reads like a tall tale.

However, the meteorological and nautical evidence demonstrates, and in rather spectacular fashion, that these events must have occurred just as Luke records them.

The most important piece of evidence is the exact compass bearing of the gale. This bearing can be established by means of three separate calculations.

First, Luke states that Euraquilo struck shortly after they left Fair Havens.

In other words, the ship must have been less than halfway to their intended destination at Phoenix. They must have been somewhere between Cape Matala and a point seventeen miles W.N.W. of the Cape when the gale struck.

Second, there is the relation of the island of Clauda (or Cauda) to this start point. Cape Matala is on a bearing of east 7 degrees north from the eastern edge of Clauda, while the halfway point to Phoenix is east 40 degrees north.

For the ship to get behind Clauda, Euraquilo must have been blowing from a point somewhere between these two bearings.

The point midway between these two figures is east 25 degrees north (or E.N.E. 1/4 N.). This cannot be more than a point and a half off the actual direction of the wind.

Third, Luke states that when they got behind Clauda, the sailors were afraid that they would be blown onto the Syrtis sandbanks of north Africa. However, for them to have been blown onto those banks from Clauda, Euraquilo would have had to have been blowing from a point somewhere between east 18 degrees north and east 37 degrees north.

The point midway between these figures is east 27 degrees north. This figure is only 1/4 point off the mean figure of the previous calculation.

These three calculations establish that the direction from which the wind was blowing could not have been more than a point off the designation E.N.E. 1/2 N.

This brings us to a another dramatic piece of evidence. As the ship drifted west from Clauda, it would have been pointed due north. We know this because it could not have been pointed directly into the wind without capsizing.

In other words, it had to have been pointed north, just off the direction from which the wind was coming. Using this information, we can calculate with some precision both the direction and rate of the ship’s drift to the west.

Ancient records reveal that Egyptian grain ships were the largest vessels of the time, being about the size of an early nineteenth century sailing vessel. This size is implicitly confirmed by Luke’s statement that there were 276 people on board.

Since their ship was pointed due north, while the wind was from the northeast, we can roughly calculate the direction of ship’s lateral - or sideways - drift.

The azimuth, or direction, of the ship’s drift from Clauda would have been approximately west eight degrees north. The island of Malta is not directly west of Clauda. Instead, Malta’s bearing from Clauda is exactly west eight degrees north.

This brings us to yet another piece of evidence. Luke states that it took them fourteen days to drift to Malta. The distance from Clauda to the easternmost point of Malta is 476.6 miles. To calculate the westward rate of drift of their ship, it is necessary to know two things: the size of the ship and the force of the gale.

We know the approximate size of the ship and it is possible to establish the mean intensity of the gale. We can then calculate an average rate of drift for Paul’s vessel. This calculation reveals an average westward drift of one and one half miles per hour. Thus it would take Paul’s ship about thirteen days to drift to Malta. Luke records that it took them fourteen days.

This nautical and meteorological evidence provides us with an astonishing confirmation of the historical accuracy of Luke's narrative.

Columbia Theological Seminary, Atlanta; Emory University; NOAA - Historical Climatology Dept.

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