14 Nights to Malta

No, that’s not how long it took our tour group to get to Malta.  It’s how long it took the Apostle Paul to get there from the island of Crete aboard a storm-tossed Alexandrian wheat ship, ca. A. D. 58.

The account of Paul’s voyage to Rome in the book of Acts of the Apostles says:  “But when the fourteenth night was come, as we were driven up and down in Adria, about midnight the shipmen deemed that they drew near to some country; and sounded, and found it twenty fathoms: and when they had gone a little further, they sounded again, and found it fifteen fathoms.  Then fearing lest we should have fallen upon rocks, they cast four anchors out of the stern, and wished for the day” (27:27-29).Pauls-Voyage-to-Rome-Map

In the center of this map you see the island of Crete, below which Paul’s ship was struck by a massive storm that kept him and his 275 fellow passengers in windblown darkness for fourteen days.  On the “fourteenth night” the ships crew heard a great surf roaring off the bow of their vessel, and their soundings convinced them they would soon be broken on coastal rocks if they did not set four stern anchors and wait for the dawn.  At daybreak they sighted the small island of Malta that you see just below Sicily on the map.

In the gray of the dawn they “took up the anchors” and “ran the ship aground” at the location now memorialized as St. Paul’s Bay that we have seen in an earlier blog (May 8, 2014).

St. Paul's Bay, Malta

St. Paul’s Bay, Malta

  How long did it take Paul and his companions to reach Malta, beginning from the southern lee of Crete and drifting with sails struck, storm-driven? (27:15).  The Acts account says it took fourteen days.  How accurate is this?

An experienced Mediterranean mariner, James Smith, in his 1848 classic The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul, tells how he studied this question.  He used his calculations and those of many other experienced Mediterranean masters and sailors to arrive at a rate of drift, in such a storm and in such a vessel, at approximately 33 miles per 24 hour period.

Smith says, “It is quite clear from the narrative [in Acts] that St. Luke counts the time from the day the ship left Fair Havens [on the island of Crete]….Hence according to these calculations a ship…would, by midnight on the 14th [day], be less than than three miles from the entrance of St. Paul’s Bay.” *

So, as we have seen, and as Luke, the author of Acts writes:

On the “fourteenth night” the ship’s crew heard great waves roaring off the bow of their vessel and their soundings convinced them they would soon be broken on the rocks if they did not set their anchors and wait for the day.  At dawn they sighted the shores of Malta.  More to come, DB

100_2034 * James Smith, esq.  The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul (1848 edition), 126-28.


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