Lecture 23: Acts Chapters 27 and 28
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Paul had been eager to get to Rome for a long time, and finally goes there, but as a prisoner in Roman custody. He arrives in Rome but only after they experience a shipwreck. Paul continued to preach in Rome even though he was under house arrest. The mission continues because the power of the Holy Spirit is still active to fulfill Acts 1:8 through you.
Lecture 23: Acts Chapters 27-28
A. Paul Sails for Rome
1. Aristarchus and Luke Travel with Paul
Paul has been eager to get to Rome for a long time. We read that in Paul’s own writing in Romans 15 where he says that he needs to go to Jerusalem first. There may be trouble there so please pray for me, but after that, I hope to visit you in Rome. Well, also in Acts 19 and language very reminiscent of Jesus in Luke 9:51 where Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. That was his plan and he sends out disciples ahead of him. In Acts 19, Paul made plans to go to Rome after Jerusalem. So Acts 27 he is finally going to get to Rome, probably not the way he expected, in Roman custody but Paul is the same person whether he is in custody or not. For someone who likes to be out preaching, all that time in custody was probably very difficult for him. At least in Rome, he is going to be ministering to people. He was preaching to the governor periodically back in Acts 24. So, in Acts 27, he is being sent by sea. Sea travelling was known to be dangerous; this was true both in novels and in works of history. In fact, it was so dangerous that a lot of people ask ancient oracles about it, and often they would say yes, it would be as this was indeed common. Paul has already been ship wrecked a number of times as we see from 2 Corinthians. Although Acts saves that for his big ship wreck in Malta; Aristarchus and Luke goes with Paul. They didn’t always let people travel with a prisoner as such; sometimes they would let servants travel with a prisoner, sometimes not. Apparently Julius understood the situation with Paul who wasn’t a threat as such. So, Luke was also allowed to go with him. A centurion would sometimes be sent with a small detail of people for something like this. There are probably a small number of troops as they have to provide food for everybody on the way. He is going to have to requisition these things. So they take a ship out of Caesarea which wouldn’t be too difficult and naturally, they would sail north and eventually they are able to catch an Alexandrian grain ship heading west.
There were a lot of ships sailing north from Alexandria; they would come up the coast of Syria, up to the southern coast of Asia Minor and then they would cut across to the bottom of Italy. Alexandrian grain ships could be very large. In the 2nd century Lucian speaks of one called the Isis which held six hundred people. Paul is going to end up in a grain ship, a ship that holds two hundred and seventy six people. So, it is a fairly large grain ship. There were risks associated with sailing and those risks were especially true during winter. That is why in 2 Timothy 4 Paul encourages him to make haste to come to him before winter. That is why Matthew 24:20 says to pray that your flight from Jerusalem not be during the winter. Winter was a difficult time for travel, even on land in many places, but it was very difficult on the sea. Some people did travel during the winter because there were rewards in doing this. The Emperor Claudius having been so eager to get grain to Rome from Alexander had even given special bonuses to those who would travel during the more difficult times. So it was indeed profitable that some owners risked it, especially owners who had multiple ships and weren’t traveling with the ships themselves. They had very expensive insurance for such travel. Many of the sailors on the ships were slaves from Egypt while others were people who had to risk it because they had no other means of income. But at this time, it isn’t winter as of yet. Presumably Festus had arrived around the mouth of July and so Paul’s hearing was settled during the summer. So it is during the autumn they sail and during a certain point, it became more dangerous. This could vary from one year to the next. You couldn’t always predict what the weather would be like. Luke wants to mention that it was after the Day of Atonement which is later in the sailing season.
2. A Winter Storm
If the owner had enough ships, the risk of sailing was worth it. So they reached the coast of Asia Minor. They finally take a ship toward Crete, but the winds were beginning to blow wild and so they sailed to the south of Crete and came to the harbor of Fairhaven, which turns out to be kind of ironic. They stopped there because it a safe place but not really suitable for staying over the winter. It was a small harbor and the sailors weren’t very happy because of being such a small community. So, they wanted to winter somewhere larger such as Phoenix a place further up the coast in the west of Crete. They were going to sail just across the bay, only a few hours, rather than just hugging the coast. Most of these people weren’t familiar with the southern coast of Crete and didn’t know about the sudden gust of winds that could come about. There was a certain meteorological situation there where the winds came down between the mountains with great force. This happens when they are half way across the bay and so, it blows them out to sea. The passengers are probably on the deck; underneath the deck would be where the grain was stored. Passengers would have to bring their own food; they would have to sleep on deck and basically live on deck. Interestingly, the places and number of days throughout the storm narrative fit precisely what happens under these kinds of conditions. There was a book by a 19th Mediterranean Mariner, a Dave Smith who established these conditions and is often cited today for such information. A number of people who have done marine archeology provide us with even more information. In the ship wrecks that have been found, it is usually just the bottom of the ship that remains. Paul warns them about the coming trouble. Paul has sailed a lot but why would they listen to a prisoner, and so they don’t believe Paul. According to what the weather looked like, everything should have been okay. In ancient literature, often you would have people praying and sacrificing to gods before they would sail, that is, if they wanted to have the favor of the gods. They sometimes seek divination to see if the trip would be safe or not. The centurion is happy because of the free hospitality Paul’s friends have given them. But Julius isn’t ready to accept him as a spokesperson, yet.
The ship is blown to the southwest; they come near to the island of Cauda, just south of Crete. They are just able to bring the skip aboard the ship. This small boat becomes a matter of life and death. They continue to be blown to the southwest and this is very dangerous for them. If they continue the course they think they are on, they could end up near the shallows of Sirte which was on the Libyan coast. These shallows had long been feared by sailors. In fact, it had destroyed one of the first ever Roman fleets sailing against the Carthaginians. They got stranded in the shallows and the Roman fleet was destroyed. So, they keep trying to move north to get away from that coast, but it was really hard to tach with the kind of ships and sails that they had back then. They start taking down the sails and even threw some of the wheat overboard. We find that they discarded wheat twice in the narrative. Luke says that we threw these things overboard with our own hand. Luke is with them when they take soundings; Paul said that all of them would be saved; all 276 people would be saved after running aground on an island. Many hadn’t eaten for many days, as Luke is keeping track of all of this. They can hear something different, even though they are in the dark; these were the breakers on the rocks. The soundings are the same as what you would get today somewhere near Saint Paul’s Bay. Paul speaks to them during the storm, possibly during a lull or perhaps it was below decks. We read that some were strong enough to swim to shore while others were able to get ashore on planks as the waves brought them in. Some of the sailors had decided to let the boat down in order to place the anchor so the ship wouldn’t run aground on the rocks. They had placed four anchors and waited for dawn. Paul knew supernaturally that there was something else going on and that they were also going to try and escape in the boat. Paul said that except these remain on board, nobody can be saved. So we have a conditional prophecy; everyone would be saved only if they stayed on board. Paul has been right about everything so far and so now the soldiers believed Paul.
3. The Island of Malta
They cut the rope and let it fall into the sea so nobody could use it. Once there is light, the sailors are going to be able to move the ship closer to the Island. The ship becomes broken up on the rocks eventually. Some people say that if Luke had all these notes with him, how were the notes preserved? If those notes were written on papyrus, the papyrus would be damaged, especially the kind of papyrus that was dominate during this period. It wasn’t water proof; even the ink would be washed off. Papyrus and its ink have only survived in dry climates. Luke may have written on vellum which is different than papyrus or he could have had a sealable container. Luke could have left a backup copy of his notes in Caesarea. The details of the voyage are very precise, so it is obvious that he was able to save his notes as he wrote them even during the voyage. He could even have just remembered them once they had reached Italy. It seems fairly likely that Luke was keeping a journal. It isn’t certain but the topography seems to fit that it was in Saint Paul’s Bay that this happened; this is near Valletta, Malta’s capital. Showing hospitality and help to people of a shipwreck was necessarily and we read about this in other literature of the time. Malta was actually on the trade route for the Alexandrian trade between Crete and Italy. You could go to Malta or Sicily and then go north to Italy. For the way back, you could go in a more direct route to Egypt at certain times of the year. So it is cold and a fire is made and Paul is helping with this. Luke talks about the local people as being barbarians but emphasizes their kindness using a word that philosophers use for the love of humanity. Sometimes the use of the word barbarian was an insult, but not always. It was used by Greeks to look down on people who were inferior to them. It was also used for people who didn’t speak the Greek language.
These people probably spoke the local Punic language, also called Carthaginian or Phoenicio-Punic language, now an extinct variety of the Phoenician language; this was an ancient Semitic language. Malta had once been colonized by Carthaginians but now under Rome. You can contrast their reception with their reception by the Athenians, especially the reception he received among his own people. In gathering wood for the fire, a viper attaches itself to Paul’s hand. Some people say that Luke didn’t know that it wasn’t really poisonous since there are no poisonous snakes on Malta today. Snakes bites were a big thing and physicians were trained to deal with this. We also need to understand that human habitation is much greater there now than it used to be. This has been two thousand years now. I know places where there were many snakes a generation ago and snakes there are now extinct because the people systematically killed them. Saint Paul’s Bay is heavily inhabited today. Sometimes spiritual encounters have been associated with snakes. For instance in Egypt in Exodus 7; this may be another case of such an encounter in Acts with Paul. Whatever the case is, God protected Paul. So in 28:4, people wonder whether Paul was guilty of something because of this viper biting him. It was commonly believed that a shipwreck could be used to punish people and if you survived the shipwreck, something else could be used against you. Well, Paul must be a very guilty person; that was sometimes even used in court. If all the disasters are happening to you, the gods wanted to make sure you got punished. However, for Paul, none of these disasters ever harmed Paul, so he sakes the viper off into the fire. Justice was personified as a god; this was true in Punic circles as well as Greek and Roman in Dike, the Greek goddess. There was a temple in Rome for justice. So, when they see that Paul isn’t harmed, they think that Paul must be a deity. Where my wife is from, all snakes are assumed to be poisonous, whether they are poisonous or not. That is the assumption here with Paul; ironically they go from saying that he must be a criminal to thinking that he must be a god.
You have this irony in Acts 14 where they think he is a deity and when they find out that he isn’t, they try to stone him. But here, the hospitality is very positive; we have Luke’s humor again. In chapter 12, Rhoda saw Peter but didn’t open the gate and in chapter 17:18, the Stoics and Epicureans misunderstand and here these local people misunderstand but this is something positive rather than something negative. If they are speaking a local Punic dialect, Paul probably doesn’t understand them. Perhaps they hear about this after the fact. In any case, the Centurion and those who are with him receive hospitality. Now Publius, the chief person on the Island would have been a Roman citizen and also a Latin speaker. He may have been educated enough to speak Greek as well. He is said to be the first man of the island. Sometimes this means just the prominent person. I mentioned that Philippi was the first city; a prominent city and elsewhere in Acts, we read about the first people of a city; it just means very prominent ones. But on Malta it was sometimes used as being the highest office; so he may have been the governor of Malta. The father of Publius was very sick with a recurrent fever and dysentery. This could possibly be a form of malaria that was very common then; but they didn’t speak in those terms back then and often just talked about these things as fevers. We still know of these things today; so, he was very sick being an older man. Paul lays hand on him and prays for him and the man is healed. As soon as that happens, other people who were sick started to come and were healed. Julius, the centurion, as he is watching all of this, his respect for Paul was increasing. So, he is going to have a good report for the court when he gets to Rome. Now, this narrative very closely echoes that of Luke 4 where Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law and then they start bringing people to Jesus for healing. Some people think that healings had declined but later on in Acts 28, we see it happening as it happened before. Paul probably wasn’t out praying for the sick as such during his years in Roman custody. This didn’t happen in Caesarea either but in Malta it was happening.
1. Paul Arrives in Rome
So, finally, they are able to board a ship early in the spring; they are sailing north to Syracuse and Sicily, a major city founded earlier by Greeks and now under Rome by this point. From there they go to Rhegium which was on the southern tip of Italy and then they travel up the coast of Italy to Puteoli and from there they travel by land to get to Rome. They could have gone further as Claudius had built a new harbor nearer Rome. On their way, they are greeted by a number of people and two groups of Christians whom they stay with. Word had gotten ahead from the places that they had stayed and accepted hospitality; Paul is probably not in a hurry to get to Rome and Julius isn’t in a hurry to get Paul to Rome either and neither are the other prisoners. They may be Roman citizens who also have appealed to Caesar as well. They are probably being sent to Rome to be executed in the public games. That is one reason for when people were ready to jump ship and swim to shore; the soldiers were ready to kill them as they were going to die anyway. If they had of escaped, the Romans soldiers would have been held liable. They would have had to let them out of their chains in order for them to swim in the sea. But all the prisoners are saved because of Paul and all of them make it to shore. Paul had earlier written his letter to the Romans from Corinth. It was Phoebe, the deaconess, who carries the letter to Rome. So the church in Rome knew of Paul. He had many friends who had gone there before him as shown in Romans 16. In AD 54, when Claudius died, Nero became the Emperor. You had a lot of Jewish believers who had to leave Italy, but they now could return to Italy could already be there by now. So, people know about Paul and Paul is going to write more letters from Rome.
2. Rome’s Population
Some have estimated that Rome’s population to be between two hundred and fifty thousand to as much as a million. The closer estimate is a million people; there were a lot of tenements in Rome with apartments. The rich lived on the bottom floor and the poorer lived higher up. Sometimes there were shops where people also lived. The lowest floor was the only floor that had running water. The higher parts of the buildings were less stable than the lower parts. There were often long hallways that connected the different rooms where people slept. Sometimes house churches met in these long hallways. Jewish residents was estimated to be five percent of the people, somewhere around forty to fifty thousand Jews lived in Rome. We read about the Jewish community in regards to the expulsion in Acts 18:2. Most of the Jews probably lived across the Tiber River from the city center. Most of them were poor and many of them worked on the docks of the Tiber River. There were a number of synagogues with several known by name. One such synagogue seemed to have been called the Olive Tree, but we don’t know from what period. Unlike Alexander, the Jewish community here was not united. Rome would not allow it; they didn’t want any group united within a city, except for the Praetorian Guard or the local police force. There were different leaders for different synagogues and no centralized Jewish authority. There were a lot of Greek speaking immigrates here, resident aliens from the Greek Diaspora. Most of the Jewish people were Greek speaking although there was some Latin speaking ones as well. Over half of the Jewish residents had Latin names, yet they were predominately Greek speaking. We know that there were many citizens there; Philo mentions this. Most of them were probably descendants of slaves who became Roman citizens. These were the ones who were enslaved by Pompeii and later freed. Rome had a lot of xenophobia; there were some Romans who really liked Jewish practices and adopted them. But elite Romans detested things like the Sabbath, circumcision and their food practices. Paul had to deal with this in his letter to the Romans. The Jewish community had faced banishment on a couple of occasions. Sometimes astrologers got banished. Under Tiberius, the Jewish community was banished as well as under Claudius; at least, officially, but all of them probably didn’t leave.
3. Roman History of the Early Church
In Roman history, the church had experienced going back to at least to the Jewish believers who had migrated there originally from Rome in Acts 2. Claudius expelled Jewish Christian leaders in the year 49 AD. This expulsion was automatically repealed on Claudius’ death in the year 54 AD. So for five years you have what is completely a gentile church. Ten years after this in 64 AD Nero began killing hundreds and even thousands of Christians in Rome. He fed them to wild animals, using them even as torches to light his imperial gardens at night and yet, the church still grew and became stronger than ever. We get this impression from 1st Clement written from Rome to Corinth. This suggests a massive growth of the church in just fifteen years. It was mostly gentile by this point because of the Jewish expulsion. Jewish believers had just returned; this is why Priscilla and Aquila are back in Rome in the year AD 54. Later on, it seems that they return to Ephesus. Paul writes the letter to the Romans sometimes after this; it seems to be between the expulsion of the Jewish Christians and when Nero starts burning Christians alive. At the time that Paul appealed to the emperor, nobody knew how Nero was going to turn out. As long as he was under the mentorship of Clinique, the historical philosopher; he seemed to be okay. According to Tacitus, Nero became emperor because of the assassination of Claudius, killed by Nero’s mother. He was poisoned but it didn’t kill him immediately; she then bribed the physician to finish Claudius off. There was another contender for the throne, Britannicus, the son of Claudius and his former wife Messalina. So, Britannicus actually choked on his ice-water; there were servants to test all the food and water. The water wasn’t poisoned but the water was a bit warm so they added cold water to it. That was poisoned. Nero married Octavia, the daughter of Messalina and Claudius. That helped guarantee his reign once he was in power; he then had the woman executed. Nero became increasingly insane after a while.
Claudius wasn’t executed immediately until he became involved in a plot to assassinate Nero. Nero’s new mentor became Tegalinnus who was Neno’s old boyfriend. They did a lot of immoral and sexual things together. Some of the things we have heard about Nero may not have been all true as the historians gave us a lot of negative and possible false history on Nero. Yet, a lot of it was true. One of the things, Nero took his friend’s wife Paypius, taking her as his own mistress and then kicked her to death when she was pregnant. Nero wasn’t totally insane yet, but according to strong church tradition Paul and Peter were executed in Rome under Nero after Nero had become really bad.
4. Paul in Rome
Generals would enter Rome triumphantly, ultimately during this period; it was the emperor who was allowed to enter triumphantly into Rome. Cicero was received in such a way when he came back to Rome with everyone cheering him. Remember Jesus’ triumphantly entry Jerusalem. Paul now enters Rome and people come out to meet him and escorted him back to the city. The Greek term for meet refers to this escorting the person that they meet back to a place. Luke is going to end on a positive note; he isn’t going to talk about Paul’s execution. Even though Paul is in custody, at first he has his own rented quarters, but still under guard. Being a Roman citizen will not favor him as well as it did in the east as a lot of people in Rome are Roman citizens. We see that he was still guarded by a Roman soldier according to Philippians 4. In chapter 28:17, Paul does the same thing that he does in other cities. Sometimes people look at Acts 13 and 18 where Paul says that he will only go to the gentiles, but he still goes to the Jewish community first. It isn’t like Paul has rejected the Jewish people but afterwards he does go onto the gentiles because the Jewish community refuses the news of Jesus. In Acts 28, it isn’t a rejection, it is just repeated what has happened before. Paul did ask to meet again with the leaders of the Jewish community; as mentioned above, there is no centralized authority for the synagogues in Rome. There were a lot of different synagogues. They wanted to hear more about what Paul had to say for they had heard something of it before. In chapter 18:2, Luke says after the expulsion of Jews from Rome, the church was mostly gentile. These leaders would prefer to hear more about the movement from a peer such as Paul who is a person of status. He is an acknowledged leader in the movement already by the churches in Rome. He is also from Jerusalem, but the response is divided. There isn’t a complete rejection as such, but doesn’t speak of a turning of Israel to a faith in Jesus. So, some accepted what he said while others rejected what he said.
Luke almost climaxes the Book of Acts on Paul citation from Isaiah 6, where Isaiah had a calling very similar to Paul’s own calling in Acts 9 where he experiences a theophany, but then God says go to these people, their ears will be made dull, they are not going to see, etc. That is a text that is also quoted in March 4 and Matthew 13 and in Luke 8, but only briefly when Jesus is speaking in the parable of the sewer and the soil. He saves this especially for here; it is something also that plays a role in the Gospel of John. One of the objections that people could raise: if Jesus was really the Messiah, why didn’t his own people embrace him? Sometimes God allowed his people to be hardened and the speaking of the Word would harden people even more.
C. The Gospel Continues to Go Forth
As Paul says in Romans 11, this gives opportunities to go to the gentiles; I think Luke is making a similar point here. Paul is able to go to the gentiles; Peter said repent and times of refreshment will come from the Lord. If all of Israel had turned, the Lord would have returned; history would not have gone on. But we see that history did continue in order to give the gentiles more of a chance to hear about Jesus. In this past century, we have seen a massive turning to the Lord. From one part of the world to another, different parts of the world have held and treasured the Gospel. In the 1st century, it originated in the Middle East in Judea and Galilee and then spread throughout Syria and Egypt and Asia Minor. Some of these places aren’t the greatest strongholds of the Gospel now. Eventually the Gospel goes to East Africa and southern Europe and goes on to India and onto China. In the 2nd century we know of Roman traders who went as far as Vietnam and were taken to the royal court in China. Later the Gospel spread to Northern Europe and into Russia. The Gospel keep spreading on and on in different places. In the past century, the Gospel has multiplied so much in Latin America, Africa, many part of Asia. There are other places where it still has to go and spread more. We see it spreading in different places in different times. But there is still the hope for the Jewish people to accept Jesus as the Messiah.
So, the good news is ultimately for all people and we see this in the way that Acts finishes up. Then it says that Paul continued to preach and teach about the kingdom of God. So there is this inclusio where he talks about the kingdom of God at the beginning of the book and now at the end. So, at this point, he is still preaching the same message. It says that he remained there in his own room and quarters for two years. Luke doesn’t tell us what happened after the two years. Luke tells us the charge against Paul was baseless and most likely they could not prosecute Paul on any of these charges. I think that Paul was eventually executed but he was released first and then re-arrested and that is when he was a prisoner in the so-called death cell in prison in Rome. Luke’s message from heritage to mission; we should not forget where we come from, first, the heritage of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the prophets. We come from the heritage of the ministry of Jesus and the Jerusalem church where we are given a mission to reach all the nations with the Good News of Jesus Christ. He is the rightful king of humanity; he is the only Savior of the world. People need him and the Book of Acts has an open ending to it. It ends with continuing to preach the good News because the mission continues and power for that mission is the same as it was in the beginning. Jesus promised us the power of the Spirit to carry out the mission and as it says in Luke 11:13, if you ask for the power of the Spirit in your life, your Father will give that to you. Let us pray that God will pour out his Spirit upon us and raise up laborers for the harvest so that the whole world can be reached with the good News of our Lord and his glory for the salvation to the ends of the earth.
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