Ships


It is certain that the Phoenicians penetrated to Cornwall for tin and to the Canary Islands. They probably used the trireme, the useful vessel with three banks of oars, which was a Phoenician invention. Remaining OT references are few and commonly poetic. Ps.107.23-Ps.107.27 speaks of the terrors of a storm at sea, and Ps.104.26 briefly mentions ships. Isa.18.2 speaks of the boats or rafts built of bound bundles of papyrus; these are sometimes depicted in Egyptian murals. Dan.11.30 refers to warships from the western coastlands or Cyprus (Chittim or Kittim). In NT times the shipping of the Mediterranean was principally Greek and Roman. The Romans maintained war fleets of triremes and quinqueremes (ships with three and with five banks of oars). How the rowers on these vessels were arranged has been much debated, and the view that there were three (or five) banks of benches is now generally rejected. It is probable that the benches had a forward slant, and that each rower pulled an individual oar sitting three (or five) to a bench. The warship (or “long ship,” as it was sometimes called) was not designed for heavy loads but for speed and maneuverability. Hence the frequency of shipwreck, and sometimes mass disaster, in Roman naval history. The great artists in the naval use of the trireme were the Athenians, whose admiral Phormion (c. 440-428 b.c.) developed the tactics that kept the Athenians supreme at sea until the Syracusans invented the ramming device, which struck Athenian naval power a fatal blow in the Great Harbor (413 b.c.). Merchant ships were more heavily built and were designed to stay at sea for long periods in all weathers, carrying considerable cargoes.

The classic passage is Acts.27.1-Acts.27.44, which contains Luke’s brilliant account of the voyage and wreck of the Alexandrian grain ship. These vessels were of considerable size. There were 276 people aboard the ship on which Paul and Luke traveled (Acts.27.37). Josephus states that he traveled to Rome on a ship with no fewer than 600 aboard (Life 3). The Alexandrian grain ship, Isis, of the second century A.D., measured 140 by 36 feet (44 by 11 m.), and would be rated at 3,250 tons (2,955 metric tons) burden. No doubt these were exceptional vessels, and the average merchant ship was probably in the vicinity of 100 tons (90 metric tons). Paul’s ship may have been on a northern route because of the lateness of the season (Acts.27.6), though Ramsay is of the opinion that this was the regular route from Egypt to Rome (St. Paul the Traveller, p. 319). According to Vegetius, from mid-September to mid-November was a particularly dangerous period for autumn navigation. Paul’s voyage fell within this period.

The account illustrates the difficulty of handling the ancient sailing ship in adverse winds. From Myra, on the extreme southern point of Asia Minor, the ship was proceeding west to Cnidus, a port at the SW extremity of Asia Minor. A wind off the shore drove the vessel south, and the shipmaster was compelled to seek shelter under the lee of the island of Crete (Acts.27.7), which was 140 miles (233 km.) long. Fair Havens, where the ship found refuge was (and is) a little more than halfway along this coast, just east of the part where the island rises into a group of lofty mountains. Funneled down from these highlands (Acts.27.14), the NE wind drove them south from the “more commodious” harbor of Phenice, over 23 miles (38 km.) of turbulent sea, to the off-shore island of Clauda. The brief advantage of the island’s protection was used to haul in the boat, which was being towed waterlogged behind (Acts.27.16). To the south lay the Syrtes, ancient graveyard of ships, as modern underwater archaeology has strikingly revealed. Hence the battle to maintain a westerly course, aided by a veering of the wind to the east, as the cyclonic disturbance shifted its center.

At this point (Acts.27.17) they “passed ropes under the ship itself.” These tautened cables, used to bind the straining timbers against the stress of the sea and the leverage of the loaded mast, are mentioned elsewhere in ancient literature. “See you not,” says Horace, writing metaphorically of the laboring ship of state (Odes 1:14), “that the side is stripped of oars, the masts crippled by the rushing southwest wind, the yard-arms groaning, and that without ropes the hull can scarcely bear the too preemptory sea.” (See also Plato, Republic 10:616c.) It is possible that the hull was “undergirded” by strong ropes, but that an extension of the cables above deck formed a network that could be twisted to tautness. It is probable that the “tackling,” which was thrown overboard, was the rigging and the long spar on which the mainsail depended, a device likely to become unmanageable during a storm.

The ship on which Paul continued his voyage from Malta to the grain port of Puteoli had “the sign” of Castor and Pollux (Acts.28.11). In Greek mythology, the Great Twin Brethren were the patrons of shipmen and had special charge of storm-bound ships (Horace, Odes 1:12:27-32). The account in Acts.27.1-Acts.27.44 also tells of soundings for depth (Acts.27.28) and the bracing of the ship by a system of compensatory anchors (Acts.27.29). This is the purport of the metaphor in Heb.6.19. Jas.3.4 refers to the rudder paddles.

The boats of the Sea of Galilee, mentioned in the Gospels, were sturdy fishermen’s craft or the barges of local lakeside trade. They comfortably held a dozen men, but even two of them could not hold all that Jesus’ miracle produced (Luke.5.7). It is not known what wood was used for these boats, but Theophrastus says that seagoing ships were made of larch, cypress, and fir.——EMB


Replica of the type of boat Jesus used.

SHIPS (אֳנִיָּה, H641; πλοι̂ον, πλοιάριον, ναυς, σκάφη).

OT times.

Ships and navigation in general find small place in the OT, save in metaphorical or poetic contexts (e.g. Pss 98:7; 107:23-29; Prov 23:34). The “ark” in which Moses was set adrift on the Nile (Exod 2:3-6), was prob. a smaller version of the river and swamp boats which were built of bound fascines of papyrus stems and were in common use on the inland waters of Egypt for hunting waterfowl, for fishing, and for transportation. Long before this time the Egyptians had built competent seagoing vessels, as is evidenced by the frescoes of Hatshepsut’s (mid-15th cent. b.c.) expedition to open trade contacts with the Somali coast.

The Hebrews generally, who were nomads turned agriculturalists, were not attracted by the sea and had little experience of seafaring. They had the disadvantage of a harborless coastline, bereft of natural shelter for ships, except where the northern butt of Carmel provided a shelter from the sirocco and southerly weather in the shallow bay where modern Haifa stands. Furthermore, over long periods of their history, the Hebrews were not in full control of the coastal plain. Except for a cryptic reference in Judges 5:17, where some maritime activity on the part of the northern tribes of Asher and Dan is envisaged, Heb. seafaring was secondhand, and a fruit only of the partnership of the great Solomon with the Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon.

The Phoenicians, on the other hand, racially and linguistically akin to the Hebrews, were the greatest seafaring folk of the ancient Middle E. In the dawn of history they had drifted, like other Sem. tribes, around the curve of the Fertile Crescent, and found themselves pinned by the presence of earlier occupying peoples to the narrow fringe of coastal territory between the Lebanon ranges and the sea. Accepting the challenge of their environment, they used the timber of the great forests behind them to conquer the sea in front, and become the premier shipbuilders of the Mediterranean world. Until their maritime engineering revolutionized the building and navigation of ships, the vessels of the eastern Mediterranean had been little more than large canoes or barges. The caïque of the modern Aegean is prob. the linear descendant of the ships of Homeric times, by which Agamemnon staged his seaborne assault on Troy. The dhow of Arab countries is prob., in the same fashion, the descendant of the ships of the Persian Gulf, the waterway where man first taught himself seafaring and shipbuilding.

The distinction between the naval vessel, built for speed and ready maneuver, and the merchant ship, slower, more seaworthy, and designed to hold a large cargo, a feature of all ancient maritime history, goes back to the days of Phoen. shipbuilding. The “ships of Tarshish,” which find frequent reference in the OT, were evidently a highly successful type of Phoen. merchantman designed for the ore trade. The word “Tarshish,” often thought to refer to Tartessos in Spain, whither the fleets went to fetch silver ore, as they fetched tin from Cornwall, is, according to W. F. Albright, a word from the vocabulary of metallurgy and mining. Does the word mean “ore ship”? Significantly, it was a “Tarshish fleet,” which plied from the Gulf of Aqaba in the maritime partnership of Solomon and Tyre. Solomon’s great smelting works were N of the head of the gulf.

It was also a “ship of Tarshish,” harboring in the narrow roadstead behind the offshore reef at Joppa, which Jonah boarded for his ill-starred attempt to escape the distasteful journey to Nineveh. The full list of references is found on pp. 1076, 1077 of Gesenius’ Heb. lexicon, and there seems little doubt that the term was applied after the fashion of “Eastindiaman” and “China clipper,” to describe vessels sturdy enough for the distant voyaging and the heavy cargoes implied.

Solomon’s fleet on the Gulf of Aqaba was composed of Phoen. vessels, manned by Phoen. crews (1 Kings 9 and 10). They plied to Ophir (prob. Southern Arabia) for gold or gold ore, and possibly to the Malabar coast. The “ivory, apes, and peacocks,” which came back with the returning merchantmen (10:22), suggest monsoon-riding voyages to India and Ceylon, and the traces of ancient Jewish communities on this distant coast may indicate that the Heb.-Phoen. partnership extended to the establishment of commercial agents in the areas touched and served by the trade. For the purposes of this article, the significant point is the seaworthiness of the ships which undertook such navigation. Jehoshaphat’s later attempt to revive the Red Sea trade ended in considerable disaster, apparently in the homeport of the merchant fleet, Ezion-geber (1 Kings 22:48). In the divided kingdom, Judah was cut off by Israel from communications with the Phoenicians, and the enterprise of Jehoshaphat was in all probability brought to ruin by Jewish inexperience in shipbuilding and navigation.

Ancient Greek ships.

The distinction noted above between warships and merchantmen, which emerged with the shipbuilding of the Phoenicians, was also observed in the ships of the Aegean. The earliest type of Gr. ship was the “pentekontor,” named from its fifty oarsmen who sat twenty-five to a side. These were the vessels of early piracy and early trade, swift ships easy to handle and well adapted to the illegal trading ventures. They took the first Gr. adventurers, like the later Eng. intruders in the Spanish Main, into those areas of trade in the western Mediterranean where Carthage, Phoenicia’s greatest colony, dominated commerce and forbade poaching on her preserves. The “fifty-oar” could easily escape the Carthaginian galleys.

With the emergence of Gr. colonization and consequent commerce, the heavy merchantman appeared, a vessel designed to keep at sea day and night and face rough weather. For the warship, efficiency in swift and complicated maneuver were still given precedence over simple seaworthiness and carrying capacity in the determination of construction and design. The commonest type of Gr. warship from the 6th cent. onward was the famous “trireme,” or “three-oar,” so called because of its three “banks” of oars. It was light, undecked, and slim, measuring at the highest point of its development, in the 4th cent. b.c., some 120 ft. by 20 ft. The prow of the trireme rose into a lofty hooked post, and it was fitted commonly with a bronze-sheathed ram. On each side of the prow was painted an eye, to ward off evil.

How the trireme was rowed is a matter of live controversy. There is a detailed description in a Victorian classic, The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul, by James Smith, a veritable mine of information. A more recent publication (The Ancient Engineers, by L. Sprague De Camp) gives a useful summary of the controversial theories involved in the arrangement of the banks of oars in a “trireme.” It is probable that the term “banks” is quite misleading, and no certain theory has been worked out. Coins and vase paintings give no final solution. The ships raised from Lake Nemi, and destroyed by the retreating Germans in 1943, were moored pleasure barges dating from Caligula’s era and give no help in the matter. Diagrams on p. 82 of the last work quoted above, set out the four main possibilities as modern scholars envisage them. They related to the “trireme” only, and assume, as it appears must have been the case, that there was a rower to each oar. This can hardly have applied, however, to the “quinquereme,” or “five oar.” There is a fifth possible arrangement mentioned, but not set out diagramatically by the last-mentioned writer, which insures that each rower, however tiered, had an oar to pull of equal length with his fellows.

The “trireme,” at any rate, was the standard war vessel of Gr. and Phoen. history. Its crew of about 200 men had cramped quarters, and the speed is variously estimated as four, five, or seven knots. The proportion of length to beam was six or seven to one. The ships were built of larch, cypress, and fir, principally of the third. Hence the desperate attempts during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which filled the last generation of the 5th cent. b.c., to keep open the northeastern seaways, and to retain control of the coastline of the Thracian peninsulas from which Athens drew her vital shipbuilding timber (Theophrastus, Wimmer. trans. History of Pl. 5:7). The British had similar problems of access to the Baltic pine during the wars with Napoleon. Steering was effected by rudder oars on both sides of the stern, a method which was retained until a comparatively late period. In a basrelief over the doorway of the leaning tower of Pisa built in the 12th cent., ships are represented with the paddle rudders as those in the Bayeux tapestry representing the Norman invasion. They must have been in use until after the middle of the 13th cent., for the contracts to supply Louis IX with ships stipulated that the contractors were bound to furnish them with two rudders. This may, of course, mean a spare one; but we learn from Joinville (1224-1317) that the king’s ship had rudders, expressed in the pl. “gouvernaux.”

The merchant ship was propelled by sweeps or sails. At first it had one mast which bore a square sail made of hides, and, according to coin designs and vase decorations, a small forward mast was sometimes added to lift a smaller sail. De Camp (sup. cit.) discussed the question of sailing into the wind, and quoted Achilels Tatius’ Gr. novel of the 3rd cent. a.d. decisively. There is an account of a storm in which the narrator is wrecked on a voyage from Beirut to Alexandria, including what De Camp (p. 123) properly described as “a landlubber’s account of an unsuccessful effort by the crew to keep from being blown ashore by tacking against the wind.” The passage is worth quoting at length, as it is germane to the problem faced by Paul’s pilot as he drove W before a “nor’easter,” and feared the Syrtes sandbanks far to the S on her starboard beam: “On the third day of our voyage, the perfect calm we had hitherto experienced was suddenly overcast by dark clouds and the daylight disappeared, a wind blew upwards from the sea full in the ship’s face, and the helmsman bade the sailyard be slewed round. The sailors hastened to effect this, bunching up half the sail upon the yard by main force, for the increasing violence of the gusts obstructed their efforts; for the rest, they kept enough of the full spread to make the wind help them to tack. As a result of this, the ship lay on her side, one bulwark raised upward into the air and the deck a steep slope, so that most of us thought that she must heel over when the gale next struck us. We transferred ourselves therefore to that part of the boat which was highest out of water, in order to lighten that part which was down in the sea, and so if possible, by our own added weight depressing the former, to bring the whole again to a level; but all was of no avail: the high part of the deck, far from being weighed down by our presence, merely lifted us higher still a way from the water. For some time we thus ineffectually struggled to bring to an equilibrium the vessel thus balanced on the waves: but the wind suddenly shifted to the other side so that the ship was almost sent under water, and instantly that part of the boat which had been down in the waves was now violently thrown up, and the part formerly raised on high was crushed down into the waters. Then arose a great wailing from the ship, and all changed their station, running, with shouts and cries, to the position in which they had been before they moved; and the same thing happening a third and a fourth, nay, many times, we thus imitated the motion of the ship; and even before we had finished one transmigration, the necessity for a second and contrary one was upon us” (Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon, 3. 1).

Ships of Hellenistic and Roman times.

The Hel. Age came the closest of all eras of ancient Mediterranean culture to producing industrialization. Slavery, and consequent free labor in unlimited supply, put a brake on invention and labor-saving devices, but there was a great deal of basic mechanical knowledge and competent engineering, esp. at Alexandria. This was evident at sea, esp. in the growth of the large ship. There was a species of naval race between the Hel. kings in the 3rd cent. b.c. References to ships of vast oarage, propelled by great lead-weighted sweeps manned by forty and fifty men each, are encountered here and there. There is a reference in Athenaeus to something in the nature of a dry-dock designed to launch a 300-ft. pleasure barge.

For those primarily interested in the ships of the Mediterranean in the 1st cent., there are one or two sources of information which should be recorded. Wall paintings from Herculaneum and Pompeii, the two towns on the Bay of Naples overwhelmed by the eruption of Vesuvius in August a.d. 79, depict ships that are contemporary with the Alexandrian grain ship which brought Paul from Pal. to Rome. The general impression is that of a vessel which differed little in form of hull and lower portions from the common ship designs of the next eighteen centuries, except that both ends were similarly shaped. The contour of the top of the sides was almost straight along the middle section, but swept upward to some height at each end, sometimes terminating in ornaments like the backward bent neck of a goose; hence, the term “cheniskos” for the stern of a ship (chen, a goose). In the stern ornament of the ship depicted on the tomb of Naevoleia Tyche at Pompeii, the “cheniskos” terminates in a head of Minerva, a device like the later figurehead. Isis adorned the prow of the Alexandrian grain ship described in detail by Lucian, who wrote voluminously in the middle decades of the 2nd cent. His dialogue, The Ship, opens in Piraeus, whither a great Alexandrian grain ship had been driven by stress of storm. It was on its way to Italy in the days of Commodus. Three friends—Lycinus, Samippus, and Timolaus—are speaking. They had lost track of a fourth, Adimantus, who had slipped away, said Lycinus. “Then we stood a long time by the mast, looking up and counting the layers of hide and marveling at the sailor going up among the shrouds and then running quite safely along the yardarm up there holding on to the ropes.”

They discuss the elusive Adimantus, but Samippus is full of the size and sophistication of the great ship. He has been collecting statistics. He runs them off: “A hundred and twenty cubits long, the shipwright said, and well over a quarter as wide, and from deck to bottom, where it is deepest, in the bilge, twenty-nine. Then, what a tall mast, what a yard to carry! What a forestay to hold it up! How gently the poop curves up, with a little golden goose below! And correspondingly at the opposite end, the prow juts right out in front, with figures of the goddess, Isis, after whom the ship is named, on either side. And the other decorations, the paintings and the topsail blazing like fire, anchors in front of them, and capstans, and windlasses, and the cabins on the poop &--;all very wonderful to me. You could put the number of sailors at an army of soldiers. She was said to carry corn enough to feed all Attica for a year. And all this a little old man, a wee fellow, had kept from harm by turning the huge rudders with a tiny tiller.” The rule by which tonnage was calculated was to multiply the length of keel by the extreme breadth, and the product by half the breadth or depth, and divide the whole by ninety-four. Falconer has thus made the ship of Lucian to measure 1938 tons. Her length, according to Lucian, was 120 cubits, which, at a ft. and a half each, is 180 ft.; her breadth one-fourth, or 45 ft., and if one takes the extreme length of 180 ft. as the multiplier, the tonnage is exactly what he makes it: ə tons.

Timolaus had had a conversation with the captain who described the storm which drove them into Piraeus. The passage, like other tales of storm in Ovid, Juvenal, and others, serves only to underline the reality and authenticity of the superbly told storm story in Acts 27, which is rich in illustrative detail.

The evidence of Paul’s shipwreck.

Acts 27 details a most illuminating story. The grain ship on which Paul’s party traveled was a vessel of considerable size. There were 276 people aboard. Josephus states that he traveled to Rome on a ship which had 600 people on board. He wrote: “I reached Rome after being in great jeopardy at sea. For our ship foundered in the midst of the sea of Adria, and our company of some six hundred souls had to swim all that night. About daybreak, through God’s good providence, we sighted a ship of Cyrene, and I and certain others, about eighty in all, outstripped the others and were taken on board” (Vita 3). Paul’s ship was following a northern route under the shelter of the Asia Minor coast, possibly because of the lateness of the season (Acts 27:9). It is possible that Ramsey is correct in his statement that this was the regular route from Egypt to Rome (St. Paul the Traveller and Roman Citizen, p. 319). According to Vegetius (De Re Mil. 4. 39), the period from mid-September to mid-November was considered a particularly perilous time for navigation. No doubt the autumnal heat over the Sahara, combined with the continental chill in central Europe, provoked a heavy flow of southward moving air. The shipmaster used this strong wind to run rapidly S from Cnidus, on the SW tip of the Asia Minor peninsula to make for the S coast of Crete. He hoped to sail along its 140 m. barricade against the NE wind, and made nodetitle, or Good Harbors, halfway along the coast without mishap. The eastern half of the island is comparatively low, and was an effective windbreak.

Rejecting competent advice to spend the winter there, and no doubt anxious to deliver his cargo to Ostia, the shipmaster took a risk and ran along the rest of the coast, which gathers itself suddenly and spectacularly into a solid mountain mass. The NE wind, piling hard against the northern coast of this elevated mass of high country, poured over the summits and through the passes down to the sea with that notorious frenzy which winds so funneled and channeled develop. They were unable to make the more “commodious” harbor of Phenice (Phoenix), which had been the shipmaster’s pretext for sailing, and were forced to drive before the wind. The offshore island of Clauda gave them brief shelter, sensibly used to recover the ship’s boat which, towing erratically and waterlogged behind, was disrupting steering and dragging on the ship. At all costs it was necessary to keep a westerly course and avoid a southward drift into the shallow Syrtis bay, the oblong indentation in the northern coast of Africa which was a veritable graveyard of ancient ships, a fact which promises much for underwater archeology.

They were prob. helped in this purpose as the wind veered when the center of the cyclone shifted, and developed a more easterly thrust. At this point “they took measures to undergird the ship.” Considerable misunderstanding and controversy has surrounded this phrase, and some have tried to prove that ropes designed to brace and contain the timbers were run lengthwise down the ship from stem to stem. If any such “helps” (KJV) were used they were not the “undergirding” of the passage in dispute, but tautened cables run from stem to stern and designed to hold and steady the mast whose straining and levering against the keel timbers might have been a real hazard in such a situation. The “undergirding” was surely ropes, perhaps a loose network which could be lowered over the prow and slipped under the keel. These would be strengthened above the bulwarks by twisting the cables running at right angles to the line of the keel, until the whole became a taut and steadying net to aid the straining timbers. “See you not,” says Horace, writing of the laboring ship of state in a metaphorical ode (1.14), “that your side is stripped of oars, the mast crippled by the rushing south wind and that without ropes the hull can scarcely bear the too peremptory sea?” This equipment was prob. carried for such an emergency.

The “tackle” cast overboard was the rigging, the sails perhaps waterlogged and weighty. Perhaps the long spar from which the mainsail hung, an overweight above, was likely to increase the rolling of the ship, or, if it could be lowered, was a clutter on the deck.

The ship in which the castaways continued from Malta to Puteoli sailed under the sign of nodetitle, the Twin Brethren who were patrons of sailor men. The electrical discharge which Mediterranean sailors call “St. Elmo’s fire” when they see it play around the mast, was thought to indicate the presence of the Twins. Macaulay wrote:

Safe comes the ship to harbour,

Through tempest and through gale,

If once the Great Twin-Brethren

Sit shining on the sail.

See also Horace, Odes I. 12. 27-32.

Other points of shipcraft and navigation mentioned in Luke’s classic passage are soundings of depth, and the bracing of a ship against sea and wind by a system of compensatory anchors, a practice still followed. The writer has seen a Gr. steamer thus braced and steadied under the shelter of Scyros in the Aegean, with a northeasterly wind blowing hard on the N coast of the island.

Boats of Galilee.

The boats of the Galilean fishermen were roomy, sturdy vessels, designed to carry a load of fish and also to withstand the squalls of the lake. The lake lies at the upper end of the trench of the Rift Valley which deepens to the Dead Sea down the Jordan Valley and then shallows to sea level down the Arabah to the Gulf of Aqaba. Sudden fierce winds are contained and funneled by it, and the storms of Galilee are thus occasioned. It is not known how the boats were built, but they could hold a dozen men and a man could sleep in their stern sheets. An unusually heavy load of fish could embarrass them.