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Ships and Boats



1. Among the Hebrews

(1) In Early Times

(2) During the Monarchy

(3) In Later Times

2. Among Neighboring Nations

(1) Egypt

(2) Assyria and Babylonia

(3) Phoenicia

3. General References


1. In the Gospels

2. In the Ac of the Apostles

3. In Other Books


In the Old Testament the following words are found:

(1) The word most commonly used in Hebrew for "a ship" is ’oniyah (Pr 30:19; Jon 1:3,4), of which the plural ’oniyoth is found most frequently (Jud 5:17; 1Ki 22:48 f, and many other places).

The collective term for "a navy of ships" is ’oni (1Ki 9:26 f; 10:22, ’oni Tharshish, "a navy (of ships) of Tarshish"; but Isa 33:21, ’oni shayit, a "galley with oars").

(2) tsi (Nu 24:24; Eze 30:9; Isa 33:21), tsi ’addir, "gallant ship"; Da 11:30, tsiyim Kittim, "ships of Kittim.’(3) cephinah, "innermost parts of the ship" the Revised Version (British and American), "sides of the ship" the King James Version (Jon 1:5, the only place where the word is found).

In Apocrypha ploion, is the usual word (The Wisdom of Solomon 14:1; Ecclesiasticus 33:2, etc.), translated "vessel" in The Wisdom of Solomon 14:1, but "ship" elsewhere. For "ship" The Wisdom of Solomon 5:10 has naus. "Boat" in 2 Macc 12:3,6 is for skaphos, and "navy" in 1 Macc 1:17; 2 Macc 12:9; 14:1 for stolos. In The Wisdom of Solomon 14:6 Noah’s ark is called a schedia, a "clumsy ship" (the literal translation "raft" in the Revised Version (British and American) is impossible).

In the New Testament there are four words in use:

(1) naus (Ac 27:41, the only place where it occurs, designating the large sea-going vessel in which Paul suffered shipwreck).

(2) ploiarion, "a little boat" (Mr 3:9 and two other places, Joh 6:22 ff; 21:8).

(3) ploion, "boat" (Mt 4:21,22 and many other places in the Gospels--the ordinary fishingboat of the Sea of Galilee rendered "boat" uniformly in the Revised Version (British and American) instead of "ship" the King James Version), "ship" (Ac 20:13, and all other places where the ship carrying Paul is mentioned, except Ac 27:41, as above). In Jas 3:4; Re 8:9; 18:17 ff, it is rendered "ship."

(4) skaphe, "boat" (Ac 27:16,30,32, where it means the small boat of the ship in which Paul was being conveyed as a prisoner to Rome).

I. The Hebrews and the Sea.

The Hebrews were a pastoral and agricultural people, and had no inducements to follow a seafaring life. They were possessed of a considerable seaboard along the Mediterranean, but the character of their coast gave little encouragement to navigation. The coast line of the land of Israel from Carmel southward had no bays and no estuaries or river-mouths to offer shelter from storm or to be havens of ships. Solomon landed his timber and other materials for the Temple at Joppa, and tradition has handed down what is called "Solomon’s Harbor" there. The builders of the second temple also got timber from Lebanon and conveyed it to Joppa. It was Simon Maccabeus, however, who built its harbor, and the harbor at Joppa was "the first and only harbor of the Jews" (G. A. Smith, HGHL, 136). Caesarea in New Testament times was a place of shipping and possessed a harbor which Josephus declared to be greater than the Piraeus, but it was Herodian and more Greek and Roman than Jewish. It was mostly inhabited by Greeks (Josephus, BJ, III, ix, 1). Now Caesarea has disappeared; and Joppa has only an open roadstead where vessels lie without shelter, and receive and discharge cargo and passengers by means of boats plying between them and the shore. It was in other directions that Israel made acquaintance with the activities of the sea. Of internal navigation, beyond the fishing-boats on the Sea of Galilee which belong exclusively to the New Testament, the ferry boat on the Jordan (2Sa 19:18, `abharah) alone receives notice, and even that is not perfectly clear (the Revised Version margin "convoy," but a "ford" is doubtless meant). It is from Tyre and Egypt and even Assyria and Babylonia, rather than from their own waters, that the Hebrew prophets and psalmists drew their pictures of seafaring life.

II. Ships in the Old Testament and Apocrypha.

1. Among the Hebrews:

(1) In Early Times.

In the early books of the Old Testament there are references connecting certain of the tribes, and these northern tribes, with the activities of the sea. In the "Blessing of Jacob" and in the "Blessing of Moses" Zebulun and Issachar are so connected (Ge 49:13; De 33:19); and in Deborah’s Song, which is acknowledged to be a very early fragment of Hebrew literature, Da and Asher are also spoken of as connected with the life and work of the sea (Jud 5:17). The Oracle of Balaam (Nu 24:24) looks forward to a day when a fleet from Kittim should take the sea for the destruction of Assyria. "Ships of Kittim" are mentioned in Daniel (11:30). Kittim is referred to in the three greater Prophets (Isa 23:1,12; Jer 2:10; Eze 27:6). The land of Kittim is Cyprus, and in the references in Isaiah it is associated with Tyre and the ships of Tarshish.

(2) During the Monarchy.

It is not till the time of the monarchy that the Hebrews begin to figure as a commercial people. Already in the time of David commercial relations had been established between Israel and Tyre (2Sa 5:11 f). The friendly cooperation was continued by Solomon, who availed himself not only of the cedar and the fir at Hiram’s command on Lebanon, but also of the skilled service of Hiram’s men to bring the timber from the mountains to the sea. Hiram also undertook to make the cedar and the fir into rafts (1Ki 5:9, dobheroth, the King James Version "floats"; 2Ch 2:16, raphcodhoth, "flotes" the King James Version, "floats" the Revised Version (British and American)) to go by sea and to deliver them to Solomon’s men at the place appointed, which the Chronicler tells us was Joppa. From this cooperation in the building of the Temple there grew up a larger connection in the pursuit of sea-borne commerce. It was at Ezion-geber near to Eloth on the Red Sea, in the land of Edom which David had conquered, that Solomon built his fleet, "a navy of ships" (1Ki 9:26-28). Hiram joined Solomon in these enterprises which had their center on the Red Sea, and thus the Phoenicians had water communication with the coasts of Arabia and Africa, and even of India. The same partnership existed for the commerce of the West. "For the king (Solomon) had at sea a navy of Tarshish with the navy of Hiram: once every three years came the navy of Tarshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks" (1Ki 10:22).

From Solomon’s time onward the kings of Judah retained their hold upon Eloth (1Ki 22:48 f; 2Ch 20:35-37) till it was seized by the Syrians in the days of Ahaz (2Ki 16:6).

(3) In Later Times.

As Solomon had the cooperation of Hiram in securing material and craftsmen for the building of the first Temple, so Joshua and Zerubbabel by the favor of Cyrus obtained timber from Lebanon, and masons and carpenters from Sidon and Tyre for the building of the second. Again, cedar trees were brought from Lebanon by sea to Joppa, and thence conveyed to Jerusalem (Ezr 3:7).

From Joppa Jonah fled to avoid compliance with God’s command to go to Nineveh and preach repentance there (Jon 1:1 ). He found a ship bound for Tarshish as far toward the West as Nineveh to the East. The fare (cakhar) paid by him as a passenger, the hold of the ship in which he stowed himself away (cephinah), the crew (mallachim) the captain or shipmaster (rabh ha-chobhel), the storm, the angry sea, the terrified mariners and their cry to their gods, and the casting of Jonah overboard to appease the raging waters--all make a lifelike picture.

It was in the time of Simon, the last survivor of the Maccabean brothers, that Joppa became a seaport with a harbor for shipping--"Amid all his glory he took Joppa for a haven, and made it an entrance for the isles of the sea" (1 Macc 14:5). When Simon reared his monument over the sepulcher of his father and brothers at Modin, he set up seven pyramids with pillars, upon which were carved figures of ships to be "seen of all that sail on the sea" (1 Macc 13:29). About this period we hear of ships in naval warfare. When Antiochus IV Epiphanes planned his expedition against Egypt, he had with other armaments "a great navy," presumably ships of war (1 Macc 1:17); and at a later time Antiochus VII speaks expressly of "ships of war" (1 Macc 15:3).

2. Among Neighboring Nations:

(1) Egypt.

The Egyptians, like other nations of antiquity, had a great horror of the open sea, although they were expert enough in managing their craft upon the Nile. Pharaoh-necoh built up a powerful navy to serve him both in commerce and in war.

See Pharaoh-necoh.

Of explicit references to Egyptian ships in the Old Testament there are but few. Isaiah speaks of "vessels of papyrus upon the waters" of the Upper Nile, on board of which are the messengers of Cush or Ethiopia returning to tell the tidings of the overthrow of Assyria to the inhabitants of those remote lands (18:2 the King James Version has "bulrushes" instead of "papyrus"). Ezekiel also, foretelling the overthrow of Egypt, speaks of messengers traveling with the news on swift Nile boats to strike terror into the hearts of the "careless Ethiopians" (30:9). When Job compares his days to "the swift ships" ("the ships of reed" the Revised Version margin), the allusion is most likely to Egypt’s, these being skiffs with a wooden keel and the rest of bulrushes, sufficient to carry one person, or at most two, and light, to travel swiftly (9:26).

(2) Assyria and Babylonia.

The Assyrians and Babylonians were mainly an inland people, but their rivers gave them considerable scope for navigation. The Assyrian monuments contain representations of naval engagements and of operations on the seacoast. When Isaiah pictures Yahweh as a better defense of Judah than the rivers and streams of Assyria and Egypt are to their people he says, "There Yahweh will be with us in majesty, a place of broad rivers and streams, wherein shall go no galley with oars (’oni shayiT), neither shall gallant ship (tsi ’addir) pass thereby. .... Thy tacklings (ropes, cables) are loosed; they could not strengthen the foot of their mast, they could not spread the sail" (Isa 33:21,23). Speaking of Yahweh’s wonders to be performed toward His people after Babylon had been overthrown, the prophet declares: "Thus saith Yahweh, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: For your sake I have sent to Babylon, and I will bring down all of them as fugitives, even the Chaldeans, in the ships of their rejoicing" (Isa 43:14). In this case, however, the ships are not war ships, but more probably merchant ships, or ships for pleasure, sailing in the Euphrates.

(3) Phoenicia.

It was from the Phoenicians that the Mediterranean peoples learned seamanship and skill in navigation. It is fitting, therefore, that in his dirge over the downfall of the mistress of the sea, Ezekiel should represent Tyre as a gallant ship, well built, well furnished, and well manned, broken by the seas in the depths of the waters, fallen into the heart of the seas in the day of her ruin. Ezekiel’s description (chapter 27, with Davidson’s notes) brings together more of the features of the ship of antiquity than any other that has come down to us. Her builders have made her perfect in beauty with planks of fir or cypress, mast of cedar, oars of the oak of Bashan, benches or deck of ivory inlaid with boxwood, sail of fine linen with broidered work from Egypt, and an awning of blue and purple from the coastlands of Elisha (possibly Sicily). She is manned with oarsmen of Sidon and Arvad, pilots of the wise men of Tyre, calkers from Gebal to stop up the cracks and seams in her timbers, mariners and men of war from other lands who enhanced her beauty by hanging up the shield and helmet within her. She is freighted with the most varied cargo, the produce of the lands around, her customers, or as they are called, her traffickers, being Tarshish in the far West, Sheba and Arabia in the South, Haran and Asshur in the East, Javan, which is Greece, and Togarmah, which is Armenia, in the North. One or two of the particulars of this description may be commented upon.

(a) As regards rigging, the Phoenician ships of the time of Ezekiel, as seen in Assyrian representations, had one mast with one yard and carried a square sail. Egyptian ships on the Red Sea about the time of the Exodus, from reliefs of the XIXth Dynasty, had one mast and two yards, and carried also one large square sail. The masts and yards were made of fir, or of pine, and the sails of linen, but the fiber of papyrus was employed as well as flax in the manufacture of sail-cloth. The sail had also to serve "for an ensign" (lenes, Eze 27:7). "The flag proper," says Davidson (ad loc.), "seems not to have been used in ancient navigation; its purpose was served by the sail, as for example at the battle of Actium the ship of Antony was distinguished by its purple sail."

(b) As regards the crew, in the two-banked Phoenician ship the rowers of the first bank work their oars over the gunwale, and those of the second through portholes lower down, so that each may have free play for his oar. The calkers were those who filled up seams or cracks in the timbers with tow and covered them over with tar or wax, after the manner of the instruction given to Noah regarding the Ark: "Thou .... shalt pitch it within and without with pitch" (Ge 6:14).

(c) As regards cargo, it is to be noted that "the persons of men," that is, slaves, formed an article of merchandise in which Javan, Tubal, and Meshech, countries to the North, traded with Tyre.

3. General References:

Of general references to shipping and seafaring life there are comparatively few in the Old Testament. In his great series of Nature-pictures in Ps 104, the Psalmist finds a place for the sea and ships (104:25 ff), and in Ps 107 there is a picture of the storm overtaking them that go down to the sea in ships, and of the deliverance that comes to them when God "bringeth" them into their desired haven" (107:23 ff). In the Book of Proverbs the ideal woman who brings her food from far is like "the merchant ships" (31:14). In the same book the drunkard, because of his unnatural insensibility to danger, is likened to a man "that lieth down in the midst of the sea, or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast" (23:34); and among the inscrutable things of the world the writer includes "the way of a ship in the midst of the sea" (30:19). In Wisdom, human life is described "as a ship passing through the billowy water, whereof, when it is gone by, there is no trace to be found, neither pathway of its keel in the billows" (Wisd 5:10). The same book notes it as a striking example of the case of a divine and beneficent Providence that "men entrust their lives to a little piece of wood, and passing through the surge on a raft are brought safe to land" (Wisd 14:1-5). The Jews like the Egyptians and the Assyrians had a natural shrinking from the sea, and Ecclesiasticus interprets their feeling when he says: "They that sail on the sea tell of the danger thereof; and when we hear it with our ears, we marvel" (43:24).

III. Ships in the New Testament.

1. In the Gospels:

It is the fishing-boats of the Sea of Galilee which exclusively occupy attention in the Gospels. In the time of our Lord’s ministry in Galilee the shores of the Sea were densely peopled, and there must have been many boats engaged in the fishing industry. Bethsaida at the northern end of the Lake and Tarichea at the southern end were great centers of the trade. The boats were probably of a size and build similar to the few employed on the Lake today, which are between 20 and 30 ft. in length and 7 ft. in breadth. The word "launch," of putting a boat or a ship into the sea, has disappeared from the Revised Version (British and American), except in Lu 8:22, where it is more appropriate to an inland lake. They were propelled by oars, but no doubt also made use of the sail when the wind was favorable (Lu 8:23), though the pictures which we have in the Gospels are mostly of the boatmen toiling in rowing in the teeth of a gale (Mr 6:48), and struggling with the threatening waves (Mt 14:24). In the boat on which Jesus and the disciples were crossing the Lake after the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus was in the stern "asleep on the cushion" (Mr 4:38, the King James Version "a pillow"; Greek proskephalaion, "headrest"). More than once Jesus made special use of a boat. As He was by the seashore a great concourse of people from all parts made it desirable that "a small boat" (ploiarion) should be in attendance off the shore to receive Him in case of need, though He does not seem to have required it (Mr 3:9). On another occasion, when the crowds were still greater, He went into a boat and sat "in the sea" with the multitude on the sloping beach before Him (Mr 4:1; Lu 5:3). This boat is said in Luke’s narrative to have been Simon’s, and it seems from references to it as "the boat" on other occasions to have been generally at the disposal of Jesus.

2. In the Ac of the Apostles:

It is Paul’s voyages which yield us the knowledge that we possess from Biblical sources of ships in New Testament times. They are recorded for us in the Ac by Luke, who, as Sir William Ramsay puts it, had the true Greek feeling for the sea (St. Paul the Traveler, 21). In Luke’s writings there are many nautical terms, peculiar to him, used with great exactitude and precision.

When Paul had appealed to Caesar and was proceeding to Rome in charge of Julius, the centurion, along with other prisoners, a ship of Adramyttium, a coasting vessel, carried the party from Caesarea along the Syrian coast, northward of Cyprus, past Cilicia and Pamphylia, to Myra of Lycia. There the centurion found a ship of Alexandria sailing for Italy, one of the great corn fleet carrying grain from Egypt for the multitudes of Rome. (After the capture of Jerusalem the emperor Titus returned to Italy in such a vessel, touching at Rhegium and landing at Puteoil.) The size of the vessel is indicated by the fact that there were 276 persons on board, crew and passengers all told (Ac 27:37). Luke has made no note of the name of this or of the previous vessels in which Paul had voyaged. Of the presumably larger vessel, also an Alexandrian corn ship bound for Rome, which had wintered in Melita, and which afterward took on board the shipwrecked party (Ac 28:11), "the sign" (parasemon) is given, and she is called "The Twin Brothers." The expression shows that it was in painting or relief; a figurehead, with the Twin Brothers represented, would be given by episemon. The cargo (phortion, Ac 27:10, the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American) "lading") in this case was wheat (Ac 27:38), but another word is used, gomos, by Luke of a ship’s load of varied wares (Ac 21:3; compare Re 18:11 ).

Of those engaged in handling the ship we find (Ac 27:11) the master (kubernetes), the owner (naukleros, although this expression seems not quite consistent with the ownership of a grain ship of the imperial service, and Ramsay’s distinction between the words, making the former "sailing-master" and the latter "captain," may be better), the sailors (Ac 27:30, who treacherously sought to lower the ship’s boat on the pretense of laying out anchors from the "foreship" or prow, and to get away from the doomed vessel).

Of operations belonging to the navigation of the vessel in the storm there were

(1) the taking on board of the ship’s boat and securing it with ropes (Ac 27:16, in which operation Luke seems to have taken part; compare Ac 27:32),

(2) the undergirding of the ship (Ac 27:17, using helps, that is taking measures of relief and adopting the expedient, only resorted to in extremities, of passing cables under the keel of the ship to keep the hull together and to preserve the timbers from starting),

(3) the lowering of the gear (Ac 27:17, reducing sail, taking down the mainsail and the main yard),

(4) throwing freight overboard and later casting out the tackling of the ship (Ac 27:19),

(5) taking soundings (Ac 27:28),

(6) letting go four anchors from the stern (Ac 27:29, stern-anchoring being very unusual, but a necessity in the circumstances),

(7) further lightening the ship by throwing the wheat into the sea (Ac 27:38),

(8) cutting the anchor cables, unlashing the rudders, hoisting up the foresail to the wind, and holding straight for the beach (Ac 27:40).

Of the parts of the ship’s equipment there are mentioned "the sounding lead" (bolis, though it is the verb which is here used), "the anchors" (agkurai, of which every ship carried several, and which at successive periods have been made of stone, iron, lead and perhaps other metals, each having two flukes and being held by a cable or a chain), "the rudders" (pedalia, of which every ship had two for steering, which in this case had been lifted out of the water and secured by "bands" to the side of the ship and unlashed when the critical moment came), "the foresail" artemon, not the mainsail, but the small sail at the bow of the vessel which at the right moment was hoisted to the wind to run her ashore), and "the boat" (skaphe, which had been in tow in the wake of the vessel, according to custom still prevalent in those seas--coasting-vessels being sometimes becalmed, when the crew get into the small boat and take the ship in tow, using the oars to get her round a promontory or into a position more favorable for the wind). The season for navigation in those seas in ancient times was from April to October. During the winter the vessels were laid up, or remained in the shelter of some suitable haven. The reason for this was not simply the tempestuous character of the weather, but the obscuration of the heavens which prevented observations being taken for the steering of the ship (Ac 27:20).

3. In Other Books:

In 2Co 11:25 Paul mentions among sufferings he had endured for Christ’s sake that thrice he had suffered shipwreck, and that he had been "a night and a day in the deep," implying that he had been in danger of his life clinging to a spar, or borne upon a hurriedly constructed raft. It may be a reminiscence of the sea when Paul in the very earliest of his Epistles (1Th 4:16), speaking of the coming of the Lord, says "The Lord himself shall descend from heaven, with a shout" en keleusmati), where the picture is that of the keleustes, giving the time to the rowers on board a ship. Although huperetes, was "an underrower" and huperesia, "the crew of a ship" as contrasted with kubernetes, "the sailing-master," the derived meaning of "servant" or "officer" has lost in the New Testament all trace of its origin (Mt 5:25; Lu 1:2 and many passages; compare stellein, and sustellein, where the idea of "furling" or "shifting a sail" is entirely lost: 1Co 7:29; 2Co 8:20).


In Hebrews the hope of the gospel is figured as "an anchor .... sure and stedfast, and entering into that which is within the veil" (6:19, especially with Ebrard’s note in Alford, at the place). James, showing the power of little things, adduces the ships, large though they be, and driven by fierce winds, turned about by a very small "rudder" (pedalion), as "the impulse of the steersman willeth" (Jas 3:4). In Revelation there is a representation of the fall of Babylon in language reminiscent of the fall of Tyre (Eze 27), in which lamentations arise from the merchants of the earth who can no more buy her varied merchandise (ton gomon, "cargo" the Revised Version margin), and shipmasters and passengers and seafaring people look in terror and grief upon the smoke of her burning (Re 18:12-18).


The usual books on Greek and Roman antiquities furnish descriptions and illustrations. Works on the monuments like Layard, Nineveh, II, 379 ff; Maspero, Ancient Egypt and Assyria; Ball, Light from the East, and Reissner, Cairo Museum Catalogue, "Models of Ships and Boats," 1913, contain descriptions and figured representations which are instructive. On shipping and navigation in classical antiquity Smith of Jordanhill, Voyage and Shipwreck of Paul, is still the standard authority.