An Ancient Shipwreck

An Ancient Shipwreck

Edwin Fesche

Mr. Edwin Fesche of Westminster, Maryland, was commended to the work of the Lord 54 years ago. Now an octogenarian, he continues to preach and write, being the valued and appreciated author of “The Current Scene” column which appears in each issue of “Food for the Flock.”

In the first century of our era, Rome was the mistress and capital of the ancient world. Her population far exceeded the surrounding agriculture’s ability to supply sufficient food. Consequently, Egypt was the source of much corn (actually wheat). This in turn required considerable shipping to carry on this brisk commerce. These ships (so small compared to our modern ships) were also able to crowd in some 200 to 300 passengers. The voyage which forms our story was narrated firsthand by one of the passengers. Back in 1850 two Englishmen interested in revamping the account of the ancient narrative showed their source to a naval captain stationed in the area. He concluded that a landlubber could not give such an accurate account of the seamanship apart from being an eyewitness.

The historian of this ill-fated sea voyage was none other than “the beloved physician,” Dr. Luke. In his two writings, Luke names four emperors of the first century. The current emperor must have been the infamous Nero and this helps us to date the voyage around 62 A.D. Luke mentions many other contemporary personages. He relates in his literary works many incidents, such as names, offices and cultural behaviour belonging exclusively to the first century. A writer who so relates his story to the wider context of world history gives his readers some good occasions to check his accuracy. From this he is well accounted as an author belonging to that far distant century.

Luke was travelling with his friend and companion, the Apostle Paul. The apostle had been apprehended by the Jews in Jerusalem for what they considered heresy, punishable by death. Saved from this religious fanaticism by the Roman authorities, Paul, having seen the hopelessness of a fair trial, had appealed to be tried at Caesar’s judgment seat. This was a right granted to Roman citizens. Sir William Ramsay, another who traced the journeys recorded in the Book of Acts, says such a procedure called for the defendant to pay all the expenses. This amounted to no small sum if the armed body guard would be included.

The ancient voyage we are following actually commenced in Caesarea, a seaport on Israel’s west coast. Upon reaching Myra in Turkey, a transfer was made to a ship of Alexandria sailing to Crete, which put into Fair Havens for replenishments, occasioning further delay including the approaching season of tempestuous winds known as a Euroclydon (today called a Levanter). This called for a discussion between the captain and owner of the ship and the centurion in charge of the prisoners. Then the prisoner, the Apostle Paul, who by this time must have gained the respect of the officers, gave a prophetic utterance saying, “Sirs, I perceive that this voyage will be with hurt and much damage, not only of the lading of the ship, but also of our lives.” The centurion, who appears to have had the final say, took the master’s advice and they set sail. At first the south wind blew softly and supposing they had gained their end, we can imagine how discredited the Apostle Paul must have looked concerning his prediction. So often the counsel that comes from a worldly source contradicts God’s commandments and our conscience. Then comes temporary prosperity. While all was going well, suddenly the Euroclydon struck. The boat trailing astern was taken in with great difficulty and they feared that they would be cast upon the small island of Clauda since they were being driven by a northeast wind towards Surtis, a danger spot between the headlands of Tunis and Barca. With a shift of the wind to the east they were delivered from a threatening lee shore and lowering the mainsail hove to (a small spread of sail in the after part of the ship to keep her heading into the storm), and so were driven westward. The strain on the ship’s timbers had caused them to spring which called for frapping the vessel (passing strong ropes under the keel to brace them). Worse yet, the cargo of wheat had become wet and swelling caused the sides of the ship to further widen. To reduce this, cargo was cast overboard.

All had now been done to save the ship that was humanly possible. For many days the tempest continued to rage and neither sun nor stars appeared to give aid to navigation until, writes the participant, “all hope that we should be saved was then taken away.” God often arranges the affairs of men to where they are allowed to exhaust their own resources and in their desperation turn to the listening ear of the God of Scripture.

Anyway, Paul the Apostle who had been long at his devotions now lifts his voice above the howling wind and the roar of heavy seas and proclaims his divine assurances. A prisoner ordinarily would be of little or no consequence under any circumstances. Matters were now different, and he, who was a man of God indeed, now had the entitlement to be heard. From now on in this otherwise doomed vessel, Paul took the ascendancy. He informed his fellow travellers that an angelic visitant had assured him that his wish to visit Rome was certain and also that the ship would be wrecked but all lives would be saved.

After fourteen days of peril, the shipmen sensed that they were near to some shore and taking depth sounds discovered they were getting into shallow waters. Fearing the possibility of falling upon rocks, they cast four anchors out of the stern and wished for daybreak. With the arrival of morning, Paul encouraged all to take a meal which aided in boosting their morale. With this, the anchors were weighed, the mainsail set, and they were able to make for an inlet where the ship was beached and remained firm while the hinder part was broken up with the waves. The soldiers’ counsel was to kill the prisoners lest they should escape, but the centurion, willing to save Paul, kept them from their purpose. Those who are the salt of the earth often account for the preservation of others. The next order was for the swimmers to first make it to land and the rest on boards and broken pieces of the ship likewise escaped all safe to land.

This voyage has been likened to the church which has survived through the stormy seas of the centuries, but by schism has been rent asunder and further fragmented. Yet her Lord’s dictum remains: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The true members may consciously identify themselves with one of its many parts. All brought safe to land. And when the roll is call up yonder, all will be there.