On the road again

I’ve visited a friend in jail, but I’ve never been incarcerated myself (and no, being cooped up by COVID doesn’t quite count). Thus, I don’t know what it’s like to live without the freedom to come and go as I please, or worse, to have to endure being shackled with chains.

I don’t know what it’s like, in other words, to have suffered as the apostle Paul did. Throughout history, people have been imprisoned for political reasons, even for crimes they didn’t commit. That includes biblical history. Think, for example, of Joseph, falsely accused of rape and languishing in Pharaoh’s prison. He waited and waited for the cupbearer to remember the promise he made to Joseph. In God’s time, of course, the man did remember, and Joseph was free.

But in Joseph’s case, God time took a couple of years.

Paul had already been kept in custody for over two years under Governor Felix, a man who knew Paul was innocent but left him in prison for political reasons. His replacement, Festus, was hardly more trustworthy, and Paul was forced to appeal to the emperor. Finally, after Festus, King Agrippa, and a whole crowd of dignitaries agreed that Paul had done nothing illegal, Festus decided to send the apostle on to Nero. At long last, Paul was on his way to Rome, just as Jesus had promised (Acts 23:11).

Acts 27 gives us the last of Luke’s travel narratives, a detailed and lifelike eyewitness account of Paul’s ocean voyage toward Rome. Once again, Luke inserts himself unobtrusively into the story: “When it was decided that we were to sail to Italy…” (vs. 1a, NRSV, emphasis added). There’s no way to know what Luke was up to the whole time Paul was in in Caesarean custody, but it’s a safe bet that he helped make sure Paul’s needs were met, even as he went about collecting the materials he needed for the account we know as Acts.

According to Luke, a centurion named Julius took charge of Paul and the other prisoners who would also make the journey. There were no commercial passenger ships back then, so the centurion was responsible for making whatever arrangements he could find. He booked passage for them on a boat that was returning home to Adramyttium, a city up in the northwestern corner of the province of Asia. Julius, Paul, and the others would take that boat as far as Myra before parting ways.

Julius, apparently, was a kind man, or at least one who respected Paul’s status as a Roman citizen who had yet to be convicted of any crime — and who knows what other scuttlebutt Julius may have heard? At their very first stop out of Caesarea, he allowed Paul to go ashore (probably with an armed escort) to visit with and be ministered to by friends.

Too bad for everyone that later, when it really counted, Julius didn’t respect Paul enough to listen to his advice.

Luke’s narrative doesn’t raise the hackles of a modern-day landlubber like me. But to a first-century reader with experience sailing the Mediterranean, the story foreshadows impending doom. It was already getting very late in the sailing season, when the seas were choppy and dangerous, and Luke signals repeatedly that the voyage was unusually difficult.

In Myra, for example, the passengers hopped off the Adramyttian ship and onto what was probably a much larger grain vessel from Alexandria which was bearing its precious cargo of food to Rome. Luke reports, “We sailed slowly for a number of days and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus, and as the wind was against us, we sailed under the lee of Crete off Salmone. Sailing past it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea” (Acts 27-7-8, NRSV).

The voyage from Myra to Cnidus should have been relatively uneventful, but they had to fight strong winds the whole time. From Cnidus, they probably meant to sail west toward Italy, passing to the north of Crete. But the winds forced them instead to the east and south of Crete, far off course. It was only with great difficulty that they made port at Fair Havens (the name itself providing a nice bit of irony).

And as we’ll see, that’s when the real trouble starts.