Trusting the experts?

If you would, join me in a quick exercise of imagination.

You’re a federal marshal, or some other government official, in charge of transporting a political prisoner by airplane. Bad weather forces the plane off course, and a decision needs to be made: which airport do we head for now? There are different possibilities, and ultimately, it’s your decision.

First, the prisoner offers his opinion. His qualifications? Well, let’s see… He’s never logged any hours in the cockpit, but he does have lots of frequent flyer miles. Then the pilot makes a suggestion, contradicting the prisoner’s advice. An airline executive happens to be on the flight, and he agrees with the pilot.

Question: whose advice do you follow?  The prisoner? Or the pilot and airline exec?

Yeah, I thought so. Me too.

This, in essence, is the plight of Julius the centurion in Acts 27. It was his responsibility to get Paul and some other prisoners to Rome. Thus far, the voyage had been rough and had not gone according to plan. They had barely made it to the port of Fair Havens on the southern coast of Crete, a place that had not been on their itinerary.

What should they do next? Here’s Luke’s account:

Since much time had been lost and sailing was now dangerous, because even the Fast had already gone by, Paul advised them, saying, “Sirs, I can see that the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” But the centurion paid more attention to the pilot and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said. (Acts 27:9-11, NRSV)

“Even the Fast had already gone by…” Luke is referring to Yom Kippur, which in the year AD 59 occurred in early October, making it dangerously late in the season for sailing the open seas. Paul, therefore, gave his own advice (probably directly to Julius), warning of dire consequences.

He wasn’t an experienced sailor, of course, but he had himself already survived three shipwrecks and “a night and a day adrift at sea” (2 Cor 11:25). His was the voice of experience. Who knows if the pilot and the owner of the ship had ever actually been shipwrecked before? To them, it may have been nothing more than an abstraction, something to be overcome by a bit of denial and cheerful optimism.

Not to mention greed. If this was indeed a grain vessel, they stood to profit from braving the storm and getting their shipment to Rome; the empire would reward them. Is it any wonder that the centurion would ignore Paul’s advice and listen to the others instead?

Luke continues:

Since the harbor was not suitable for spending the winter, the majority was in favor of putting to sea from there, on the chance that somehow they could reach Phoenix, where they could spend the winter. It was a harbor of Crete, facing southwest and northwest. (Acts 27:12)

It’s hard to tell whether Luke accepts the judgment that Fair Havens was no place to spend the winter, or is just reporting the rationalization people offered for moving on (“There’s no cell phone reception here, and we can’t even get a cable sports network”). But it should be noted that compared to other legs of their journey so far, Fair Havens to Phoenix would have been a relatively short voyage of only about 40 miles or so. If they were willing to brave the elements just to gain that short of a distance, it must indeed have been a better harbor.

Too bad they never got to see it.