WHERE IS SAINT PAUL’S SHIPWRECK?
As far as shipwrecks go, the wreck of the apostle Saint Paul falls right up there at the top in both historical and religious significance. Though not the first shipwreck Paul was involved with, the last one is what most of are familiar with and which is addressed here. Newer versions of the Bible say Malta is where Paul’s ship wrecked, and that’s what I was led to believe. I’d never given it much more thought until I ran across some 1830’s copies of the Naval Chronicles. A couple of issues had a number of articles, both pro and con, giving an entirely different island location as to where St. Paul shipwrecked.
I soon did a google search and found numerous on-line articles on the subject, along with links to a number of books written about the event. After reading through many of these, I still have no idea where it could have wrecked, but put this short article together as simply a starting point for anyone wanting to research this further.
The only known account of the wreck that I’m aware of is in the Bible’s New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles. The Evangelist St. Luke who had accompanied Paul, though not as a prisoner, related the events of the shipwreck in Chapter 27, and its aftermath in Chapter 28. Most say around the year AD 60 as when the Apostle Paul, along with other prisoners, was being taken to Rome to be tried as a rebel. He was under the guard of some Roman soldiers commanded by a Centurian named Julius. It appears that Julius befriended Paul during their voyage and was the one who prevented the prisoners, including Paul, from being killed by the soldiers after they shipwrecked.
A brief outline of the journey was such: Originally departing the port of Caesarea on a merchant ship, the first part of the journey was uneventful until they reached the city of Myra, where they transferred to a large grain ship from Alexandria to complete the trip to Italy. Soon after that, the winds became non-cooperative, and they lay off a place called Fair Havens by Lasea, on the south coast of Crete. Winter was approaching, and as this area did not provide great harborage during the winter months, the ship’s captain wanted to sail to Phenice (spelled Phoenix in newer versions) on the SW end of Crete, where they could winter there in a much better harbor. Paul warned Julius that they should remain where they were, but the captain persuaded Julius they should try and make Phenice while the weather still allowed. The Centuriun Julius actually had the final say, and likely believing the captain had much more seafaring experience than Paul, he agreed with the captain and they soon departed for Phenice. Almost immediately they were met with a strong wind, which their ship was now in the middle of. Luke calls this wind a “Euroclydian.” It allowed no headway and they let “her drive,” which soon had brought them under the island of Clauda, which lay south of Crete below Phenice. The crew lightened the ship on the second day, and on the third they “cast out with their own hands the tackling of the ship.” More days passed as they drifted at the mercy of the winds, and though many felt despair, Paul comforted them saying they would all be saved though the ship would not. He said that they would soon be ”cast upon a certain island.” On the 14th night, “as they were driven up and down the Adria, about midnight the seamen deemed they drew near to some country.” They immediately sounded the bottom and found it to be in twenty fathoms, another sounding soon after had them in 15 fathoms, and they threw four anchors off the stern to prevent them from grounding. As morning approached, they either took up the anchors or left them in the sea and made for land. The ship eventually grounded I presume much closer to shore. There were 276 men on board when it wrecked, and all made it safely to shore by either swimming or floating ashore on wreckage.
The 1830’s articles say the island where they wrecked was called “Melita.” I looked at my 100+ year old family bible and confirmed my older version of the Bible did give the name of the island as “Melita,” and not Malta, which is the name given in my more modern Bible. It’s true that Malta was called Melita in the past, but so was another island. The other is the island of Mljet, off the coast of Croatia in the Adriatic, spelled Melita (Latin) and also Meleda (Italian) years ago. Both islands are associated with the wreck of St. Paul. There’s a rock off Mljet called “St. Paul’s Rock,” and Malta has a bay on the NE coast called St. Paul’s Bay, and where most have associated where Paul indeed wrecked. More recently a group has said evidence points to St Thomas Bay on the SE coast of Malta, and not St. Paul’s Bay. Salina Bay off Malta is another site some believe is where the wreck lies. In 2005 a lead anchor stock with Egyptian inscriptions was recovered there, and Paul was shipwrecked on an Egyptian grain ship. Though other islands have also been named, Malta and Mljet appear the two most likely.
The wind called “Eroclydon” that Luke mentions, is the basis for many who have researched the event to say either Malta, or Mljet as where the wreck must be, and there are a number of different views on what this wind was (NE wind, SE, etc. ) and where the winds would have taken the ship, St. Paul’s Bay being one. Back in 1730, a Benedictine monk named Ignacio Giorgi from Mljet, wrote a dissertation in Venice that Miljet was where Paul shipwrecked. In 1767, the well-known scholar Jacob Bryan, wrote two dissertations concluding Mljet as where they wrecked, having never read Giorgi’s dissertation, but coming to the same conclusion. Both these scholars based much of their theory on which direction they believed the Euro-Clydon blew. Though rare, hurricanes have been known to occur in the Mediterranean (called medicanes), though never really stronger than a Category 1 type storm. Did Paul’s ship get caught in one of these? A hurricane’s winds could blow a ship in many different directions.
Here are a just a few more “clues” many researchers used to validate their theories. Chapter 27:27 says: “But when the fourteenth night was come, as we were driven up and down the Adria, about midnight the shipmen deemed that they drew near to some country.” That it says they were in the “Adria,” points to the Adriatic where Mljet lay, though there’s much speculation as to what the bodies of water throughout the Mediterranean were all named 2,000 years ago.
Chapter 27:28-29 goes on to say they took soundings and found themselves in 20 fathoms and again in 15 fathoms, and they then let out four anchors off the stern to prevent from going aground. Chapter 27:39 says: “And when it was day, they knew not the land: but they discovered a certain creek with a shore, into which they were minded, if it were possible, to thrust in the ship” (some areas do have similar landmarks but who knows how the landscape may have changed in 2,000 years). Chapter 27:40 says: “And when they had taken up the anchors, they committed themselves unto the sea” (my old bible and an even earlier one say the same thing, though the old family bible has a footnote after that last quote which states (“Or, cut the anchors, they left them in the sea.”) My newer bible relates this a bit differently saying ”So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea.” Many believe they did leave the anchors, but maybe they did “take them up?” A few years ago, reports that the actual location had been located due to four anchor stocks (lead stocks) being found in 90’ of water in St. Thomas Bay, Malta. The anchors were of the type of that period, and that the biblical account states that four anchors were put out before it wrecked in 90’ of water (the 15 meters mentioned in the Bible) led credence to these claims. The anchors had actually been found years before by two teenage fishermen, though two were melted down for diving weights, another was lost, and the fourth was the only one still available to document, so no way to verify if true, and these type anchor stocks have been found throughout the Mediterranean.
In chapter 28, it referred to the inhabitants of the island on which they wrecked as “barbarians.” Another important clue is that Paul was said to have been bitten by a viper soon after landing on shore but survived with no sign of any trauma, which the inhabitants took as a sign that Paul was no ordinary person, plus the fact that he healed a number of the sick there including the father of the local leader. Malta does not have any venomous snakes, but Mljet was known to have many. That the populace on the island were referred to as barbarians, which would likely not be what the Greek/Roman populace on Malta at the time would be called, but more likely would of the Illyrians living at that time on Mljet is another point to be considered. After three months on the island, they then took passage on a ship of Alexandria that had wintered there and made their way to Syracuse. It seems much more plausible that they would sail to Syracuse from Malta than from Mljet, though maybe that’s where the ship they took passage on was headed for anyway. Only time will tell if this mystery ever gets solved!
Here's a few of the many websites giving credence to Malta or Mljet as to where the shipwreck may lie.
Map from the old family bible showing supposed route (in orange) of St. Paul's last voyage ending up at present day Malta. Circled in purple is where they transferred vessels. Circled in red in upper left is present day Mljet. The "Red" line shows route to Mljet if indeed it didn't continue west to Malta but went north into the Adriatic to Mljet.
Old map with both Malta & Mljet called "Melita."
Close ups of Mljet & Malta as "Melita."
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