What Does Acts 27 Tell Us About Acts? The Narration of Sea Voyages Was Practiced by Ancient Historians (Part II)

This is Part II of a response to Neil Godfrey concerning the genre of Acts.

Neil claims that “storm and shipwreck stories were a staple of ancient adventure writings. Historians had no need to liven up their material with a shipwreck, but composers of fiction did, often enough to inspire parodies. (Pervo, p.51). Historians liked to include as set pieces accounts of sieges or orations for dead soldiers, not shipwrecks.” Neil then proceeds to list several supposed examples of “ancient adventures” that use ship wrecks.

In Part I, I showed that historians certainly did have reason to liven up their material with a shipwreck. They, like novelists, were expected to make their accounts exciting. Where, as with Paul, we know that shipwrecks actually happened to the person being written about it should not be surprising that an ancient historian would pick at least one to recount in more detail. And, obviously it would seem, because there are no battles in Acts, it is rather silly to claim the author would have included accounts of sieges or orations for dead soldiers in his book to add spice. Acts is an account of how the Gospel spread from Jerusalem to Rome, striking deep into the heart of the Pagan world despite powerful opposition.

There Is No Genre of "Ancient Adventure Writings"

More to the point of this post is the fact that there simply is no genre of “ancient adventures.” The list Neil has lifted from Richard Pervo is not from one genre, but many. He includes Roman, Greek, Pagan, Christian, and Jewish literature. From these traditions he cites Tragedies, Plays, Poetry, Romances, History, Satire, Jewish Prophetic Literature, Comedy, and, Jewish Apocalyptic Literature. Given the list’s literary diversity, it is useless as a means of establishing one literary phenomenon supposedly restricted to one genre. There simply is no magic formula, such as A = Fiction, that can be gleaned from such a broad array of writings. The problem here, and it is fatal, is one of methodology. Moreover, Neil and Pervo cast their net too widely in their search for supposedly parallel accounts. As Stanley Porter explains:

The way Pervo cites the Apocryphal Acts and other texts verges on parallelomania. He is engaging in what appears to be a piling-on of sources that have parallel elements, but are of highly questionable value when analyzed more closely. Most of the supposed similar elements can be paralleled in ancient historians besides novelists, and their use in the ancient novels is not treated in the same way as it is in Acts. The result is an uncontrolled use of purported parallel accounts. For example, not only does Pervo overstate the importance and significance of the shipwreck motif, present in the part in the ‘we’ passages, but he gives a distorted view of its relationship to Acts in the ancient novels. He claims to show that the major features of the convention of the shipwreck appear in Acts. In the parallels that he cites from the ancient novelists, however, not one of the sources he cites has all of the features that Acts does. His model of the shipwreck is apparently his own reconstruction of this type, and not one found in ancient literature in the kind of detail that he claims, or that is necessary to establish the validity of the parallel. (One could legitimately ask the further question of how many of these features are ‘literary’ and how many are required simply to relate the account of a shipwreck). In her study, Praeder, after comparison of ancient sea voyage accounts, concludes that these accounts are quite varied in style and approach, with none of them a true parallel with the accounts in Acts 27-28. She concludes, ‘Thus the fact that Acts 27:1-8 and 28:11-16 are travelogues is no guarantee of their literary genre, reliability or unreliability, or purpose in Acts 27:1-28:16.

Stanley Porter, Paul in Acts, page 18.

Sea Voyage Narratives, Including Shipwrecks, Were Used by Ancient Historians

As Porter alludes to above, Pervo and Neil are simply wrong when they claim that sea voyage narratives were not used by ancient historians. Such narratives were in fact written by some of the leading historians of classical times. Indeed, rhetorical training taught the narration of sea voyages and shipwrecks across the board, including for use in histories. As Professors Talber and Hayes remind us, the writing of exciting sea voyages was a widespread part of rhetorical training. Charles H. Talbert and J. H. Hayes, “A Theology of Sea Storms in Luke-Acts”, in Jesus and the Heritage of Israel, pages 269-70. Moreover, “[s]ome of these sea stories functioned merely as a record of historical events (e.g., Tacitus, Annals 2.23-24); others served primarily as entertainment (e.g., Petronius, Satyricon 114). Certain narratives, however, taught either theological or moral lessons.” Id.

This, of course, does not deny the influence that the Odyssey may have had on Acts. Historians would have been smart to use such elements of one of the most popular literatary work of the time – the Odyssey -- to appeal to their audience. As Professor Witherington notes,

That Luke’s account of the journey to Rome is a lively one, no one would dispute. That such accounts, having been influenced by the Odyssey (5.291-332; 9.62-81; 12:.201-303) and the later ones by the Aenied (1.44-153), where staple items in ancient Hellenistic novels or romances is also beyond question…. But as Johnson rightly points out, such tales were also not uncommon in historical works in Greek (cf., e.g., Thucydides, Pelop. 2.6.26; 6.20.104; 8.24.31; 8.24.34; Herodotus, Pers. Wars 3.138; 7.188). The presence of such material in Acts then gives us no sure clue to the genre of this work and to whether it is largely history or fiction.

Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostle, page 755.

The scholars listed above have already offered some citations to historical works that narrated sea voyages and shipwrecks. There are others. In fact, there are many examples of ancient historians narrating sea voyages, including storms and shipwrecks and rescues.

The Roman historian Tacitus in Annals describes the voyage of several of Caesar’s ships under initially calm conditions that turn into a violent storm, terrorizing crew and passengers, and wrecking ships. Tacitus then describes the rescue of several who had been lost in the sea. Tacitus, Annals 2.23-24. Tacitus’ account is quite vivid, describing “a hailstorm bursting from a black mass of clouds, while the waves rolled hither and thither under tempestuous gales from every quarter,” noting that the passengers were “terrorstricken and without any experience of disasters on the sea,” telling how ships were “swallowed up” or “wrecked on distant islands” and decscribing a rescue operation by which “[m]any by that means were recovered.”

Josephus also writes about a personal experience he had on a sea voyage. He wrotes about how in his own harrowing sea tale his ship, bound for Rome, sank. He and his fellow travelers were in the sea for more than a day until Josephus and some others were rescued. Life. Josephus writes of the many “hazards of the sea” and how he and his companions “swam for our lives all the night” but that Josephus and some others were saved by a passing ship “by God's providence.”

In addition to the accounts in Tacitus’ Annals and Josephus’s Life, there are other examples of sea voyages and shipwrecks narrated by ancient historians: Thucydides (leading Greek historian), Pelop. 2.6.26; 6.20.104; 8.24.31; 8.24.34; Herodotus (Greek historian known as the “father of history”), Pers. Wars 3.138; 7.188; Polybius (leading Greek historian), Histories 1.37; Quintus Curtius Rufius, History of Alexander, 4.3.16-18; and Josephus, Jewish War 1.279-80 (leading Jewish historian). Given that classics are not my field and I came up with this list in one day, there are likely other examples from other ancient historians. But in this list are the most famous of the Greek, Roman, and Jewish historians.

I would add that, to Luke, the story of Jonah would have been a historical episode rather than a fictitious narrative. Significantly, this would also have been true of a harrowing sea voyage that Luke had already written about (Luke 8:22-2). So these are additional “historical” accounts that could have motivated Luke to incorporate a sea-voyage narrative in Acts.


Neil’s attempt to group all ancient narratives of sea voyages into a genre of “ancient adventure writings” indicating that all such are fiction completely fails. There was no such genre and his attempts to cram in quite disparate writings to demonstrate one are misplaced. MNeil's claim that ancient historians had no interest in narrating sea voyages likewise completely fails. Several historians did, often with gusto. Thus, the inclusion of a vivid sea-voyage narrative in Acts is no grounds for claiming that the account, or Acts, is a work of fiction.


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