Manners & Customs: Sea Travel
Sea Travel in ancient Bible times
Fear of Storms
TRAVELING BY SEA IN ANCIENT TIMES
The attitude of the ancients toward the sea. Ancient people had a great fear of the ocean and truly there was a reason for this dread, since the mariners had no chart of the seas or compass to guide them. Travel by ship was usually inconvenient, and windstorms often necessitated great delay in arrival at the desired port. Ordinarily the Mediterranean Sea was closed to sea travel during the winter months. [Manners And Customs of Bible Lands]
The Phoenician ship in which Jonah sailed. The first chapter of the book of Jonah gives interesting information about ancient ships. This ship was traveling from Joppa to Tarshish as a merchant ship, for when the storm came, the men "cast forth the wares that were in the ship" (verse 5). Exclusively passenger ships were little known in those days, most traveling, if not all, being done on merchant ships. Passengers, of course, paid a fare for their trips, as did Jonah (verse 3). When the storm arose, the sailors discovered that "Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship" (verse 5). This means he had gone "below deck," into the lower room of the ship.
The word "shipmaster" used in verse 6 means the chief of the sailors, or as we would say, the captain of the ship. Verse 13 mentions the use of oars when the ship was in the storm, in a futile effort to bring it to shore.
[Manners And Customs of Bible Lands]
No Sea in the New Earth
The Apostle John's inspired description of Heaven was originally given to men who greatly feared the grave dangers and horrors of sea-experiences, and to them he wrote concerning the new earth: "And there was no more sea" (Revelation 21:1). Travel by sea in early days was undertaken only when absolutely necessary. [Manners And Customs of Bible Lands]
Paul Traveling by Ship
The ship in which Paul was to sail for Rome got into difficulties because those in charge risked getting the ship to another harbor before winter set in. "And because the haven was not commodious to winter in, the more part advised to depart thence also, if by any means they might attain to Phenice, and there to winter" (Acts 27:12). The Psalmist has given us a graphic description of a storm at sea and GOD's deliverance from it (Psalm 107:25-30). [Manners And Customs of Bible Lands]
Paul's Journey to Rome Details
Luke's account of Paul's voyage to Rome. Luke's report of Paul's sea journey in Acts 27 and 28 is the most accurate account of a sea voyage that has come to us from olden times. We gain more knowledge of these ships from this story than from any other source.15
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Mr. James Smith made a detailed study of Paul's voyage, traveling by ship himself where Paul's trip took him. By means of admiralty charts and a study of the tides, etc., he was able to prove how remarkably accurate Luke was in what he wrote.
Lieutenant Edwin Smith of Canada was in the Mediterranean waters in 1918-1919 in command of a ship on special service. He also had opportunity to test out Luke's accuracy and make a study of shipping in Paul's day.
What were these ancient ships like? Lieutenant Smith makes this answer:
"In general outline they did not differ so much from sailing ships of fifty years ago, especially in their under-water parts, with the exception that the bow and stern were very much alike . . . Perhaps the greatest difference between these ancient ships and all classes of modern ships, is in the steering arrangements. The ancient ships were not steered as those in modern times, by a single rudder hinged to the stern post, but by two great oars or paddles, one on each side of the stern; hence the mention of them in the plural number by St. Luke (Acts 27:40). They were operated through two hawse holes, one on either side, which were used also for the cables when the ships were anchored by the stern."
James speaks of only one rudder on a ship (James 3:4), but this is because the pilot would only make use of one of the two rudders at a time.
In Acts 27:17, Luke tells us that the sailors lowered the sail in the storm, and in verse 40, he informs us that they hoisted up the foresail. This latter was a small sail which the seamen were in the habit of substituting for the mainsail in storms.20
Verse 17 also says: "They used helps, undergirding the ship." When it became necessary, chains or cables were placed around the hull at right angles to the length of the ship, and then pulled tight. The English navy calls this process "frapping."
Luke gives us the names of the officers on board Paul's ship (verse 11). The Roman centurion was in chief command of the ship. Then came the pilot and captain.
Ancient ships as now had their own individual ensign. Thus the ship on which Paul took the final stage of his journey to Rome was called Castor and Pollux which means, "The Twin Brothers" (cf. Acts 28:11). Ancient ships were personified, and thus grew the custom of painting an eye on each side of the ship's bow. This custom has persisted down to modern times among Mediterranean ships. Luke evidently was referring to this custom when he wrote: "And when the ship was caught, and could not bear up into the wind, we let her drive" (Acts 27:15). Literally paraphrased it would be, "could not look the wind in the face." [Manners And Customs of Bible Lands]
Sea Travel Among the Egyptians
Shipping nations. Egyptian ships early plied the Mediterranean Sea, and light-weight "vessels of bulrushes [papyrus]" (Isaiah 18:1, 2), were piloted by both Egyptians and Ethiopians on the Nile River. [Manners And Customs of Bible Lands]
Sea Travel Among the Greeks and Romans
In New Testament times it was the Greeks and Romans who were especially noted for their shipping activities. [Manners And Customs of Bible Lands]
Sea Travel Among the Phoenicians and Philistines
The Phoenicians were the most famous sea-merchants and travelers of ancient times. The ship in which Jonah took his voyage was no doubt navigated by these seamen (Jonah 1). The Islands of Crete and Cyprus became famous shipping centers, and the Philistines of old had their ships upon the waters of the Mediterranean. [Manners And Customs of Bible Lands]
Sea Travel in Israel's History
But what about the Hebrews? Were they seamen? The patriarch Jacob made this prediction concerning the tribe of Zebulun: "He shall be for an haven of ships" (Genesis 49:13). But the Israel seacoast was not occupied at all times by the Hebrew people.
Other nations became navigators, and for the most part the Jews probably contented themselves with occasionally hiring out to these foreign sea captains as sailors. The Psalmist says:
"They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters" (Psalm 107:23).
Israel did have one great experience with ships during the reign of King Solomon. David had conquered the Edomites and so came into possession of the two ports of Eloth and Ezion-geber on the Red Sea. Thus Solomon inherited good harbors for ships. Arrangements were made for Hiram, King of Tyre, to send carpenters to build ships for Solomon, "and Hiram sent in the navy his servants, shipment that had knowledge of the sea, with the servants of Solomon. And they came to Ophir, and fetched from thence gold. . . and brought it to king Solomon" (I Kings 9:27, 28).
A few years later King Jehoshaphat of Judah joined with King Ahaziah of Israel on a similar shipping expedition, but the LORD did not approve of this alliance, and so "the ships were broken at Eziongeber" (I Kings 22:48). While King Jehoram, Jehoshaphat's successor, was reigning, the Edomites freed themselves from the Hebrew yoke, and came into possession of their Red Sea ports.
This ended Israel's shipping experience in ocean waters for many generations to come, although Eloth has become an important port for the modern nation of Israel. In New Testament times boats were used to cross the waters of the Sea of Galilee.
[Manners And Customs of Bible Lands]
Ship in Fausset's Bible Dictionary
Among the earliest shipbuilders were the Phoenicians, whose
commerce and voyages made them foremost in the maritime
science of early ages, and traces of whose ships are
frequently met with. (On PAUL'S voyage, see EUROCLYDON;
MELITA; CNIDUS; CRETE; FAIR HAVENS.) Paul was first in the
Adramyttian coasting vessel from Caesarea to Myra; then in
the large Alexandrian grain ship wrecked at Malta; then in
another Alexandrian grain ship from Malta by Syracuse and
Rhegium to Purcell. Luke shows accurate nautical knowledge,
yet not professional, but of an observer, telling what was
done but not the how or the why.
Fourteen different verbs he uses of the progression
of a ship, peculiar to himself and appropriate to each case:
pleoo; Luke 8:23; Acts 21:3; apopleo; Acts 13:4; Acts 14:26;
Acts 20:15; Acts 27:1; bradupleoo; Acts 27:7; diapleoo; Acts
27:5; ekpleoo; Acts 15:39; katapleoo; Luke 8:26; hupopleoo;
Acts 27:4; Acts 27:7; parapleoo; Acts 20:16; euthudromeoo;
Acts 16:11; Acts 21:1; hupotrechoo; Acts 27:16; paralegomai;
Acts 27:8; Acts 27:13; feromai; Acts 27:15; diaferomai; Acts
27:27; diaperaoo; Acts 21:2. Paul's ship, besides cargo of
wheat, carried 276 persons, so she would be of 600 tons.
Lucian (Ploion e Euche) describes an Alexandrian wheat ship,
180 ft. long (including end projections) by 45 ft. broad,
i.e. 1,300 tons.
The largest on record was Ptolemy Philopator's war
galley, 420 ft. long by 57 ft. broad, under 5,000 tons. "The
governor" in James 3:4 is the "helmsman" (kuberneetees; the
"owner" was naukleeros). There were two paddle rudders, one
on each quarter, acting in a rowlock or through a porthole.
As the helmsman used only one at a time, "the helm" is in
the singular in James 3:4. In Acts 27:29; Acts 27:40, after
letting go the four anchors at the stern, they lashed up
both the rudder paddles lest they should interfere with the
ground tackle. When they wished to steer again and the
anchor ropes were cut (margin), they unfastened the lashings
or bands of the paddles. The ship's run from Rhegium to
Puteoli, 180 miles in two days, the wind being full from the
S., illustrates the rate of sailing. The bow and the stern
were much alike, except that on each side of the bow was
painted "the sign" (paraseemon), as for instance "Castor and
Pollux" (Acts 28:11).
An eye was painted on each side of the bow; so
Luke's phrase (antofthalmein), "bear up into," literally,
"eye the wind" directly (Acts 27:15). The imperfect build of
ships caused the need of "undergirders" to pass round the
frame, at right angles to its length, when the planks were
in danger of starting. The anchors resembled ours, but had
no flukes. Spiritually they symbolize the Christian hope
(Hebrews 6:19). The soul is the ship; the world the sea; the
bliss beyond the distant coast; hope resting on faith the
anchor which prevents the vessel being tossed to and fro;
the consolation through God's promise and hope is the cable
connecting the ship and anchor. The soul clings, as one in
fear of shipwreck, to the anchor, and sees not where the
cable runs, where it is fastened; she knows it is fastened
behind the veil which hides the future glory; if only she
hold on to the anchor, she shall in due time be drawn in
where it is, into the holiest, by the Saviour.
Anchoring by the stern, the ancients were prepared
to anchor in the gale such as Paul encountered; and Purdy
(Sailing Directions, 180) says that the holding ground at
Malta where Paul was wrecked is quite good enough to have
secured the anchors and ship in spite of the severe night.
In Acts 27:40, for "mainsail" translated "foresail," which
was needed to put the ship about and to run it aground.
Vessels were propelled by oars as well as by sails (Ezekiel
27:29; Isaiah 33:21; Jonah 1:13). Of the 32 parts or points
of the compass card a modern ship will sail within six
points of the wind. The clumsier ancient ship probably could
sail within seven points. In a heavy gale the ship would lie
to, with the right side to the storm, the object being not
progress but safety; as under the lee of Clauda (Acts 27:14-
To anchor was impossible; to drift would have
brought the ship to the fatal Syrtis off Africa. The wind...
Ship in Naves Topical Bible
1Ki 9:26; 2Ch 8:17
1Ki 22:48; 2Ch 20:35,36
Of gopher wood
Of fir wood
Sealed with pitch (tar?)
Isa 33:23; Ac 27:19
Isa 33:23; Ac 27:1,9,17,40
Isa 33:23; Eze 27:5
Jon 1:13; Mr 6:48
Ac 27:29,30,40; Heb 6:19
-Used in commerce
Ac 21:3; 27:10
-Used in commerce
1Ki 22:48; Isa 60:9; Jon 1:3
1Ki 10:11; 2Ch 8:18
For passenger traffic
Isa 60:9; Jon 1:3; Ac 20:13; 27:2,37; 28:11
-Repaired by caulking
-Wrecked at Ezion-geber
1Ki 22:48; 2Ch 20:35-37
-At Melita (Malta)
-Warships used by Chittim
Nu 24:24; Da 11:30
Ship in Smiths Bible Dictionary
No one writer in the whole range of Greek and Roman
literature has supplied us with so much information
concerning the merchant-ships of the ancients as St. Luke in
the narrative of St. Paul's voyage to Rome. Acts 27,28. It
is important to remember that he accomplished it in three
ships: first, the Adramyttian vessel which took him from
Caesarea to Myra, and which was probably a coasting-vessel
of no great size, Ac 27:1-6 secondly, the large Alexandrian
corn-ship, in which he was wrecked on the coast of Malta Ac
27:6-28 :1; and thirdly, another large Alexandrian corn-
ship, in which he sailed from Malta by Syracuse and Rhegium
to Puteoli. Ac 28:11-13
1. Size of ancient ships. --The narrative which we
take as our chief guide affords a good standard for
estimating this. The ship, in which St. Paul was wrecked had
persons on board, Ac 27:37 besides a cargo of wheat, ibid.
Ac 27:10,38 and all these passengers seem to have been taken
on to Puteoli in another ship, ibid, Ac 28:11 which had its
own crew and its own cargo. Now, in modern transport-ships,
prepared far carrying troops, it is a common estimate to
allow a toll and a half per man. On the whole, if we say
that an ancient merchant-ship might range from 500 to 1000
tons, we are clearly within the mark.
2. Steering apparatus. --Some commentators have
fallen into strange perplexities from observing that in Ac
27:40 ("the fastenings of the rudders") St. Luke uses the
plural. Ancient ships were in truth not steered at all by
rudders fastened or hinged to the stern, but by means of two
paddle-rudders one on each quarter, acting in a rowlock or
through a port-hole as the vessel might be small or large.
3. Build and ornaments of the hull. --It is probable
that there was no very marked difference between the bow and
the stern. The "hold," Jon 1:5 would present no special
peculiarities. That personification of ships which seems to
be instinctive led the ancients to paint an eye on each side
of the bow. Comp. Ac 27:15 An ornament of the ship which
took Paul from Malta to Pozzuoli is more explicitly referred
to. The "sign" of that ship, Ac 28:11 was Castor and Pollux;
and the symbols of those heroes were doubtless painted or
sculptured on each side of the bow.
4. Under-girders. --The imperfection of the build,
and still more (see below, 6) the peculiarity of the rig, in
ancient ships, resulted in a greater tendency than in our
times to the starting of the pranks and consequently to
leaking and foundering. Hence it was customary to take on
board peculiar contrivances, suitable called helps," Ac
27:17 as precautions against such dangers. These were simply
cables or chains, which in case of necessity could be passed
round the frame of the ship, at right angles to its length,
and made tight.
5. Anchors. --Ancient anchors were similar in form
to those which we use now. except that they were without
flukes. The ship in which Paul was sailing had four anchors
on board. The sailors on this occasion anchored by the
stern. Ac 27:29
6. Masts, sails, ropes and yards. -The rig of an
ancient ship was more simple and clumsy than that employed
in modern times. Its great feature was one large mast, with
one large square sail fastened to a yard of great length.
Hence the strain upon the hull, and the danger of starting
the planks, were greater than under the present system,
which distributes the mechanical pressure more evenly over
the whole ship. Not that there were never more masts than
one, or more sails than one on the same mast, in an ancient
merchantman; but these were repetitions, so to speak, of the
same general unit of rig. Another feature of the ancient, as
of the modern , feature of the ancient, as of ship is the
flag at the top of the mast. Isai l.c., and Isa 30:17 We
must remember that the ancients...
Ship Oars and Sails
How ships were propelled. Two methods were used. Ships of war, although furnished with sails were propelled mainly by means of oars. Merchant vessels depended for the most part on sails, but many of the navigators resorted to oars when it became necessary.
Thus the men who piloted Jonah's ship, which was a merchant ship, "rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not" (Jonah 1:13). The storm was too great for them. The ship that Paul was in when the storm broke on the Mediterranean Sea was a sailing ship without oars for men to row (Acts 27).
[Manners And Customs of Bible Lands]
Ship Scripture - Acts 21:3
Now when we had discovered Cyprus, we left it on the left
hand, and sailed into Syria, and landed at Tyre: for there the
ship was to unlade her burden.
Ship Scripture - Acts 27:2
And entering into a ship of Adramyttium, we launched, meaning
to sail by the coasts of Asia; [one] Aristarchus, a Macedonian
of Thessalonica, being with us.
Ship Scripture - Acts 27:41
And falling into a place where two seas met, they ran the ship
aground; and the forepart stuck fast, and remained unmoveable,
but the hinder part was broken with the violence of the waves.
Ship Scripture - Isaiah 33:21
But there the glorious LORD [will be] unto us a place of broad
rivers [and] streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars,
neither shall gallant ship pass thereby.
Ship Scripture - John 21:6
And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the
ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they
were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.
Ship Scripture - Jonah 1:3
But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of
the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to
Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it,
to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.
Ship Scripture - Luke 8:37
Then the whole multitude of the country of the Gadarenes round
about besought him to depart from them; for they were taken
with great fear: and he went up into the ship, and returned
Ship Scripture - Mark 4:1
And he began again to teach by the sea side: and there was
gathered unto him a great multitude, so that he entered into a
ship, and sat in the sea; and the whole multitude was by the
sea on the land.
Ship Scripture - Matthew 14:13
When Jesus heard [of it], he departed thence by ship into a
desert place apart: and when the people had heard [thereof],
they followed him on foot out of the cities.
Ship Scripture - Matthew 4:21
And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James
[the son] of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with
Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them.
Ship Travel Routes
Ship routes. It is important to remember that in Bible times, vessels that traveled in the Mediterranean Sea kept as close as possible to land. Thus the trade routes were along the coast or from one headland to another one.
When the Apostle Paul was returning from one of his missionary journeys, he traveled by ship from Ephesus to Caesarea. His ship would keep near the coast going from city to city, and Paul sometimes stopped off and visited friends (Acts 21:1-8). In those days the small size of the ships often made it necessary for passengers to go ashore for the night, and finding a place there to sleep, join the ship the next day. [Manners And Customs of Bible Lands]
Ships and Boats in the Bible Encyclopedia - ISBE
I. THE HEBREWS AND THE SEA
II. SHIPS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT AND THE APOCRYPHA
1. Among the Hebrews
(1) In Early Times
(2) During the Monarchy
(3) In Later Times
2. Among Neighboring Nations
(2) Assyria and Babylonia
3. General References
III. SHIPS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
1. In the Gospels
2. In the Acts of the Apostles
3. In Other Books
In the Old Testament the following words are found:
(1) The word most commonly used in Hebrew for "a ship" is
'oniyah (Prov 30:19; Jon 1:3,4), of which the plural
'oniyoth is found most frequently (Jdg 5:17; 1 Ki 22:48 f,
and many other places).
The collective term for "a navy of ships" is 'oni (1 Ki 9:26
f; 10:22, 'oni Tharshish, "a navy (of ships) of Tarshish";
but Isa 33:21, 'oni shayit, a "galley with oars").
(2) tsi (Nu 24:24; Ezek 30:9; Isa 33:21), tsi 'addir,
"gallant ship"; Dan 11:30, tsiyim Kittim, "ships of Kittim.'
(3) cephinah, "innermost parts of the ship" the Revised
Version (British and American), "sides of the ship" the King
James Version (Jon 1:5, the only place where the word is
In Apocrypha ploion, is the usual word (The Wisdom of
Solomon 14:1; Ecclesiasticus 33:2, etc.), translated
"vessel" in The Wisdom of Solomon 14:1, but "ship"
elsewhere. For "ship" The Wisdom of Solomon 5:10 has naus.
"Boat" in 2 Macc 12:3,6 is for skaphos, and "navy" in 1 Macc
1:17; 2 Macc 12:9; 14:1 for stolos. In The Wisdom of Solomon
14:6 Noah's ark is called a schedia, a "clumsy ship" (the
literal translation "raft" in the Revised Version (British
and American) is impossible).
In the New Testament there are four words in use: (1) naus
(Acts 27:41, the only place where it occurs, designating the
large sea-going vessel in which Paul suffered shipwreck).
(2) ploiarion, "a little boat" (Mk 3:9 and two other places,
Jn 6:22 ff; 21:8). (3) ploion, "boat" (Mt 4:21,22 and many
other places in the Gospels--the ordinary fishingboat of the
Sea of Galilee rendered "boat" uniformly in the Revised
Version (British and American) instead of "ship" the King
James Version), "ship" (Acts 20:13, and all other places
where the ship carrying Paul is mentioned, except 27:41, as
above). In Jas 3:4; Rev 8:9; 18:17 ff, it is rendered
"ship." (4) skaphe, "boat" (Acts 27:16,30,32, where it means
the small boat of the ship in which Paul was being conveyed
as a prisoner to Rome).
Cognate expressions are: "shipmen," 'anshe 'oniyoth (1 Ki
9:27); nautai (Acts 27:27,30 the King James Version,
"sailors" the Revised Version (British and American));
"mariners," mallachim (Jon 1:15; Ezek 27:9,27,29), shaTim
(Ezek 27:8 the King James Version, "rowers" the Revised
Version (British and American); Ezek 27:26, the King James
Version and the Revised Version (British and American));
"pilot," chobhel (Jon 1:6; Ezek 27:8,27,28,29); "sailing,"
"voyage," plous (Acts 21:7; 27:9,10, the Revised Version
(British and American) "voyage" in all verses).
I. The Hebrews and the Sea.
The Hebrews were a pastoral and agricultural people, and had
Ships in Easton's Bible Dictionary
early used in foreign commerce by the Phoenicians (Gen.
Moses (Deut. 28:68) and Job (9:26) make reference to
Balaam speaks of the "ships of Chittim" (Num.
constructed a navy at Ezion-geber by the assistance
sailors (1 Kings 9:26-28; 2 Chr. 8:18). Afterwards,
sought to provide himself with a navy at the same
port, but his
ships appear to have been wrecked before they set
sail (1 Kings
22:48, 49; 2 Chr. 20:35-37).
In our Lord's time fishermen's boats on the Sea of
were called "ships." Much may be learned regarding
construction of ancient merchant ships and
navigation from the
record in Acts 27, 28.
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