An Historical Examination of Acts 27 and 28
Following his last great missionary journey, the Apostle Paul returned to Jerusalem where he was arrested, tried, and eventually transported as a prisoner to Rome, to be tried by the emperor’s court.
The account found in the Acts of the Apostles of Paul’s voyage to Rome and his shipwreck is supported by a wealth of historical detail. No other passage in the New Testament has such a striking evidential confirmation of its historical accuracy. Not only are the political, social, and legal details of that voyage and shipwreck striking in their accuracy, but also the meteorological and nautical details.
This website provides a full, although brief, analysis of that evidence. The author of the website, Jefferson White, is the author of the book Evidence and Paul’s Journeys: An Historical Investigation into the Travels of the Apostle Paul. Chapter five of that book is entitled “Paul’s Voyage to Rome and Shipwreck” and is reproduced in full below. The chapter is copyrighted.
The Augustan Cohort (Acts 27.1-.2)
Paul, along with some other prisoners, is handed over to a Centurion of the Augustan Cohort. Boarding ship at Caesarea, Paul is accompanied by two companions: Aristarchus and the author of Acts.
Ancient inscriptions attest to the existence of an auxiliary legion called the "Augustan Cohort" in Palestine during the first century. However, historical evidence suggests that the duty of escorting prisoners was reserved to legionary centurions alone.
Thus a centurion from an auxiliary legion could not have been Paul’s escort. It is possible that Luke’s reference is not to the auxiliary legion located in Palestine. The phrase "Augustan Cohort" simply means "the troop of the emperor." He may be referring to a group of Centurions on detached service, one of whose responsibilities was to escort prisoners. Such units existed in the second century, though there is no evidence for them in the first century. In short, there is not enough evidence to either confirm or deny Luke’s reference to the "Augustan Cohort." (1)
Luke states that he and Aristarchus accompanied Paul on the voyage. How likely is it that a prisoner, even if he were a Roman citizen, would have been permitted to take friends with him to Rome? The only other evidence on this question is found in a letter written by Pliny, who was the Roman governor of Bithynia fifty years after Paul’s voyage. He tells of a prisoner sent to Rome who was permitted to take his slaves with him. It should be noted that Paul’s ship was a public conveyance and that other passengers were aboard. So it is possible that Luke and Aristarchus were passengers as well. (2)
Caesarea to Myra (Acts 27.3-.5)
Leaving Caesarea, the ship arrives in Sidon the next day. After leaving Sidon, the prevailing winds force them to pass east and north of Cyprus on their way west to Myra.
The distance between Caesarea and Sidon is 67 land miles, and to travel that distance in a single day requires a leading wind. The prevailing wind at that time of year (Acts 27.9 reveals that it was early fall) was from the west. This would have allowed them to cover the distance in the time stated
Luke records that the prevailing wind forced the ship to pass east and north of the island of Cyprus. Both meteorological and nautical evidence confirm this statement. Given the prevailing west wind, they would have had to pass north of the island to continue west.
It was only after their vessel reached the Cilician coast that they could make headway against the wind. At that point, they would be aided by currents running along the coast, as well as by land breezes emanating from the Turkish land mass. Other ancient sources confirm that ships were forced to this route when the wind was from the west. The Greek writer Lucian records that it took his ship nine days to sail from Sidon to Myra by this route. (3)
The Egyptian Grain Ship (Acts 27.6)
Landing at Myra, the Centurion transfers Paul and the other prisoners to an Alexandrian grain ship bound for Rome.
Myra was a major port in the eastern empire. It lay directly north of Alexandria, Egypt, on the far side of the Mediterranean. An Egyptian ship sailing for Rome would have to sail north to Myra at this time of year, because it was impossible to sail directly northwest to Rome. The prevailing wind from the west forced ships sailing from Egypt to Rome to follow this indirect route.
This presents us with a series of interesting evidential coincidences. The same westerly wind that accounted for the shortness of Paul’s trip to Sidon is the wind that required his ship to sail north of Cyprus, and is also the wind that brought the Egyptian ship to Myra. All three of these events confirm the direction of the prevailing wind.
Luke, in Acts 27.1, states that the ship they boarded in Caesarea was sailing for ports along the coast of the province of Asia. In other words, the ship was not bound for Rome, but was making ports of call along the southern coast of what today is Turkey. The harbor at Myra was one of the great trans-shipping ports of the ancient Mediterranean. Thus it makes sense that Paul and the others would leave the coastal vessel there and board the larger grain ship for the final leg of the voyage to Rome. (4)