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Dictionaries :: Ship

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Smith's 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 (Acts 27:1-6) secondly, the large Alexandrian corn‐ship, in which he was wrecked on the coast of Malta (Acts 27:6-28:1); and thirdly, another large Alexandrian corn‐ship, in which he sailed from Malta by Syracuse and Rhegium to Puteoli (Acts 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 (Acts 27:37) besides a cargo of wheat, ibid (Acts 27:10, 38) and all these passengers seem to have been taken on to Puteoli in another ship, ibid (Acts 28:11) which had its own crew and its own cargo. Now, in modern transport‐ ships, prepared for 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 1,000 tons, we are clearly within the mark.

(2.) Steering apparatus.-Some commentators have fallen into strange perplexities from observing that in Acts 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," (Jonah 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 (compare Acts 27:15). An ornament of the ship which took Paul from Malta to Pozzuoli is more explicitly referred to. The "sign" of that ship (Acts 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 planks and consequently to leaking and foundering. Hence it was customary to take on board peculiar contrivances, suitable called helps," (Acts 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 (Acts 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 (Isaiah 33:23 and Isaiah 30:17). We must remember that the ancients had no compass, and very imperfect charts and instruments, if any at all.

(7.) Rate of sailing.-St. Paul's voyages furnish excellent data for approximately estimating this; and they are quite in harmony with what we learn from other sources. We must notice here, however- what commentators sometimes curiously forget‐that winds are variable. That the voyage between Troas and Philippi, accomplished on one occasion (Acts 16:11-12) in two days, occupied on another occasion (Acts 20:6) five days. With a fair wind an ancient ship would sail fully seven knots an hour.

(8.) Sailing before the wind.-The rig which has been described is, like the rig of Chinese junks, peculiarly favorable to a quick run before the wind (Acts 16:11; 27:16). It would, however, be a great mistake to suppose that ancient ships could not work to windward. The superior rig and build, however, of modern ships enable them to sail nearer to the wind than was the case in classical times. A modern ship, if the weather is not very boisterous, will sail within six points of the wind. To an ancient vessel, of which the hull was more clumsy and the yards could not be braced so tight, it would be safe to assign seven points as the limit.

Boats on the Sea of Galilee.-In the narrative of the call of the disciples to be "fishers of men," (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16; 1:20; Luke 5:1-11) there is no special information concerning the characteristics of these. With the large population round the Lake of Tiberias, there must have been a vast number of both fighting‐boats and pleasure‐boats, and boat‐building must have been an active trade on its shores.


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