In April of 2000, I was with my expedition team in Ethiopia conducting research for a book titled, The Lost Ark of the Covenant. I had just spent the afternoon on a tiny island, which was located in the middle of a vast lake. We had just started our 40-mile journey back to shore when the captain of the ship pointed out a large storm gathering on the distant horizon.
Within 30 minutes, the storm grew into an enormous, swollen bank of white gray thunderheads mushrooming heavenward. Our boat was 50 years old, a rusty-hulled, 40-foot poor-excuse-for-a-vessel. It had an old, clattering engine that made loud, exploding noises and belched thick, black diesel smoke. By nightfall, the swells had begun pounding against the boat - angry, rolling whitecaps hammering the rusty metal hull, lifting the bow out of the water, then slamming it nose-headlong into the surf. The rain felt like lead pellets against my face, driving down and then horizontal by the gathering gale, with only lightening breaking through the consuming darkness.
That's when we hit the rocks. The impact threw us forward with the horrible and unforgettable sound of metal crunching upon rock. As the hull slid over the rocks, I heard the grinding clatter of propeller blades shearing and shattering. Plumes of diesel smoke swirled around us, and below deck someone shouted that we were taking on water. My research team quickly gathered for prayer (we were still 3 miles from shore). I didn't want to think of the long swim through unfriendly waters to the shore, where my Ethiopian guide, Misganna, informed me we would be met by crocodiles, hippos and poisonous snakes. After a brief prayer, a small light suddenly appeared on the horizon - disappearing and then reappearing in the rhythm of each careening swell.
Struggling mightily against the waves, a small, 14-foot, open-hulled aluminum fishing boat came to our rescue. Three fishermen wearing rain slickers, rain pants, and rubber boots brought us safely to shore.
On my flight home from Africa, I found myself thumbing slowly through my Bible, reading about another shipwreck in Acts 27, Luke narrates the story of Paul traveling to Rome on a large Alexandrian grain freighter. This ship endured one of the worst storms in history, eventually shipwrecking off the coast of Malta.
The shipwreck story has more words assigned to it by Luke than are found in the entire Genesis account in Scripture. Luke's amazing details include everything from the vessel's nautical headings, the type of storm, the ship's direction of drift, geographical landmarks on Malta, reef configurations, and even the depths of the seafloor. Every detail, including how every man on board, including Paul, survived is included.
I assumed from repeated readings of the book of Acts that I knew the story of Paul's shipwreck well. But as I re-read it that night over the eastern Atlantic, my eyes kept returning to one verse in the Bible. "In fearing that we might run aground somewhere on the rocks, they cast four anchors from the stern and wished for daybreak..." (Acts 27:29). Then reading further, I stopped at the words "and casting off the anchors, they left them in the sea" (v. 40). I kept returning to those words: four anchors...they left them in the sea
Experience had proven to me time and time again that history had left behind many subtle clues to validate many of the Biblical stories, and that most of those clues were contained in the Bible itself, so at 39,000 feet, I asked myself a couple of seemingly simple questions. "Could those anchors mentioned in Acts 27 survive all this time? And if they did, could I find them?"
But who was I to think that I could find four anchors on a spot on the earth's 130 million miles of sea floor? It was a foolhardy notion at best, except that I had in my possession a treasure map - the Bible. A document I had long ago learned should allow me to pinpoint the exact location. Prior to shipwrecking off Malta, the last known location of Paul's ship was when the huge Alexandrian grain freighter was driven off course as it sailed by the southern coast of Crete. It was then blown past the small island of Clouda in the direction of Syrtis, the northern coast of Africa. The ship would have made a slight arching towards the west–northwest in the direction of Malta.
This unique storm system that drove Paul's ship was called a Euroclydon or a northeaster. The storm was so violent that cables had to be lashed underneath the ship to keep the planking from pulling apart. Rigging had to be tossed into the sea, along with cargo. The Bible says in Acts 27:20, "now when neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and no small tempest beat upon us, all hope that we would be saved was finally given up"
Finally, after 14 nights of hopeless, interminable drifting and driving wind and rain, the men aboard heard something. Over the howling wind, the sailors made out the faint rumblings of waves crashing the rocks. "Now when the 14th night had come as we were driven up and down in the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors sensed that they were drawing near some land." (Acts 27:27).
When the sailors heard the waves crashing they knew that they were going into shallow water. The helmsmen commanded that they find out the depth. In first century Roman times, a lead sounding device was a bell-shaped lead object affixed to rope. The sounding device would be dropped overboard so that the sailors could determine the depth of the water. The first recorded depth was 120 ft. or 20 fathoms. A second sounding was made and the depth was 90 ft. or 15 fathoms. The captain of the ship knew that they were approaching land and gave the order to drop four anchors from the stern. First century anchors on an Alexandrian grain freighter would be approximately 12 ft. long made entirely of wood. The anchors stock, or the cross bar of the anchor would have been made of solid lead. The wood would, over the years, decay in the sea and not survive, but the lead crossbar would last indefinitely.
The Bible describes the location of Pauls shipwreck as being in front of a bay with a beach.
When it was day, they did not recognize the land; but they observed a bay with a beach, onto which they planned to run the ship if possible (Acts 27:39).
Since most of Malta's coastline is cliff area, the vast majority of the search area could be quickly eliminated. The Bible describes this bay with a beach as having a reef in front of it where the two seas collide.
But striking a place where two seas met, they ran the ship aground; and the bow stuck fast and remained immovable, but the stern was being broken up by the violence of the waves (Acts 27:40-41).
After calculating the only spot on Malta which matched the Biblical description, we verified the course of drift using a multi-million dollar computer system, courtesy of the operations center of the armed forces of Malta which serves, among other things, as the search and rescue coordination center of Malta. The end results of that computer program matched the course of drift as the Bible describes and revealed that the ship of Paul would have impacted on the southeast coast of Malta. The only bay that matched all the criteria in Scripture and computer findings was St. Thomas Bay.
As with most Biblical events, there is a traditional site on Malta where people believe the shipwreck to have occurred. This site, known as Saint Paul' bay, is on the northern coast of Malta. This traditional site does not fit the drift scenario that Scripture offers and was proposed as the shipwreck site approximately 1,200 years after Paul's arrival on the island of Malta.
When I started the Malta project, I though it would be a simple process. Go to the place Luke describes in the Bible, hire a boat, dive down, find the anchors, and then bring them up. I would follow an old storm that spoke a lost message written on the waves of time and on the ancient pages of the Bible. I hoped that the Mediterranean had kept these anchors hidden for almost 2,000 years under the protective canopy of the sea. Ninety feet below, as the Bible indicates, they would quietly wait for me to come along and awake them from their long slumber. But more than three decades before I started my search, I discovered, several young Maltese spear fishermen got there first. With rubber and glass masks on their faces, and metal cylinders of compressed air latched to their backs, they dove down into the clear blue sea, discovering an archeological find that I believe is of monumental importance. There, stuck in the sand in front of St. Thomas bay, in the precise spot that the Bible describes, lay a cluster of four, huge lead Roman anchor stocks in a tangle of swaying seaweed. These divers however, didn't even consider that those artifacts could have been from the lost ship of Paul. The legend of Paul shipwrecking in St. Paul's Bay had existed for so long that it was indelibly etched in the Maltese culture, and consequently anchors produced from any other bay could not be seen as being from Paul's ship.
I consider it a blessing that I was not the one to dive down and discover those anchors lying on the seafloor. Circumstances shielded me from the temptation of saying that I discovered them. I did not pull anything from the sea. I can now only point to the incredible accuracy of Luke's narrative and say "these are the facts and they all line up." For me, that is the greatest discovery I could ever hope to make.
It took me more than two years to hunt down these anchors that were brought to shore by these young Maltese fishermen. One of the anchors, unfortunately, was melted down as scrap metal for diving weights. Two of the anchors have been turned over to officials in Malta. The family who possesses the fourth anchor is in dialogue to determine an appropriate disposition. Since it is illegal for anyone to possess ancient artifacts in Malta, a presidential pardon has been signed by the President and Prime Minister of Malta, giving amnesty to those persons who possess the anchor stocks found on the seabed of St. Thomas Bay.
The surviving anchor stocks have been inspected by Professor Bonanno, who is considered to be the foremost expert in Malta on Roman antiquities. Dr. Bonanno earned a Ph.D. from the prestigious University of London Institute of Archaeology and has taught at the University of Malta since 1971. Dr. Bonanno concluded that the anchor stocks are appropriate to the era of St. Paul's shipwreck in Malta.
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