Friday, May 3, 2019

Is Acts Accurate?

This time, we’ve got a great question that required a deep dive but ended up with a nice, straightforward solution. I was asked,

“In Acts, the description of Paul's shipwreck says they were in the Adriatic Sea. But later it says the island they shipwrecked on was Malta. Malta is in the Ionian Sea, not the Adriatic. Was the Ionian Sea known at that time as part of the Adriatic Sea? I know the Bible can't be wrong, so what is going on here?”

The passage in question is Acts 27:1–28:1. In particular, we have to look at Acts 27:27, which says,

When the fourteenth night came, we were drifting in the Adriatic Sea, and about midnight the sailors thought they were approaching land.

In order to make things a bit clearer, check out this map from the Holman Bible Atlas.

As you can hopefully see, Sicily is the large island off the “toe” of the Italian Peninsula. Directly south of Sicily’s east coast is the tiny island of Malta. The Adriatic Sea, meanwhile, is the body of water between Italy on the left and Macedonia on the right. Though it is not labeled on this map, the Ionian Sea begins where the Adriatic ends. That means past the “heel” of Italy. Essentially, the Adriatic empties into the Ionian, which then encompasses the coasts of Sicily, southern Italy, and western Greece.

With that said, then, there does appear to be an error here. Malta, as far south as it is, is really nowhere near the Adriatic. So what is Luke (the author of Acts) talking about in this verse? Did he get the detail wrong?

As you may have guessed, no, he did not. In fact, he got it so right that it actually serves as evidence of the legitimacy of his account. If there is an error here, it is not Luke’s. At most, there is one on the part of later translators.

It turns out that the Adriatic Sea is not the waterway mentioned in this verse. At least, it is not what we now call the Adriatic Sea. Luke, in the original Greek, actually calls it the Adrian Sea. While they essentially mean the same thing, the Adrian Sea was a term used only for about 100 years, mostly in the 1st Century A.D. It encompassed all of the Adriatic Sea, all of the Ionian Sea, and the portion of the Mediterranean Sea that stretches south to Africa from them. I’ve circled that area in a copy of the same map from earlier:

We do not rely on Luke alone for that identification. It also appears in the writings of the Greek geographer Strabo and the Jewish historian Josephus. Both of them also use the term “Adrian Sea” to describe the larger center part of the Mediterranean. In fact, Strabo specifically says the Ionian Sea is part of the Adrian Sea.

So what we have is a geographic term that was only in use around the time that Luke is traditionally said to have written Acts. This helps to show that the tradition is correct, rather than modern critics who claim that Acts would have been written much later. A forgery from later in history would not have known to use this term for the waters off Malta. Rather than the Bible being wrong, this winds up being a nice confirmation of its accuracy. As today’s question suggests, the reliability of the Bible should be our assumption. That is always how things work out in the end.

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