Bible Archaeology

From  the  book  by  the  same  name


When Paul made his appeal to Caesar before the Roman governor Festus in Caesarea Maritima (Acts 25:11-12), he was placed under Roman guard and taken by ship to Italy. Along the way the ship stopped at an occasional port. Not all of these ports have archaeological remains from Paul's time.


The boat docked at Myra on the southern coast of Turkey where Paul and those with him disembarked (Acts 27:1, 5), after which the ship continued its journey up the coast toward Adramyttium. The coastline at Myra, which is only 50 miles south of Attalia, is impressive. Myra is located on a natural inlet that runs deep into the peninsula to a harbor whose northern section is now silted like most harbors along the coasts of Turkey. The best-preserved archaeological structure in Myra is the Roman theater.

Traveling by ship in the first century

In Myra, Paul and his companions boarded a grain ship from Alexandria. This ship was typical of those that brought huge cargos of grain from Egypt to Rome (Acts 27:4-6). It was probably a three-masted ship, though most vessels had only two. Archaeology has provided some evidence of ancient boats of this time, and this is helpful in putting Paul's voyage in its proper context. Although excavators have not yet identified an Alexandrian grain ship among the numerous shipwrecks discovered in the Mediterranean world, Lucian, a second century A.D. Greek writer and traveler, wrote about an Alexandrian grain ship named the Isis, which followed a similar route to Paul's ship. He said it was 174 feet (53 meters) in length, 45 feet (14 meters) wide, and had a "crew like an army."

A ship almost this same size, which had a frame larger than that of any known Roman vessel yet discovered, was excavated off the coast of Caesarea. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, wrote about sailing for Rome from Judea in a huge boat that carried about 600 people. It foundered in the Sea of Adria along the west coast of Italy, and the passengers had to swim all night in the open sea (as Paul once did, 2 Corinthians 11:25). About eighty were rescued by a vessel from Cyrene that took them to Puteoli, a nearby city on the Italian coast. The total number of people on board Paul's new vessel was most likely 276   (Acts  27:37),   although  some ancient manuscripts of Acts give the number as only 76.

Paul's ship left Myra and sailed between the islands of Rhodes and Cnidus, where it turned south because of the winds, sailed past Salmone on the eastern end of the island of Crete (Acts 27:7) and on down the leeward east coast, which is protected from the-wind. It then turned westward along the southern coast of Crete, where it docked at the port of Fair Havens (Acts 27:8, 12), near the city of Lasea. Since it was the end of the Mediterranean sailing season, which closes from November to February, the crew, seeking a more desirable harbor for the winter, persuaded the Roman centurion not to stay there but to sail a bit farther, to Phoenix, near the west end of the island (Acts 27:11-12).

Shipwrecked on Malta

Before the ship reached Phoenix it lost the protection of the shore and suddenly encountered the tempestuous winds of a "northeaster" (Acts 27:14), a gale coming from the northeast, which blew them south-westward for two weeks to the island of Malta (Acts 27:27ff), just south of Sicily off the toe of the boot of Italy. Malta had been part of the Roman province of Sicily before Augustus put it under its own procurator, who appointed the leading local official of the island to be "the chief man." This title is found in Greek and Latin inscriptions and was accurately used in Acts of Pubhus, the Roman official on Malta (Acts 28:7).

The place of Paul's shipwreck 

The exact spot of the wreck is not known. A current attempt to place it at St. Thomas Bay on the south side of the island has no real support in archaeology or geography. This effort at identification is stated to be on the basis of a discovery of four anchors in the bay and the assertion that this correlates with the mention of four anchors used on Paul's boat (Acts 27:29), but this is totally insufficient grounds for such a conclusion.

After exploring possible sites of the wreck, the author suggests two places that appear to him to be more likely candidates. One is the

Remains of Roman Puteoli market area, near the coast of Italy.

beautiful area named Mistra Bay on the north side of the island (see page 271). Luke says in Acts that the northeasterly winds blew the ship southwestward to the island, and they could have blown it into this small bay; the western shoreline, however, seems to be too far inside the bay to fit the story.

Smith's Bay, a little farther north on the same shore, which has been the traditional site for the landing of Paul's ship, seems the most likely choice. The geographical features of the area fit the circumstances described in Acts. The bay opens toward the northeast, and the wind blowing toward the southwest would force the ship's bow into the rocks here.

The approaches to Smiths Bay fit generally well with the soundings reported in Acts 27:28. St. Paul's Island, a small island on the north side of the bay, has a monumental stone statue of Paul standing on its crest, reflective of the tradition of the shipwreck in the bay. Some have argued that the shipwreck never actually happened and that the story is a fabrication. An archaeological team is currently searching for the shipwreck, the discovery of which would silence such agnostic rumor.


The language spoken on Malta was a Phoenician dialect of the Semitic family of languages and so Paul could probably have spoken with the islanders in his native tongue, Aramaic, which was also Semitic. Semitic inscriptions have been found on the island, one of them in Hebrew. The culture was Punic and Punic inscriptions are preserved from the island.

When the sailing season opened again in February or early March, Paul's company boarded an Egyptian vessel from Alexandria, which had spent the three months of the closed sailing season on Malta, and sailed north for Rome, putting in at the harbor in Puteoli (Acts 28:11-13). The normal means of approaching Rome by sea at this time was to sail into Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli), which had a small harbor on the northwestern end of the huge Bay of Naples, and put the passengers ashore. The cargo was then carried on by sea farther north to the port in Ostia.

Puteoli had served as the major seaport for Rome until Claudius built the harbor at Ostia, which was closer to Rome. Some remains of the Roman city have been found near the coast, but much of it lies underneath the modern city and has not been excavated.


As Paul and his companions continued their journey to Rome from Puteoli, they would have traveled north on suburban roads to Capua where they would intersect the Via Appia (Appian Way), a major national highway that ran from Rome south to Capua and then southeast to Brundisium (Brindisi) on the eastern coast.

Roman highways were normally 13 to 15 feet (4 to 4.5 meters) wide and covered with large polygonal blocks of hard stone. Near Rome the road was covered with basalt stones (formed from volcanic lava), as were the streets in Pompeii and Herculaneum, with no essential difference in their construction in these various places. Running along either side of the Appian Way were slightly raised footpaths, covered with gravel. Most of the Appian Way has been covered with asphalt today, but a section in Rome has been left untouched so that it may be seen as it was when Paul traveled on it.

Paul's imprisonments and death

In the "two whole years" (Acts 28:30) that Paul spent in house arrest during his first imprisonment in Rome, he probably wrote the four "prison letters" (Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, and Philippians); all of these mention his incarceration. The second letter to Timothy was also written from prison (2 Timothy 4:6-8), but unlike the four prison letters, which anticipate Paul's release, 2 Timothy anticipates his death and thus requires a different historical context-—his beheading in Rome about A.D. 67 or 68.

Associated with the Roman Forum were two buildings that figured prominently in Paul's final imprisonment (2 Timothy 4:6-8). One of these was the Basilica Julia, where Paul may have heard his death sentence. It was built by Julius Caesar on the western side of the forum.

The second building connected with Paul's imprisonment was the Mammertine Prison, which still stands near the Roman forum at the foot of the Capitoline Hill near the Temple of Concord. Paul probably spent the last days of his life in this prison. A church was constructed there in the sixteenth century and called San Pietro in Carcere, preserving a tradition that Peter was imprisoned there. It is possible that both Peter and Paul were incarcerated in this two-level prison.

According to tradition, Paul was eventually beheaded at Aquae Salviae (modern Tre Fontane) near the third milestone on the Via Ostiense (Ostian Way). A memorial chapel was built at the Aquae Salviae in the fifth century, above which stands the present church of St. Paul at Tre Fontane.

The Church of St. Paul Outside the Walls is located about a mile from the Gate of St. Paul on the Via Ostiense. No significant excavation has been done there, but tradition associates this church with the life of Paul. The site is thought by some to be the location of an earlier church commissioned by Constantine in the fourth century to replace an oratory (private chapel) that had been built over the place where Lucina, a Roman matron, had buried Paul in her vineyard. When the present church was constructed, a marble slab was observed under the altar that read PAULO APOSTOLO MART[YRI] in script characteristic of the time of Constantine.

The beautiful building reminds visitors of the words of Paul in his final letter:

For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but to all who have loved his appearing.

2 Timothy 4:6-8.

This prompted the respectful and admiring words of Clement of Rome written near the end of the first century:

Through jealousy and strife Paul showed the way to the prize of endurance; seven times he was in bonds, he was exiled, he was stoned, he was a herald both in the East and in the West, he gained the noble fame of his faith, he taught righteousness to all the world, and when he had reached the limits of the West he gave his testimony before the rulers, and thus passed from the world and was taken up into the Holy  Place—the greatest example of endurance.

1 Clement 5.5-7



Rome was built on seven hills along the east bank of the Tiber River. The heart of the city was the area between the Palatine and Esquiline Hills, occupied by the Roman forum and the Imperial Fora. This forum had been reconstructed by Julius Caesar. It was the chief marketplace and civic center for the city; here people gathered to conduct commercial, political, and religious affairs. By the first century B.C. the Palatine had become the choicest residential area in Rome, where notables such as Cicero, Mark Antony, and Augustus Caesar lived. In A.D. 52, only five years prior to Paul's arrival, the emperor Caligula completed a new aqueduct in the central area of the city.

Left: Arch of Titus.

Below left: Close-up of the menorah in the Arch of Titus. Under the Arch of Titus one can see a carving depicting the army carrying away the menorah or lampstand from the Jerusalem temple, adding archaeological credibility to the literary history of the war.

At the west end of the forum was built the Milliarium Aureum (the Golden Milestone) from which were measured the distances to the main cities of the empire. As he entered Rome, Paul would have seen this and many other inscribed milestones marking the distance from Rome. North of the Golden Milestone stood the Umbilicus Romae, which marked the center, not only of Rome, but also of the Roman world.

Ancient arches are found in the forum and throughout the city. In A.D. 70, only a few years after Paul's final return to Rome one of these arches was built by the Roman Senate in honor of Titus' conquest of Jerusalem. It stood in a prominent position on the south end of the forum, and the road into the forum passed under its arch. Titus, son of the Roman emperor Vespasian, became emperor himself in A.D. 79 upon the death of his father.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum, so named because of the colossal statue of Nero that stood nearby, was on the south side of the Roman forum, and was the most imposing building in ancient Rome, as it is today, but it was not standing when Paul came to Rome. It was begun by the emperor Vespasian (A.D. 69-79) and completed by his sons, the emperors Titus (79-81) and Domitian (81-96). Thus it was standing in the lifetime of the apostle John. The Colosseum measured 617 feet by 512 feet (188 meters by 156 meters) and would seat about 45,000 people. The arena (floor) was 289 feet by 180 feet (88 meters by 55 meters).

A supreme example of the best in Roman architecture, the exterior of the building is still breathtaking. The outer wall rests on eighty piers connected by barrel-vaults made of stone. Three concentric rows of piers on the first three levels provided two parallel passageways, which encircled the building. The external facing on each pier utilized the three basic patterns of Greek architecture in the form of columns with bases and capitals in the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders on the first, second, and third storeys respectively (about 120 feet [36.5 meters] high). A fourth level, added in the early third century and bringing the height to 157 feet (48 meters), consisted of a plain wall with alternating square Corinthian pilasters and open windows. Some Christians later died in this arena, but most were killed in the Circus Maximus, a short distance west of the Colosseum between the Palatine and Aventine Hills.

The Pantheon in Rome. The Pantheon, a temple to the Roman gods that is still standing in its architectural splendor, was among the many impressive buildings, such as temples and bathhouses, that were built surrounding the central area of Rome.