While recounting the trials he has endured for Christ, Paul informs the Corinthians that he has been shipwrecked three times (II Corinthians 11:25). One of these incidents is documented in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 27:14-44). Amid Acts’ account, a minute detail emerges: there are 276 passengers aboard the doomed ship (Acts 27:37).
All of us in the ship were two hundred and seventy-six persons. (Acts 27:37 NASB)This line is often treated as a parenthetical aside. Some translations even supply the parentheses (ESV, NRSV, RSV) though the majority do not (ASV, CEV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT).
The insertion of this fact interrupts the text’s flow. Martin Dibelius (1883-1947) determines:
We can see very clearly from Acts 27:37 that there is a lack of continuity here...for wedged in between eating [Acts 27:36] and being satisfied [Acts 37:38], the number of the ship’s company is given at 276. This is obviously a relic of the old literary account, which has no connection with Paul. (Dibelius, The Book of Acts: Form, Style, and Theology, 13)The verse does serve to identify the undefined “all” in the previous verse (Acts 27:36). C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) connects:
The numbering of those on board the ship follows upon the πάντες [“all”] of Acts 27:36: Luke will tell his readers what πάντες means. Gerhard Schneider [1926-2004] (2.397) however thinks that the number would link originally with Acts 27:32. The article before πασαι indicates the totality of persons present (M. 3.201—‘We were in all...’; Maximilian Zerwick [1901-1975] § 188; Friedrich Blass [1843-1907], Albert Debrunner [1884-1958] and Friedrich Rehkopf [1843-1907] § 275.3, n. 6). (Barrett, Acts 15-28 (International Critical Commentary, 1210)The precision also fits Acts’ literary style. Joshua W. Jipp (b. 1979) relates:
The narrator adds that “everyone” was encouraged by the meal (εὔθυμοι δὲ αἱ πασαι ψυχαὶ ἐν τω πλοίω διαχόσιαι ἑβδομήχοντα ἕξ, Acts 27:37). This reference to the exact number of “souls” evokes earlier scenes in Acts where Luke recounts the number of “souls” who were converted (Acts 2:41; cf. Acts 4:4). (Jipp, Divine Visitations and Hospitality to Strangers in Luke-Acts, 35)The detail may be included here because it is at this point in the story when it was discovered. F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) notes:
Arthur Breusing [1818-1892] thinks the number is mentioned at the point because the food had to be rationed. (Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 526)Kenneth O. Gangel (1935-2009) imagines:
All of a sudden Luke counted heads; perhaps he was involved in the food distribution, and the number of passengers only became important at this point. At any rate, we discover 276 witnesses to the veracity of Paul’s prophecies. (Gangel, Acts (Holman New Testament Commentary), 452)The headcount also informs the story which follows. Christoph W. Stenschke (b. 1966) connects:
With 276 people landing on their shores, including soldiers, the rural islanders were likely to be outnumbered and did not have much of a choice but to show hospitality (despite Acts 27:33). Possibly their behavior was not based on humanitarian concerns but derived from their belief in Δίχη: should they fail to perform their duties of hospitality, the ever present goddess might turn against them. (Stenschke, Luke’s Portrait of Gentiles Prior to Their Coming to Faith, 96)Though often deemed superfluous, Acts’ specificity lends credibility to the account, conforms to its own internal literary style, defines terms, creates a better picture of the magnitude of the episode and adds to the later story.
Despite the number’s exactitude, not all manuscripts read 276. Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) informs:
The number 276 is read by manuscripts א, C, ψ, 33, 36, 81, 181, 307, 614, and 1739 of the Alexandrian tradition. The Western Text, MS B, the Sahidic version, and Epiphanius [310-403] read rather: “we were about seventy persons.” This Western Text reading seems to have risen from a dittography of the omega on the dative ploiō, “ship,” after which the cipher for 76 was written so that it was combined with s (= diakosiai, “two hundred”) and taken as the adverb hōs. Other readings: MS A reads “275,” and MS 69, “270.” See A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 442. (Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles (Anchor Bible), 779)C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) expounds:
The number is textually uncertain. The majority of witnesses have διαχόσιαι ἑβδομήχοντα ἕξ, 276; but B (pc) sa have ὡς ἑβδομήχοντα ἕξ, about 76. The textual problem is complicated by the fact that 276, if not written in words, would be written ΓΟΣ, and 76 as ΟΣ. Bruce M. Metzger [1914-2007] (499f.) represents a common opinion in the words, The reading of B sa ‘probably arose by taking ΠΛΟΙΩΓΟΣ as ΠΛΟΙΩΟΣ. In any case, ὡς with an exact statement of number is inappropriate (despite Luke’s penchant for qualifying numbers by using ὡς or ὡσεί, cf. Luke 3:23; Acts 2:41, 4:4, 5:7, 36, 10:3, 13:18, 20, 19:7, 34.’ Metzger notes other variants: A has 275; 69 and Ephraim have 270; bo have 176 or 876; 522 and l have 76; Epiphanius [310-403] has about (ὡς) 70. Metzger (similarly James Hardy Ropes [1866-1933], The Beginnings of Christianity 3.247) is probably right but like most commentators does not note the problem of the iota subscript, which in uncials is often though not always written adscript. Thus the two readings discussed might well be not as given above but ΠΛΟΙΩΓΟΣ and ΠΛΟΙΩΙΩΓΟΣ. This makes simple confusion less likely. (Barrett, Acts 15-28 (International Critical Commentary, 1210)Some scholars have been skeptical of a number as large as 276. Gerd Lüdemann (b. 1946) remarks:
The reported number on board, 276, is an utterly incredible figure; it evidently represents a remnant of whatever stirring saga has been pressed into service as a vehicle for Paul’s fateful journey to Rome. (Lüdemann, The Acts Of The Apostles: What Really Happened In The Earliest Days Of The Church, 334)C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) counters:
The number 276 is not impossibly large; Josephus [37-100] (Vita 15) records his own experience of shipwreck (in Adria), as a result of which about 600 were obliged to swim all night. On the size of ships see James Smith [1782-1867] (187-90) and Colin J. Hemer [1930-1987] (149f.) (Barrett, Acts 15-28 (International Critical Commentary, 1210)Its capacity to transport both the cargo (wheat, Acts 27:38) and 276 passengers and crew indicates a large vessel. Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) deduces:
At Acts 27:37 Luke mentions parenthetically that there were 276 persons on board...This means that Paul was on a fairly substantial-sized boat, though not as large as the one in which Josephus [37-100] traveled on a similar route in about A.D. 63. He, too, experienced shipwreck in the Sea of Adria with some 600 persons on board, but only 80 survived (Vita 15). (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary, 773)H. Leo Boles (1874-1946) estimates the ship’s weight at “ten or eleven tons” (Boles, Commentary on Acts, 415). There were ships of this era which could fill this bill.
Loveday Alexander describes:
Greek seamanship drew on an age-old expertise in sailing coastal waters, but was much less confident in crossing the open sea towards Italy. There was, however, a regular trade supplying the voracious imperial city with its luxuries and its basics—top among which was grain. Enormous grain-ships from Egypt regularly made the hazardous crossing from Alexandria via the ports and islands of the southern Aegean. The emperor Caligula [12-41] described them as ‘crack sailing craft, their skippers the most experienced there are; they drive their vessels like race horses on an unswerving course that goes straight as a die’ (Lionel Casson [1914-2009] 1999, p. 158). This was the type of ship Julius found to transport his little group of prisoners to Italy (Acts 27:6). Such a ship could take up to 1000 passengers (probably camping on deck), as well as a hold stuffed with grain (Acts 27:38), so there would be plenty of room for the 276 passengers that Luke mentions on this sailing (Acts 27:37). (Alexander, Acts (Daily Bible Commentary: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer), 187)Brian M. Rapske (b. 1952) hypothesizes:
Indications of the relative capacity of such ships to carry crew and passengers may be helpful...The Isis had a veritable army of crew members according to Lucian and the carrier in which Josephus [37-100] unsuccessfully attempted to make Rome must have been quite large; besides cargo, there were some 600 individuals on board. Luke’s record indicates that, all told, 276 individuals were aboard the first grain carrier on which Paul travelled (Acts 27:37). Moreover, Luke’s reference at Acts 27:30 to the conspiracy of the sailors (οἱ ναυται) to abandon ship using the lifeboat (σκαφή) would seem to imply a smaller crew. Far from being troublesomely large, the numerical indications may actually show Paul’s ship to have been an Alexandrian carrier of significantly less than Isis class tonnage. The crew (3rd person plural of ποιέω: Acts 27:18) would first have lightened the ship by jettisoning the topmost cargo (possibly located above decks?) earlier during the storm. The urgent labors of all those aboard (3rd person plural of κουφίζω after mention of the 276: Acts 27:38) in the pre-dawn hours of the morning of the shipwreck might reasonably be thought to have significantly lightened such a smaller grain carrier before its run for shore. (David W. J. Gill [b. 1946] and Conrad Gempf [b. 1955], “Acts, Travel and Shipwreck”, The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting, 32-33)Some have sought significance in the number 276 and its properties. This marks the only occurrence of this highly precise number in the Bible. It is, however, one of four triangular numbers referenced.
F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) catalogs:
No significance need be seen in the fact that 276 is a triangular number (the sum of all whole numbers from 1 through 23), like 120 in Acts 1:15; 153 in John 21:11; 666 in Revelation 13:18. (Bruce, The Book of the Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 493)C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) notices:
A surprising number of commentators repeat the statement that 276 is the sum of the digits from 1 to 24. It is not; it is the sum of the digits from 1 to 23. (Barrett, Acts 15-28 (International Critical Commentary, 1210-11)For example, Gerhard A. Krodel (1926-2005) miscalculates:
The number 276 is a triangular number, the sum of all numbers from 1 to 24, and as such as [sic] mysterious and perfect number. (Krodel, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament, 478)Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) gleans:
The specific number may have been added to give verisimilitude to the account (although the scribal tendency to give a round number [270, 275] or approximate [about 76 or about 70] number destroys that effect if intended), which claims to be that of an eyewitness (cf. François Bovon [b. 1938] 1985). If any symbolism is to be attached to 276 it is probably to be found in the fact that 276 is a “triangular number,” the sum of the numbers 1 through 23; and here the significance is that 23 is not 24 (a similar phenomenon has been noted about the “seven sayings from the cross”; cf. Jason Whitlark [b. 1975] and Mikeal C. Parsons [b. 1957] 2006). In Luke’s logic, 24, as a multiple of 12, represents the church (a common later view; cf. Tyconius [370-390], Commentarium in Apocalypsim 4.4), and 23 does not. Thus the 276 gathered on the boat with Paul do not represent the church, and the meal Paul shares with them is not the Eucharist, because 23 is not 24 (for more on this possible symbolism, see Parsons 2008). (Parsons, Acts (Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament), 358)Despite the irregularity of the number, the reversion to the first person “us” is more telling (Acts 27:37). Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) instructs:
Notice the shift to the “we” again in this verse—which may also help account for the Western addition in Acts 27:36—the first since Acts 27:27. (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina), 455)The voice noticeably returns to the third person in the following verse (Acts 27:38). David G. Peterson (b. 1944) tracks:
The first person plural (we) in Acts 27:27 changes to the third person plural they in Acts 27:28-44, with a brief reference to us in Acts 27:37 (ēmetha, ‘we were’, as in most English versions). This gives the impression that Paul’s ministry of encouragement was essentially to the unbelieving soldiers and sailors who were in charge of the situation. Paul inspired them to act decisively and courageously for the benefit of all. (Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 694)This usage of the first person is irregular as it is typically reserved for Christians and the majority aboard the ship are unbelievers. Robert C. Tannehill (b. 1934) observes:
Acts 27:37 indicates, “All the lives in the ship, we were two hundred seventy-six.” The “we” in the voyage to Rome generally refers to a small group of Christians. Here, however, the entire ship’s company becomes a single “we” as the narrator numbers the company so that readers will know what “all” means [Acts 27:36]. Even though the boundary of the church is not completely eliminated, the meal on the ship is an act that benefits all, Christian and non-Christian, and an act in which community is created across religious lines. (Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, Volume 2: The Acts of the Apostles, 335)Some have speculated that the 276 are not only saved from the temporary wreckage but also recipients of eternal redemption. Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) rejects:
Especially unconvincing are the arguments of Petr Pokorný [b. 1933], “Die Romfahrt des Paulus und der antike Roman,” that Luke means us to think that all 276 received eternal salvation. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary, 773)Here, the “we” previously reserved for Christians takes on a wider scope (Acts 27:37). William S. Kurz (b. 1939) comments:
The inclusive use of the first person indicates Luke’s feeling of solidarity not only with Paul but also with all on the ship, who together were undergoing the same dramatic trials. (Kurz, Acts of the Apostles (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture), 371-72)In the face of a life or death situation, the hierarchical ordering of the 276 souls disappears. Reta Halteman Finger (b. 1940) assesses:
The ship’s passengers in Acts 27:1-44, who come from various social strata (including prisoners), have become one group whose lives are saved or lost together. They experience social reversal as one who has been in chains among them takes the lead in hosting a meal and urging commensality. By eating together they ensure that not a single one of them will be lost from the group of 276. (Finger, Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts, 240)The camaraderie among the passengers on Paul’s vessel is as improbable as naive Gilligan befriending the erudite professor, Roy Hinkley, or the movie star, Ginger Grant, palling around with the unrefined skipper, Jonas Grant, after the shipwreck of the S.S. Minnow on an unchartered desert isle on “Gilligan’s Island” (1964-1967).
This unity may be evidence of a phenomenon psychologists label “shared coping” in which those enduring crisis experience a bond. Hans-Josef Klauck (b. 1946) discusses:
Paul encourages his companions by telling them about this heavenly assurance. His first words are: ‘An angel of the God to whom I belong...’ (Acts 27:23). The fact that the majority of the two hundred and seventy-six persons on board (Acts 27:37) are Gentiles makes it necessary to specify this; the story is related from the perspective of the Christian ‘we’-group, who accompany Paul, but these were few in number (cf. the mention of Aristarchus in Acts 27:2). When the total number is given in Acts 27:37, however, this ‘we’ becomes what Karl Löning [b. 1938] has called a ‘we of the community in trouble’: ‘We were in all two hundred and seventy-six persons in the ship.’ No one is allowed to break out of this fellowship, neither the crew, who plan to escape by stealth (Acts 27:30-32), nor the soldiers, who are tempted to take desperate action (Acts 27:42). The rescue will succeed only if all stay together. (Klauck, Magic and Paganism in Early Christianity: The World of the Acts of the Apostles, 112),There are 276 souls aboard the ship (Acts 27:37). When the vessel sets sail there are various divisions: crew/passengers, free/imprisoned and many other usses and thems. When calamity strikes all 276 become one. They are a single “us”. They are in the same boat.
What shipwrecks are you familiar with? How do you envision the events of Acts 27:1-44? Why does Acts include the precise number of passengers; what does it add to the story? In these trying circumstances, who took the time to complete a headcount? Would the 276 souls on board have helped or hurt in such unfavorable conditions; would they add stabilizing weight? What most bonds you with others? When have you found yourself in the same boat with a surprising co-passenger? Have you ever bonded with another person during a tragedy; a stranger? Do you feel unified with your fellow believers? When has a clearly defined “us and them” become simply an “us”?
The shipwreck in Acts 27:14-44 is first and foremost a miracle story. It is nothing short of miraculous that all 276 passengers are accounted for: there are no casualties.
Richard I. Pervo (b. 1942) classifies:
At that point [Acts 27:37] Luke enumerates the company: 276 in all. Such numbers normally appear as an element of miracle stories, as in the feeding of the 5,000 (Luke 9:14). Acts 27 is a miracle story. (Pervo, The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling Its Story, 111)David J. Williams (1933-2008) researches:
Luke may have mentioned the number at this juncture because the distribution of rations had brought it to his attention. But it also underlines the marvel that they were all saved. In Josephus [37-100]’s case only eighty of the six hundred survived. (Williams, Acts (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series), 439)Some have cited the totality of the rescue as evidence of the prisoner Paul’s innocense. Brian M. Rapske (b. 1952) refutes:
Gary B. Miles [b. 1940] and Garry Trompf [b. 1940] argue that the escape of all 276 passengers amounts to a ‘divine confirmation of Paul’s innocense’. Troublesome to their argument, however, is the fact that while there is no loss of life, there is a disaster; the ship on which Paul is a passenger and its cargo are completely destroyed. David Ladoucer [b. 1948] suggests that Paul’s safe passage under the sign of the Dioskouroi (Acts 28:11), the guardians of truth and punishers of perjurers, may well be ‘one more argument in a sequence calculated to persuade the reader of Paul’s innocence’. The relationship of the Dioskouroi to the Imperial cult may, Ladoucer argues, render the need for a narrative of the trial’s outcome superfluous. (David W. J. Gill [b. 1946] and Conrad Gempf [b. 1955], “Acts, Travel and Shipwreck”, The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting, 43-44)It is clear that the miracle is facilitated by Paul who takes charge of the situation (Acts 27:9-10, 21-26, 33-36). James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) speculates:
I do not think the world has any awareness of how much it owes to the presence of Christians in its midst. Here were soldiers, sailors, prisoners—276 of them. All of them were spared because of Paul. Yet afterward, when it was over, I am sure that most of them went away and never thought of their deliverance again. They did not thank God. (Boice, Acts: An Expositional Commentary, 414)Aboard the ship, Paul is just 1 of 276 souls (Acts 27:37). Yet his presence completely changes the situation. 276 became one and because of one 276 are saved. One Christian can make all the difference to the world.
What are some of the largest recorded wrecks with no casualties? What would have happened to the ship had Paul not been aboard? Would all have perished? How much of an effect do you believe that Christian prayer and presence has upon world history? When has one person made a difference to a large group?
“You don’t have to know a lot of things for your life to make a lasting difference in the world. But you do have to know the few great things that matter, perhaps just one, and then be willing to live for them and die for them. The people that make a durable difference in the world are not the people who have mastered many things, but who have been mastered by one great thing.” - John Piper (b. 1946), Don’t Waste Your Life, p. 44