The first part of the chapter is just a travel diary of Paul’s journey to Rome.
In v 9, the reference to rough seas ‘because the fast was already past’ is clarified in modern bible translations; it means that they were sailing late in the fall (after Yom Kippur). Too bad the author didn’t specify the year, but it would have likely been 59 or 60. I found a few more interesting facts from the StudyLight bible commentary (an apologist site, but often helpful, and I see no reason for this next info to be incorrect).
“V 1-3: We don’t know much about this specific Augustan Regiment (several held that title), but it was common for Roman soldiers to accompany the transport of criminals, those awaiting trial, and merchant ships filled with grain going from Egypt to Rome. V 6: This was a grain freighter, taking grain grown in Egypt to Italy… the typical grain freighter of that period was 140 feet long and 36 feet wide. It had one mast with a big square sail, and instead of what we think of as a rudder, it steered with two paddles on the back part of the ship. They were sturdy, but because of its design, it couldn’t sail into the wind. V 12: The port at Phoenix was on the same island of Crete and only about 40 miles away. It didn’t seem crazy to them to try to make it to Phoenix and be spared a miserable winter at Fair Havens.”
The weather goes downhill and things are looking grim, and in v 21-26 Paul gets on his soapbox to address the sailors. First, he says ‘I told you so’. Well maybe, but that’s no help. Then he tells them not to worry, because his god declared in a vision that they would all remain safe… but they will be shipwrecked. Prophesy, or just a good guess? We all know that Paul is an experienced sailor who has already logged over 3,500 miles in these waters on his first 3 missionary trips. So I’d put his prediction that there will be a shipwreck but no lives lost down to a combination of the shrewd judgement based on experience, a desire to boost optimism and morale, and a lucky guess. No supernatural element is necessary.
A couple more notes from StudyLight provide more background info –
“v 39: They did not know it at first, but they came to an island called Malta. The place where the ship came aground is now called St. Paul’s Bay. If they had missed Malta, there would have been nothing for it but to hold on for 200 miles until they struck the Tunisian coast, and no one could have expected the ship to survive that long. V 42: To the soldiers, it made sense to kill the prisoners, because according to Roman military law a guard who allowed his prisoner to escape was subject to the same penalty the escaped prisoner would have suffered – in the case of most of these prisoners, death.”
Well the last chapter of Acts is the biggest disappointment ever! I was eager to learn what happened when Paul finally made it to Rome. Instead, the author starts out by referring (in the KJV) to the people of Malta as barbarians. I almost missed that, because I read each chapter first in a modern translation, and not surprisingly, racist language like that has been exorcised in newer versions.
Then the magic tricks start – I feel like I’m back reading Mark. Paul gets bitten by a snake, and the islanders view the bite as punishment for some crime and are sure that he will die – but he doesn’t. That’s because there are no poisonous snakes on Malta, and no evidence that there ever were; and the locals would have known that. So all of this is a total giveaway that the story is pure confabulation! The author made it up to inflate Paul’s powers, and he got caught in the lie because he didn’t know about the lack of poisonous snakes. V 7 – 10 describe a bunch more healings, and I doubt that they are any more credible than the story of the snake.
Finally, they arrive in Rome. At the time, it had a population of about two million – a million slaves, and a million free. Paul is treated pretty well, if we can believe anything of the story at all; he gets his own lodging while he awaits trial, and he is allowed to meet with the local Jews. Here he goes again – back to the soapbox to preach Christianity, which in v 22 is again referred to as a ‘sect’, although in some versions (NLT) that has been changed to ‘movement’ to eliminate the negative connotation. Paul preaches til he’s blue in the face, and when he still doesn’t convince everyone, he resorts to the tired argument we’ve heard quoted from Isaiah so many times and is still a favorite today (v 26; Isaiah 6:9-10).
And that’s it. All we are told at the end is that Paul lived there for 2 more years. And then what? Did he ever get his trial before Claudius? And if so, what was the result? And what about the rest of his life? Arggg! A quick Wikipedia check yielded – no one really knows. Christian tradition holds that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero around the mid-60s at Tre Fontane Abbey. Other sources state that Paul was freed by Nero and continued to preach in Rome, even though that seems unlikely based on Nero’s historical cruelty to early Christians.
A couple of final theories from the apologist commentary:
1. “Probably, Luke did not record Paul’s appearance before Caesar because the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts were written to give the Roman court the background and facts of Paul’s case in his trial before Caesar.” Anyone buy that excuse? I think it’s more likely because the author of Acts didn’t care about Paul’s trial; the purpose of his writing was to spread the gospel. And anyway, Luke and Acts were written later – well after the trial would have taken place.
2. And then this humdinger: “Matthew 22:1-14 is a parabolic illustration of the Book of Acts. God prepared a feast for Israel, and invited them to come (in the days of Jesus ministry), but they would not come. Then, He sent out a second invitation, after all things were ready. But they did not come then either; instead, they killed God’s servants who brought the message of the feast. Finally, God invited all that would come, including Gentiles – but they could only come if they were clothed in the garments of Jesus.” WTF?