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Searching for Paul's Shipwreck on Malta

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The tiny island of Malta in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea has a rich history as one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.

It all started with a shipwreck, as told in the book of Acts, about 60 AD while the apostle Paul was en route to Rome. Boarding an Alexandrian grain freighter on the isle of Crete, a fierce Nor'easter blew the ship off course. It looked like all was lost.

"On the fourteenth night, they were still being driven across the Adriatic sea when the sailors sensed land approaching. They took soundings and found that the land was 120 feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found that it was 90 feet deep. Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, the sailors dropped four anchors from the stern, and prayed for daylight,"  the book of Acts describes the story.

"When daylight came, they did not recognize the land. But they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea," it continues.

A Shipwreck's Impact

With the storm still raging, the ship struck a sandbar, and began to break apart. With the vessel and her cargo a total loss, the nearly 300 men on board swam for their lives. Miraculously, everyone survived.

"Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta," the story reveals.

And so began a Christian influence in Malta that has continued down through the centuries. Today, it is the most religious nation in Europe -- 98 percent of its citizens are members of the Catholic Church.

Saint Paul is memorialized throughout the island, no where more than in Saint Paul's bay, where tourists come to visit the Shipwreck Cathedral, and see the spot where most believe Paul's ship ran aground nearly 2,000 years ago.

Searching for Facts

But when former Los Angeles Crime Scene Investigator Bob Cornuke paid a visit to Malta, facts in the biblical narrative didn't fit with the view from Saint Paul's bay. Those anomalies began a 10 year search for the true location of Paul's shipwreck. Cornuke started his search in the pages of his Bible. The crux of the story revolved around the four anchors. Could they be found?

"I looked at the Bible and I said, 'Could I solve this like it was a crime? Could I take the evidence that exists on the pages of the Bible and actually find these lost anchors that the Bible talks about?'" he recalled.

Acts 27 and 28 gives a very detailed account of the story. From it, Cornuke listed four factors that would have to match up in order to find the true location:

  • A bay with a beach
  • A reef or sandbar where "two seas meet"
  • The seabed at about 90 feet of depth.
  • A place the sailors did not recognize.

To help track these down, Cornuke enlisted the help of a group of men who know the waters around Malta best -- the Maltese fishermen.

"So I started my search by going out with these fishermen, who knew the weather, knew the currents, knew the topography of the ocean," Cornuke said. "They took me out and explained to me all the possible places based on what the Bible narrative says."

Narrowing Possibilities

Most of Malta is surrounded by cliffs, so he quickly narrowed the possibilities down to a few bays with beaches. To figure out which site was most plausible, Cornuke looked to Dr. Graham Hutt, an expert on Mediterranean storms.

"I've been studying these storms and weather patterns in the Mediterranean for more than 30 years," Hutt said. "And it resulted in a book on Malta and North Africa which covers all these issues with the weather."

Hutt's expertise helped make sense of the clues in the biblical narrative.

"They were really scared of getting dragged down into the bay of Syrtis, so they would have been trying as much as they could to head in a northerly direction, but only actually making northwesterly," he said.

After dropping a sea anchor, the ship would most likely have been driven up towards the southeast quadrant of the island. The only bay in that area that fits the biblical narrative is called the Bay of St. Thomas.

"In my opinion, bearing in mind where they most probably would have been, they would not have been able to round up and head further north than they did," Hutt said. "So in my view, St. Thomas' bay is a much more likely place."

An Electrifying Discovery

The theory goes that this was the bay written about in Acts 27 and 28. Part of the biblical account says that the sailors didn't recognize the island until the villagers told them. If the sailors had been on the north side of the island, there were many ports there they should have been familiar with.

One day, Cornuke made an electrifying discovery by way of an old diver with an incredible story.

"I met a man named Ray Ciancio and he said, 'Hey Bob, back in the early 60s, we dug up four anchors at about 90 feet of depth,'" Cornuke said.

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The location:  just outside St Thomas' Bay, near a dangerous sandbar called the Muxnar Reef.

The anchors were later donated to the National Maritime Museum, and expert analysis confirmed they were Roman-era anchors from the right time period. But the divers had no idea what they had at the time.

"As I say, it was of no importance to me whatsoever when we found them," Ray Ciancio said. "It was, 'Yipee. We found a piece of lead.'"

Anchored in History

Ciancio agreed to show CBN News the area where the anchors were found.

"So when I went out and I looked at the location where they found these anchors, I looked at the shoreline and it fit with what the Bible said," Cornuke said. "There was a bay with a beach. There was a reef where two seas come together."

"And when I saw that anchor, my heart skipped a beat and I realized that I could be standing in the presence of Bible history," he added.

Today, the sea floor is again tranquil and calm, giving no clues to the secrets it may hold. It's impossible to know for sure if it is the spot where Paul's shipwreck occurred, but if nothing else, the idea is prompting some Maltese to re-think their tradition.

Anchored in Faith

Joe Navarro is one of the divers who helped retrieve the anchors in the 1960s.

"I think it is high time we questioned ourselves," he said. "I myself am convinced that it is more plausible that the shipwreck was on Muxnar, not on St. Paul's island. We have believed St. Paul's island, but nobody ever questioned, 'But, are you sure?'"

"For me, finding these anchors is not just an archeological find," Cornuke added. "For me personally, it did a lot to enhance my faith. For me, they're a symbol of hope.

Today, the anchors are tucked away in the corner of Valletta's Maritime Museum, labeled only "Roman Anchors." Most visitors pass them by, having no idea what history they might hold.

*Original broadcast February 26, 2010. 

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