References: Acts 27:1 – 28:16
Heart of the Story: Julius was the Roman centurion responsible for taking Paul to Rome. Julius enacted this mission capably and humanely.
Back Story: Although Festus and King Agrippa preferred to free Paul, they were required to send him to Rome because he appealed to Caesar. Julius, a centurion attached to the imperial Augustan Regiment transported Paul and other prisoners from Caesarea Maritima to Rome. Generally, centurions commanded 100 soldiers. Centurions fought alongside the legionaries they commanded. They usually led from the front thus casualties among centurions were high. Although it is difficult to compare the rank of a centurion with a comparable rank in the United States army, to me the centurion sounds like a first or second Lieutenant, who often lead from the front.
Story Line: Julius, soldiers, and prisoners traveled on sailing ships dependent on the wind for progress across the Mediterranean Sea. The first ship’s carried Centurion Julius and prisoners from Caesarea. It sailed along the province of Asia with a stop in Sidon and westward past Cypress to Myra, Lycia a town on the southern coast of Asia Minor, now called Turkey. In Mrya, Julius found an Alexandrian (Egypt) ship bound for Italy. At that point – middle to late October — sailing became difficult, even dangerous, e.g., from October – March, the Mediterranean Sea is swept by fierce storms. Eventually, the ship reached Fair Havens on the south-central coast of Crete. Because Fair Havens was not a good port to spend the winter, however, despite Paul’s warnings, the ship’s pilot and owner convinced Julius to sail for Phoenix. Phoenix was about 40 miles west of Fair Havens with a better situation harbor for wintering.
Soon after leaving Fair Havens, hurricane-force winds hit the ship and continued 14 days. Cargo, ships tackle, and furniture were thrown overboard, and anchors were dropped to slow ship’s speed. Sailors were so busy pumping water and trying to keep it from capsizing that they didn’t have time to eat.
Eventually, the ship approached land. Now, the problem was that it could run aground and be battered apart by winds and crashing waves. The sailors knew the potential problem and attempted to escape using a small boat kept on the ship. When Paul saw their attempt, he told Julius that unless the sailors remained on the ship, Julius could not escape the storm. Immediately, Julius ordered his soldiers to cut the ropes that held the dinghy. The dinghy fell to the ocean and drifted from the main ship.
The next morning the sailors saw land; striking a cross-current, they ran aground on a sand bar. As anticipated, the ship began to break up, buffeted by the violent force of the waves. The soldiers wanted to kill their prisoners lest they escape by swimming to land. They preferred to explain why they executed prisoners versus why they let them escape (Acts 12: 18-19). Because Julius wished to save Paul, he prevented his men from killing any prisoners. Julius ordered that all who could swim to make for shore by swimming while the remainder held onto boards or pieces of the vessel and floated ashore. Not one of the 276 ship occupants was lost.
The land was Malta, an island south of Sicily. The people treated the sailors and Centurion Julius, his soldiers, and prisoners graciously. After three months – near spring – Julius obtained passage for his group on another Alexandrian ship. Eventually they arrived in Puteoli, the chief port for Rome even though it was 75 miles away from the Empire capital. At Puteoli, Paul found fellow Christians. Either because it was convenient for Julius or because he wanted to accommodate Paul, the soldiers and prisoners remained at Puteoli seven days.
In Rome, Julius delivered all prisoners to the captain of the guard. Sextus Afranius Burrus was the commander of the praetorian guards. He was known to be fair in his treatment of prisoners brought to Rome for confinement. Commander Burrus had the final say on where Paul would be confined while he waited trial before Nero’s court. Governor Festus’ weak judicial case against Paul in combination with Centurion Julius report of Paul’s behavior during their trip to Rome led Burros to place Paul under house arrest rather than imprison him.
Analysis of Julius’ Relationships: As with most centurions depicted in the New Testament, Julius was calm and capable. He followed military orders but at the same time made prudent decisions for the humane treatment of his prisoners, e.g., Julius allowed Paul to stay with Christian friends in Sidon. Although Julius disregarded Paul’s advice and permitted their ship to leave Fair Havens, he followed Paul’s advice and prevented the sailors from abandoning ship in the dinghy. Apparently, like Paul Julius understood that the ship would land safely only if the sailors remained on board and navigated it.
When it became clear they needed to abandon ship, Julius’ men wanted to kill all prisoners. They knew of instances when kings killed soldiers when prisoners escaped. They were afraid that when the prisoners swam ashore, some would bolt. Julius refused to allow any prisoner to be killed, thus he saved Paul’s life. Apparently, Julius saw Paul’s presence as an asset and the trip to Rome was far from over. Perhaps he even believed Paul’s strange tale that an angel told Paul no lives on the ship would be lost. Roman centurions saw many extraordinary events in their military experiences; many remained open minded (Luke 23:47).
Julius saw that Paul had extraordinary healing powers. Even though Luke, a physician, traveled with Paul, Paul healed Publius’ father and many other Malta inhabitants. When the soldiers and prisoners arrived in Puteoli, Julius allowed Paul to spend a week with Christian brothers. Very likely Julius assigned a soldier to guard Paul in Puteuli; nonetheless, Julius demonstrated that he believed in Paul’s integrity.
Reflection: From my perspective Centurion Julius was the epitome of a responsible Roman soldier and leader. What do you think?
If you want to learn more about military men in the Bible, I have an entire chapter in my book Lesser Known Bible Characters. See http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com.
Copyright: Carolyn A. Roth 3/14.