A seaman’s perspective of a DVD claiming the discovery of the site of St Paul’s shipwreck.
Pain and anger are but a few of the emotions one feels when our rich history and solid traditions are replaced by baseless theories that make no logical sense when seen in a holistic perspective. The Lost Shipwreck of Paul is a BASE Institute DVD and is based on the book with the same title written by Bob Cornuke who is also president of the same institute.
I do not know Mr Cornuke and this is not a personal attack, but this DVD, like the book, is so fraught with mistakes and manipulated facts that I feel compelled to strongly refute these false theories for fear that our national and Christian heritage will founder on the Munxar Reef.
Before starting my appraisal of this DVD, please allow me to declare my bias. In April 2005, I discovered the Isis−Sarapis lead anchor stock now prominently on display at the Maritime Museum in Birgu. This anchor attracted the attention of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. Following a request from the Vatican, the anchor was taken out of the Maritime Museum and transported to a few metres distant from St Paul’s Grotto in Rabat. On the memorable evening of 17 April 2010, His Holiness personally inspected the anchor with the Egyptian goddesses embossed on it. In my book PAVLVS The Shipwreck 60 A.D. (Allied Publications 2009), I give my reasons why I contend that the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked off Qawra Point and entered Salina Bay to proceed to San Pawl Milqi in Burmarrad. The large amount of artefacts discovered in the past decades outside Salina Bay, as well as the large anchors retrieved from this site, together with Pauline traditions of San Pawl Milqi and the Grotto in Rabat only strengthen our claim for St Paul’s shipwreck on our northeastern shores.
An arrogant statement on the cover of the BASE Institute DVD states, “Possibly the biblical find of the century”. This, when we are just past the first decade of this century with nine more to go, introduces us to the same on film. Or maybe the producer was referring to the 20th century, which makes this claim even more audacious when compared to the discoveries of the ‘Dead Sea scrolls’ (1947), the ‘House of David inscription’ (1993), the ‘Caiaphas ossuary’ (1990), and the list goes on.
But this bold attitude should come as no surprise since Mr Cornuke also claims to have discovered Noah’s Ark in Iran, the location of the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia, the “real” Mount Sinai in Saudi Arabia with an inscription on it with the name “YAHWEH” (the name of the Hebrew God) that actually turned out to be a modern day forgery, and the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea at the Gulf of Akaba. All these fantastic “discoveries” have no credible evidence to back them up and scholars have already refuted them.
There are one or two claims that St Paul’s shipwreck could have occurred in 65 AD. But to state this in the DVD only shows that either the subject has not been well researched or shows total disrespect for what the vast majority of scholars agree to − that the renowned voyage took place in 59 or 60 AD. Another gaffe is when the presenter states, “back in the first century they called it (the wind) a Gregale”. That is what in Maltese we now call the Northeasterly. In biblical times it was referred to as the Euro-Aquilo or the East-North-Easterly.
One is spoilt for choice for footage of Maltese festas dedicated to St Paul, but the producer chose to film a group of Boy Scouts playing the bagpipes and, of all the churches on this rock, he chose to show the façade of the Mosta Dome! The churches in Rabat and Valletta that have age-old traditions with this feast are left out, as are other traditional Pauline sites such as St Paul’s Grotto in Rabat and San Pawl Milqi in Burmarrad.
I totally disagree with the presenter stating, “very little about this area (St Paul’s Bay) matches the biblical account”. In what way does St Paul’s Bay not fit the biblical account? Wind direction, depth of sea, place where two seas meet are all as much good contenders for the site as Bob Cornuke would like us to believe exist only for the Munxar Reef.
The producer had the audacity to include footage of the Search and Rescue Unit of the Armed Forces of Malta. In this segment Major Mallia shows a computer programme of what might have happened 2,000 years ago with a floating object in the sea between Malta and Crete. The Major says, “… and surprisingly, even for me, they ended up in MALTA, exactly as the Bible says.” Here Cornuke goes on to manipulate what the Major just explained by saying, “He said, look the ship landed on the coast of Malta on the fourteenth night which is exactly what the Bible said and it landed right in the south-east quadrant of Malta.” But Major Mallia never mentioned the south-east quadrant. He only said that the object drifted to Malta.
This is important because ex-United States ambassador to Malta Kathryn Proffitt had tried to stop the publication of the book The Lost Shipwreck of Paul in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado in 2003. The following extract is taken from the parliamentary debates of 2005…
14720. L-ONOR. GAVIN GULIA staqsa lill-Prim Ministru u Ministru tal-Finanzi: Jista’ il-Prim Ministru jgħid jekk l-uffiċċju tiegħu awtorizzax persuna li dettalji tagħha qed jintbagħtu separatament, tħejji affidavit biex tkun preżenti fil-qorti tad-distrett ta’ Colorado fil-kawża bejn Kathryn L. Profitt u Bob Cornuke?
ONOR. LAWRENCE GONZI: Jien informat li l-affidavit kien sar biex jiġi ssalvagwardat l-isem tal-forzi armati ta’ Malta u ta’ l-uffiċjali tagħha, peress li dawn ġew ikkwotati ħażin fil-pubblikazzjoni ta’ Bob Cornuke.
(The Honourable Gavin Gulia placed a parliamentary question (PQ) to the Prime Minister asking him to declare if his office had authorised the person whose details are being sent separately, to prepare an affidavit to be presented in the Colorado District Court in the case Kathryn L. Proffitt (US Ambassador to Malta) vs. Bob Cornuke. In his reply to the PQ, the Honourable Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said that he has been informed that the affidavit was sent to safeguard the reputation of the Armed Forces of Malta and its officers because these had been misquoted in Bob Cornuke’s publication.) What exactly was misquoted? Was it the location of the landing in the southeast quadrant of Malta?)
The biggest mistake in this ex-policeman’s theory is the fact that the anchors retrieved just below the Munxar reef are at exactly the same depth as the depth soundings taken by the sailors. Allow me to quote from a study by John Peter Oleson entitled Ancient sounding weights and Mediterranean navigation on how sounding weights were deployed. “Hold the line with a round turn round the hand, and the coil in the other hand, keep the body upright, face slightly in the direction the ship is moving, and rest against the breast rope, swing the lead as an ordinary pendulum, to obtain impetus, then swing it over the head in a circle… after completing two or three circles, slip the line after the lead has passed the water and before it comes to the horizontal, easing the coil out from the other hand; when it has run out as far as it is going, gather in the line with both hands, and obtain an up and down sounding as the ship passes the lead.” This laborious task is only for throwing the sounding weight. The sailor/s would then have to retrieve the line and weight, and by counting arms lengths would measure the line below sea level in fathoms. The depth would then be communicated to the captain of the ship who would then decide whether to jettison the huge anchors. The lead of the anchors found outside Salina Bay weigh between one and four tons. The anchors found outside the Munxar Reef are pathetically much smaller. Add the wooden flukes and maybe a lead holster and metal ends, and each complete anchor could weigh between 1.5 tons to the big one weighing close to six tons.
From the Acts of the Apostles we know that four anchors were deployed. So between the laborious tasks of calculating the depth of the sea and the deployment of the anchors several minutes would have passed. Let us say that, despite the fact that the crew were working under extremely difficult conditions of 14 days riding a storm and at night, because they were experienced seaman this task took them between 15 minutes and 30 minutes, which would be a very conservative calculation. IMHO would take closer to 45 minutes. To be extra conservative let us also assume that the anchors, deployed one at a time, found secure holding and did not skim on the seabed even though the big ship was forcefully drifting in rough seas.
The distance between the island of Cauda south of Crete, where the 14-day storm began and the Munxar reef is 875km. That gives us an average speed of 2.6 km/h. Now, using the computer-generated imagery in the DVD and according to Cornuke’s theory that the ship drifted far south into the Gulf of Sirte close to Libya, then the distance from Cauda to Malta would be 1128 km giving the voyage an average speed of 3.36 km/h. Now let us work in reverse mode by starting where the anchors were found and going back in time to where the soundings would have been taken. Using the 15 to 30 minute conservative calculation of the time between the depth sounding and the deployment of the anchors would place the ship, when the last sounding was taken, between 840m and 1.68km from where the anchors were retrieved. Therefore, according to Cornuke’s own route and based on conservative estimates, the depth when the last sounding was taken would have been 55m and 62m (in red and blue lines on chart). I would think that a more realistic estimate would be at a depth of +90m. The Munxar Reef does not make biblical sense because the ship is coming in from deep waters and fast approaching shallow waters.
Now since Cornuke is insisting that the anchors should be found at exactly the depth of the sounding, and keeping in mind his route and therefore the speed of the voyage, the lesser 55m or 180ft is double the depth that is stated as the last sounding in the Acts of the Apostles. Any seaman worth his salt will tell you that even with modern electronic depth finders using sonar, the time of deploying the anchor and it reaching the bottom often results in the anchor hitting a deeper or shallower seabed than intended, depending on the underwater topography and the sea surface weather conditions.
Cornuke’s insistence that finding the anchors at exactly the depth of the sounding mentioned in the Bible does not hold water.
On the 14th night of the storm, as the ship was approaching land, caught by the shore currents, the ship drifted parallel to land along the eastern coast of Malta. Looking at a navigation chart of Malta one will find several spots on the north-eastern coast with depths of the 20 fathoms and 15 fathoms mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles.
Another big hole in Cornuke’s ship that sends it to the bottom of the ocean is the fact that the anchors were discovered too close to the Munxar reef. In his book he describes the site where the Munxar anchors were discovered as being near to a big cave just below the reef. If the anchors had been dropped in this site, and assuming that the direction of drift was as Cornuke indicates, the ship would have hit the reef the night before. Anchors must have a long rope attached to them. In rough seas this rope must be up to 10 times the depth of the sea in order for the anchor to secure onto the seabed. The ship could not have stopped directly above the anchors. Even if that particular spot above the Munxar reef had enough draught for the ship not to hit the bottom, the churning of the sea when the waves arrive from deeper water, would have made it impossible for the ship to survive the night.
In the DVD, Dr Hutt and my friend James Mulholland refer to the sailors recognising the northern shores if the voyage ended in the St Paul’s Bay area. I totally disagree. Cornuke himself in his book quotes the ancient historian Philo, as reported by Lionel Casson: “The ships are crack sailing craft, and their skippers the most experienced there are; they drive the vessels like race-horses on an unswerving course that goes straight as a die.” Lionel Casson was referring specifically to the Alexandrian grain ships that travelled the trade route between Rome and Alexandria and which did not venture elsewhere because their main objective was to deliver their precious cargo to Rome. The sailors would not have recognised the small Maltese harbours because this was not their ordinary trade route. If there were a coast that would have been recognised, then it would be the south-eastern coast leading to Grand Harbour and especially the white cliffs outside St Thomas Bay.
Although it is now customary to see large ships in our harbours, such as freighters in Marsaxlokk harbour or cruise liners in our spectacular Grand Harbour, one never sees super-tankers in our waters as we do not have oil rigs or oil refineries in Malta. Finding the remains of a large Egyptian grain ship that carried a total of 276 men on board is equivalent to finding a super-tanker on our seabed. I do believe that with the large amount of artefacts and the bigger than usual anchors found outside Salina Bay, we have probably discovered the shipwreck site. The Isis−Sarapis lead anchor stock also discovered there is simply the icing on the cake.
At one point the presenter says, “The place where the Roman freighter ran aground.” The ship was carrying cargo destined for Rome but it was an Egyptian grain ship. A historian or researcher employed on the production team would have noticed this mistake.
Bob Cornuke says, “We don’t know how (Pauline) traditions started.” Many scholars have written books and papers on Pauline tradition in Malta. The late Paul Guillaumier was a mine of information and my mentor when I was writing my book. Another rich publication, Pauline Malta (Fondazzjoni Patri Martin Caruana OP) is co-authored by my friend Mgr John Azzopardi together with Thomas Freller.
Mr Mulholland emphasises the point while gesturing with his fingers that only five bays with a beach and 120 to 90 ft depth are candidates for the shipwreck. There are many more bays, all possible candidates, on Malta’s east to north-eastern coast and it is strange how St Paul’s Bay is totally omitted. But he eliminates three fingers to leave only two places with a bay with a beach, 120 to 90 ft depth and a ‘place where two seas meet’. According to Mulholland, one is St Thomas Bay and the other… but Bob Cornuke butts in having edited the DVD, and does not allow Mulholland to finish his argument. Was he going to say that the other place where two seas meet could have been Qawra Point?
The only positive aspect of this DVD was watching 75-year-old Wilfred Pirotta talking about the early days of scuba diving in Malta. But why didn’t the producer take the opportunity to ask this scuba diving pioneer about St Paul’s shipwreck site? Well, I asked my friend Wilfred who confirmed that Cornuke did in fact ask him, but Wilfred showed him that he believed more in the Salina/St Paul’s Bay theory. Rightly so, Wilfred is aware of the larger amount of artefacts and the bigger anchors discovered off Qawra Point.
The DVD exalts past generation divers like they were gods. I have every respect for all divers. The pioneers like Wilfred Pirotta and Comm. Salvino Scicluna. The next generation of ‘decompression divers’ like ‘ic-Canc’ and Tony Micallef Borg also mentioned in the DVD who took diving a step further by going deeper. The technical divers who ventured beyond +60m and the point where oxygen and nitrogen in the air become toxic. Now we have rebreathers (a scuba device) taking it even deeper. Each generation had its pioneers who challenged the sometimes-cruel sea and each had its victims and its tragedies. But the DVD mentions a few as though they were the only ones of their time and the only ones on the island who would prove Cornuke’s wild theory.
By far the most manipulative filming in this documentary is from inside the Maritime Museum in Birgu were a bad shot of the entire room shows all the anchors near each other. At an angle that does not focus on their size and makes sure that the camera is as far away as possible from the large Salina Bay anchors. If the camera focused on the gigantic Salina Bay anchors and then on the dwarfs next to them from the Munxar Reef, then the viewer would have to be a Jonah’s whale to swallow this one. Cornuke blames the curators at the Maritime Museum for not accepting the Munxar reef shipwreck site because of Maltese tradition. I think not. They have the evidence right there in the museum and know exactly how ludicrous the Munxar reef claim is. Another bit of filming manipulation is of an anchor in a private collection where the camera is moved along the length of the stock making it appear much larger.
Normally, production houses come with a professional website. A Google search for ‘Vapor Digital Media’ will not result in a listing!
The DVD gives the impression that since Cornuke is an ex-policeman, he has the forensic skills to discover in a matter of weeks what historians and researchers have been studying for centuries. Like some Scotland Yard detective called in to assist in criminal investigations, except one would hope that detectives are capable of seeing the bigger picture and not focus on a few points to ‘force-feed’ (to use words from the DVD) the viewers’ minds into believing the Munxar Reef theory.
This documentary may impress first time viewers with no knowledge of our Pauline traditions, our seas and our underwater discoveries. Not one serious Maltese scholar was interviewed or serious study quoted. The production is one man’s ‘know it all’ theory repeated over and over in the hope that people will start believing it. Unfortunately, if you tell a big lie and keep repeating it, people eventually start believing it. Let us not fall into this trap. We can read the book and see the DVD with an open mind, capable of coming to an informed conclusion, while the researchers of this production are chanting “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” all the way to the bank!