What does "twin gods as a figurehead" mean in Acts 28:11?

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A surprising phrase in Scripture: Using secular means to advance spiritual truth

May 2, 2023 -

Marble statues of Castor and Pollux, "the twin gods as a figurehead" described in Acts 28:11. Composited image of © Only Fabrizio and crisfotolux /stock.adobe.com

Marble statues of Castor and Pollux, "the twin gods as a figurehead" described in Acts 28:11. Composited image of © Only Fabrizio and crisfotolux /stock.adobe.com

Marble statues of Castor and Pollux, "the twin gods as a figurehead" described in Acts 28:11. Composited image of © Only Fabrizio and crisfotolux /stock.adobe.com

Dr. Bruce Corley was a longtime New Testament professor, serving at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Truett Seminary, and B. H. Carroll Theological Institute. I took his class on 2 Corinthians as part of my MDiv studies at Southwestern in the early 1980s, where I experienced his brilliant way of using Socratic reasoning to teach biblical truth.

For example, one day he asked our class what we thought the church should do if archaeologists discovered letters from Paul that are not in the New Testament. He pointed to Colossians 4:16, where the apostle encourages the Colossians to “read the letter from Laodicea.” Most scholars believe Paul was referring to a letter he wrote to the church at Laodicea which is now lost. What if it were found?

John similarly noted, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). Clearly, not everything Jesus did was recorded in the gospels.

I take these facts to mean that every word in Scripture has enduring value or it would not be in Scripture. We can therefore ask of every text we encounter: What does this mean for us today? Why did the Spirit inspire, include, and preserve these words? What did they mean in their original setting, and how does this intended meaning apply to us?

“With the twin gods as a figurehead”

I took you down this hermeneutical road today because of a fascinating phrase I encountered in my personal Bible study. In Acts 28, we learn that Paul and his traveling companions spent three months on the island of Malta on their way to Rome, then they “set sail in a ship that had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the twin gods as a figurehead” (v. 11, my emphasis).

These “twin gods” were Castor and Pollux, the twin sons of Zeus and Leda. They were considered to be gods who protected sailors at sea, which is why those who built the ship went to the trouble to carve them as its figurehead. I doubt the shipbuilders cared personally for the safe passage of those who would sail on the vessel they created. Rather, by including these “twin gods,” perhaps they thought their ship was more likely to be purchased and used by the sailors and shipping companies who were the shipbuilders’ customers.

Such superstitious religion among sailors should not surprise us. For example, remember that when Jonah and his fellow travelers encountered a storm at sea, the captain called on him to “call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish” (Jonah 1:6).

So, Luke’s inclusion of the “twin gods” in his narrative of Paul’s voyage to Rome is consistent with the culture of sailing and sailors. Their inclusion on the ship makes economic and practical sense for the shipbuilders and the Romans who sailed on the vessel.

However, here’s my question: Why is this phrase included in Scripture? What abiding and eternal truths are we to learn from it?

“All things to all people”

The text doesn’t answer my question, of course. Luke doesn’t insert an explanatory note to clarify his literary decision under the Spirit’s leading. But given Paul’s background and faith story, I can offer a suggestion.

Remember that the apostle called himself a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and testified that he was “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:6). I cannot imagine that a self-respecting Jew would set foot on a ship with pagan idols as its figurehead. Peter had to be convinced by a heavenly vision even to speak with Gentiles (Acts 10:9–28; 11:5–12).

But when Paul was called to be God’s “apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13; 15:16), he began using evidences and strategies that would be persuasive with Gentiles. When witnessing to the intellectual leaders of Athens at Mars Hill, for example, he cited their altars and poets (Acts 17:23, 28). He learned to “become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

Consequently, he used Roman roads to reach the Roman world. He wrote in koine Greek, the “common” Greek of the day, because it was the universal language of the day. He employed his Roman citizenship when it benefited his ministry (cf. Acts 16:37; 22:28).

And he sailed on a Roman ship with Roman idols as its figurehead so as to fulfill his calling to take the gospel to Rome (cf. Acts 9:15; 27:24; Romans 1:8–12).

Four ways to reach “ignostics”

Here’s why this reflection seems significant to me: you and I are called to serve God in a day when American culture is more secularized than ever before. Fewer and fewer people understand basic biblical truths. Many are less “agnostic” than “ignostic.” And they are more convinced than ever that all religions teach the same truth.

As a result, “the Bible says” will be less persuasive for them. Citing biblical arguments and evidence for our faith is less compelling than in generations past. We will need to find secular arguments for spiritual truth, employing the “Roman roads” of our day, such as the internet and social media, to reach those who will not come to us. And we may have to set aside some personal sensibilities to do so.

In response, let’s close with some practical suggestions.

  1. Define our specific mission, the “Rome” and “Romans” we are called to reach.
  2. Identify ways of reaching the people we are called to influence.
  3. Acquire the skills and means necessary to use these “twin gods” effectively, employing secular means and reasoning as appropriate.
  4. Measure success by our obedience to our calling, whatever the immediate result. Acts ends with Paul in Rome “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31), but Luke doesn’t tell us if the apostle ever spoke to Caesar or describe the results of his ministry in the city.

I often note that we are missionaries not only to the place where we serve but also to the time when we serve. It is by God’s providence that you and I were not alive a century ago or a century from now (if the Lord tarries). The Lord has therefore given us all we need to serve him effectively in the culture to which he has assigned us.

Where is your Rome?

Who are your Romans?

What ship will take you where you are called to go today?

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