by Gordon Franz
Robert Cornuke, a retired police officer and now president of the BASE Institute, has recently released a video (August 2011) about his adventures on the island of Malta. In the video he located old divers and spear fisherman on the island who claimed they found four lead anchor stocks off the Munxar Reef of St. Thomas Bay in 90 feet of water during the 1960’s and 70’s. Cornuke surmises that these anchors were from the shipwreck mentioned in the Book of Acts (27:29, 40; Cornuke 2003), but these were found on the east side of Malta not the traditional sites on the north side. In fact, the cover of the video case said that this was: “Possibly the Biblical find of this century”!
In the video, Cornuke is bold enough to claim: “This evidence is just overwhelming, in fact, I believe you have to force feed your mind past reason and logic, not to accept this site. It’s like Luke was leaving us a treasure map for someone to follow.” Elsewhere he states: “So really, the only candidate that makes sense, this is Archaeology 101, that it should be the Munxar Reef on St. Thomas’ Bay. Clearly, clearly this is the place it should be according to all the facts the Bible gives us.”
In this critique, we will examine the “overwhelming evidence” that Cornuke presents and see if it stands the scrutiny of scientific examination and verification. Is it really the Biblical find of this century? Is this the only site that fits all the Biblical requirements?
I have personally visited Malta multiple times and am very familiar with the history, archaeology, and geography of this wonderful island, and will offer my on-the-scene assessment of the data in the video and its conclusions.
Cornuke’s Arguments for the Location of the Shipwreck
Cornuke enlists the services of a local Maltese, James Mulholland, identified in the video as an “amateur historian,” to defend his thesis that the Munxar Reef was where the shipwreck occurred and the beach in St. Thomas Bay was where the foundered passengers and crew came ashore. Mulholland attempts to set forth four arguments in defense of this idea and I will single out the third as the most important.
First, Mulholland correctly states that just off the Munxar Reef there is an area where the depth of the sea is 120 feet (20 fathoms) and 90 feet (15 fathoms) in accordance with the depth recorded by the sounding weights (Acts 27:28). Then he makes a very deceptive statement: “The west coast is out of the question, all [the depths] are over 200 feet. On the east coast is a must!” While it is certainly true that the depth off the coast of the west side of the island is over 200 feet, this is a straw man because nobody is claiming the shipwreck occurred on the west side of the island. On the other hand, there are several bays on the north side of the island where there is a 120/90 feet depth that would fit the Biblical requirement.
The second argument Mulholland sets forth is that St. Thomas Bay has the “bay with a beach” (Acts 27:39). He then identifies five bays on the island of Malta that might be candidates: Mellieha Bay, Salina Bay, Balluta Bay, St. George’s Bay [also known as Marsaslokk Bay], and St. Thomas’s Bay. There are three other bays that might have contained beaches in antiquity as well; St. Paul’s Bay, Marsamxett Bay within the Grand Harbor of Valletta, and Marsascala Bay. You see, St. Thomas Bay is not the only bay with a beach. On the north side of the island there are several bays that have beaches within them as well.
The third argument set forth by Mulholland and Cornuke, and I think the most important one, is that the sea captain and sailors did not recognize where they were when the dawn broke (Acts 27:39). Cornuke correctly states that Malta was like O’Hare Airport in Chicago and the island was well visited by sailors. However, unlike several bays on the north side of the island, he incorrectly claims that the south-east side of the island would be the part of the island that the Alexandrian grain ship sailors had never seen. Cornuke’s statement is factually inaccurate.
On the contrary, the south-eastern part of the island, between the Marsaslokk Bay and the Grand Harbor of Vallette would be the best known part of the island for any sea captain and seasoned sailors of an Alexandrian grain ship. This one point alone completely disproves Cornuke’s ideas.
Any ancient Mediterranean Sea captain, or seasoned sailor on the deck of a ship anchored off the Munxar Reef, immediately would recognize the eastern shoreline of Malta because Malta was the landmark for sailors traveling westward from Crete and about to turn north to Sicily. In essence, Malta was the “Turn Right to Sicily” sign in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea! The eastern end of the island would be what they saw first and it would be a welcomed sight.
There are two geological landmarks that the sea captains would be very familiar with on the eastern end of the island. The first would be the “conspicuous white cliffs” to the south of the Munxar Reef (British Admiralty chart 2628, Malta Island South East Portion) and the second, the Munxar Reef itself. Every sea captain would know the hazardous Munxar Reef because of its inherent maritime danger.
Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian who lived in the First Century BC, states that the island of Malta had many harbors for safety in bad weather (Library of History 5:12:1-2; LCL 3: 129). Today, maritime archaeologists might sub-divide Diodorus’ “harbors” into ports, harbors, and anchorages. Recent scholarly archaeological research has shown that there were two Roman ports on the island of Malta. The first was in Marsaslokk Bay (south of St. Thomas Bay, also known as St. George’s Bay). The second was within the ancient Valletta harbor, much further inland in antiquity and called Marsa today. It is at the foot of Corradino Hill (Bonanno 1992: 25). Roman storehouses with amphorae were discovered in this region in 1766-68 (Ashby 1915: 27-30). When Alexandrian grain ships could not make it to Rome before the sea-lanes closed for the winter, they wintered on Malta (see Acts 28:11). They would offload their grain and store them in the storehouses of Marsa (Gambin 2005), and probably did the same thing in the port at Marsaslokk Bay, although the storehouses have not been found archaeologically because today there is a living town over the structures of the ancient port. Marsascala Bay, just to the north of St. Thomas Bay, had a Roman harbor that the sea captain would recognize if he were anchored off the Munxar Reef.
There was also a shallow harbor at Salina Bay on the north side of the island but this was for the local shipping of oil and wine, thus a deep-draft Alexandrian grain ship would not dock at this harbor and it would be unknown to those on such a ship.
But let us hypothetically assume for a minute that the 276 passengers and crew of the ill-fated grain ship did, in fact, make it safely to the beach on St. Thomas’ Bay. Where would they go? The Bible says they were taken to the estate of Publius, the leading citizen of the island (Acts 28:7). Cornuke has never ventured an identification for the location of Publius’ estate.
But if the sea captain, sailors, and Roman soldiers, were washed up on the beach in St. Thomas’ Bay, they would all know of the famous landmark just up the hill from the beach. It was the Punic/Roman period temple dedicated to one goddess known by different names by the various ethnic groups visiting the island. She was Tanit to the Phoenicians, Hera to the Greeks, Juno to the Romans, and Isis to the Egyptians (Trump 1997: 80, 81; Bonanno 1992: Plate 2 with a view of St. Thomas Bay in the background). They would have made a bee-line to this temple, today called the Tas-Silg temple, in order to get food, water, shelter, and warmth. But also to offer sacrifices to the deity for sparing their lives in the shipwreck! This temple is only a 10-15 minute walk from the St. Thomas Bay beach and well-known by sea captains and sailors.
The last argument that Mulholland sets forth concerns the place where two seas meet (Acts 27:41). He and Cornuke identify the place where the two seas meet as the Munxar Reef. While this location may fit this possible interpretation of this phrase, there are several other places on the north side of the island that would fit this description as well.
There is, however, a major problem with the Munxar Reef being the location of the shipwreck. The book of Acts records: “But striking a place where two seas meet, they ran the ship aground; and the prow struck fast and remained unmovable, but the stern was being broken up by the violence of the waves” (27:41). Notice, it is the prow (front) of the ship that does not break up, only the stern (back). If an Alexandrian grain ship hit the solid limestone of the Munxar Reef, the prow of the ship would have broken up. Thus, it could not be a reef that was struck. It is clear, the Munxar Reef cannot be reconciled with the Biblical account.
The Four Anchors Off the Munxar Reef
Cornuke found old divers and spear fishermen that claimed they brought up four lead anchor stocks from the depth of 90 feet just outside an underwater cave on the south side of the Munxar Reef. Based on Map 3 in Cornuke’s book (2003), the GPS for this location (calculated from the British Admiralty chart #2628, Malta Island / Southeast Portion) is:
“Dropped Anchors 15 Fathoms” point between “1” and “5” in the “15”
35*50’59.2878″ N 14*35’42.1061″ E (dd*mm’ss.ssss”)
35.8498143594* N 14.5950300716* E (dd.dddddddd*)
35*50.98886′ N 14*35.70180′ E (dd*mm.mmmmm’)
In the video, the first anchor that is discussed is called “Tony’s anchor” in the book (2003:125). [This is actually anchor #2 in the book]. It is described by different people as a “large anchor stock” (2003: 106), a “huge anchor” (2003: 114), as a “large slab of lead” (2003: 126), and a “massive Roman anchor stock” (2003: 126). Unfortunately, like the other anchor stocks shown in the video or pictured in the book, there are no measurements given for this one. The only size indicators are the adjectives “large”, “huge”, and “massive.”
I have visited the Malta Maritime Museum in Vittoriosa on several occasions where “Tony’s anchor” is now prominently displayed along with other Roman anchors on the first floor of the museum. It is tagged “NMA Unp. #7/2 Q’mangia 19.11.2002.” This anchor stock came from the village of Q’mangia and was handed over to the museum on November 19, 2002.
The anchor stock was one of the smallest on display, measuring about 3 feet, 8 inches in length. Large Alexandrian grain ships would have had for the stern much larger anchors than this one. Cornuke’s lack of quantifiable measurements regarding the anchor stock keeps the viewer and reader uninformed about its actual size. As we shall see, this anchor stock is a lead toothpick compared to “huge, lead-and-wooden Roman-style anchors” that Cornuke surmised would be on the ship (Cornuke 2002: 15).
The curators of the museum had a keen sense of humor placing “Tony’s anchor” close to the largest anchor ever discovered in the Mediterranean Sea. This anchor stock measured 13 feet, 6 inches long, and weighed 2,500 kilograms, which is two and a half metric tons, and most likely came from an Alexandrian grain ship (Guillaumier 1992: 88; a picture of this anchor stock can be seen in Bonanno 1992: 158, plate 66). The size contrast between these two anchor stocks is striking!
The second anchor stock discussed in the video was also found by Tony Micallef-Borg, but was melted down to make lead weights. It was only half an anchor that was either “pulled apart like a piece of taffy” (2003: 121) or sawn in half with a hacksaw (2003: 231, footnote 18), depending on which eyewitness is most reliable. [This is actually anchor #1 in the book (2003: 101-105)]. Since it has been melted down, it cannot be examined. The third and fourth anchor stocks are not discussed in the video. But a clip of Cornuke examining the fourth anchor stock is given in the video. The third anchor stock is also prominently displayed in the Maritime Museum and the tag on the anchor says, “NMA Unp. # 7/1 Naxxar.”
Cornuke secured legal amnesty from prosecution, with the aid of the US ambassador, for any of the divers, or their families, that would turn their anchor stocks over to the Maritime Museum. Two of the three anchor stocks were turned over. As far as I am aware, the fourth anchor stock is still in a private collection and has not been turned over to the archaeological authorities, or confiscated by the police.
In November 2010, I met a young diver in St. Thomas Bay that said he brought up an anchor stock from just outside the cave off of the Munxar Reef, but it was confiscated by the police. This would be a fifth anchor stock found near the cave off the Munxar Reef. But the Bible clearly states that there were only four anchors that were left in the sea. The recent discoveries of more anchor stocks near the Munxar Reef at 90 feet would negate any of these being from the Alexandrian grain ship that Paul was sailing on in AD 60.
Two Maltese divers, independent of each other, informed me that there have been about 150 lead anchor stocks that were found around the island of Malta. Twenty-five to thirty anchor stocks are in the possession of the Malta Maritime Museum, but most anchor stocks are in private collections on the island. How many more anchor stocks were found off the Munxar Reef near the cave at 90 feet? It is known that there is at least one other anchor stock found in this area. Why would the four located by Cornuke be anything special? These four anchor stocks identified by Cornuke cannot be from the shipwreck of Paul and Luke off the coast of Malta around AD 60.
The Quality of the Video is Poor, the Content Inaccurate and Deceptive
This video does not have the quality of previous BASE videos. One gets the impression that this video was hastily thrown together under pressure. I found it odd that there was no FBI warning at the beginning of the video against duplicating it, and no credits or acknowledgements at the end of the video.
There are poor graphics. For example, a ship is seen sailing across the land on the island of Crete rather than on the water below the island.
There is poor editing. James Mulholland is cut off in mid sentence when he said there are two places on the island where “two seas meet together,” but the viewer is never told the location of the second place. “Ellena Micallefif [sic] Borg’s” name is misspelled.
There are historical mistakes. Paul’s journey to Rome and the shipwreck is dated in the video to AD 65. Most New Testament scholars would place the journey either in the year AD 59 or 60 (Bruce 1995: 475).
There are geographical mistakes. The Syrtis [Sands] (Acts 27:17) is labeled on the map as the desert on the eastern part of present day Libya and Cornuke points to the sands of North Africa on the computer monitor. Graham Hutt, does however, properly identify it as the Bay of Syrtis in the Mediterranean Sea. Also, the map of the bays on Malta misidentified Salina Bay with the arrow actually pointing to St. Paul’s Bay!
There are deceptive parts. The scene where an anchor stock is being raised with two oil drums was actually a recent reenactment, sometime between 2000 and 2003, yet the viewer is not informed of this (see Cornuke 2003: Plate 10 bottom). The anchor stock being used in the reenactment is much larger than the anchor being discussed. The footage is also made to look like vintage movie footage by computer software but the viewer is given a false impression that this was from the time the original anchor stock was being raised.
There are misleading parts as well. It is stated that the two anchors that were turned over to the museum are on display in a dusty corner of the Maritime Museum in Valletta. This is misleading because they are prominently displayed, as the video shows, on the first floor of the Malta Maritime Museum located in Vittoriosa, across the harbor from Valletta.
The video was produced by Vapor Digital Media in cooperation with the BASE Institute. When I tried to access the website (www.vapordigitalmedia.com) on September 5, 2011, I got a “godaddy.com” webpage!
The video does not give credit where credit is due. There is no acknowledgement of permission from the Maritime Museum to film the two scenes inside the museum. This is standard procedure with museums. Also, the scene where four anchors are dropped into water was done by The Bigger Picture on Malta, but there is no acknowledgment of this fact. In fact, there are no credits or acknowledgements at the end of the video, just the lists of the American and Maltese Advisory Teams.
It is surprising to see Tony Micallef-Borg’s name listed on the Malta Advisory Team at the end of the video. The viewer deserves an explanation for this inclusion. According to Cornuke, Tony was diver “numero uno [number one], he was the top guy” on Malta, but he died in 1978, long before Cornuke began any of his investigations on the island. Tony’s name does not even appear in the acknowledgement of Cornuke’s book (2003:225-227), so why is it listed on the advisory team in this video? It begs for an explanation!
The Conclusion of the Matter
This is a brief critique refuting the ideas set forth in this video that the ship Paul and Luke were on was wrecked on the Munxar Reef off the coast of St. Thomas Bay and that four anchors from this shipwreck have been located. For a thorough critique of the book, The Lost Shipwreck of Paul (2003), and Cornuke’s appearance on the 700 Club on February 26, 2010, see the “Paul’s Shipwreck on Malta” section of my website: www.lifeandland.org
I have plans, after my next study trip to Malta, to co-author with a Maltese colleague, a lengthier, more detailed, and thoroughly documented critique of Cornuke’s adventures on Malta and his ideas on the shipwreck of Paul.
In summary, it has been observed that the depth of 120 feet and 90 feet recorded by the sounding weight, the bay with the beach, and the place where two seas meet is not unique to the Munxar Reef and St. Thomas Bay. There are several bays on the north of the island where these criteria are satisfied as well.
The most devastating argument against Conuke’s idea that the shipwreck was on the Munxar Reef is that the sea captain and crew of an Alexandrian grain ship would clearly recognize the eastern shore of the island of Malta and especially the Munxar Reef and the St. Thomas Bay area. This goes totally contrary to the Biblical account of which Cornuke claims to believe. Cornuke’s whole thesis collapses on this one point. This is the one point Cornuke has to defend, everything else is trivial.
It has been demonstrated that there were more than four anchor stocks found near the cave off the Munxar Reef at 90 feet. At least one of those anchor stocks would be too small to be from an Alexandrian grain ship.
The ideas found in this video have been found wanting. There is no need to “force feed your mind past reason or logic” to accept this thesis because the archaeological, geographical, and Biblical evidence dictates that the ideas in this video should be abandoned. These so-called discoveries are not the Biblical find of the 21st century.
Critique and Refutation of Other Cornuke Theories
For a thorough refutation of the other so-called discoveries by Mr. Cornuke, please visit the “Cracked Pot Archaeology” section of my website: www.lifeandland.org
My additional comments within quotes are in brackets […].
1915 Roman Malta. Journal of Roman Studies 5: 23-80.
1992 Roman Malta. The Archaeological Heritage of the Maltese Islands. Formia, Malta: Giuseppe Castelli and Charles Cini / Bank of Valletta.
Bruce, Frederick F.
1995 Paul. Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.
2002 Paul’s “Miracle on Malta.” Personal Update (April) 14-16.
2003 The Lost Shipwreck of Paul. Bend, OR: Global Publishing Services.
1993 The Library of History. Books IV.59-VIII. Vol. 3. Translated by C. Oldfather. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 340.
2005 Ports and Port Structures for Ancient Malta. Forthcoming.
1997 Malta: An Archaeological Guide. Valetta, Malta: Progress.
About the Author
Gordon Franz is an archaeologist on the staff of the Associates for Biblical Research in Pennsylvania and has worked on numerous archaeological excavations in Israel over the past 32 years, including Ketef Hinnom and the Temple Mount Sifting Project in Jerusalem, Ramat Rachel, Lachish, Jezreel, Kh Nisya (Ai), Hazor, and Tel Zayit. He has also visited Malta on a number of occasions doing research on the history, geography, and archaeology of the island, as well as the location of Paul’s shipwreck.