HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (RNS) -- Even long before the times of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, Malta was the rocky knob at the western edge of the Roman Empire, the place where the leftovers of the Mediterranean Sea washed up and dug in.
And Malta is the site of what Huntsville software salesman John Harkins believes will be the last and best quest of his life.
Harkins, a mild-mannered, Bible-reading, Church of Christ deacon and marine biologist, is determined to be the first person since the biblical Luke to see evidence of the ship that carried Paul nearly to Rome.
"I'm quite in the minority in thinking there might be some remnant," Harkins said, unrolling charts of the island on his desk at work. "But I know we're going to find something, though it may not be from Paul's wreck."
According to Acts 27, a chapter in Luke's history of the nascent Christian movement, a huge ship loaded with grain, sailors, soldiers, prisoners, passengers crashed into the coast at the end of a 14-day storm.
The ship broke in half, spilling everyone into the sea.
Miraculously, the entire crew was able to struggle to shore, where they were met by the inhabitants of the 200-mile-long island, who built them a fire.
"The natives showed us unusual kindness," Luke writes.
Harkins said Malta's government places a high value on caring for and understanding relics washed on its shores. Museums catalogue ancient weapons, structures, tools, and, of course, fragments of the shipping trade that made Malta a crucial outpost of vessels attempting to round the Italian boot to get to Rome.
"God put that ship there, and I figure he put it where he wants it," Harkins said. "He gave it to the Maltese people, and frankly, he couldn't have given it to people who do more to preserve their heritage -- and it's their heritage, along with the rest of us."
Harkins can't remember a time when the story of Paul's shipwreck didn't fascinate him. It was one of the stories that leapt out of the dim and musty antiquity of ancient stories to snap into Technicolor.
"The very first time I read it, it sounded so real," Harkins said. "I thought, `Holy cow, I know this happened!' I had no doubt it was real."
Doubt is something he's hoping to help other people overcome if he finds evidence confirming Luke's account.
"It could be one more thing where somebody said something didn't exist and we can say, `Yeah. It did,"' Harkins said. "Maybe it will help someone who has lost their faith and wants to come back."
When Harkins and his partners return to Malta in May for what will be his third visit to the island, he hopes to map the sub-bottom profile of areas he's decided are likely shipwreck locations given prevailing winds and the land forms.
Among the experts he has consulted are second-century essayist Lucian and a 19th-century book by the preacher son of an East India Company merchant. His book shelves also bulge with various doctoral dissertations on relics found underwater and other books on archaeology, sailing and diving.
Gordon Franz, an archaeologist at the Akron, Pa.-based Associates for Biblical Research, remembers responding cautiously to Harkins' first letters some years ago.
"We get all kinds of crackpots who contact our office about their crazy ideas or discoveries," Franz said. "After a few exchanges, I realized this fellow knows what he is talking about, so I called him. We talked for about an hour, and he shared some nautical insights into Acts 27 which I had never considered before."
Older shipwrecks than the one Harkins seeks have been found, Franz said. But if Harkins can find the remains of an Alexandrian grain ship, like the one that carried Paul, it would be a first.
"It would add to our knowledge of the grain ships and the grain trade in the Roman world," Franz said. "Finding the wreck would put the Acts account on solid historical grounds.
And if Harkins finds nothing at all, despite self-funding his search and taking time away from family and work?
"I believe we all have to search for something," Harkins said. "And one of the reasons I'm doing this is because, who else would do it? It's not important to other people who would rather search for sunken treasure.
"The most important thing is the searching, and you have to find something you think worthwhile to search for."
Kay Campbell writes for The Huntsville Times in Huntsville, Ala.
c. 2011 Religion News Service. Used with permission.
Publication date: April 11, 2011