🔼The name Syrtis: Summary
- A Dragging Along
- From the verb συρω (suro), to draw or drag along.
🔼The name Syrtis in the Bible
It's not sure whether the name Syrtis actually occurs in the Bible, but if so, it occurs in Acts 27:17, where the King James and the Young Translation speak of: "fearing lest they should fall into the quicksands" but more recent translations have: "fearing that they would run aground on the sandbars (NIV) or shallows (NAS) of Syrtis". The ASV has "fearing lest they should be cast upon the Syrtis"; Darby has "fearing lest they should run into Syrtis."
The Byzantine Majority Text (that's the one we here at Abarim Publications use for our Interlinear New Testament) doesn't even have the term συρτις (surtis), but uses the noun συρτης (surtes), which is an extremely rare word and presumably describes a thing to draw with: most directly a reign or rope, but more figuratively anything "attractive". But academically reconstructed texts (such as the Nestle-Aland, upon which the more popular modern translations are based) have συρτις (surtis). What neither of these manuscripts have, however, are references to any sandbars or shallows.
The only occurrence of our word συρτις (surtis) in the Greek classics is as the name Syrtis, and that's what author Luke is most obviously hinting to.
The name Syrtis belonged to two separate coastal regions: (1) the modern Gulf of Sidra, which forms the northern coast of Libya, and (2) the modern Gulf of Gabes, off Tunesia's east coast. According to Herodotus, both these regions were peopled by the Nasamones, who were a Libyan people, and who perhaps had named their coasts after the disastrous effects their coastal currents had on passing ships.
Perhaps by Paul's, or rather author Luke's time, the term συρτις (surtis) had become extended to any sort of treacherous strait. But if so, only Luke used this word in that manner. More probable, therefore, is that Luke continued his masterful commentary on the goings on in the Roman world (see our article on the name Sopater), and used the present context to relate to Libya, and more specifically the defeat of the Nasamones by the Roman praetor Gnaeus Suellius Flaccus in 75 AD.
In the prologue of their noted demise, the Nasamones had reacted to their frustration with Roman extortion by liberally raiding the Libyan coastal regions, and not unlike the Jews in 66 AD, had attacked their Roman tormentors, and defeated them. But when the Nasamones entered the camp of the conquered Romans, they came upon their provisions, which included copious amounts of wine, which they festively imbibed. Flaccus and a fresh batch of conscripts found them not long after and easily massacred all of them.
The story of the victorious but foolish Nasamones was headline news when Luke published his Book of Acts. The story that Luke tells rather obviously is not about some rebel teacher in a boat at sea in a long forgotten storm, more than a decade earlier.
Luke was a masterful author (which is why, after 2,000 years, we moderns still read him) who expertly catered to the literary tastes of his Greco-Roman audience, which had been raised on comparable masterpieces such as the Iliad and the Aeneid. The word for ship, namely ναυς (naus), resembles ναος (naos), meaning temple, and from the verb that means to steer a ship, namely κυβερναω (kubernao), come our modern words "government" and "cybernetics", the study of control. Nobody in the original audience of the story of Jason and the Argonauts would have thought that this story was about a bunch of drifting sailors. And likewise, nobody in the original audience of Luke would have thought that the Book of Acts was about the physical wonderings of some rogue scholar.
🔼Etymology of the name Syrtis
The name Syrtis is a noun that derives from the verb συρω (suro), to draw or drag along. The -τις (-tis)-suffix forms an abstract noun that describes the action, result or process of the verb:
The verb συρω (suro) means to draw or drag along, and that commonly by force or violence. Noun συρτης (surtes) describes anything to draw with (a rope or reign or anything attractive), and noun συρτος (surtos) denotes anything drawn or swept along and subsequently deposited (like gold dust on a river bank, or exiles in the land of their abductors).
The name Syrtis means A Dragging Along or A Getting Swept Up, and clearly refers to a collective spirit of enthusiasm that originally is a great idea but then breaks out of the confines of reason and results in foolishness and ultimately destruction and death.