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What night is “this” night (Acts 27:23)?
Paul is on his way to Rome, the captain of the ship does not heed his warning, and they are caught in a storm. “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small storm continued to rage, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned” (Acts 27:20).
Apparently several days had past, since the men had gone without food for some time. An angel appeared to Paul, telling him that the ship would be lost but no human life (v 23). Fourteen days into the storm (v 27), they run aground. So much for context.
Verses 23-24 say, “For there stood by me this night (ταύτῃ τῇ νυκτί) an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you as a gift all those who sail with you.’” When did the angel appear?
If I were to tell you that “this night” I would read a book, you would understand it to be the coming night. Of course, that would make no sense in Paul’s case. If the angel had not yet come, Paul would not know what he was going to say.
Part of the answer may be that in Jewish reckoning the new day starts at sunset and goes to the next sunset, so the night is part of the next day. With this mindset, “this night,” i.e., the night belonging to the current daytime, would be the previous night.
It is interesting to watch the translations. Some leave it as “this night” and let you figure it out (KJV, HCSB). Others help you by saying “last night” (NRSV [changed from the RSV “this very night”], NIV, NET, NLT), an acceptable decision since we think of day and night as the same day, not night and day.
The odd thing to me is the translation, “this very night” (NASB, ESV). Where does the “very” come from? Apparently it means that the vision occurred the previous night, not some time earlier in the storm. I found the translation in BDAG. ταύτῃ τῇ ν. ... this very night, tonight Mk 14:30; Lk 12:20; 17:34; Ac 27:23; αὐτῇ τῇ ν. on the night of that same day .... τῇ ν. ἐκείνῃ Ac 12:6.
In all these verses except ours, the reference is to the coming night. BDAG mistakenly puts our verse in this category. The suggestion from this is that the expression does not have to refer only to the following night; perhaps it means the immediate night attached to the current daytime — the preceding nighttime or the following nighttime.
By the way, Acts 23:11 shows that you can explicitly refer to the coming night if you so wish. “The following night (τῇ … ἐπιούσῃ νυκτί) the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so must you also testify in Rome.”
This is an interesting example of how context must always guide us, and while BDAG is an excellent tool, it is not infallible. That was one of the difficult lessons I learned early on.
I was just learning Greek and Greek exegesis, and I came across a definition in BDAG (back then it was BAGD) that I thought was wrong, but how can a dictionary be wrong? I asked my dad, and he explained how even dictionaries are interpretive. BDAG is trustworthy for basic definitions (for the majority of the time, perhaps almost all the time), but they are interpretive when they decide what category a specific verse belongs in.
So read BDAG like a really good commentary.