Acts 28: 1 – 10 Paul ashore on Malta
Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.’ But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.
There was an estate near by that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. His father was ill in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. When this had happened, the rest of those on the island who were ill came and were cured. They honoured us in many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.
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This passage is controversial, because there are no dangerously venomous snakes in Malta. There is one venomous snake, the European Cat Snake, but its venom is weak; the only way a human would die from its bite would be if they suffered anaphylactic shock. Would the islanders have known this?
Perhaps the islanders had a general fear of snakes? Even though they weren’t used to casualties on the island, they would doubtless have heard tales of deadly snakes – they were, after all, part of the Roman Empire.
One suggestion for the islanders’ expectation that the snake-bite would be mortal is that the shipwreck wasn’t on Malta at all. It was on the island of Melita (which is how it was spelled in the Greek). There was an island of that name in the Adriatic Sea, off the coast of what is now Croatia (the island is now named Mljet). This island was notorious for its deadly vipers. For me, the difficulty with that suggestion is that in Acts 28: 12 we’re told that Paul’s onward journey was via Syracuse. Why would you make a long and perilous sea journey when you could cross to Italy and travel by road to Rome?
However, it’s what Luke doesn’t say about this ‘miracle’ that I find controversial: “they changed their minds and said he was a god.” When Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for gods in Lystra, Luke tells us that they tore their clothes and rushed into the crowd, desperate to convince them they were only human. Why doesn’t Luke tell us that this time?
And that points me to another ‘omission’. Very often in Acts, when Paul and his co-workers left a city, Luke says something like, “And many came to believe in the Lord.” For example, in Pisidian Antioch, “…and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” (Acts 13: 48). And at Iconium “There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.” (Acts 14:1). And in the vicinity of Lystra, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.” Or in Athens, “Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.”
In Malta, the ship’s company were miraculously saved, Paul appeared to survive a snake bite, Paul healed Publius’s father, and many others – and yet it would seem that no one was brought to faith in Jesus.
I have no answers to these conundrums.
Thank you for the chance to spend time with you, studying the bible and in prayer. I don’t understand what you want me to learn from today’s reading. Please make it clearer as I reflect on it, and as I open my heart to feel Jesus near me.
In Jesus’ name, Amen