Acts 28:1-6 – Paul on Malta

Just as Paul had prophesied, all the passengers make it to the shore. There they are met by the people of the island of Malta. The island was known as Μελίτη in Greek and Melite Africana in Latin. About 58 miles south of Sicily and 180 miles north of Tunis, the island is only about 100 square miles. Since Carthage controlled the island from the sixth century B.C., Keener suggests they spoke Punic. He cites bi-lingual inscriptions from the period as evidence Punic was the majority language on the island (Keener, 4:3668). Some have argued the island was actually Kephallenia, but most commentators disagree with this identification. (Kephallenia does have poisonous snakes, see below on this issue).

Luke describes as “barbarians.” The word βάρβαροι simply meant they did not speak Greek. Most English translations avoid the stigma of the word by translating the word “native people,” I prefer “the locals.” Do not think of these people as a tribe of savages from some old movie! These are likely local fisherman who saw the ship grounded and were waiting to give whatever aid necessary to the survivors.

The locals are “unusually kind” (φιλανθρωπία) toward the castaways and help to build fires to warm up. The word is rare in biblical literature, usually referring to the kindness or clemency of a foreign ruler towards their people (3 Macc. 3:15; TDNT 9:109). For example, Josephus used the word when describing “the generous and clement conduct of the Romans” (JW 2.399). The word is used by someone making a public speech honoring his benefactor, praising them for their generous patronage. Acts 27:3 used the adverbial form of the word for the kindness of Paul’s Roman escort Julius when he permitted Paul to visit friends in Sidon. They may be barbarians, but they demonstrate “they have the best of Hellenic manners” (BDAG).

While gathering wood for the fire Paul is bitten by a viper. The locals think this is a deadly snake and assume Paul is a murderer since he survived the storm only to be bitten by a snake (v. 4). Most commentators will point out there are no poisonous snakes on Malta (supported by the modern Times of Malta). BDAG suggests this was “vipera ammodytes, commonly known as sandviper.” But this sort of thing is typical of a good Greek story, the guilty cannot outrun their fate. The gods will avenge the murderer. Most modern translations capitalize Justice (ἡ δίκη), acknowledging the people are referring to divine Justice.

But Paul is not guilty, he simply shakes off the snake and goes about his business. When he does not die immediately, the locals watch him to see if he “swells up and dies.” Since he does not, they conclude that he is a god (v. 6). This is not the first time Paul has been mistake for a god (at Lystra, Acts 14:8-10). In both cases the local people do not understand a miracle and make assumptions about the source of Paul’s power based on their own worldview.

This is as far as Luke takes the story, but it is not surprising that Christian readers have wondered about this snakebite. Some have argued this is a fulfillment of Mark 16:18, “they will pick up serpents with their hands” and healing the sick by the laying on of hands. Aside from the textual problems associated with long ending of Mark, Paul does not strictly speaking pick up the snake, but in the next story he does lay hands on a sick man and he recovers. Luke 10:19 does say Jesus gave his disciples “I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions.” Various writers in church history have considered this verse and the snake in Acts 28 as an allusion to the power of Satan (see Keener 4:3674 for references). I would suggest the story in Acts has influenced the author of the longer ending of Mark, Paul overcomes poisonous snakes and heals the sick, demonstrating his apostolic authority.

What is the point of this story of unusual hospitality? Joshua Jipp suggests this is an example of a common motif, “unwitting hospitality” toward a god. He argues Luke is drawing a contrast between these barbarians (who treat Paul with unusual hospitality) and the Jews in Rome in 28:17-25 who reject Paul and his Gospel.

For Luke, there is nothing which can stop Paul from getting to Rome. Paul has survived an assassination attempt, a terrible storm and shipwreck, and hidden (and possibly satanic) dangers on an unknown island. Whatever the danger to Paul’s life, God will protect him and bring him to the court of the Empire.


Bibliography: Joshua Jipp, “Hospitable Barbarians: Luke’s Ethnic Reasoning in Acts 28:1-10,” JTS 68 (2017): 23–45).

13 thoughts on “Acts 28:1-6 – Paul on Malta

  1. This section of scripture has always intrigued me, the fact that a snake bites Paul and Paul just shakes it off like it was nothing. If it were me I would have shaken it off to, but mine would have come with a little dance and maybe a scream. Paul though keeps it all together and calmly throws the snake into the fire. The most likely poisonous snake’s venom does nothing to Paul, while the natives expect him to swell up and die Paul goes about his business. Whether or not that this was supposed to represent the power that we have over Satan or not, it provide a good illustration to the effect that Satan should have over us. I do think that this series of odd events are something to take note of and remember that in all things Christ strengthens us .

  2. When I had previously read this passage I just kind of read it and was thinking, “I can’t imagine what Paul would be thinking at the time.” First, I would’ve been a little freaked out if snake jumped on my arm. But, that is beside the point. The people in the room had to be a little freaked out to though. Most likely, Paul was “supposed” to fall over and die in this situation. Obviously, this did not happen. So, the people started worshipping Paul like he was a god. If I were in Paul’s shoes, this would make me pretty uncomfortable, especially after the journey that he had been on. After all, Paul had been going around spreading the Gospel and then this happened. Personally, it would be a reminder of how amazing God is and then another opportunity to share that with these people.
    There was also one thing that you mentioned that really stuck out to me. As you mentioned, Paul survived an assassination attempt, a shipwreck, and a terrible storm. Why not add a viper biting him to the mix? Paul surviving all these near-death experiences shows that God was protecting him and that he was meant to be there for a reason. He was meant to be a missionary and spread the Gospel to people.

    • I really like your take on this Chris. My Major research paper was about Paul’s shipwreck and I was able to read into the shipwreck and the snake bite and I too thought of how God was always protecting Paul. Paul was put into may bad situations and yet he never backed down because he was out numbered he always was brave and continued to stand up for what he believed in and that was the power of what God can do for our lives. I think God was showing witnesses to others about how powerful he is to protect Paul through thick and thin. Our God is very caring and powerful and we are all blessed.

  3. I am not a huge snake person so when I read this section, I shivered just a little bit. However, I agree with Jipp’s take on it being “unwitting hospitality.” They do not quite understand that Paul is not a god, however, they accept him and show him kindness as he is shipwrecked on Malta. It is important to note here that the difference between this situation and the one in Lystra is that the people on Malta did not attempt to worship Paul (ESV Study Bible Notes). Paul was able to use this scenario as a way to spread the gospel and to continue on his journey unharmed. I like how P. Long mentioned that Luke wanted to show how nothing was going to stop Paul from getting to Rome. God had this plan for Paul and he was not going to let a storm or snake bite keep that from happening.

  4. The story of Paul on the island of Malta is an interesting one. After hearing from an angel of the Lord that everybody on the ship would survive and then telling everyone to eat something to have strength for the swim to the island at daybreak, you can see Paul did not have any fear and knew the Lord was with him. When he arrives on the island, the hospitality and kindness from the locals is almost surprising. Usually when Paul arrives at a new place, he is met with a hostile environment consisting of mostly jews who want to hurt him. But these non greek speaking people welcome him and the others with open arms even build fires for them.

    Like I said earlier, Paul does not fear. He knows the Lord is with him and watching over him. He is connected to the Father and is listening to the Holy Spirit inside him. Even when he is bit by the venomous snake, Paul just shakes it off as if nothing had happened. I desire this kind of relationship with the Father. Complete trust in him and a close connection with the Holy Spirit. The power of Christ in Paul shows through when he heals the Chief man’s father. Miracles throughout the book of Acts witness to the power of God. God was at work in Paul wherever he went. Although nothing is said about Paul sharing the gospel by words with these people, I think the actions of Paul speak louder than any words could.

  5. When God wants something done, he gets it done. Absolutely no power can stop Him and His will. An example of God doing this in my life is me going to school. When I graduated high school, I was absolutely clueless about what the direction of my life should look like. I did not know what kind of career I wanted. I did not know if I should go to school. I did not know what I was supposed to do or where to go. Since everyone was going to college, I thought I should follow the norm and do the same. I signed up for classes at the community college and was a day away from starting classes. I had the worst pit in my stomach. It was not nerves, it was the Holy Spirit speaking. I listened to Him and He told me I was not going to go to that school. The next day I drove to school, dropped out of every class, and returned my books. I walked out of the school feeling like my body had been taken over. I knew none of my actions were my own, rather it was the Holy Spirit and the will of God taking over the course of my life.

    This also seems to be the case with Paul. No matter what he experienced or went through God’s will prevailed. Long explains this saying “Paul has survived an assassination attempt, a terrible storm and shipwreck, and hidden (and possibly satanic) dangers on an unknown island” (para. 8). Paul was brought through all of these trials so that he may testify before the court of the Empire and share the Gospel in Rome. Polhill states “Paul’s time here is highlighted by his protection from a viper’s bite” (p. 2144). The snakebite is the prime example of God’s protection and provision. Long offers a perspective surrounding Paul’s snakebite, explaining how it may have resembled the power of Satan not affecting those with the Holy Spirit. Though this may not be the primary reason Luke includes this story, I do believe it resembles a truth that surrounds the lives of Christians. If we belong to God, the power of Satan can no longer affect us, and God will bring us wherever He desires. His will be done now and forevermore!

  6. When you first read this account, it does come of as a bit humorous. Paul is bitten by a supposedly deadly snake, simply shakes it off, and continues about his day. I can only assume that there is some detail missing within this account, such as screams from the bystanders or perhaps any reaction from Paul at all? While that is not necessarily important to the event, I do wonder (and have questions) about the facts behind the account. Was the snake poisonous or not? It is stated in the blog that most commentators claim there were no poisonous snakes in Malta. If it was indeed a non-poisonous snake, was the event included in the chapter just to show the local’s beliefs in the Greek gods? Is this still considered a miracle if the viper was indeed not poisonous? Did God specifically send the snake to bite Paul in order that he may then share the gospel to a captive audience who would have been shocked at the turn of events? Or was the snake truly poisonous? I suppose I am now included in those who have wondered about this event! Regardless, it is interesting to see the parallel between those who were considered barbarians, yet accepted Paul, and the Jews who vehemently and violently rejected one of their own.

  7. A quick detour to Wikipedia does show that vipera ammodytes does live in the area of Italy, and this animal does have highly toxin venom. While I don’t know if they can be found on islands, I don’t think it is impossible to think that the creature might have been moved there intentionally or unintentionally by people, or perhaps it could be a species of viper, that was native to the island but is no longer with us today. Whatever it is I cannot help but feel a little pity for the poor animal, first it is exposed to damaging heat, then when it lashes out it gets thrown unceremoniously into a fire. Obviously, I don’t blame Paul for his actions or think that it is inappropriate. However, the islanders reaction to the bite is telling. They likely would be familiar with the type of vipers on the island and would likely know what to expect as a reactivation to the creature’s venom. Their amazement, demonstrates the divine protection Paul had been given. More importantly this moment allows once again, a door for the gospel to be opened, to the island natives, and perhaps even to Paul’s captives.

  8. Romans 9:18 said, ‘’Therefore God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy and he hardens whom He wants to harden’’. Paul wrote this letter to Rome’ believers. Paul understood the will of God. He utterly knows where he is heading, the reason why he is sailing there. That makes no doubt on God. He was in a storm, now beaten by a viper serpent. But have no doubt, nor worry, but still for he knows that, no one can stop the work of God.
    Secondly, He understands that this is part of God’s plan. So that the people may hear the gospel of Jesus and be saved. The people on the ship known as Paul are a good man, the man of God or as a prophet. Because what he said became true. ‘’No life will lose’’ then no one died as he said, all saved, they thought he would die soon because of Snake but the snake instead. And the island of Malta sees the miracle of healing just by Paul’s prayer. Sometimes God let His people in a hard time. But it has a purpose, we may know understand yet but those who stand firm see the power of God.
    We do not know, the people of Malta might be good or bad people. But in ancient times most people did not trust and nor welcomed the stranger in the lands. They could have killed Paul and all the people from the boats. The Malta people know that, some are soldiers with armor and swords. But they welcomed them and even provided protection from the weather. This is the work of God why they are so nice to them. Exodus 7:3-4 God said to Moses, “I will Harden Pharaoh’s heart and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt’’. This scripture demonstrates that God is in control. But for a reason, ‘’to multiply sings and wonder in Egypt’’. Now God is softly the people of Malta’s to demonstrate the signs of Healing and Salvation.

  9. When I first read this section of scripture, my first thought was “what a great opportunity to witness to an unknown people group,” and Paul took full advantage of it in the following verses (v.8). I can’t help but believe that this action was some sort of divine intervention on behalf of God in order for Paul to use the opening to share his faith with the Maltese barbarians. Even though it should have been Paul who was getting prayed for due to his snake bite, he never fell ill (v.6). In return, Paul begins healing and laying hands on the people of Malta and healing them in the name of Jesus. This event mirrors the event in Luke when Jesus healed Simon-Peter’s mother and people from all over saw the miracle and began to ask for healing (Polhill, p. 2336). In the same way, the people saw Publius as a leader (Polhill, p. 2336) and when he was healed, they had faith in Paul that they could be too (v. 9).

  10. Paul and his time in Malta is yet another attempt of some sort of force trying to stop him in his mission to Rome. Storms, shipwrecks, and now a viper biting him. If there are not evil forces trying to slow him down, then Paul had the worst luck. Paul had a mission from God, and nothing was stopping him from getting there (Long, 2023). For the people with Paul throughout the journey, it would almost be more difficult to not believe in his call from the Lord. Each place in which there was no hope, Paul prevailed. There is a point for both Jews and Gentiles where you must believe that mere luck is out of question. One thing that was mentioned in the blog that sparked my interest was how the viper biting Paul could help those believe in him being a true apostle (Long, 2019). I have never thought about how Paul would have been placed in the same sort of scripture as the disciples when Christ spoke. Now there is no hard evidence that he was fulfilling any scripture, but the imagery seems to work very well. I would argue though Paul was doing the good work that God had given to him and if it was not meant to be a direct comparison is sure is close.

  11. Paul’s time spent in Malta was an interesting one. They first fell there due to the shipwreck. They locals as Mr. Long would call them, were very open and willing to help him and the other passengers aboard the ship. Why these strangers were so willing to help other strangers is interesting due to the history in the ancient times. These locals had built fires to keep them warm and even made shelter for them to keep them safe from the weather. Acts 28 doesn’t share much detail about the locals and if they were good or bad. But their religion or culture shared an interesting aspect of who they were. When Paul was fastened by the snake, the locals were waiting for him to drop dead. What brings these people to believe a death blow from a snake would show justice is beyond my understanding at this time. How quickly they were to swing their minds after finding Paul to continue his business, is fascinating. Especially, after Paul heals the father of Publius and other sick residents (Acts 28:7-10). The people didn’t seem scared at all after watching this event as they went and brought all the other sick residents to Paul to seek healing. Paul, throughout all these events with being arrested, the storm, and the snake, still stands strong with God and pursues to follow him. Teaching and sharing the word with those around him and even with those in Rome.

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