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).

5 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 .

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  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.

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    • 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.

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  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.

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