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).