Paul on the Island of Malta

20 Jun

Once everyone was safely on land, they realized the place was called Melita (known today as Malta). Melita was named by Phoenician sailors, and it is a Canaanite word meaning refuge. Paul’s knowledge of Hebrew would have been especially useful here in that the natives were so friendly and hospitable toward the people. Luke’s reference in Acts 28:1 to the fact they knew the island was called Melita may very well mean it was well named. The sailors may have recognized the island or the natives themselves may have disclosed the name, but it was the kindness and hospitality they had shown the shipwrecked people that Luke seems to mean when he says “they knew that the island was called Melita.”[1]

What occurred next is a bit of a controversy. Luke tells us that, while Paul was gathering wood for the fire the natives had built to warm the shipwrecked people, a ‘viper’ bit him and while it was hanging onto his hand, Paul shook it off and it fell into the fire (Acts 28:3, 5). Today, Malta has no vipers, but this is not controversial, since it may very well be that as the population increased, the vipers were destroyed. What is controversial is that the ‘viper’ hung onto Paul’s hand. Vipers don’t do that. They bite and move on. However, if Paul (as the text claims) placed the wood he gathered onto the fire, and the viper came out of the wood which was placed on the fire, where would the beast go for safety? It seems to me that the beast not only bit Paul in defense, but held on for the same reason—to get out of the fire.

The natives, when they witnessed what occurred, presumed Paul to be an evil man and fate would not permit such a one to escape the violence of the shipwreck and survive. However, when nothing evil happened to Paul—i.e. he didn’t swell up or die—the natives then presumed he was a god (Acts 28:4, 6).

At this point, Luke introduces us to Publius, the ‘chief man of the island’ or its governor. Luke tells us that he entertained and lodged “us” for three days (Acts 28:7). There would be little wonder why he would show hospitality to Julius, the captain and owner of the shipwrecked vessel, and perhaps the more important of the passengers, but why would he entertain and lodge the prisoners, of whom Paul was one? The idea that all 276 people (Acts 27:37) are included in “us” doesn’t seem practical. So, who is “us” and why would Paul, a Roman prisoner be included in this expression of magnanimous hospitality?

It seems to me that the natives, some of whom may well have been Publius’ servants/slaves, told him of the viper incident and their impression that Paul was a ‘divine man’ of sorts. For this reason Paul and company were probably invited and entertained, as well as Julius and anyone else of notable standing. However, just as Barnabas and Paul at Lystra (cp. Acts 14) wouldn’t permit the locals to continue to presume they were gods, neither would Paul permit the idea to continue here either. When he found out Publius’ father was ill, Paul prayed and laid hands on him and he was healed (Acts 28:8). The fact that Paul prayed shows he had no power in himself to do the things he did. The power came from the one Paul served, namely Jesus, whom, no doubt (though the text is silent concerning this) he also preached during the three months he spent on the island (Acts 28:11). Additionally, Luke shows that many others brought their sick to Paul when they heard about his healing Publius’ father. This is reminiscent of what Jesus did for Peter’s mother-in-law in Luke 4:38-40. In both cases the relative of the healer’s host was healed and there followed additional healings for many others in the locale.[2] In the case of Jesus’ healings, Luke clearly reports it in the context of the coming Kingdom of God. There is absolutely no reason to believe that Paul administered his office as healer or that Luke records the account of what Paul did for a different reason than this.

[1] See F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, page 520-21.

[2] See David G. Perterson, The Acts of the Apostles, page702.

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Posted by on June 20, 2013 in Gospel, Kingdom of God, Paul in bonds


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