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Mnarja: a tourist theologian's take on St Paul and Malta

Malta Independent Sunday, 22 June 2014, 19:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

Although practically everyone in Malta knows about the story of St Paul’s stay on the island, most have probably not taken a deeper look at the text of Acts 28 and its academic commentaries. Before leaving Finland in order to spend June on the Maltese islands I did precisely that, sitting down in a library and consulting about a dozen historical and theological commentaries on Acts. Now, having visited St Paul's Bay and Islands, and preparing to celebrate the Mnarja with the locals, I would like to share with you five issues from Acts 28:1–10 that theologians have discussed and continue to study. In fact, it turns out that in only ten verses there are surprisingly many problems and points of interest, which have likely remained less known to the wider public.


Was it Malta in the first place?

The Greek text of Acts says the island was called Melite, and it has been argued that the island in question was actually Mljet (modern Croatia), also called Melite in ancient Greek. This identification was already made by Emperor Constantine VII in the 10th century, and it has been defended by some modern scholars. Among other arguments, it has been pointed out that there are no poisonous snakes on Malta (cf. Acts 28:3) and that Acts 27:27 points to the Adriatic Sea, the home of Mljet. However, the consensus of the commentators now seems to be that the island in Acts 28:1 is indeed Malta. The ‘Adriatic Sea’ of ancient times extended well to the south of Italy, and the wind (the ‘Northeaster’ of Acts 27:14) would lead Paul to Malta, not Mljet. The fact that the next stop was Syracuse (28:12) in Sicily also fits Malta much better than Mljet.


What about the viper?

The ‘viper’ in Acts 28:3 causes several problems. The most obvious one referred to above (no poisonous snakes on Malta) can be reasonably resolved by taking into account the natural changes that have occurred in the last 2000 years. A parallel case may be found in Ireland, where poisonous snakes are said to have disappeared since the time of St Patrick. A more difficult problem lies in the fact that vipers should not ‘fasten’ on the hand (28:3) but simply attack and withdraw. It has been suggested that the snake could have been a smooth snake (Coronella leopardinus or austriaca), which both clings and bites. It looks like a viper but it is not poisonous. This solution would also naturally explain why nothing happened to Paul. But if the natives and the author were right in identifying the snake (as well as recognizing a miraculous survival of the sort predicted in Mark 16:18), ‘fastened’ should probably be understood as ‘bit’. Be that as it may, the most creative identification of the snake was made by some early Church fathers: it was the devil, playing his old tricks again, attacking from the wood!


Punic people with a Greek god?

Acts 28:2 calls the locals barbaroi, not ‘barbarians’ but simply natives with a non-Greek language. Apart from being a sure sign of Greek authorship, this detail creates a couple of problems. First, how did the locals, who spoke a form of Punic, make themselves understood to Paul and the Greek author? Well, there would have been at least some interpreters (perhaps Punic to Latin, then Latin to Greek) among all the islanders (including Publius) and the 276 people from the ship. Second problem: Acts 28:4 seems to imply that the non-Greek locals believed in Dike, the Greek goddess of justice. But it turns out that there was a Phoenician god of justice called Suduk, and the author simply translated the concept for his Greek readership. (As an aside, several commentators have noticed the silent humour in the natives’ radical change of opinion: Paul goes from murderer to god in just two verses!)


Luke’s hospital and Publius’ palace?

Some scholars have called attention to the abundant medical vocabulary present in the text (see e.g. the diagnosis in 28:7: fever and dysentery). Together with the use of the first person plural (‘we’), this could lean support to the traditional view that Luke, a companion of Paul and a physician, was the author of Acts (cf. Luke 1:1–3, Acts 1:1, Col. 4:14). Some have even argued that Luke the doctor took part in healing (28:9 has etherapeuonto, using the Greek root from which we get the word ‘therapy’) the locals and received ‘honoraria’ for his work (28:10). Others have called this interpretation ‘absurd’ and insisted that the focus is fully on Paul’s ministry of healing by prayer. What is clear is that the Maltese were very happy with the outcome of the visit and displayed extraordinary generosity and kindness from start to finish (28:2, 10). The only problem with Maltese hospitality has to do with the word ‘us’ in verses 2 and 7: how could they welcome all the 276 people (cf. 27:37) around one bonfire, and did Publius really have a place for that big of a crowd for three days? Perhaps he did; another possibility is that ‘us’ begins to refer to a smaller group, including at least Paul and the author.


Paul the Roman prisoner

Focusing on the details can sometimes distract attention from the bigger picture. Apart from the storm, why did it happen that Paul landed on Malta in the first place? Most remember that Paul’s ship was on its way from Jerusalem to Rome and that Paul was on it as a prisoner. But why was Paul not just killed in Jerusalem, as James was (Acts 12:2)? Well, St Paul’s Bay and islands, the feast and churches of Paul’s shipwreck and the entire cult of St Paul on Malta today can thank Paul’s father and his Roman citizenship. The inherited citizenship got Paul out of trouble on several occasions (Acts 16:37, 22:25) and enabled his appeal to Caesar (Acts 25:11). On a more theological level, in the larger context of Acts it is important that the Gospel be brought from Jerusalem to the ‘ends of the earth’ (1:8), the whole pagan world, which the capital city of Rome represents. Paul had ‘good news’ to the empire governed by Caesar: there is ‘another king’ (Acts 17:7). But in the end the emperor said ‘no thanks’, and Paul’s head got a ride on Roman ground. Since then, almost two millennia have passed, but oddly enough this executed prisoner is still the object of annual celebration. The prisoner’s ‘other king’ seems to have had the last word, after all.


Emil Anton is a Finnish-Iraqi theologian, author of a book on St Paul and a lover of Malta. He has spent all of June on the Maltese archipelago with his Polish wife, Beata, and they are already looking for work and considering moving to Malta in the autumn.  He can be reached at: [email protected]

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