Paul and the Viper

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Paul


Acts 28:1-6 states that Paul and a company of men crash-landed on the island of Melita. While trying to be helpful carrying a bundle of sticks to bolster the fire, a viper bit Paul's hand and wouldn't let go. All of those around Paul expected him to die. However, he did not.

I recently heard that there were no vipers on the island at that time of this incident, and so this event could not have happened. What do scholars say about this?


Scholars are hesitant to make any definitive statement on this subject, primarily because they don't know which island Paul was on.

The King James Version of the Bible says "Melita," yet almost every other translation says "Malta." These two islands are, in fact, two different places. Yet ancient Roman and Greek sources refer to both by the same name (Melite) at various points in history.

Melita is the Latin word for the most southern and eastern island of the Adriatic islands near Croatia. It is roughly 23 miles long and 2 miles wide. By 950 CE, Melita became known as Mljet, a Slavic name. By the 10th century, scholars were claiming that this was the island Paul landed upon.

However, during the Crusades (16th Century) the shipwreck became associated with the island of Malta. It is roughly 17 miles long and 9 miles wide, and is 58 miles south of Sicily. Saint Paul's Bay is supposedly the site of the shipwreck and is now a town in the northeastern part of the island of Malta. In deed, if Paul's ship had drifted in the Mediterranean between Crete and Sicily for fourteen days, and if the rate of drift had been 1½ miles per hour, it could easily have covered the distance from Cauda to Malta (about 476 miles) in that time. But those are some big "ifs."

Scholars know that the island of Malta did (and still does) have indigenous species of lizards and rodents. They might even have had a few snake species, but no documentation of anything that would have been characterized as a "viper."

Even if that were the case, most vipers live among the hillsides and spend their winters hibernating. It is not likely that they would be curled up in driftwood. Today the island is one of the most densely populated areas with few trees. Nonetheless, some scholars argue that in Paul's day the island could have been densely wooded. The change in habitat could have led to the demise of various forms of wildlife, including vipers.

Scholars also question whether the islanders would have immediately jumped to the conclusion that Paul was a murderer and finally getting his due. Of course that judgment was predicated upon the notion that he would immediately swell up and die, which of course, didn't happen.

Historically, the Phoenicians had colonized this island. The Greeks ruled it from the eighth century BCE until the about 500CEs when it was taken by the Carthaginians. In 242BCE, the Romans conquered it.

By the time of Paul's shipwreck it had been under Roman rule for roughly 300 years. The islanders most likely worshipped Astarte. Some sources also claim they had temples to Hercules and Hera, which might explain why no one converted even though Paul was there for three months. The presence of these temples makes it unlikely that they would have immediately embraced Paul as a new god.

However, as it stands now there really is no historical evidence for a Christian presence on Malta until the fourth century. In addition, if Paul and his company arrived on the island around the end of October and stayed for three months they would have left around the end of January. This was still too soon to resume a shipping expedition.

Somewhere Else? Or does it matter?
In recent years, another location has been offered – the port of Argostoli, located on the island of Cephalonia.

Each site has local support for obvious reasons, and all we really know from Acts is that this landing followed a fourteen-day storm. Given all scenarios, Melita (Mljet) seems the more likely. Historically, however, Malta seems to be the favorite, and the snake problem is unresolved.

Many modern scholars are less interested in the historical details (fascinating though they might be) and are more interested in the theological implications of the event.

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