Acts 28, Paul on Malta


Sources seem to indicate that Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea for two years. From this, it seems that Paul may have been on his journey to Rome anywhere from 59 to 62 A.D. Therefore, the historical context of this event occurs during one of the winters of this three-year span that Paul and his traveling companion were on the island. The island was called Malta.

The island of Malta is about sixty miles south of Sicily. It is about 18 miles long and eight wide and has about 95 square miles of land surface.[1] On the southwestern side, the cliffs descend abruptly to the sea, but on the northeastern coast, there are many inlets and bays. The largest harbor is the site of the present city of Valetta. Saint Paul’s Bay, the traditional site of the shipwreck, is about eight miles northwest of the city. Though tree-less, the island has a thin layer of fertile soil over a limestone formation, which is agriculturally productive.[2] The Phoenicians occupied the island soon after the beginning of the first millennium B.C. Their influence remained strong in the mix of the cultures that followed and was still evident in the first century A.D. in the Punic dialect of the Maltese.[3]

The literary purpose of these two paragraphs, written about the events on the island of Malta, act as transitions. I, along with Rackham, believe the author of Acts wants now to shift the view of Paul. The author wants to shift the view of Paul from someone who seems and acts less like an insignificant prisoner to someone who is more like a powerful superhuman and who spreads blessings around him. Nearing the end of his work the author wants to in some sense complete the exaltation of the apostle Paul.[4]


In verse 1, Luke says that only after their safe arrival on the island did the shipwrecked party discover that it was Melita, modern Malta. The name of Malta (or Melita) is Semitic and means “refuge.”[5] Some would claim that Luke wrote down the name of the island, as a way of communicating that they really believed the island lived up to its name, but it is likely Luke did not know the significance of the name.

The theory is sometimes expressed that they had come, not to Malta (Sicula Melita) but to Melita Illyrica (Mljet) in the Adriatic Gulf.[6] Nonetheless, according to Williams, the theory rests on too narrow a definition of the Sea of Adria, “which by the tenth century A.D., when the theory was first supposed, was limited, as now, to the sea between Italy and the Balkans.”[7] In any case, Williams believes J.S. Smith, he postulates that Mljet is too far from the probable route of the ship. Smith calculated that it is about 475 nautical miles from Fair Havens. He assumed that if the wind direction was east by north east and the average rate of drift of a large ship on the starboard tack, which is approximately one and a half miles per hour, that the ship would be less than three miles from the entrance of Saint Paul’s Bay. This according to his calculation would be on the midnight of the 14th day.[8] Lastly, Marshall adds that at the entry of the bay is a shoal, now sunk below its level in ancient times, which could well be where the vessel ran aground.[9] From studying both theories, I believe in the overwhelming conclusion that the shipwreck happened on Malta (Sicula Melita).

In verse 2, Luke notes that “[t]he natives showed us extraordinary kindness: they welcomed us all…” These “natives” as the many of the modern translations have watered down means something more like “barbarian” (βαρβαροι). Marshall notes that these people were of Phoenician extraction, and their native language was a Punic dialect. [10] This seems likely if the islanders would use their vernacular rather than Greek, and hence Luke refers to them as ‘barbarians’ or natives, using a word, which simply meant ignorant of Greek.

The phrase “with a fire they had lit because the rain had set in, and the cold.” has a small spelling variation. Many modern translations (including Stanley Horton’s) rely on the Majority text, which has an aorist active participle in this phrase (ανάψαντες), which may be translated ‘having kindled, ignited, or lit.’ However, the more reliable textual variation (from P75, Aleph, Sinaiticus, Bezea, and a number of other significant codices) utilizes the participle (άψαντες). Fortunately, it seems that these two words have very similar meanings.

In reference to the cold, Haenchen calculates that though the temperature would not be much lower than about 50 degrees during the time of year, the ship’s company would be wet and cold after their ordeal thus a fire would be useful.[11] Horton points out how difficult is it to imagine 276 people around one fire and assumes that Luke is thinking specifically of the Christian group.[12] It also seems possible that there was more than one fire.

The phrase in verse 3, “[w]hen Paul had twisted a bundle of brushwood together and put it on the fire…” has caused a number of questions because Malta is treeless. This is the only place in the New Testament that the word φρυγάνων is used for stick. It can mean, “to parch” and is often translated “a dry stick.” According to Carter and Earle, because the word is plural it comprises all dry sticks, brushwood, firewood, or similar material used as fuel. It is used in the Septuagint for straw or stubble and brambles.[13] Carter and Earle seem to support a theory that Paul was picking up sticks from relatively small vegetation.

The second phrase in verse 3, “a viper emerged from the heat and fastened on his hand” is also problematic since the island of Malta has no snakes or at least poisonous snakes. In any case, the modern ecology of Malta is not necessarily a guide to ancient conditions, and the people would not have thought the snake was poisonous if there were no poisonous snakes on the island.[14] Carter and Earle suggest that the snake may have been the Coronella Austriaka, which bites though it has no poison fangs.[15] If one supports the theory that Luke is a trained medical doctor in the ancient world it would lead one to think that he would have been well informed about snakes. Furthermore, since the islanders thought the snake was poisonous, it seems that one could argue that they were used to seeing poisonous snakes on the island. On the other hand, they could have mistaken a poisonous snake for a nonpoisonous one.

No commentator that I studied postulated that Paul could have been compiling dead wood washed ashore on the coast, when he was bit by a sea snake. This would account for the fact that the island does not have snakes or trees. However, perhaps the reason for not postulating such a theory has to do with the problematic φρυγάνων, which requires the qualification of dry wood.

In verse 4, the islanders see Paul receive a bit from the viper and believe he is destined to face the consequences for whatever evil they perceive he has committed. They say to one another, “[t]his man is certainly a murderer: he has escaped from the sea, but Justice has not allowed him to stay alive.” Apparently, there was still some sort of evidence that made them think Paul was a convict. Perhaps he still had one shackle around one of his limbs. In their mind, it seems a murderer might escape from death by drowning, but justice would still catch up with him because of the evil he committed. Bruce cites a Greek poem, which was popular at the time that tells of “a murderer who escaped from a storm at sea and was shipwrecked on the Libyan coast, only to be killed by a viper.”[16] According to Williams, the words of the islanders recorded are perhaps, a reference to Dike, the Greek goddess of justice, the daughter of Zeus and Themis, or one of their own gods whose name Luke has represented in this way.[17] Still, there is no evidence of the actual worship of Dike at Malta but apparently, there was a temple to Justice in the Megarid. Thus, there was a tendency of the native and the religious Athenian mind to personify and deify qualities and attributes. [18]

In verses 5 and 6, the islanders’ understanding of Paul changes. Paul shakes the snake off suffering no swelling or instant death. It is at this point that the islanders see Paul no longer as a convict but rather as a god. Luke does not explain if Paul believed the snake was poisonous or not. There is a sense that Paul feels he is under divine protection, and he clearly wanted to stand his trial before Caesar. Howard Marshall writes about divine protection and believes that the promise in the longer end of Mark (they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them 16:18) is probably based on this incident.[19] It is clear that Luke does not think of Paul as a god (14:15). Yet Luke plays on this idea of Paul being a god. This aspect of the events on Malta seem similar to the story of Herod’s death in 12:19-12:25. Paul never attempts to change the islanders’ minds just as Herod never attempted to sway the minds of those who called him a god. Furthermore, this story is some ways stands in direct contrast to the story in Acts chapter 14, where Paul and Barnabas were considered gods but they made clear to the people that they were not. Why would Luke do this?

There has been much dispute over the attitude of Luke to this incident.[20] Some have accused him of virtually sharing the islanders’ last estimate of the apostle. However, it seems more likely to me that Luke is showing some humor as well as being critical to the god motif that the islanders have toward Paul. Williams writes, “[a]pparently they never stopped to question how a god could have permitted himself to fall into Roman custody.”[21] Luke finds it hilarious that Paul, still a prisoner, has been able to swing the islanders’ opinion of who he is from one extreme to another at the drop of a hat. However, Marshall feels strongly that Luke is critical of the islanders’ opinion of Paul especially at the climax of his book. He argues against Conzelmann who believes Luke is uncritical which is inconsistent with chapter 14. Marshall sets forth that Luke is consistent and sees Paul as he did in chapter 14.[22]

A second small story of four verses follows with what happened during Paul’s stay in the winter months on Malta. It is a miracle story. Marshall believes that this miracle story bears some resemblance to those in the Gospels. He specifically sees similarities to the story of how Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and then a crowd of other sick people (Luke 4:38-41).[23]

Verses 7 explains that Paul and his traveling companions were in the area of land owned by the chief man of the island who is named Publius. The name, Publius and his title “chief”, has been confirmed by evidence from inscriptions; although it is not certain whether Luke means by this that, he was the Roman procurator or merely a local dignitary.[24] Luke explains that Publius “welcomed and entertained us for three days.” According to Carl and Earle, the fact that Publius owned an estate and was able to entertain and the traveling group is not surprising. They think the people of Malta were at that time considered wealthy and even somewhat luxurious in their manner of life.[25] However, it seems out of the question that Publius was able to accommodate the 276 who came ashore. One cannot tell whether the invitation was extended to the entire shipwrecked party, but it at least included Paul and the narrator. Carter and Earle also believe that Publius may have invited Julius the captain of the ship and some of the more prominent members onboard.[26]

In verse 8, the reader finds out that Publius’s father was laying, sick with recurrent gastric fever and dysentery. This type of reoccurring fever is said to be endemic on Malta and often known as the Malta fever.[27] Carter and Earle claim that this fever was due to a microbe in goat’s milk, which explains why it was endemic.[28] While some commentators purport that author is using medical terminology (πυρετοίς and δυσεντερία) as a way of arguing their case of Luke being a doctor, Haenchen believes that the language used in verse 8 was generally well known, and therefore do not prove that a physician is reporting.[29] Luke records that Paul healed Publius through the laying on of hands.

According to verses 9 and 10, Paul also cured other people on the island who had probably heard of what happened. The effect of his healing activity was that the people of the island presented him (and his friends) with gifts. It seems that they would have particularly provided what they needed for the rest of their journey. The use of the phrase, “the rest of the sick on the island” seems primarily hyperbolic. The use of us here has been thought to suggest that Luke may have exercised his professional abilities as a doctor alongside Paul. Haenchen also warns against supporting this theory. Harnack, who supports the theory, believes that εθεραπεύοντο makes room for the sick on Malta receiving medical care from Luke. Harnack considers him a spiritual miracle doctor.[30] This is not the case. Luke wants to venerate Paul not himself. This verb is describing the greatness of the miracles by Paul, which is the point of the story.

There is not a word about the preaching of the gospel by Paul, still less about any response other than gratitude for services rendered. Nevertheless, the simple reason for this may be that nobody in fact was converted during Paul’s stay on island.[31] Paul continues to appear in the story primarily in the role of one who helps his friends and rescues them from danger. Most scholars believe that Paul ministered on the island for three of the winter months while they were preparing to set sail in the spring. As a result, the islanders seem to have honored Paul and his friends with many things (perhaps gifts of money and supplies to help them stay alive during the winter months). When Paul and the others set sail in the spring, the islanders seem to have met all their needs, perhaps even with a ship.


In context this passage acts a literary transition for Luke. Luke wants to reach the climax of his work in verse 31 of this chapter. However, he needs to transition from Paul as a prisoner to someone who “without hindrance preaches the kingdom of God.” This story is that transition and there seems to be a notable difference in the writing from the end of chapter 27 to the end of 28. Therefore, Luke has in this section, as well as throughout the rest of the book played down Paul’s imprisonment as much as possible, which is also why the centurion was not mentioned.[32] The fact that there is no report of Christian teaching on Malta also affirms this purpose.[33] Luke says nothing of a proclamation of the gospel. For Luke the important thing is the healing miracles that Paul accomplished and the many honors and gifts lavished on their departure. These gifts and honors take the place of a Lukan conclusion typical in many of the other places Paul visited in Acts because Luke wants to get Paul to Rome, ultimately the entire climax of Acts.


























Acworth, A. “Where was St. Paul Shipwrecked?” Journal of Theological Studies 24.

Oxford: Oxford Press, 1973.


Bruce, F.F. The Book of Acts, Revised. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988.


Carter, Charles W. and Ralph Earle. The Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids, MI:

Zondervan, 1973.


DeVries, LaMoine F. Cities of the Biblical World. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997.


Haenchen, Ernst. The Acts of the Apostles. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971.


Horton, Stanley M. The Book of Acts. Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House,


Horton, Stanley and Gerard Flokstra. Acts. Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing

House, 1987.


Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Gospel of Luke. Sacra Pagina, 3. Collegeville, MN:

Liturgical Press, 1991.


Marshall, Howard I. Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary. 3rd ed.

TNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity/Eerdmans, 1989.


May, Herbert G. Oxford Bible Atlas. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press,



Myers, Allen C. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987.


Rackham, Richard B. The Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book

House, 1964.


Smith, J.S. The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul. London: Longmans, 1880.


Williams, David J. Acts. NIBC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1990.









One page Supplement



These pericopes note elements of hospitality from both the islanders and Paul.

Luke says that the islanders show them unusual kindness. While some would expect that the islanders would help the men of the ship at least get through the night after being in a storm and floating in the sea, it seems that they exceeded the expectations of at least Luke. Publius not only met their needs but also entertained them for three days.

We see throughout the story that Paul was ministering through even picking up sticks for the fire – a simple act of hospitality. Furthermore, Paul spent what seems to be three months ministering to the sick on the island of Malta. Since Luke does not mention the preaching of the gospel is it possible that Paul simply wanted to minister without proselytizing? I think so. This reinforces the fact that the social aspect of the gospel is as necessary as the evangelistic aspect.

The exchange of hospitality on Malta is a good example of how those called to represent Christ should act. Paul simply healed those who were on the island because they were sick not because he wanted something from them or wanted them to do something. Paul’s example of hospitality speaks to his maturity as a believer. All needs are potential ministry opportunities and Paul understood this. We need not only to pray for opportunities to minister but also just to open our eyes to the simple tasks that show we represent Christ. Men will see this and praise our Father in heaven.

[1] C.W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973), 412.

[2] Carter, The Acts of the Apostles, 412.

[3] David J. Williams, Acts, NIBC, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1990), 442.

[4] Richard B. Rackham, The Acts of the Apostles, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1964), 491.

[5] I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, TNTC, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 415.

[6] A. Acworth, “Where was St. Paul Shipwrecked?”, Journal of Theological Studies 24, (Oxford: Oxford Press, 1973, 190-193.

[7] Williams, Acts, 445.

[8] J.S. Smith, The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul, (London: Longmans, 1880), 120-124.

[9] Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, 414.

[10] Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, 415.

[11] Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971), 715.

[12] Stanley Horton and Gerard Flokstra, Acts, (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1987), 667.

[13] Carter, The Acts of the Apostles, 413.

[14] Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, 416.

[15] Carter, The Acts of the Apostles, 413.

[16] F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised. NICNT, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 498.

[17] Williams, Acts, 443.

[18] Rackham, The Acts of the Apostles, 491. Note that Megarid is and was part of Greece.

[19] Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, 417.

[20] Williams, Acts, 443.

[21] Williams, Acts, 443.

[22] Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, 417.

[23] Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, 417.

[24] Williams, Acts, 444.

[25] Carter, The Acts of the Apostles, 415.

[26] Carter, The Acts of the Apostles, 415.

[27] Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, 417.

[28] Carter, The Acts of the Apostles, 413.

[29] Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 715.

[30] Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 715.

[31] Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, 417.

[32] Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 715.

[33] Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 715.