Church Education Resource Ministries
[Ac 28:1] Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta.  The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.  Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand.  When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, "This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live."  But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.  The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead, but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happening to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.
The beginning setting for this passage is in Malta. In the previous chapter, we learned that Paul was involved in a shipwreck. Apparently, Paul was traveling on the seas during one of the dangerous months for sea travel. In the ancient near east, there are good seasons for sea travel and bad. Paul was on his way to a trial in Rome, but ran into this shipwreck instead, which delayed his trial for a time. Acts does not tell us the conclusions of the trial. Perhaps the conclusions for Paul were not good. However legend has it, that Paul was beheaded. Malta was known as a haven for ships, as it had many good harbors. Therefore, this helps explain why his ship was so close to Malta when it was shipwrecked. It was not coincidence that Paul was near Malta. The viper in verse 3 is the name of a very deadly snake. The word Viper is used many times in the bible, but he is often referred to as a king of snakes (Isa. 14:29, Pro. 23:32). Snakes in many of the contexts used in scripture were referred to as evil. It is no surprise then, that many in Paulís day and even today hate snakes.
Luke was a physician, and companion to Paul. Luke wrote the book of Acts before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Without Lukeís medical expertise Paul would have been dead. There were times when Paul was stoned and needed Luke. Of all the gospel writers Luke was the most educated, as he did attend a quality academy.
Lukeís main reason for writing the book of Acts was so that others would see the ministry lives of the apostles and the Holy Spirit in work. In Acts 28:1-6 Luke is displaying a literal fulfillment of Jesusíwords in Luke 10:19, Mark 16:18, an allegorical battle between God and Satan, and an excellent example of Godís power.
Occasion: Structure and Context
Acts 28:1-5 is a comic plot and outside the main genre of the book which is a historic book. The Old Testament books of Joshua and Judges are also historical genre. Acts is the only book in the New Testament that can fall under this genre. It is important when looking at this passage, not to overlook Jesusí previous words in Luke and Mark. In Luke 10:19, after Jesus speaks with his missionaries, he tells them that he saw Satan fall from heaven, and he assures them that he has given them power to trample on the snakes and the scorpions. I know that in Palestine there were hundreds of snakes and scorpions, many of which were very dangerous. In my own exegesis, I tend to lean on the view that Jesus was not referring to literal snakes and scorpions, but he is using these dangerous creatures to refer to the enemies of God, such as the false prophets. However, I believe that Jesus may also have been speaking of literal snakes and scorpions, and that they would not overcome us. For example, in Mark 16:18 Jesus does say that his followers will be able to withstand snakes, and their poison. At first, I took that as allegory, but after reading Paulís adventure, it can also mean literally.
Vocabulary and Theology
I can foresee a temporal setting in this passage located on the island of Malta. The reason why is because I will consider the viper the dominant power, because no human can withstand its deadly poison. I saw a show once on Animal Planet, in which scientists were testing a vipers poison with human blood, and timing the fatality speed on human blood. One particular Viper species located around the geographical location of Malta can kill a human in a few minutes. I have some clear evidence that leans towards the view that the Viper whom bit Paul was the second deadliest snake species in the world! For example, the islanders expected Paul to die suddenly. There is no doubt; the viper is the character conflict of this story. The viper, even though he could not speak in this story, represented Satan, whom first appeared as a snake in Genesis chapter 3.
In verses 1-5 of chapter 28, I would say that these verses are an example of a plot conflict. To be more specific, according to Leland Rykan, physical conflict (Rykan 1984, 40). It seems like any human would be unable to withstand the poison, but God works through Paul, and this is an good example of a death-rebirth motif, perhaps the greatest death-rebirth motif in all of Paulís letters!
In this verse, I believe that the powers of the evil one were at work, and would not stop at any cost to destroy Paul. In earlier stories, satanic powers were at work to destroy Paul, but they all failed. Satan wants to destroy people who are productive in the Lord. Nevertheless, he laughs at those that are not. The viper in verse 3 according to my view is symbolic for Satan, whom is symbolic for the ancient serpent (Rev 20:2). In Genesis, 3:15 God predicts that Satan will one-day strike the offspring of the woman, and this was fulfilled in Jesusí death at the cross.
In this passage, I can see a great display of the islanders view of Poetic justice. According to Rykan ìIt consists of the narrative situation in which good characters are rewarded and bad ones punishedî (Rykan 1984, 56). The islanders thought that Paul was a murderer, and was meant to die by the sea, but somehow escaped, and God had sent a deadly Viper to finally kill Paul. However, in reality God was using this snake to further his glory, as after this event, God was glorified, and Paulís message was accepted. God did not send the snake to bite Paul, as Paul did not suffer in this verse. ìNeither storm nor serpent bite is to be taken as Godís judgement on Paulî (Talbert 1997, 222).
Paul did not suffer any ill effects from the snakebite, since God was with him. However, we know that God did want Paul to appear before Caesar and his destiny had not been met. When the snake bites Paul and Paul does not die, this is indeed a miracle by God and a representation of Godís power over the powers of Satan. Jesus did not die to the serpent/devilís bite, and neither will Paul. Jesus himself mentioned in Luke 10:19 that he has given authority to his followers to trample on snakes and scorpions. This is fulfilled as Paul tramples on his enemy by throwing the snake into the fire. Likewise, how Satan will be destroyed by being cast into the Lake of fire (Rev 20:10). Jesus also said in Mark 16:18, that his followers will be able to withstand deadly snake poison. To a contemporary exegesis, Jesus is using allegorical language here, but to others Jesus literally means that his followers can drink poison and live. When the snake bit Paul, Paul did not die but lived. This is a fulfillment of Mark 16:18. I believe that Mark 16:18 can be taken either symbolic or literal, but at the same time I do not recommend that anyone who reads my paper test the validity of my sentiments by handling a viper.
The species Paul encountered was the deadly adder. According To William Neil, these are no longer on Malta. ìPoisonous adders are no longer found in Malta, though they may have been in Paulís dayî (Neil 1973, 254). The islanders probably lost loved ones to this viper species, so they had the exposure to the poison. It is interesting how the islanders thought Paul was a god, because he did not suffer any ill effects because of the snake poison. Joseph Fitzmyer comments: ìPaulís survival reveals to the credulous natives that he is an extraordinary person, even divineî (Fitzmyer 1998, 783).
Perhaps the area on Malta in this story was inhabited by this deadly viper species, but its possible that another snake could have been in the wood pile that they mistook as the deadly adder viper species, so when Paul did not die, they concluded that another snake had bitten him, and he would get ill, but not die.
The KJV version is a more literal translation in most areas however its usage of the word "barbarous" in verse 2 is not the best translation and communicates a negative connotation in modern English and refers to someone who is uncivilized, often violent, and/or stupid. Th KJV is the only major translation that uses the word as even the NKJV has abandoned it. The NIV uses the word "islanders" which in my opinion is a better word and I believe the NIV translation does a very good job at translating verses 1 and 2 into a language that I can understand. Nevertheless, its important to take from this passage that those who are productive in the Lord may be persecuted, that Satan will try to destroy at any cost. However its good to remember that God is watching over us, and will keep us safe. Anything is possible with God, and not everything we believe to be allegory or symbolic actually is. It is important to understand the art and science of biblical interpretation or hermeneutics. The rest of the passage seems to be translated without any noticeable errors when comparing the NIV and KJV versions.
Fitzmyer, Joseph. 1998. The Acts of the Apostles. New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
Neil, William. 1973. The Acts of the Apostles. England: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co.
Rykan, Leland. 1984. How to read the Bible as Literature. Michigan: Zondervan Corporation.
Talbert, James. 1997. Reading Acts. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.
© Church Education Resource Ministries
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in anyway other than to correct minor spelling and grammar errors. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. And exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by Church Education Resource Ministries.