The final chapter of Acts begins with Paul and his shipmates shipwrecked on Melita, modern Malta (Acts 28:1). The castaways find themselves surrounded by (literally) barbarians (non-Greek speakers) who are unusually hospitable (Acts 28:2). While helpfully gathering kindling for a fire the apostle is bitten by a viper (Acts 28:3).
F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) speculates:
He had probably mistaken it for a small twig as it lay on the ground stiff with cold, but the heat quickly brought it back to life. A parallel has been quoted from T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia): “When the fire grew hot a long back snake wound slowly out into our group; we must have gathered it, torpid, with the twigs.” (Bruce, The Book of Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 497)The natives immediately assume that Paul must be a murderer facing divine retribution (Acts 28:4). To their surprise, the apostle nonchalantly shakes the snake off (Acts 28:5). When they realize that the serpent’s attack will have no ill effects on the stranded man, they jump to the conclusion that he is not a killer but in fact a god (Acts 28:6).
But they were expecting that he was about to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had waited a long time and had seen nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god. (Acts 28:6 NASB)The aggressive serpent is most commonly translated “viper” which is true to the Greek, echidna (ASV, ESV, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV). The only other New Testament occurrences of this word are found in insults levied by Jesus and John the Baptist (Matthew 3:7, 12:34, 23:33; Luke 3:7). Though the term literally means “viper”, it is also translated more generically as “snake” (CEV), “poisonous snake” (NLT) and “venomous snake” (MSG). The diversity in translation is due to historical, not linguistic, concerns.
Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) explains:
Luke uses the word εχιδνα for this creature, which suggests some sort of poisonous viper. It has been complained that Malta does not have any poisonous snakes, and it has also been noted that poisonous snakes such as vipers strike and withdraw rather than fastening themselves on their victims...It should be noted, however, that nineteen hundred years of civilization and the gradual extinction of various species of creatures on that island caused by human expansion can easily account for the absence of poisonous snakes on Malta today. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 777)Bruce J. Malina (b. 1933) and John J. Pilch (b. 1936) add:
If this was a poisonous snake, scholars propose that the island is Cephallenia, which has poisonous snakes and heavier rainfall than Malta. On the other hand, Luke may have embellished the event to further highlight Paul as a holy man. Recall Jesus’ bestowal of power on his disciples to “tread upon serpents and scorpions...nothing will hurt you” (Luke 10:19; compare Mark 16:18). (Malina and Pilch, Malina and Pilch, Social-science Commentary on the Book of Acts, 175)J. Bradley Chance (b. 1954) defends:
It is not wise to pass historical judgment based on the use of the verb “fasten”, as opposed to “strike.” The narrator’s fondness for verisimilitude is well demonstrated. Even if spinning a tale out of thin air, he would likely not employ details that would only raise the eyebrows of his ancient readers. (Chance, Acts (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 514)The snake’s species is not as important as the threat it poses to Paul. Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) observes:
Luke calls the viper a “wild beast” [Acts 28:4] to point up its danger to Paul’s life. The viper was venomous. “Hanging from his hand” adds to “fastened onto his hand” an emphasis on the viper’s not letting go. It’s determined to kill Paul with a prolonged injection of poison—hence the barbarians’ “Surely.” [Acts 28:4] (Gundry, Commentary on Acts)Paul faces mortal danger yet again while en route to Rome. The natives know the tendencies of their own snakes and the serpent’s attack does not produce the expected result. This is Malta’s introduction to Paul and their perception of the apostle changes from bad human (murderer) to deity in a matter of minutes.
Have you ever been bitten by a snake? When have you completely misjudged someone’s character? As there were 276 castaways (Acts 27:37) plus unnumbered natives, why did the serpent bite Paul? Is escaping a snakebite unscathed a sign of spiritual prowess (Mark 16:18)? What would it take to convince you that someone was God incarnate? Which of the Maltese theories on Paul, murderer or deity, is closer to the truth?
The people of Malta have two rapid fire responses to the snakebite. Ajith Fernando (b. 1948) analyzes:
The reaction that Paul was probably a murderer (Acts 28:4) is typical of superstitious people who see others going through misfortune—they assume that they are paying for their wrong deeds. When nothing happened to Paul, their suggestion led them to change their verdict, saying that he was a god (Acts 28:6) (Fernando, Acts (The NIV Application Commentary, 565)In his study on the serpent in scripture, James H. Charlesworth ( b. 1940) notes that the two conclusions they draw are normative types: “the serpent may first symbolize the Death-Giver...and then reveal Divinity (Charlesworth, The Good and Evil Serpent: How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized, 356-257).”
Specifically, viewing a snake bite as evidence of divine justice was common in the ancient world, similar to the concept of karma. Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) concludes:
Two things emerge from Acts 28:3-4. First, there is an explicit statement by the characters of the Mediterranean assumption that the animal kingdom, often a serpent, functioned as a vehicle of divine justice. Second, the serpent bite is explicitly understood as a corollary to involvement in storm and shipwreck. Both are believed by the natives to function in the same way, as divine judgment. (Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 216)William J. Larkin, Jr. (b. 1945) expounds:
The Greeks viewed justice as a virgin daughter of Zeus who kept watch for any injustice done on earth and reported it to her father, who then dispensed retributive justice to make it right, including destroying ships at sea (Hesiod [750-650 BCE], Works and Days 239, 256; Plutarch [46-120] Moralia 161F). The Phoenicians also had a god (or at least demigod) called Justice. (Larkin, Acts (IVP New Testament Commentary Series), 380)Misinterpreting a divine sign is a common occurrence in Acts (Acts 2:12-13, 3:12, 8:18-21, 14:11-18, 19:13-16). Apparently the language barrier prevents Paul from disclaiming deity as he and Barnabas had done previously in Lystra (Acts 14:8-18).
The author and the reader are presumed to have a different perspective than the locals. Robert C. Tannehill (b. 1934) writes:
Their first, ignorant reactions to Paul are expressed in Acts 28:4 and Acts 28:6. These verses deliberately present the perspective of the natives—what they saw, what they expected, what they said in response—and are not to be taken as indications of the views of the implied author. (Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, 340)Though they are wrong about some things, the people of Malta are quite right about others. The natives are correct in assuming that they are witnessing something supernatural. In truth, Paul was (indirectly) a murderer (Acts 7:58, 22:4, 26:9-11; I Corinthians 15:9) and an emissary of God (Romans 1:1, 11:13; I Corinthians 1:1, 4:9, 9:1-2, 15:9; II Corinthians 1:1, 11:5, 12:11; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; I Timothy 1:1, 2:7; II Timothy 1:1, 1:11; Titus 1:1). He was of God, not God.
How should the reader interpret Paul’s being unharmed by the viper? When have you attached spiritual significance to a natural event? Do you do this often?
“Most of the mistakes in thinking are inadequacies of perception rather than mistakes of logic.” - Edward de Bono (b. 1933), Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas, p. 58