The life of Paul was full of hardships. In 2 Corinthians chapter 11, he recounts some of his story:
2 Corinthians 11:24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.
And all this was before his shipwreck in Acts chapter 27! One of the trials that we often forget to list was after the shipwreck on Malta, dripping wet, Paul made his way onto the beach. There, in the rain and in the cold, the apostle along with some very sympathetic islanders, Paul made a fire to warm the survivors. In the process of gathering wood for the fire, a deadly viper latched on to his hand. In horror, the islanders expected Paul to instantly swell up and die (Acts 28:1-6).
The trouble for biblical interpreters today is, there are no poisonous snakes on Malta. So where did this snake come from and how did the Maltese know the viper was deadly? According to The Times of Malta (February 19, 2014) the islanders have several explanations.
One is that the preaching of Paul caused all the venomous creatures on the island to loose their venom. In fact, the enterprising islanders began selling powdered limestone from the island as a medicinal cure for poisonous bites! The Times wrote this is “proof of Maltese ingenuity rather than the efficacy of the medicines.”
Another theory is the snake was the Leopard snake, Zamenis situla, which is venomous in southern Europe but not on Malta. Of course the islanders would have known that so let’s look at another possibility for Paul’s viper.
Perhaps it was a snake that has since become extinct. That’s certainly a possibility, but there is no evidence that such a serpent ever existed on Malta either in the written record or in the artifacts.
A more likely culprit was the notorious horned viper, Vipera ammodytes. The snake is deadly and inhabits southern Europe and Turkey. It has been known to hitch a ride on ships and is an excellent swimmer or it could have ridden one of the planks from Paul’s ship to shore. The islanders, who often traded with the mainland, would have instantly recognized the viper by its horns (see picture) and reacted as Luke recorded in Acts.
The miracle of Paul’s survival may simply be the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy, “they will pick up serpents with their hands; and … it will not hurt them,” (Mark 16:18).