St Paul was bitten by a viper right in front of a group of awestruck natives on the island of Melita, who knew very well how venomous the particular snake was and so expected the victim to “swell up or fall down dead”. Since he remained unharmed they concluded that he was a god (Acts 28:5).
Centuries later and even today readers of the Bible still rely on the witnessing natives’ expertise and their familiarity with the viper species as proof of the veracity of the miracle.
The fact that there are no records of venomous snakes ever existing in Malta capable of causing such severe symptoms, has created a problem in identifying it with the island of Melita described in the Bible. There are several Maltese ‘Pauline traditions’, many of which are several centuries old, that explain away the anomaly with the miraculous abilities of the saint.
A frequent reason given is that the preaching of St Paul caused the snakes, scorpions and anything venomous on the Maltese islands to lose their venom. Many went even further, claiming that the land of Malta was blessed by St Paul and actually absorbed the toxins out of all venomous creatures living there. They then started selling powdered Maltese limestone articles as medi-cinal cures to poisoning throughout Europe and North Africa. Terra Sigillata Melitensis, powdered limestone from the cave believed to have hosted St Paul in Rabat, Linguae Melitensis (actually fossil shark teeth) and a host of other petrified artefacts were important medicinal exports for many a century, proof of Maltese ingenuity rather than the efficacy of the medicines. The clients could not have known that there were actually many poisonous and venomous organisms in Malta, some even capable of killing a humanif ingested.
St Paul’s viper has been identified by most Maltese traditionalistsas “il-lifgħa” (the Leopard snakeZamenis situla). The fact that this species is not venomous has not deterred them. “St Paul caused it to lose its venom when he came to Malta” is their usual explanation. Few want to know that the Leopard snake also lives in much of southern Europe and there is it venomous. Even fewer understand that a venomous species would face extinction if it lost its ability to incapacitate its prey quickly with venom.
A more reasonable explanation given is that there could have been a venomous Maltese snake which has since become extinct. However, there is no evidence – fossil, documented or otherwise – of a dangerous indigenous viper inhabiting Malta during historical times. And there is no evidence of an extinction event (such as the introduction of a predator or strongly competing species) that could wipe out an entire population of vipers, while leaving other species of snakes alive.
An alternative explanation is that the particular viper could have been carried to Malta with the woodSt Paul was collecting for the fire. Reptiles do disperse across seawater by hanging onto driftwood, so this theory seems plausible. However the familiarity shown by the ancient islanders of Melita with the viper shows that this was a local species, easily discounting even this theory.
There are no records of venomous snakes ever in Malta capable of causing such severe symptoms
The species of snakes recorded in Malta could never have caused a man to “swell up, fall down and die”. So what then is the identity of the viper that bit St Paul? The best explanation is always the simplest and the one in which actual evidence occurs. In fact the most dangerous true viper species in Europe does still live on the island of Melita. It is however not modern Malta, but an island in the Adriatic Sea, today known as Meleda or Mljet.
Furthermore, until recently the island was so heavily infested with the notorious horned viper Vipera ammodytes that a predatory mongoose was introduced on the island in 1910 to control the snake population. The symptoms of a bite by this viper coincide with those reported in the Acts; immediate ‘swelling’ due to hemorrhagic edema, ‘falling down’ due to faintness/dizziness, followed by circulatory shock, pulmonary congestion and internal bleeding, all of which would lead to death if not treated properly.
The Bible states that St Paul’s ship was in the Adriatic (Acts 27:27) when the shipwreck took place but Maltese traditionalists have come up with several complicated nautical, archaeological and other arguments to discount the Adriatic Melita asSt Paul’s island, in favour of Malta. Unfortunately the clear biological evidence proves otherwise.
Stephan Mifsud has studied Maltese fauna and flora.
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