Why should we believe the Bible describes God and His will for us if it cannot get the facts straight about poisonus snakes on the Isle of Malta?

I want to start out with a caveat/warning…my conclusion at the bottom of this post uses very abrasive language and for good reason (which i do not think needs to be explained as the reason is self evident given this topics theme)

Ok, so with that out of the way, on with the post…

Im referring in the Topic title to the Isle of Malta poisonus serpent biting of the apostle Paul account as researched and recorded by Luke in Acts 28

1Once we were safely ashore, we learned that the island was called Malta.**3Paul gathered a bundle of sticks, and as he laid them on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself to his hand. 4When the islanders saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “Surely this man is a murderer. Although he was saved from the sea, Justicea has not allowed him to live.” 5But Paul shook the creature off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. 6The islanders were expecting him to swell up or suddenly drop dead. But after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

Are there any venomous snakes on Malta?

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.

My understanding is that the concensus is that there has never been evidence of any poisonous snake on the Isle of Malta. So the question remains, is the apostle Luke lying about such a significant event as a life or death miracle?

If so, how can one reconcile this dilemma given that here is a New Testament reference to an event that appears to be scientifically proven to be bull?

(Edited a wee bit) .

I think one problem we have with scripture is that sometimes we read things into it that simply are not there. And I include myself in that “we.” We have to be careful as we have our biases and our tendencies to look for confirmation in scripture, when that confirmation is simply not there.

In this case, Paul is not a herpetologist, and cannot be expected to know snakes from a region he is not indigenous to. The islanders would be expected to know the local venomous snakes, but identifying snakes is not all that easy in the midst of all the excitement. Plus, non-vipers, like coral snakes, are the ones who are known to latch on and chew to inject their poison, which takes a little time. A quick shake and no venom may have been injected (a good percentage of viper bites in rattlesnakes are “dry bites” and have no venom, as well) So, we are left with Paul getting bit by a snake of undetermined toxicity, and the reaction of the islanders to that bite. What the Bible attests to is the reaction of the islanders, and it is that which God used to allow Paul to witness to them, not whether the snake was venomous. Though in reading the rest of the chapter, while Paul healed, it is difficult to know if they understood.

So, ultimately, I would conclude that the fuss about the nature of the snake is really a mis-direction from the meaning of passage. Was surviving a snakebite a miracle? Perhaps, but the Bible doesn’t really say so.


What we have in the text (snakebite and the reaction of the people around Paul) does not reveal all details. It is just a report of a person watching what happened. If we want to know more about the snake, we can make educated guesses but these are just speculation.

If you want to make educated guesses (speculate), here are some facts:

We know that human activity, including destruction of habitat and killing of harmful species, has exterminated many species from the Mediterranean area or part of it. We also know that some species were introduced. What we can and cannot find today in that area is no quarantee of what was there thousands of years ago.

The reaction of the local people reveals that they had experienced the consequences of snakebites in that area. Whatever the snake species was, it was known as a deadly species.

Our modern use of species names is not necessarily the same that was used thousands of years ago.

A side note: I would even question the species identification of the ‘mustard’ seed. I have not yet read strong evidence that ‘mustard’ meant the same it means today. As you may know, mustard seed is a pretty big seed and mustards are herbs that do not grow large or tall. Therefore, a bit difficult to identify from the parable of Jesus. Either you have to make a lot of ‘excuses’ and forgetting (the smallest seed of those species cultivated in the area at that time; forget the part that describes a tree with big branches and birds nesting on the branches of the ‘mustard’ plant [Matthew 13:32]), or the species name was not the same we know as mustards today.
In that area grows woody plants with tiny seeds (really small) but they are not cultivated today, although they might grow in a garden.

As long as we try to interpret the biblical texts through our modern understanding, we end up with difficult or impossible conclusions.


The Romans and Greeks believed that criminals would not escape their fate. The gods would take care of that. So when Paul survives the shipwreck, but then gets bitten by a snake, the people would have thought that Dike wanted to make sure this criminal dies.

Whether or not poisonous snakes existed on the island doesn’t really matter. Dike could have turned herself into a snake, or she could have sent one (think of Laocoön).

The plot is (thoughts of the islanders between brackets):

  1. Paul survives a shipwreck. [Is this a punishment of the gods?]
  2. Paul gets bitten by a snake. [Yikes! He must be a criminal!]
  3. Nothing happens to Paul. [So he isn’t a criminal after all…]

This reinforces Luke’s constant theme:
Paul is innocent and not a threat to Rome.

What are you trying to prove here Adam? That Scripture is false? Or science is false? Or that you do not understand Scripture!

Scripture is not about the details. it is not about accurate science or accurate journalism. Scripture is about the message. The message here being that Paul was not only not a criminal but that he had God with him.

It does not matter how the writer thinks Jacob made speckled sheep. That explanation is clearly nonscientific. What matters is that the sheep were born and Jacob was compensated for his work.

You could spend time deciding that Jacob was a rogue and manipulative and not a good example for God, but Scripture says otherwise. Scriptural criticism is not about right and wrong. It is about understanding what Scripture is tying to tell you.

I can assure you that Scripture is not trying to tell you that science is false.



There is also an argument that the island of Malta is not the island in question. Throughout the threads this has been discussed several times also.

Edited this in from the other post.

There is also this.

This person is arguing that Malta was not the island and thst it did not become the island until in the 1500s and may have had to do with the fact the Knights took over the island.

They claim the island was actually Mljet known as Mileta. They also show both islands on a map and talk about weather patterns and how Mijet is the island that makes most sense geographically and so on.

This island also has snakes, including a viper.


Intersting! Although I think Malta still makes the most sense of the data. I suppose the Adriatic Sea is a lot calmer and less prone to storms than the open Mediterranean Sea.

And according to Luke’s itinerary they remained on the island until spring. Then they sailed to Syracuse, then Rhegium, and then they landed at Puteoli.

If you sail from Mljet it would make more sense to land in Brindisi and from there take the Via Appia to Rome. And even if the schip had Puteoli as its destination, why would Luke not mention what happened on the journey between Mljet and Syracuse? Normally he mentions every stop.

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Simple: read the Greek!

THE KJV got it right when they took the Greek Μελίτη (meh-LEE-tay) and spelled it just as it sounds except adjusting the ending to fit English linguistics: Melita.

Given the winds and currents of the Mediterranean it is essentially impossible to be driven by a storm in the Adriatic, which is where Luke says they were, all the way to Malta, so whoever “corrected” the KJV was more than a bit ignorant: first, as to the possibility of getting blown by a storm from near Greece all the way to Malta, and second because there is an island in the Adriatic named “Melita” – in fact an island where it is quite probable that a storm in the Adriatic would drive a ship.

This isn’t a scripture “error” or a science error, it’s a stupid choice by translators who didn’t do their homework.

Oh – and it just so happens that the island of Melita is heavily infested with the most poisonous viper in the entire Mediterranean world.


The ship’s itinerary may have gone right to Syracuse with nothing in between. What intrigues me is that Luke says they “made a circuit” which sounds like they sailed all the way around Siciliy to reach Rhegium – that seems strange even if the wind at Sicily was from the north. Luke says nothing more about that portion of the voyage, either.

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Luke indeed mentions the Sea of Adria in Acts 27:27, but:

ADRIATIC SEA … Its southward limit was extended by some authors to include the sea east of Sicily.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary

In the 1st cent. ce the name was applied not only to the modern Adriatic (between Italy and the Balkan peninsula) but also southwards to the sea between the Peloponnesus in Greece and Sicily. The ship carrying Paul and other prisoners drifted for a fortnight between Crete and Sicily (Acts 27: 27).

Sea of Adria

This fits with Luke’s itinerary:

When a gentle south wind began to blow, they saw their opportunity; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure, so the men hoisted it aboard. Then they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Because they were afraid they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. …

On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land.

(Acts 27:13-17,27; NIV)

To be driven into the modern Adriatic would have required a southern wind.


The same happened to Josephus:

Accordingly I came to Rome, though it were through a great number of hazards, by sea; for, as our ship was drowned in the Adriatic Sea, we that were in it, being about six hundred in number, swam for our lives all the night; when, upon the first appearance of the day, and upon our sight of a ship of Cyrene, I and some others, eighty in all, by God’s providence, prevented the rest, and were taken up into the other ship: and when I had thus escaped, and was come to Dicearchia, which the Italians call Puteoli … . (Josephus, Vita 14-16 [Whiston]).

The Greek word that the ESV translates as “made a circuit” can also refer to tacking:

If a sailing boat is tacking or if the people in it tack it, it is sailing towards a particular point in a series of sideways movements rather than in a straight line. …

Our last trip involved a coastal passage, tacking east against wind and current.

(“tack,” Collins Dictionary)

And from thence we fetched a compass, and came to Rhegium: and after one day the south wind blew, and we came the next day to Puteoli:

the wind being probably from the west, they were compelled to tack so as to stand out from the shore to catch the breeze, instead of coasting. …

The south wind blew.—More accurately, when a breeze from, the south had sprung, the form of the Greek verb implying a change of wind. The south wind was, of course, directly in their favour, and they sailed without danger between the famous rocks of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis.

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers

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Mustard was proverbial as something that has a small seed and grows pretty big (maximum seems to be about 3-4 m); there is a rabbinic story about someone climbing a mustard plant. “Smallest” in that parable is hyperbole, of course, though Rhamphospermum nigrum seeds are only about 1 mm across. It’s plausible that various somewhat similar species were included under the name in ancient Judea.

With the ups and downs of sea level, as well as the complex events in a plate tectonic collision zone, Mediterranean islands have varied greatly in size and connectivity to each other or the mainland. Correspondingly, there have been a wide range of species that have made it to various islands, evolved distinctive forms, and gone extinct; some died out with human help. Also, any animal that has a good chance of crawling into a pile of stuff getting ready to be shipped has a good chance of being carried by people all around the Mediterranean. Thus, it is indeed hard to eliminate the possibility that there were venomous snakes on the island at the time, though equally hard to prove. As has already been pointed out, the text does not say that the snake was venomous, just that the locals thought that it was going to harm Paul, so there’s very little to go on one way or the other. I don’t know how much microvertebrate paleontology has been done on Malta; I wouldn’t be surprised if one could get a fair variety of bones out of a hole in the limestone somewhere, but it’s quite hard to prove that something as inconspicuous as individual viper bones are completely absent.


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