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Dispatch from Malta: St. Paul

5/21/2009 —
For such a small island, Malta is amazingly rich in history. It’s likely a worldwide contender for the greatest density of historical importance per square kilometer!  Malta is home to the oldest man-made structures on earth - the megalithic temples; it’s tremendously significant as the centuries-old home of the Knights of Saint John; the importance of Malta in WWII can’t be underestimated in terms of geo-political impact; and Malta is one of the few places in the world that is directly and verifiably discussed in the Bible. For Malta was the temporary home of arguably the greatest influence in the spread of Christianity - the Apostle Paul.

The story of Paul in Malta is detailed in the New Testament, primarily in Acts 28, but the back story takes place in earlier books of Acts. If you don’t have a Bible handy, don’t worry - I’ll do my best to tell the tale.

In the years after Christ’s crucifixion, Paul, a known persecutor of early Christians, is overcome by a vision of Christ, asking him why he’s harassing Christ’s children, and commanding him not only to stop the persecution, but to spend his life bearing witness for Christ. On the force of this event, he converts to Christianity and launches of a career of converting others. His writings are prolific and instrumental in the founding of the Christian church, and many of his early letters are even today preserved as books in the New Testament.

As one might imagine, his new vocation is not universally well received. He’s arrested but, being a Roman citizen (even one in a far-flung outpost of the empire), he invokes the right to appeal to Caesar in Rome. Ironically, as Acts portrays it, had his case been tried in Caesarea (a town located on present-day Israel’s Mediterranean coast) where he was arrested, the charges against Paul likely would have been dropped given that some of those in power were sympathetic to his cause.

However, Paul appealed to Caesar and so off to Rome he is taken in A.D. 60 along with a shipload of other prisoners: crew and prisoners totaling 276 men.  Incidentally, St. Luke also is on the voyage, accompanying Paul, although little emphasis is placed on his participation.

As Paul had predicted beforehand, the ship runs into a horrendous storm which lasts for two weeks. Eventually on the 14th day, as the crew takes depth measurements, they’re horrified to learn they’re about to be forced aground. Given the severe weather, this likely means the ship will be pulverized and all aboard killed. In keeping with the emergency evacuation procedures of the day, the sailors set out to kill all the prisoners to prevent their unlikely escape, and then they prepare to abandon ship.

Paul, on good terms with the captain, convinces him that everyone - sailors and all - will perish if this action is taken. The captain acquiesces to Paul who then encourages the crew to eat, proclaiming that not a hair on anyone’s head will perish.

While the sailors are attempting to control the grounding of the ship, it hits a shoal (or actually a minute island) off the coastline. The captain orders all aboard to jump ship and try to make for the shore. Miraculously (but not surprisingly given Paul’s prediction) everyone on board makes it safely to land (see photo of St. Paul’s island, on the northwest coast of Malta, where the ship ran aground).

In the words of Acts 28:1-2, as found at http://bibleresources.bible.com,
1 Once we were safe on shore, we learned that we were on the island of Malta. 2 The people of the island were very kind to us. It was cold and rainy, so they built a fire on the shore to welcome us.”  As you can see, the tradition of Maltese warmth and generosity, on which I’ve commented many times, runs deep - it literally spans millennia!

Something happens to Paul when helping tend the fire: as he lays some twigs on it, a poisonous snake, driven out by the heat, bites him on the hand. The Maltese take this as a sign of justice - they assume he must have committed a heinous crime, likely murder, to escape the shipwreck only to die by the venom of a snake.  But Paul calmly shakes off the snake and suffers no ill-effects, creating a dramatic shift in the conventional wisdom of the Maltese - to have survived this, Paul must be a god.

This event actually heralds a miracle within a miracle. Not only was Paul unaffected by the snake’s venom, from that point on all the venom left all the snakes and to this day, there are no poisonous snakes on Malta. There’s a folktale related to this that I read about, but it took me a while to get a guy to actually say it aloud.  It goes something like this: when St. Paul was bitten by the snake, a miracle occurred. All the venom in all the snakes on the island went away. But where did the venom go? (palms turned up in confusion, followed by a sly smirk) Into the tongues of the women. Ha, the Maltese may be kind, but they apparently still have a little work to do on political correctness.

Paul (and the rest of the crew and prisoners) stayed on the island for three months. During this time, he converted the Maltese to Christianity, giving irrefutable validity to their claim to be the oldest Christian nation.  He was welcomed by the chief Roman official/governor on the island, Publius (later to become St. Publius).  Paul worked miracles by healing Publius’ gravely ill father as well as other islanders.  Publius converted to Christianity and invited Paul to stay at his palace in Mdina.  A Norman church was erected on the spot and, after it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, the Maltese baroque masterpiece of St. Paul’s cathedral was built between 1697 and 1702 to replace it (see pictures 2 and 3 of the exterior and interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Mdina).

Paul however, was a humble man and felt he was undeserving of such fine surroundings.  Instead, he chose to leave the elegance and safety of Mdina’s walls and settled in a cave in nearby Rabat (see photos 4 and 5 of St. Paul’s Grotto, Rabat). I apologize for the weird sizing of these pictures, which were taken with a different camera! Side note: This site, along with St. Paul’s island, was visited by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Malta in 1990).

Eventually, after three months, the weather changed for the better. Replenished with supplies from the kind islanders, Paul and the rest of the ship’s crew and passengers set off for Rome. Paul eventually was executed there, but not before planting the foundations of the Catholic church and changing the lives of millions, not among the least the Maltese!

To follow Michelle on her journey in Malta, visit her blog site at http://inet.ga.psu.edu/blogs/mghough

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