I have just returned from a week of travel with a group of Jewish and Christian scholars following the final stages of Paul’s travel to Rome. Our tour started on Malta, the island on which Paul and his fellow travelers were shipwrecked (Acts 28:1). We traveled by boat to Syracuse (v.12), Rhegium (v.13), and Puteoli (v.13). We then transferred to a motor coach and visited the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns (v. 15) before ending our tour in Rome.
One of the most astonishing experiences on the trip was a demonstration on Malta of a possible explanation of why Paul did not die from the viper’s bite. As you will recall, Paul and all his party survived the shipwreck but arrived on Malta in a cold rain. As a welcome, the Maltese built a fire for them. After gathering a pile of brushwood, Paul was feeding the fire when a poisonous snake hidden in the brush fastened itself to Paul’s hand. Paul shook off the snake into the fire and, to the amazement of all, suffered no consequences from the snakebite. The superstitious among the observers assumed that Paul must have been a god because he did not swell up and die from the poisonous bite.
Our tour guide, Francis (who, by the way, was named after Pope Francis I), gave us a demonstration of a possible solution to the biblical event. He had a wooden box about 12 x 18 inches wide and 12 inches deep. He removed the top of the box and asked one of our fellow travelers, Isaac, to take out what was inside. Isaac peered inside and said there was nothing in the box. Antonio lifted the box, turned it upside down, and a rather amorphous glob that looked like the wood from which the box was made fell out on the pavement and immediately changed colors to look like the pavement. “Watch closely,” Antonio said. He then took a small bundle of sticks and placed the sticks on top of the flattened glob that could hardly be distinguished from the pavement. Almost immediately, the glob assumed the shape of a branch and changed colors again to blend in with its new surroundings. Francis said that this Mediterranean sea creature could very well have taken the shape of a branch, had attached itself to Paul when he picked it up, and was assumed by the observers to have been a viper. When Paul shook it off into the fire, no evidence remained to verify whether it had actually been a viper.