According to the Greek text, the vessel was shipwrecked on the island of “Melite,” commonly considered to be Malta (an island of about 120 square miles [over 300 square kilometers] and situated less than 60 miles [over 90 kilometers] south of Sicily.) After the entire crew and all the passengers had made it safely to land, they came to know the name of the island. (28:1)
It may well have been that at least some of the inhabitants of the island perceived that a shipwreck was inevitable, informed others, and started preparing for the arrival of survivors. The islanders proved to be exemplary in their love for fellow humans in need. From having been in the water, the survivors would have been cold and wet, and the cold, rainy weather would have added to their discomfort. The people welcomed the survivors and had them warm themselves alongside a bonfire. The Greek word relating to the starting of the fire is a participial form of anápto in the aorist tense, which tense commonly relates to a past event. So it is likely that the bonfire had been started before the first survivors arrived. (28:2; see the Notes section.)
The Greek term that describes the inhabitants of the island is bárbaroi (literally, “barbarians”). In this context, it refers to people who did not speak Greek and does not have the derogatory sense commonly associated with the term “barbarian.” The islanders may have spoken Punic, an extinct Semitic language. As ships from various parts of the Mediterranean region might anchor there when sailing proved to be hazardous (28:11), it is likely that at least some of the people on the island would have been able to speak Greek (which continued to be the major language in the Greco-Roman world), and so there would have been no problem with communication. (28:2)
Paul busied himself in doing his part in keeping the fire burning, gathering sticks to add to the fire. While he was in the process of placing a bundle of sticks on the fire, a viper emerged from the bundle on account of the heat and bit his hand. (28:3; see the Notes section.) When the islanders saw the snake (literally, “the beast”) hanging from Paul’s hand, they superstitiously concluded that he must have been a murderer who made it to safety from the sea but whom “justice” (díke) did not allow to continue living. In Greek mythology, Dike (Dice) was the goddess of justice, but whether the inhabitants of Malta would have believed in this deity is questionable. (28:4)
Paul shook the creature (“the beast”) into the fire and did not experience the swelling that the islanders expected. As they waited, thinking that he would suffer and die, and no harm came to him, they concluded that he must be a “god.” (28:5, 6)
Of the islanders, Publius is called the “first [one],” which could simply mean that he was the most prominent man or that he had the foremost official position, but the Greek term does not provide a basis for any definitive identification. He appears to have been a nearby landowner with considerable means. The account says, “He, in a friendly manner, received us for three days.” This suggests that he accommodated the entire group from the shipwrecked vessel. (28:7; see the Notes section.)
At the time, the father of Publius was confined to bed with a fever and dysentery. Paul went to see him, laid his hands on him, and prayed over him. The sick man was then cured. (28:8) News of this miracle apparently spread quickly around the island, and afflicted inhabitants came to Paul to be healed. (28:9)
The reference to bestowing many “honors” (literally, “honored us with many honors”) may mean that the islanders did everything possible to make the survivors comfortable and generously cared for their needs. When the time came for the group to set sail on a vessel that had been anchored there during the winter, the people provided them with essential supplies. This was three months after the shipwreck. (28:10, 11)
Alexandria, Egypt, was the point of origin of the ship that had been anchored at the island. The vessel had the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux) as its figurehead. The twin deities Castor and Pollux were considered to be protectors of mariners. Possibly a representation of Castor was on one side of the bow, whereas that of Pollux was on the other side. (28:11)
Syracuse (Siracusa) on the southeastern coast of Sicily was the first place where the ship anchored. The reason for remaining there for three days is not mentioned in the account. (28:12) From Syracuse, the ship headed northward, reaching Rhegium (Reggio) in southern Italy. On the next day, a favorable southern wind made it possible to reach Puetoli (Pozzuoli), over 178 nautical miles (over 330 kilometers) to the north, “on the second day.” (28:13) At the harbor of Puetoli, the sea voyage ended. Perhaps because Paul had been instrumental in saving all on the shipwrecked vessel, the centurion Julius allowed him considerable freedom. In Puetoli, Paul, Luke, and Aristarchus located fellow believers who asked them to stay with them for seven days before continuing on their way toward Rome on foot. (28:14)
The account does not reveal how the “brothers” (fellow believers) to the north of Puteoli received news about Paul. Perhaps the community of believers at Puetoli sent a messenger northward soon after he and the others arrived, informing them that Paul would be on his way to Rome. At Appii Forum, a post station on the Roman highway known as the Appian Way (Via Appia) about 43 miles (nearly 70 kilometers) south of Rome, believers were on hand to greet Paul. Another group of believers met him at Three Taverns (“Three Inns,” CEV), about nine and a half miles (c. 15 kilometers) to the north of Appii Forum. When Paul saw the fellow believers who had traveled to meet him, it gave him courage, apparently regarding what lay ahead for him, and he thanked God. (28:15; see the Notes section. Also see Appian Way for pictures.)
After he arrived in Rome, Paul, with a soldier guarding him, was allowed to live by himself in rented quarters. (28:16) A longer text than the one contained in the earliest extant manuscripts adds other details. “Now when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard; but Paul was permitted to dwell by himself with the soldier who guarded him.” (28:16, NKJV)
Three days after his arrival in Rome, Paul invited the leading men of the Jewish community in the city to meet with him. When they had gathered, he addressed them as “brothers” (fellow Jews) and informed them that, although he had not done anything against his own people nor the customs of their ancestors, he, in Jerusalem, had been handed over as a prisoner to the Romans. In this non-accusatory manner, without mentioning the violence the Jews had directed against him, he explained how he came to be in the hands of the Romans. (28:17)
Regarding the outcome of the investigation undertaken by the Roman authorities, Paul said that they wanted to release him as they did not find him guilty of any crime meriting death. (28:18) The Jews, however, did not agree, making it necessary for him to appeal to Caesar. Paul added that he did not do so because of having an accusation against his own people. (28:19)
It was because he had no case against his fellow countrymen that Paul had asked to see the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome and to speak to them. He wanted them to know that his being a prisoner in chains was on account of “the hope of Israel.” This hope related to the Messiah or Christ and all the privileges and blessings that the people of Israel could come to enjoy through him. (28:20)
In view of their response, Paul must have said more about the Messiah, identifying him as Jesus and the one in whom he personally believed. He may also have mentioned the possibility of their having received some communication from Jerusalem concerning him. The Jewish leaders told him that they had received no letters from Judea about him nor had any of the “brothers” (fellow Jews) who had come from there made a bad report about him or spoken evil against him. (28:21)
Nevertheless, they considered it right to hear his thoughts because they knew the “sect” (haíresis) of believers in Jesus was spoken against everywhere. In itself, the Greek word haíresis, does not have the negative sense that is commonly associated with the English word “sect.” The Greek expression basically designated a group that adhered to certain distinctive beliefs (for example, the “sect of the Pharisees” [15:5] or the “sect of the Sadducees” ([5:17]). In view of what the prominent Jews said about the “sect,” they appear to have believed that it was generally regarded as a heretical Jewish sect. (28:22)
The leading representatives from the Jewish community arranged for another day to meet with Paul. At the preappointed time, a larger number of Jews came to his quarters, and he presented his testimony about the “kingdom of God,” using the law of Moses and the prophets to point to Jesus. Paul continued speaking from morning until evening. In his comments about the “kingdom of God,” Paul must have identified Jesus as the promised Messiah or Christ, the King through whom God ruled as Sovereign. He doubtless explained how individuals would come to be part of that realm by being forgiven of their sins on the basis of Jesus’ sacrificial death and then fully reconciled to God. (28:23)
Some of the Jews were persuaded to believe what Paul explained to them, but others were not. (28:24) Not being able to come to an agreement among themselves, those who had come to see him began to leave. Before they departed, Paul directed his words primarily to those who remained unconvinced by what he had called to their attention from the holy writings. “Rightly the holy spirit spoke through Isaiah the prophet to your fathers [ancestors] [28:25)], saying, ‘Go to this people and say, “Hearing, you will hear and by no means understand; and looking, you will look and by no means see [28:26],” for the heart of this people has become thick, and with the ears they have heard heavily, and they have closed their eyes, lest they should see with the eyes, and hear with the ears, and understand with the heart, and turn, and I [YHWH] should heal them.’” (28:27)
The words Paul quoted were first directed to Isaiah at the time he received his commission to be YHWH’s prophet. Through the operation of God’s spirit upon him, Isaiah had this revealed to him in a vision. Accordingly, the quoted words from Isaiah 6:9 and 10 are appropriately attributed to the speaking of the holy spirit. Even though the message Isaiah was to proclaim to the people was not his own but the “word of YHWH,” they would not pay any attention to it. They would not repent and return to YHWH, abandoning conduct that he disapproved. (Isaiah 1:10-20) They would deliberately shut their eyes and stop up their ears, with their “heart” (either meaning their minds or their inmost selves) remaining unresponsive to the message Isaiah would be proclaiming to them. Because of refusing to turn back from the error of their ways and repentantly to return to YHWH, he would not heal them or restore them to a good relationship with him. (28:25-27)
Paul recognized that the disposition among the Jews who refused to believe proved to be the same as that among the people in the time of Isaiah. They heard the evidence Paul presented, which evidence identified Jesus as the foretold Messiah or Christ, but they closed their ears to the proof. From their own holy writings, which he called to their attention, they should have been able to see that Jesus was the prophet like Moses and the permanent heir of King David of the tribe of Judah, the anointed one who (like David) was born in Bethlehem. (Genesis 49:9, 10; Deuteronomy 18:18, 19; Micah 5:2) The holy writings indicated that the Messiah would be anointed with God’s spirit, perform miracles, suffer, die for the sins of the people, be resurrected from the dead, come to be exalted at the right hand of God, and rule over all the nations in the capacity of king and priest. (Psalm 110:1, 2, 4; Isaiah 53:2-12; 61:1) The Jews who did not respond in faith did not hear and see because their “heart” had become thick. Mentally, they did not allow themselves to perceive the evidence that identified Jesus as the Christ. In their inmost self, they remained impervious to the message about him. They heard heavily, for the message just did not get through to them, and their eyes remained shut so that they did not see, not getting the sense of what their own sacred writings said about the Messiah. Therefore, the unbelieving Jews missed out on the healing available to them. They could have been completely forgiven of their sins by putting faith in Jesus and what his death for them had made possible, and thus they could have been restored to an approved standing before God as his beloved children. (28:26, 27)
Whereas the Jews who chose not to believe lost out on the “salvation of God” (the way in which they, through the Lord Jesus Christ, could have been delivered from sin and the condemnation to which sin leads), Paul let them know that the message about this salvation had been sent out to the non-Jewish nations, and the non-Jews would listen to it. (28:28; see the Notes section regarding verse 29.)
For two whole years, Paul stayed in his own rented quarters. Although continuing to be guarded by a soldier (with the individual soldiers apparently doing so in shifts), he was at liberty to receive guests. (28:16, 30)
Paul welcomed all who came to him and used the opportunity to speak about the “kingdom of God” and to teach “things regarding the Lord Jesus Christ,” doing so with “boldness” or firm conviction and “without hindrance.” When it came to speaking about the realm where God is recognized as Sovereign and rules by means of his Son and other truths about the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul enjoyed complete freedom. No obstacle was placed in the way of his being able to express himself freely about Jesus Christ. (28:30, 31; see the Notes section.)
Rain can douse a fire, but it is still possible to start and keep a fire going when it is raining. There is no reason for believing that the islanders did not know a good location for starting a fire (verse 2) and keeping it going while it was raining, especially since they were far more dependent on fire for their needs than we are today.
In recent centuries, vipers (verse 3) have not been indigenous to the island of Malta. This should not be surprising, for human activity is often responsible for the extinction of reptiles and other animals.
In verse 7, translators have often been explicit in identifying Publius as having occupied an official position. “In that neighbourhood there were lands belonging to the chief magistrate of the island, whose name was Publius.” (REB) “The governor of the island was named Publius, and he owned some of the land around there.” (CEV) “There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island.” (NIV) Other translators have been less specific in their reference to Publius. “There were some fields around there owned by Publius, an important man on the island.” (NCV) “Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius.” (NRSV) “In that neighbourhood there were estates belonging to the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius.” (NJB)
The Roman poet Horace (in Satire I, v) described Appii Forum (verse 15) as “crowded with sailors and nasty innkeepers.” He also complained about the water, which he considered to be of the worst quality.
The quotation in verses 26 and 27 is basically the same as the Septuagint text of Isaiah 6:9, 10.
The oldest extant manuscripts do not contain the words of verse 29, and modern translations generally do not include them. “And when he had said these words, the Jews departed and had a great dispute among themselves.” (NKJV)
The manner in which the account ends (verses 30 and 31) provides strong circumstantial evidence that it is a contemporary history. If it had been known at the time just how matters turned out for Paul in connection with his appeal to Caesar, this would reasonably have been included. The fact that the account ends without such information suggests that it was written before the apostle made his defense before Caesar.