Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. (Acts 28:1-6)After Paul and the others made it safely ashore, they discovered that the name of the island was Malta, probably after meeting some of the local residents. Luke described the locals as “barbaroi,” meaning they didn’t speak Greek or Latin. Coins and inscriptions discovered on Malta show that the Punic language and Phoenician script were common, and used alongside Greek and Latin. The Punic dialect was descended from Phoenician, which was extremely close to ancient Hebrew, so Paul would have been able to carry on a conversation with them.
While sitting around the fire after the shipwreck, Paul was bitten by a snake. The locals perceived the snake as a poisonous viper — a consequence of divine judgment. Initially believing that Paul was being punished, the locals probably referred to a goddess that was worshipped on Malta, Justice. “Dike” was the Greek goddess of justice, a daughter of Zeus who kept watch on the earth and reported injustices to Zeus. This goddess also had a Phoenician equivalent named “Sydyk,” and in the account, Luke probably used the Greek translation of what the locals said.
There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days.His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer,placed his hands on himand healed him.When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured.They honored usin many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed. (Acts 28:7-10)
After warming themselves around the fire, Paul and his group were welcomed for three days at a nearby estate of a man named Publius, the chief official of Malta. In Greek, Luke referred to Publius as “the first man of the island.” According to inscriptions from Malta, this phrase appears to have been a local political title used on Malta in the 1st century, which matches Luke’s description. Serving under the governor of Sicily, Publius would have been the local leader of the island.
The estate of Publius would have been a Roman type villa, belonging to a wealthy local man. It appears his family lived on the island with him, including his father who Paul prayed for and healed of a fever and dysentery.
Near ancient Mdina and modern Rabat, is a Roman villa (“Domus Romana”) occupied from the 1st century BC to 2nd century AD. This is the best example of a Roman style estate discovered on Malta from the time of Paul. Among the ruins, archaeologists have found all sorts of Roman period artifacts, including coins, pottery, and impressive statues of Emperor Claudius and his daughter Antonia, now housed at the local museum. There were also impressive mosaic floors found in the house. One contains a scene that many believe depicts Samson and Delilah from the Old Testament.
Here’s an interesting side note in Christian history. A man named Publius became the Christian bishop of Athens in the late first century. He was later martyred during the reign of Emperor Trajan around 112 AD. Some scholars believe this was the same Publius that Paul visited on Malta.