In the Footsteps of St. Paul on Malta – Part I
St. Paul’s Bay, in northeast Malta, affords sailors safe anchorage throughout most of the year. But sometimes in winter, when the Gregale blows in from the northeast, whipping the water before it into a mad frenzy, the bay can become a terrifying place. Such was the situation in November 60 A.D. when a ship bound for Rome from Caesarea was caught in a ferocious Gregale near Crete. For fourteen days the winds raged, driving the ship southwestward toward Malta, then called Melita by the ancient Greeks (Melita means “honey” in Greek; the island was known for its excellent honey production). In addition to the captain and crew and a cargo of wheat, the ship also carried a man named Paul, who called himself a follower of Jesus Christ. A Roman military escort, commanded by an officer named Julius, accompanied him, along with fellow Christians Luke and Aristarchus. After imprisonment in Caesarea for almost two years, Paul, by his own request and invoking the rights of a Roman citizen to “appeal to Caesar,” was on his way to Rome to answer several charges brought against him by Jewish and Roman authorities.
By midnight of the fourteenth day of the Gregale, it was apparent that the ship was in danger of driving onto the island’s rocky shoals. Even after dropping bow and stern anchors and jettisoning its valuable cargo, the ship continued to founder. Despite the captain’s best efforts, the ship hung up on the rocks where wind and waves continued to batter it. As dawn broke, the passengers and crew could see the bay, its beach and the limestone bluffs rising up behind it. The ship began to break up in the pounding surf. Julius ordered everyone to jump overboard, the swimmers striking out for the shore, the non-swimmers clinging to the ship’s broken timbers, all of them praying to their respective gods to be saved.
Amazingly, everyone made it safely to shore.
Island fishermen who had witnessed the shipwreck already had a fire blazing as the survivors staggered out of the surf. Paul helped them gather firewood and, as he did so, a snake sprang out of a pile of brushwood and fastened on his hand. Unconcerned, he shook the snake off into the fire. When the islanders saw that the snake had not harmed the stranger, that in fact, he did not die as they were certain he would, they began to look upon Paul as a god. To this day, the legend holds that Paul miraculously removed the venom from Maltese snakes, despite the fact that Malta never had any venomous indigenous snakes.
Paul and the others remained on Malta for three months before they were able to continue their voyage to Rome. During that time they were treated hospitably by the islanders and Paul began to preach to the people about Jesus. While a guest at Publius, the chief magistrate’s house, he cured Publius’ father of dysentery by the “laying on of hands.” Such a public display of Paul’s power brought him converts to Christianity, including Publius himself, who went on to become Malta’s first bishop. Paul continued to preach to the people and when he finally departed Malta he left behind the beginnings of a Christian church on the island.