Acts 28:3

ESV When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand.
NIV 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.
NASB But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened itself on his hand.
CSB As Paul gathered a bundle of brushwood and put it on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened itself on his hand.
NLT As Paul gathered an armful of sticks and was laying them on the fire, a poisonous snake, driven out by the heat, bit him on the hand.
KJV And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
NKJV But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand.

What does Acts 28:3 mean?

Paul is trying to get to Rome. Two years prior, he had traveled to Jerusalem, accompanying church representatives from around the Aegean Sea as they brought support to the church in Jerusalem. Due to hard feelings and false accusations, he was arrested at the temple. Romans then held him under house arrest in Caesarea Maritima. After appealing his case to Caesar, Paul, Aristarchus, and Luke set sail and spent two weeks in a raging storm that ended with 276 shipwrecked castaways on a cold, rainy beach on the island of Malta (Acts 21—27).

Fortunately, the locals of the island are kind enough to build a fire. Unfortunately, the heat attracts a snake which latches onto Paul. After all this, Paul isn't going to let a serpent keep him from Rome. The locals assume he must be a murderer who escaped the gods' judgment in the sea, so he now faces his just deserts on land. Yet Paul shakes the animal into the fire, barely seeming to notice (Acts 28:4–6).

This passage has raised numerous questions. Some of these come in the form of skeptical attacks. Others are simply questions about Luke's meaning. In most cases, these concerns come from assumptions about the text, rather than Luke's actual words. Accusations of error or legend are defused by noting the actual words used in these verses.

Luke's primary focus is on how the locals reacted to the incident, rather than all the nuances of what happened. Readers might assume Luke to mean "a poisonous snake bit Paul and injected him with venom, but he was unaffected," yet that's not what Luke actually says here. Notably, Luke doesn't use explicit terms for "biting," instead using the Greek word kathaptō, which implies clinging or touching. Similarly, the ancient Greek word echidna is one of several terms for snakes, while the modern English word "viper" distinguishes a particular biological family.

A notable claim made by skeptics is that Malta has no endemic poisonous snakes. This not true. Though rare, the "cat snake" is venomous, and is believed to have come to the island along with wood brought from Africa. The earliest confirmed accounts of cat snakes on Malta are from the middle of the 19th century, but it's entirely possible isolated examples were brought over long before then. These serpents look somewhat like the "vipers" of other regions, but unlike modern "viper" family snakes, they attack by wrapping around prey before using venomous fangs in the rear of their mouths.

Particularly if snakes were rare on the island, it would be reasonable for locals to see the attack as a sign of Paul's fate. They also may have confused the animal with the venomous snakes seen elsewhere. During his account of the sea voyage, Luke uses both first-person words like "we" and third-person terms such as "they." The difference appears to be consistent: whether Luke is depicting something he's directly involved in, or actions focused on others. In this case, those anticipating Paul's death are described as "they": the locals from Malta (Acts 28:4). Luke does not say "we thought Paul would die." This, as well, supports the idea that Luke's main goal is to explain how onlookers reacted, not to give a detailed assessment of the snake attack.

Of course, the text is also compatible with the traditional interpretation. Perhaps a truly venomous snake bit Paul and held on until it was shaken off, making Paul's immunity an extravagant act of divine providence. Neither extreme is the only possibility. Considering all these facts, Luke's description offers plenty of room for interpretation, but none for off-hand dismissal. It's entirely plausible that a small snake, hiding in wood, aggressively attached to Paul's hand, was shaken off without injury, and the Maltese locals were impressed by the sequence of events.
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