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From Malta to Rome


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Acts 28

Once ashore, they discover that they are on the island of Malta. Because of the cold rain, the inhabitants gather wood and build a fire for them. As Paul is throwing some sticks on the flames, a viper crawls out of the wood and bites him. The Maltans expect him to die. When nothing happens they say that he must be a god.

In modern Malta, there are almost no trees. Nor does the island have poisonous snakes. However, in Paul’s time, much of the Mediterranean basin was still wooded. There may also have been poisonous snakes on Malta, although there is no evidence for this apart from the Acts record. (21)

In verse seven, Luke states that they were the guests on Malta of a man named Publius, who was called "the first man of the island." Ancient inscriptions reveal that the head official on Malta had the title "First Man of the Island." (22)


In verse eleven, Luke records that they stayed at Malta for three months before sailing for Italy. There is some disagreement among ancient authorities over when the spring shipping season began. According to Pliny, the Mediterranean was considered open for navigation when the west wind began to blow on February eighth. Vegetius states that the sea lanes were closed until March tenth. In reality, it was probably the weather that dictated the beginning of the sailing season. Paul’s vessel wrecked in the first half of November, so three months would have carried them to the middle of February. (23)





Boarding ship at Malta’s harbor, they sailed to Syracuse in Sicily, and then to Rhegium in Italy. The following day, a wind began to blow from the south and they made Puteoli in two days. The distance from Rhegium to Puteoli is 230 miles. Sailing before a south wind at 5 knots, they could easily have covered the distance in two days. In the first century, the port of Puteoli was the regular terminus for the Egyptian trade, being the second most important port in Italy after Rome’s port of Ostia. (24)

Some scholars have argued that Luke’s statement (in verse fourteen) that they stayed with Christians in Puteoli for a week cannot be accurate since Paul was a prisoner and not a tourist. It is true that if they stayed in Puteoli for a week, it could only have been because the Centurion agreed to the delay. He would also have had to agree to Paul’s staying with local Christians. How likely is this?

Under the Roman system, the Centurion had the obligation to deliver his prisoners to the authorities in Rome, but possessed complete discretion in what he did with them in the meantime. How and when he got them to Rome was up to him. Since they landed at Puteoli after several days at sea, the Centurion may have wanted to delay the overland trip to Rome.

Because Paul was a Roman citizen, with all the privileges that accompanied that distinction, the Centurion may have wanted to accommodate him. Paul and the Centurion had endured much together over many months. It is not impossible that the Centurion delayed a week in Puteoli.

The delay may even have been necessary if they were waiting for government transport to Rome. They would have been better fed and lodged by local Christians than if they had used local public facilities.

Unlike modern armies, the Roman military had no quartermaster corps to provide food or lodging. The army supported itself by requisition from the local population. Military requisition, even more than taxation, was a cause for complaint and unrest in the empire. Puteoli was a major port for military traffic. Historical records reveal that the inns and boarding houses of Puteoli, and on the road to Rome, were of extremely poor quality during this era. Because these establishments were forced to provide free food and lodging to military and government officials, there was no reason for them to be well maintained. Thus a Christian offer of assistance may have been welcome to the Centurion. (25)

Luke records that, after his arrival in Rome, Paul was kept under house arrest for two years while awaiting trial before the emperor’s court. Other ancient authorities confirm that prisoners who appealed to the emperor were sometimes kept waiting for years before their case was tried. (26)

The book of Acts ends at this point, without revealing whether Paul was ever brought to trial. Because the narrative concludes without Paul’s being tried, some scholars argue that the book of Acts was probably written during those two years.

According to a tradition that dates to the second century, Paul was tried before the emperor and then released. He went on another missionary journey, this time to Spain. He was then re-arrested and returned to Rome during the first real persecution of the church by the Emperor Nero. It is said that on this occasion Paul died a martyr’s death. Such is the tradition. Unfortunately, we possess no contemporary record of these events. (27)





Copyright 1998-2001 by Jefferson White