Friday, February 17, 2017

Snakes in Malta

28 After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2 The native peopleshowed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. 3 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. 4 When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice[b] has not allowed him to live.” 5 He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god (Acts 28:1-6).

Critics say Luke is mistaken, since there are no venomous snakes on Malta. But that raises a raft of issues:

i) If it wasn't recorded in the Bible, and if critics didn't think this was an account of a miracle, I doubt you'd have their knee-jerk skepticism. Rather, they'd regard this as historical evidence that possibly venomous snakes used to inhabit Malta.

ii) It isn't all that clear that the snake is venomous. Ancient writers didn't have our detailed taxonomic designations. 

iii) Some scholars think it's a viper, but it doesn't behave like a viper. I'm not a herpetologist, but to my knowledge, vipers typically have a rapid strike and release technique. They inject their prey with retractable hypodermic fangs. 

By contrast, venomous snakes with fixed fangs are more likely to fasten onto their prey, to aid the process of envenomation. So I wouldn't expect a viper to cling to Paul's hand. 

A critic might say Luke's description is inaccurate, but that poses a dilemma for the critic, since he depends on Luke's account to impugn the accuracy of Luke's account, so he can't have it both ways.

iv) It isn't necessary the case that the snake is indigenous to Malta. Snakes can be introduced into foreign habitant. For instance, ancient ships attract rats, which attract snakes. Some snakes are stowaways. 

v) To my knowledge, Malta has been deforested over the centuries. That leads to loss of habitat for snakes. 

vi) Many people kill venomous snakes on sight. If you live in an area that's infested with venomous snakes (e.g. jungle), it isn't possible to begin to kill them all, because there are too many, and they are too well camouflaged. However, not only would deforestation automatically reduce the snake population, but with fewer snakes and hiding places, it would be easier to exterminate the remaining venomous snakes. All the more so considering that Malta is a small island. 

vii) Humans sometimes introduce animals into foreign habitat that threaten snakes. 

viii) The account is basically told from the viewpoint of the natives. It relates their reaction. They thought the snake was venomous.

I've seen nature shows in which a white guy had to explain to natives the difference between the venomous and nonvenomous species in their area. It seems a bit paradoxical that an outsider would know the difference, while the natives wouldn't. Perhaps, though, the natives are so afraid of snakes in general that they just assume the worst. They don't wish to find out the hard way which species are venomous and nonvenomous. So even though you might suppose they'd know by experience which is which, and even though it would be in their self-interest to know the difference, they don't seem to be that attentive or discriminating where snakes are concerned. 

In that event, the natives of Malta might assume the snake that bit Paul was venomous–whether or not that's actually the case. 

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