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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Melita

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(Μελίτη)

Melita, now Malta, is an island in the Mediterranean, 47 miles S. of Sicily, 17 miles long, 9 miles broad, and 95 square miles in area. Its excellent harbours, together with its position in the track of ships sailing east and west, gave it commercial importance from very early times. Occupied by Phœnician settlers (Diod. v. 12), it was long under the power of the Carthaginians, who surrendered it to the Romans in the Second Punic War, 218 b.c. (Livy, xxi. 51), after which it was annexed to the province of Sicily. The identity of Malta with the island on which St. Paul was shipwrecked on his voyage to Italy (Acts 28:1) was formerly disputed, but is now universally admitted. The case for another Melita on the Dalmatian coast-the modern Meleda-was presented by Padre Georgi, a Dalmatian monk who was a native of the island (1730), and by W. Falconer in his Dissertation on St. Paul’s Voyage (31872). The theory was examined and refuted by James Smith in his admirable monograph on The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul (41880). It was based on two groundless assumptions: (1) that ‘the Adria’ through which St. Paul’s ship drifted must have been the modern Adriatic, or Gulf of Venice, whereas the term is known to have included in the Apostle’s time the whole expanse of sea between Sicily, Italy, Greece, and Crete (Adria); and (2) that the N. E. hurricane, which threatened to drive the ship upon the African quicksands, must have veered completely round and sent her northwards through the Strait of Otranto; an essential point, which the passenger St. Luke, whose narrative is the most vivid and instructive account of a voyage and wreck that has come down from antiquity, could not have failed to mention.

All the facts are in harmony with the theory that ‘St. Paul’s Bay’ in Malta was the scene of the shipwreck. (1) If the E. N. E. wind, known to present-day sailors as the ‘Gregalia’ or ‘Levanter,’ continued to blow day after day, as it often does in the late autumn, the ship, having been laid to on the starboard tack (i.e. with her right side to the wind) to avoid being swiftly driven to the African coast, would move in the exact direction of Melita at the mean rate of 1½ miles an hour, covering the distance from Clauda-about 480 miles-in a little over 13 days (Acts 27:27). The nautical problem is worked out by Smith (p. 125 f.). (2) Driven in the direction indicated, the ship could not enter St. Paul’s Bay without passing within a quarter of a mile of the low rocky point called Koura, and it was the ominous roar of the waves breaking on this headland-a sound at once detected by practised ears-that led the sailors to surmise that some land, which they could not see in the stormy night, was ‘nearing’ them (Acts 27:27; προσάγειν is one of the many nautical terms which St. Luke heard the crew use; B* has προσάχειν = resonare). (3) At the first indication of danger, orders were given to heave the lead, and the successive measurements of 20 and 15 fathoms (Acts 27:28) exactly correspond to modern soundings taken at the entrance of the bay. (4) As the rapid shoaling proved that not a moment was to be lost, four anchors were cast from the stern, not, according to the usual practice, from the bow, for in that case the ship would have swung round from the wind, and either have wrecked herself in so doing, or at any rate have put herself in the worst position for grounding on the following day. The anchors could not have held in the hurricane except in a bottom of extraordinary tenacity, and the Sailing Directions state that ‘the harbour of St. Paul … is safe for small ships, the ground, generally, being very good; and while the cables hold there is no danger, as the anchors will never start’ (Smith, p. 132). (5) On attempting at daybreak to beach the ship, the sailors came unexpectedly upon ‘a place where two seas met’ (τόπον διθάλασσον, Acts 27:41), which probably means (though there are other explanations of the difficult expression) the narrow channel between the little island of Salmonetta, on the western side of the bay, and the mainland. διθάλασσος, ‘two-sea’d,’ was a term commonly used to describe the great Bosporus (Strabo, II. Acts 27:12), and St. Luke notes the fact that the ship met her fate at the end of a miniature Bosporus. (6) When she grounded herself on a bank covered with water too deep for wading, ‘the prow struck’ (Acts 27:41). This fits the conditions exactly, for the nearest soundings to the mud indicate a depth of 3 fathoms, which is what the corn-ship would draw; and the bottom which she struck is ‘of mud graduating into tenacious clay, into which the fore part would fix itself and be held fast, whilst the stern was exposed to the force of the waves’ (Smith, p. 144). (7) The only physical feature that is now missing is the sandy or shingly beach (αἰγιαλόν, Acts 27:39), but there are indications that a creek (κόλπον δέ τινα) ‘must at one time have had a beach which has been worn away, in the course of ages, by the wasting action of the sea’ (Smith, p. 247).

The scene of the wreck was about 8 miles N.W. of Valetta, and 5 miles N. of Medina, or Citta Vecchia, the old capital. The local tradition on the subject is certainly ancient, either dating back to the event itself, or resting on early and reasonable conjecture. The earliest maps of Malta, made in the 16th cent., contain the Cale di S. Paolo. To the Hellenist Luke the kind-hearted natives of the island were ‘barbarians’ (Acts 28:4), a term which does not imply that they were savages, but merely that they did not speak Greek. They belonged to the highly civilized Phœnician race, of which the Carthaginians were a branch. The educated men in the island, of course, knew Greek, and bilingual inscriptions, in Greek and Punic, come down from the 1st century. St. Paul and his company spent three months in Melita, and Publius, the πρῶτος, or chief man, of the island, who was subject to the praetor of Sicily, treated them with marked respect (Acts 28:7; Acts 28:10). That πρῶτος was an official designation is proved by a Greek inscription bearing the name of Prudens, a Roman knight, πρῶτος Μελιταίων καὶ Πάτρων, and by a Latin one containing the words ‘Municipii Melitensium primus omnium.’ The fact that no snakes (Acts 28:3), either venomous or harmless, are now found in Melita is accounted for by the increase of the population and the cultivation of the soil. St. Paul’s further labours in Melita, apart from certain acts of healing (Acts 28:8-9), are left unrecorded by the historian, whose mind and pen hurry on to Rome. And one other fact which tells decisively against the Dalmatian Melita is the call which the Dioscuri made at Syracuse on the way to Puteoli (Acts 28:12). There was a tradition, referred to by Chrysostom (Hom. 54) that St. Paul’s stay at Melita resulted in the conversion of the inhabitants. The Maltese have attached the name of San Paolo to a church (1610) and a tower near the bay, and they drink out of the ‘Ayin tal Razzal’, or Fountain of the Apostle.

Literature.-Albert Mayr, Die Insel Malta im Altertum, 1909; W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen5, 1900, p. 314 f.; W. J. Conybeare and J. S. Howson, St. Paul, 1865, ii. 421 f.; R. L. Playfair, in Murray’s Handbook to the Mediterranean3, 1890.

James Strahan.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Melita'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/m/melita.html. 1906-1918.

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