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E - 3 : Paul the Apostle in Malta - Many Legends - Few Facts

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

During Feast of Saint Paul on 10th of February his statue is carried through Malta's Streets

One of the things on my to-do list is being in Malta on 10th of February, when the locals celebrate the feast of Saint Paul. Don’t really understand why it is called “feast” when the celebration refers to Paul’s shipwreck on the island in February 58 AD. This 90 second video clip on YouTube gives you a perfect summary:

Paul, the Apostle, and Luke, the Evangelist, were on their way from Caesarea to Rome to stand trial. They journey time was unusual. It is said they travelled on a grain ship. The sailing season for commercial ships was over by mid-October though. No ordinary Roman sailor would risk his life in one of the Mediterranean winter storms. The Mediterranean is smaller, but the storms sometimes as violent as in the Atlantic. Wonder why the sailors risked the trip.

Saint Paul's itinerary from Caesarea to Rome, the Capital of the Roman Empire

The first few legs of Saint Paul’s trip were uneventful. On the Way from Palestine to Asia Minor, his ship followed the Levantine coast. It stopped twice in Anatolia, first in Myra where we have been in 2019 and again in Knidos which we visited in 2017. They continued along the Dodecanese Islands south to Crete where they got into a violent storm. It blew them in ten days all the way to Malta.

Saint Paul's Bay where the Apostle apparently shipwrecked ...

Roman ships often called on the Grand Harbor of La Valetta to shelter during bad weather. Paul’s crew however did not recognize the coastline when they arrived before Malta. It is still unknown where they eventually hit a sandbank and had to abandon ship. Some think it was in St Paul’s Bay, others believe it was further east in the Marsaxlokk Bay, which is today Malta’s commercial harbour, others mention Salina Bay. We probably will never know.

... or maybe in the Bay of Marsaxlokk further to the east

The legends get better once Saint Paul was on shore. Climbing up the beach, he apparently taped his stick on the rock and a source of fresh water appeared. It is today’s Ghajn Razul Fountain on St. Paul’s Bay. It is nice to know such details even though we still do not know the precise location of the shipwreck. Also, I probably would have forgotten my stick on the sinking boat. But I guess that is just a detail.

According to the New Testament, Acts 28, Paul stayed for three months on the island where he met Publius, the local chief, healed his sick father and converted him to Christianity. Publius then became Malta’s first bishop and Malta the first Christian nation – or so it goes. Malta was no nation in 58 AD, not even a Roman province. The country lost most of its population when the big grain trade from Egypt to Roman collapsed after 473 AD and was deserted after the Arab raids in 870 AD. Muslims from Sicily then recolonized it between 1048-1049 but brought their own religion. There was no continuity for Christianity. When the Normans arrived in 1191, there were only Muslims living on the islands.

The Saint Paul Co-Cathedral in Mdina, the old Capital of Malta

Another myth is that Co-Cathedral of Medina was built on the site of Publius’ villa where Malta’s very first church was built. Read this in several newspaper articles and tried to find archeological evidence. But I found none. Assume if there was any, it would be touted loud and far. Also, Rabat’s nearby parish church is supposedly the grotto where Saint Paul lived during his three months on the island. It is one of the most prominent places on the island and welcomes every years thousands of visitors and two Popes. But whether this is true is another matter.

After the Norman conquest Muslim and Christians lived for a century in peace, as they did in Sicily. But the peaceful co-existence eroded with successive immigration waves of Christians from Sicily and eventually ended in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. The fighting between Ottomans and the Knights of St John took heavy religious, almost crusader like undertones . The defeat of the Turks was described as victory of Christianity over Islam. When we look closer, it is difficult not to notice that most of the legends around Saint Paul start spreading in the early 17th century. It seems plausible that these legends were instrumental in pretending the island was always Christian and to advance the conversion of the Muslim minority. Today, there are no indigenous Muslims left any longer. Malta is firmly catholic.

Saint Paul by Bartolomeo Montagna, 1492 (he could not

hold a bible - the four gospels were written after his death)

Three months after the shipwreck, Saint Paul packed his bags and continued his journey via Syracuse and Reggio to Rome. How he was tried there is a bit of a mystery. Under Roman law he did not commit crimes in Palestine. We know that he was kept under house arrest for two years, but it is uncertain whether he was really beheaded as some sources say.

Be it as it may, Saint Paul definitely travelled through Malta to Rome and is indeed an Apostle, as his name says. With his interpretation of Jesus’s crucifixion, the Christian Creed started to differentiate from traditional Judaism. At the heart of Paul’s teaching stands the resurrection of Jesus who absorbs with his death our sins. He opened the small, original Jewish circle of early Christians to Gentiles, the Roman “heathen” and was a busy missionary in Anatolia and Greece. There would be no Christianity without him.

Saint Paul's Epistles, written in Greek

Whether all the legends around Saint Paul are correct or not, they are celebrated in style by the local Maltese population. Travelling along Saint Paul’s route would be interesting to find out whether the Apostle left such a lasting impression in other places as well.

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