Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my ShukerNature blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my published books (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Eclectarium blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Starsteeds blog's poetry and other lyrical writings (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Shuker In MovieLand blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

Search This Blog



Saturday 18 October 2014


St Paul casts viper into fire, painting by Marten de Vos

It is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (28: 3-6) within the Bible's New Testament that when a ship transporting St Paul and other prisoners to Rome was shipwrecked on the island of Melita (known now as Malta), St Paul was bitten by a viper:

   "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.
   And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.
   And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.
   Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god."

What makes this incident memorable not only from a theological but also from a herpetological standpoint is that there is no known species of viper living today on Malta. So how can St Paul's ophidian attacker be explained?

St Paul casting viper into fire, 16th-Century woodcut

In their biblical commentary The Acts of the Apostles (1959), Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle suggested that just because there are no vipers on Malta today does not necessarily mean that there were none in St Paul's day. Perhaps they died out due to the expanding human population here in later times. However, American cryptozoologist and scriptures scholar Chad Arment has pointed out that there is no physical evidence to confirm that vipers have ever existed on Malta. Nor does the viper family's zoogeographical distribution in this region of Europe provide much support for such a notion.

Consequently, Chad considers it more plausible that Malta's mystery 'viper' was in reality the cat snake Telescopus fallax - a species of venomous rear-fanged colubrid that usually measures up to 2.5 ft long and is native to Malta. As its mouth is too small for its fangs to be used effectively when biting humans (which it will sometimes do if handled), the cat snake is not deemed to be dangerous. However, in cases where a person is allergic to the proteins contained in its venom, anaphylaxia and various complications can occur if not treated rapidly. Bearing in mind that its preferred habitat includes dry stony areas overgrown with low shrubs in which it can climb, this fairly small, lithe snake could easily be picked up with a bundle of sticks (unlike any of Europe's larger, bulkier vipers).

A Maltese specimen of the European cat snake (© Jeffrey Skiberras/Wikipedia)

Having said that, this particular line of speculation is taking as granted that the snake which bit St Paul was indeed venomous - but was it? Perhaps St Luke (author of the Acts of the Apostles) and/or the native Maltese islanders mistakenly assumed that it was, when in actual fact it was a harmless species. Certainly, in many parts of the world various non-venomous species of snake (and even lizards too) are erroneously deemed to be exceedingly venomous by their human neighbours.

Equally ambiguous is St Luke's description of St Paul's serpentine aggressor as fastening onto and then hanging from his hand. Might this mean that the snake did not actually bite St Paul's hand, but merely coiled around it, and that St Luke and the other observers only assumed that it had bitten him, when in fact it had not done so? Certainly there is no statement anywhere in the verses dealing with this incident in the Acts of the Apostles which claims that St Paul was miraculously cured of snakebite - only an assumption by St Luke and the others that he had been bitten.

St Paul and the supposed viper, engraving by Hendrik Goltzius, c1580

And so, as it has been for many centuries, the non-existent viper of Malta remains a herpetological as well as a biblical mystery – indeed, an enigma. Consequently, any thoughts or opinions concerning it from ShukerNature readers would as always be very greatly appreciated.

This ShukerNature post is adapted from my book Mysteries of Planet Earth.


  1. The most logical explanation for the Acts viper account is that it is completely fictitious. There are good reasons to believe that Acts is ahistorical and largely made up out of whole-cloth, particularly since Paul's travel itinerary is illogical for the 1st C. and not least because Acts often baldly contradicts Paul's own accounts of his travels in the epistles. That is leaving out the many miracles and wild supernatural events which are not attested to by any contemporary witnesses or historians.

    Nor is the authorship matter entirely sure, tradition states that Acts was written by Luke, but there is no evidence for this, pseudepigraphical works were ubiquitous. Acts is written way too late to be by a contemporary.

    In short, not much reason to go looking for a possible alternate identity for Paul's viper; the account is mythological.

  2. I think the story could be true, but it could be about ANY kind of snake, since countless people seem to have no DESIRE to tell a poisonous one from a non-poisonous one. Which is something that hasn't gone out of style at all, even in the "Information Age"!

  3. Being a Christian and having read through the bible, you'll find that every snake in it is referred to as a viper. If you'll remember, we didn't have an animal classification scheme back then, and species were usually given a common name. Snakes being called Vipers. Who knows what snake it could of been.

    1. Could it of been a sea snake washed up on land from the shipwreck or bundle of sticks off the wreck, the natives were assured of death from bite! like they had witnessed many times. Just a thought

  4. It did say that it was a small one, so it probably wasn't enough to cause any harm to a full grown man. Comman sense.

  5. But if it was small and hamlets why did the locals expect Saul to die��. I tend to agree with Checo about Sauls supernatural events being uncorroborated and further suggest that his and Luke ( his physician and friend) letters may have served Emperor Constantine’s and Eusebius’s purposes rather than the purpose of the ‘good wheat’ of other corroborated eye witnessses such as Matthew, John, Peter, Jude and James.

  6. http://vijayrebello.blogspot.com/2012/08/miracles-of-apostles.html

  7. Do Vipers hold on when they bite?
    Do leopard snakes?
    On which part of the hand Was he bitten?
    Even a garder snake can swell you up if he gets you the right way venom fangs rearward which would suggest if leopard snake held on he had a pretty good bite anyways food for thought Paul destroyed
    the evidence in the fire guess I have to live by faith on this one, Jesus is Lord! And Paul did not hide that fact.Blessed-Information-Bringing- Life - Eternal (BIBLE) FACTS

  8. There are so many pieces of evidence to support the accuracy of Paul's writing as well as Scripture. This particular subject regarding the viper probably amazed the people because it was a dangerous snake. Handling one, or being bitten and surviving shouldn't be surprising since he was God's chosen servant who even healed people in the Lord's Name. Whether there are vipers on the island now 2,000 years later or not doesn't change the story's validity. Malta was involved in trade during that time, and probably has since. Some species could have been introduced to the island that affected native reptile and animal species. Today Malta is a very small, yet densely populated country. People affect environment. In short, there is overwhelming evidence that supports all of Scripture, let alone Paul's journey. I believe Paul.

  9. It surprised the people because a snake can be dangerous. Whether he handled it, or it bit him and he survived shouldn't surprise anyone since he healed the sick in the Lord's Name. He was God's chosen instrument, and there is overwhelming evidence to support his works as well as others in Scripture. Malta was involved in trade then, and probably still is. It is a very small country, but densely populated. People affect environment. Trade could have brought another species into the island that wiped out vipers, or tons of people moving there could have affected the creatures that live there. It happens everywhere else. Why not on Malta as well?

  10. Sicily, Italy is right by Malta. Their venomous snake is the viper. Trade ships can bring all sorts of critters to new lands.

  11. The answer to this question is simple once it is known that the croatian island of Mljet in the Adriatic also has the latin name Melita. This island indeed has vipers and there is historical proof that it was this island that Paul was shipwrecked on and not what is known as Malta today. http://www.croatianhistory.net/etf/demovic_ignjat_preface.html

  12. If I may make a comparison to St. Patrick who did the same thing in Ireland:


  13. Saint Paul was not bitten by the snake on Malta, but on Mljet (Croatia), which was then called Meleda, and which was, at the time, full of vipers. Also, all the descriptions in the writings describe Mljet, and many artefacts which were found on the island prove it, no matter how hard Malta tries to invent snakes into its own history of that time.

    1. My new book Secret Snakes and Serpent Surprises, published in April 2022, contains a much-expanded version of this present blog article of mine, and includes documentation of the Mljet alternative.