Malta or Mljet?

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, when visiting Malta earlier, made reference to St. Paul's shipwreck (Acts 28:1-10). This is a long standing tradition, and from what I can tell, one that really became popular from the Knights of St. John who had to leave the Levant.  However, as early as the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom references Malta as the site of the shipwreck in his 54th Homily.

The Croat author, Ignjat Đurđević, published a book in Latin in Venice in 1730 arguing for the island of Mljet, not Malta, as being the location of the shipwreck.  I read that a reprint was made in 2008, just in time to inaugurate the Year of St. Paul, but for those  like myself who are ignorant of Croatian and not fluent in Latin, Fr. Kelley pointed me towards a fascinating book arguing for the island's location to be Mljet in the Adriatic. There are also other islands (e.g., Cephalonia) that have spurious claims to the shipwreck, but I won't indulge them here.  I will, however, provide sections arguing the case for Mljet from the book, St. Paul's Last Journey by Otto F.A. Meinardus (Caratzas Brothers Publishers, New Rochelle, New York, 1979).  The key factors are the mentions of the inhabitants being rather unsophisticated (barbarians), the cold, and the vipers. Malta, from what I can tell, at the time, had/has none of these things.

(The common map of St. Paul's last journey marking Malta as the location of the shipwreck.)

The translators of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible have translated Μελίτη, the Greek name of the island, as Malta. Claims and rival claims concerning the location of the shipwreck have been upheld for centuries since there are two islands which were known in Greek as Melite, Melita Illyrica (Mljet) and Melita Africana (Malta).  The ambiguity regarding the site of the Apostle's shipwreck lies in the original Greek text, which has left translators disagreeing whether the storm blew down across the land from the northeast, or against the land from the southeast.  Obviously the direction of the wind affects the location of St. Paul's shipwreck, but this is not the place to repeat the scholarly arguments favoring the one or the other island.  Both locations are based upon Christian traditions... [...]

In contrast to the well-known tradition of St. Paul's shipwreck on Malta, only relatively few people have written that the Apostle was shipwrecked on Mljet.  The earliest known writer to connect St. Paul with Melita Illyrica was the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrongenitus (913-959).  His De Adminstrando Imperio, written for his son, mentions the pagan Arentani, who possessed the "island of Meleda or Malozeatae where a viper fixed itself on the finger of St. Paul who burnt it in the fire."  This quotation presupposes a 10th century tradition current in Constantinople that the Apostle's shipwreck occurred on Mljet rather than on Malta.

We have no further literary evidence of the Dalmatian tradition until the beginning of the 18th century.  In 1730 Father Ignazio Georgi, abbot of the 13th century Benedictine abbey in Veliko Jezero on Melita Illyrica, proposed that Biblical Melite is Melita Illyrica on the Dalmatian coast.  His scholarly treatise initiated a lengthy controversy.  Several refutations followed within a few years of Father Ignazio's publication, the best known being written by Giovanni Antonio Ciantar, Bonaventura Attardi, Uberto do San Gaspare, and Onorato Bres.  Soon the polemics moved from Italy to England, where the 18th and 19th century scholars Jacob Bryant and William Falconer, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the scholarly English church historian and hymnologist John Mason Neale expressed themselves in favor of Melita Illyrica as the site of St. Paul's shipwreck.



By the latter part of the 18th century local traditions attested to St. Paul's shipwreck on the Dalmatian coast.  Thomas Watkins, traveling throughout the Dalmatian coast in 1788 reported, "I lately visited in the Isle of Croma (Locrum) a monastery founded as I am told by Richard Coeur de Lion ... and yesterday a party was made for me to the Isle of Melita, upon which St. Paul was shipwrecked.  An honest monk conducted me to the spot where he landed, still known by the two seas that meet there."  Thirty-three years later John Madox traveled along the Dalmatian coast and wrote "...there is also an island in the Adriatic Sea named Melita or Melida, the natives claim the honour of St. Paul's first visit.  They insist that the wreck took place on their shore.  Scripture informs us certainly that this saint was tossed about for many days and nights in the Sea of Adria."

Several local traditions pertaining to the location of the shipwreck are maintained by the Croatian Christians on the island.  Vid Vuletic Vukasovic mentioned that the people of Prozura west of Sobra hold that St. Paul's shipwreck occurred in Porto Chiave, and Bishop V. Palunko of Rodope recorded the ruins of an ancient church believed to commemorate St. Paul's shipwreck about one mile from Porto Cima Meleda, near Korita.  Father Nico Ucovic of Babino Polje has placed the site of the shipwreck in the Saplunara Cove, while others have identified "St. Paul's Rock" with the site of the shipwreck below the village of Maranovici, near the island of Kosmac.  In the Church of St. Paul (1935) in Babino Polje a tall statue of St. Paul holding a cross in his left hand and standing on the bow of a ship towers above the northern altar.

Three arguments are commonly cited to support the location of the Apostle's shipwreck in Melita Illyrica.  The first centers around the ancient use of the term "Sea of Adria" (Acts 27:27).  The Roman historian Titus Livy (59 B.C. - 17 A.D.) mentioned the various seas surrounding Italy, "one of them the Tuscan, the general designation of the race, and the other the Hadriatic, from Hadria, an Etruscan colony, and the Greeks know the same seas as Tyrrhenian and Adriatic."  [...]  In the first century...the term "Sea of Adria" referred to roughly the same sea meant by the name today: those waters between latitudes 40° and 45°45' north, a length of nearly 500 miles, separating Italy from the Balkan peninsula.

The second argument advanced for locating St. Paul's shipwreck on Mljet has to do with the strong winds which drove ships into the Adriatic, of which we have many accounts.  The 1st century B.C. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus referred to Acrotatus (314 B.C.), who was driven into the Adriatic, and to Xanthippus the Spartan (255 B.C.), who was drowned in the swirling waters of the Adriatic. [...]

The third argument for locating the site of St. Paul's shipwreck on Mljet has to do with poisonous snakes.  St. Luke informs us that upon his arrival on the island, St. Paul handled a viper which fastened upon his hand.  Without suffering any harm he shook the creature into the fire, a deed which impressed the islanders to the point that they said, "he was a god."  A snake could well have bitten the Apostle's hand on Mljet, for snakes of all kinds used to abound on the island.  As Fodor's Yugoslavia Guide Book states: "Mljet has one peculiar fame in that it is the only place in Europe where you will find the mongoose roaming about in liberty.  The explanation for this is that long ago these little animals were imported from the East to exterminate the snakes with which the island was infested."

(pp.79-85)

 

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