Section 12: Supposable Miracle XI.—at Malta, A Reptile Shaken off by Paul Without Hurt.—Acts 28:1-6
A fire of sticks being kindled, a reptile, here called a viper, is represented as "coming out of the heat," and fastening on Paul's hand. On beholding this incident,—"the barbarous people," as the inhabitants are called, whose hospitality kindled the fire for the relief of the shipwrecked company, concluded that Paul was a murderer: and were, accordingly, in expectation of seeing him "swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly." Nothing of this sort happened, their next conclusion was, that he was a God. As such, did these barbarians, as did the civilized inhabitants of Lystra, sacrifice to him, or in any other way worship him? No: these conceptions of theirs reported, there the story ends.
Of this story, what is to be made? At this time of day, among Christians in general, what we should expect to find is, that it passed for a miracle. But, if by miracle is meant, not merely an accident, somewhat singular and extraordinary,—but, by a special act of Almighty power, an effect produced, by means disconformable to the uniform course of nature,—it might be too much to say, that even by the reporter himself, it is for the decided purpose of its being taken for miracle, that it is brought to view.
If, however, the design was not here, that the incident should be taken for a miracle,—the story amounted to nothing, and was not worth the telling. But, if it is to be made into a miracle, where is the matter in it, out of which a miracle can be made?
The reptile—was it really a viper? Neither the barbarians of Malta, nor the reporter of this story, nor in a word, at that time of day, any other persons whatever, were either very complete or very correct, in their conception of matters belonging to the field of natural history. At present, reptiles are crawling creatures. At this time of day, when leeches are excepted, to fasten upon the part they have bitten is not the practice with any reptiles that we know of. If, instead of viper, the Greek word had been one that could have been translated leech,—the story would have been probable enough, but, were it only for that very reason, no miracle could have been made out of it. Shaken down into the fire, that is, into the burning fuel,—a small reptile, such as a leech, how brisk soever in the water, would be very apt to be overpowered by the heat, before it could make its escape: with a reptile of the ordinary size of a viper, this would hardly be the case.
Be this as it may, "he felt,"—so says the story,—"he felt no harm." How came it that he felt no harm? Because the Almighty performed a miracle to preserve him from harm? So long as eyes are open, causes out of number—causes that have nothing wonderful in them—present themselves to view before this. "The beast," as it is translated, "was not a viper":—if really a viper, it happened, at that moment, not to be provided with a competent stock of venom: it had already expended it upon some other object:—by some accident or other, it had lost the appropriate tooth. Not to look out for others,—any mind that was not bent upon having a miracle at any price, would lay hold of some such cause as one of these, sooner than give itself any such trouble as that of torturing the incident into a miracle.
To bring under calculation the quantity of supernatural power necessary to the production of a given effect is no very easy task. At any rate,—without more or less of expense in a certain shape, nothing in that way could ever be done. In the case here in question, what could have been the object of any such expense? Was it the saving the self-constituted Apostle the pain of a bite? The expense then, would it not have been less—the operation, so to speak, more economical—had a slight turn been given to Paul's hand, or to the course of the reptile? But, in either case, neither would the name of the Lord, nor—what was rather more material—that of his Apostle, have received that glorification which was so needful to it.
Any such design, as that of giving an unequivocal manifestation of Almighty power, such as should stand the test of scrutiny, testifying the verity of Paul's commission to the end of time,—any such design could the incident have had for its final cause? A more equivocal,—a less conclusive,—proof of the manifestation of supernatural power, seems not very easy to imagine.
Here then comes once more the so often repeated conclusion:—the narrative began to be in want of a miracle, and the miracle was made.
In those days, among that people, miracles were so much in course, that without a reasonable number of them, a history would hardly have obtained credence: at any rate it would not have obtained readers, and without readers no history can ever obtain much credence.