🔼The name Malta in the Bible
The name Malta doesn't formally occur in the Bible, because Malta is the Maltese name for the island that the Greeks (and Romans) called Melite (probably grafted on the original name "Malta", of which the meaning is lost). The name Melite occurs once, in Acts 28:1, where the author explains that whilst fleeing from a storm, "we" beached on an island called Melite.
The island of Malta or Melite is situated in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, straight south of Sicily, the large island at the tip of the boot of Italy, east of Tunisia and north of Libya. The apostle Paul ended up there after having been shipped off to Rome by Porcius Festus and Agrippa (Acts 27:1), and this because Paul appealed to Caesar (25:11, 26:32). They sailed from Caesarea to Sidon (27:3) and then to Myra in Lycia (27:5). After departing from Myra, the weather got rough and just past Kaloi Limenes (27:8) the ship got into trouble and an attempt was made to reach Phoenix of Crete (27:12). Then the Euraquilo picked up, which drove the ship to Clauda or even to Syrtis off the north coast of Africa (27:17).
At this time the crew of the ship had started to deballast the ship and was losing hope of salvage. Paul addressed the men and told them that none of the 276 people on board (27:37) would die because an angel of the Lord had told him so, and that they were to run aground at "a certain island" (27:24). A whopping fourteen days later they managed to run the ship aground on land nobody recognized (which is rather curious, if not a red herring), but it was soon found out to be Melite, the famous Roman naval base which had been instrumental in the Punic wars of three hundred years prior.
On the Maltese beach, Paul had his famous encounter with the viper of Dike (28:3), and the already kindly inclined natives took a due shine to the apostle. They introduced Paul to their chief Publius, whose father was seriously ill. Paul healed Publius' father and all other diseased islanders who showed up (28:9), and ended up staying for three months and leaving a lasting impression on the people of Melite.
🔼What is sweeter than honey
The story of Paul's shipwreck is often viewed as the detailed account of the adventures of our favored hero of the faith, but the original intent of the story obviously goes far beyond that. The Lukan author of Acts wrote after Paul had already dropped off the radar, and after the destruction of the temple of YHWH in Jerusalem in 70 AD.
At that time, the Roman elite suffered great trouble with keeping the empire together. Nero was helped to Hades in 68 AD and in 69 AD three more emperors met their untimely demise amidst a prevailing, multi-fronted civil war. Finally Vespasian became emperor after racing back to Rome from Judea, leaving the Roman response to the Great Jewish Revolt to his son and future successor general Titus. The consistency of Rome's realm rested on three main pillars: the brute violence of its military force, the appeal of free commerce unhindered by borders, and the obligatory devotion to the deified state and its emperor.
Subsequently, most forms of Christianity were considered forms of corrosive atheism (that's godlessness or rather: rejecting idols), which was illegal and punishable by death (Cassius Dio.67.14), and were also still collectively considered a Jewish sect — a sect of a religion that, despite Paul's dire efforts to placate Jewry in Europe and Asia, had triggered a war in which it lost its cultural heart, city and country, and was now concentrated solely on how to survive the most disastrous decade in its history.
Nobody in those days would have been interested in the details of some inconsequential shipwreck close to twenty years earlier. A great many much more relevant events had transpired since then, but openly discussing resistance to Rome was as illegal as Christianity was. Fortunately, the Greek literary tradition was firmly rooted in allegory — the Stoics were masters in unraveling the yarn of masters such as Homer for links to observable reality, and their robe covered treasures and had tricked many a tyrant before.
To everybody in the know in the late first century, the Lukan gospel and subsequent travels of Paul quite obviously were typically not about what they seemed to be about, but rather gave a covert commentary on the storms in the political climate of the first century that finally resulted in Titus' siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple and the diaspora and survival of the ancient wisdom of the Jews.
🔼Etymology of the name Malta
As stated above, the meaning of the original name is obscure, but the Biblical name Melite may be safely construed to come from the Greek word μελι (meli), meaning honey:
The name Melite quite literally means Land Of Honey, which is obviously reminiscent of the familiar phrase "land of milk and honey" as synonym for Canaan (Exodus 3:8, 3:17, 13:5, etcetera), and ultimately for the literary arts.
The lavish attention the Lukan author of the Book of Acts gives to Paul's shipwreck on Malta clearly says more about the role of "a certain island" in the greater fight against Rome than about Malta's geographic location or the hospitality of its natives. See our article on the name Publius for more on this.