St Paul’s catacombs in Malta were an underground burial site serving the funerary needs of the local community before Christianity’s establishment as the dominant faith on the small Meditteranean island. So why are they called St Paul’s, after the Christian saint?
That is the question I answer in this second article of the series on St Paul’s catacombs in Malta. If you missed it, see the first part here. It’s about the history of this ancient subterranean burial complex.
The Story of a Saint and an Island
It all started with a shipwreck story that was to leave a lasting and profound impression on the Maltese people.
“In AD 60… an event is said to have occurred which was to leave a… lasting mark on the islands… [t]hat is, the apparent shipwreck in what is now called St Paul’s Bay of the Apostle Paul and his comrade the Syrian physician Luke, who recorded the event in the Acts of the Apostles, on their way to be tried in Rome.”Susanna Hoe, 2015*
During this time, Malta was part of the Roman Empire, and Christianity was in its infancy, still long before being legalised throughout the empire (Constantine did that in 313). Leaving the debate about the historical truth of the event aside, Bonanno confirms in his 2005 book on Malta’s history**– it is generally recognised that the geographical place mentioned in Luke’s narrative is Malta.
According to Luke, all those onboard the ship survived the wreck and made it to the shore, “And so it came to pass, that they escaped all safe to land” (Acts, 27, 44). A reference to the island’s name follows immediately afterwards: “And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita” (Acts, 28, 1). Local inhabitants were kind to the survivors and lit a fire for them. In the text, Luke refers to them as barbarians or “the barbarous people” since they were not Christians.
While warming himself by the fire, as Luke tells us, Paul gets bitten by a venomous snake, and the locals expect him to die. However, when they see that Paul remains unharmed, they consider him a god. Paul and his companions stay on the island for the next three months (weathering the winter). During this time, Pauls’s healing powers become widely known, and he is said to have cured many islanders of their diseases, “So when this was done, others also, which had diseases in the island, came, and were healed” (Acts, 28, 9). It is possible that, although Luke does not tell us so, he – the physician – treated the sick. However, it is the Pauline tradition that has taken deep roots in the Maltese culture.
According to this tradition, “St Paul’s Catacombs in Rabat, [is] where Paul is said to have stayed for three months in a grotto, healing the sick and, no doubt, preaching”*. Although there is no written reference to Paul’s preaching or conversions, it is unlikely that he did not at least try to spread the Christian message during his 3-month stay on the island. Nevertheless, given the lack of archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta before the fourth century, “the suggestion that Christianity was implanted by Paul himself is now generally accepted as an earlier, probably ideological, assumption”*.
Of course, St Paul’s are not the only catacombs on the island that claim a connection with a saint and carry that saint’s name:
Given the importance of the Pauline tradition in Malta, it is perhaps no wonder that the place where St Paul is said to have spent three months healing the sick retains his name to this day, even though it served the burial needs of various faiths and was not “established” by Paul himself. Susanna Hoe observes, “Paul’s name (often the Maltese Pawl) is attached to so many Maltese places, and the islands were not only to become Christian, but very much remain so to this day”.
What to Expect Next?
I visited St Paul’s catacombs in the first week of this year. It turned out to be a much more exciting experience than I had expected, so I decided to write a short series of articles about it. It will not be just about the catacombs, though. Rather, it will be about the things I learned there and researched later.
The first part of the series explored the history of St Paul’s catacombs in Malta, and in today’s second part, I addressed the name question – why are they called St Paul’s? As it turns out, the answer lies in the power of a compelling story. What can you expect next?
In the third and final part of this series, I will discuss burial rites and people’s changing perceptions of a proper burial. Interestingly, such changing perceptions about death can shed some light on the shifting identification preferences during life. So, stay tuned, and if you enjoyed this post, make sure to come by for the last article in the series.
*Susanna Hoe “Malta: Women, History, Books and Places” (2015)
**Anthony Bonanno “Malta: Phoenician, Punic and Roman” (2005)
All pictures are photos taken by the author of this post
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