From today’s New Testament reading at morning prayer:
After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us round it. Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.’ He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.
(Acts of the Apostles, chapter 28, verses 1-6, NRSV)
The reaction of “the natives” is instructive: First they seize on Paul’s misfortune, leaping to the conclusion that he is a Bad Man and getting his Just Deserts. They watch eagerly for worse things to be revealed. When nothing happens, they quickly reverse their opinion, and leap to the opposite conclusion that Paul is no mere human, but instead is to be revered.
Of course, these days we would never do such a thing…
This scene is part of a window in the chapel of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge.