Why did John the Baptist say the words "you brood of vipers"? Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov has a fascinating take on John's words that he shares in his blog “You, Brood of Vipers!”—Or What to Say to People Who Have Come to Be Baptized. Some of what I learned from Fr. Sveshnikov:
- Even though John the Baptist refers to those who have gathered to be baptized as “brood of vipers” his overall impression of these persons may be more positive than we imagine. “Therefore, those who heeded John’s call may be seen not only in a positive light, but also as the foundation of the early Christian community. The story of the “multitudes,” who have “departed their normal lives, who have expressed anew their allegiance to God, and who will now return home to live transformed lives” was likely to positively resonate with a typical Lucan reader. Thus, the readers of Luke’s Gospel may actually have identified themselves with “the multitudes that came out to be baptized” (Luke 3:7) by John, rather than assigned them a negative label as a sign of social rejection from their (Lucan) community.
- Even in Judean culture, a snake or a serpent is not always viewed in a purely negative way. Consider, for example, a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, which was probably addressed to mostly Judean Christians in which Christ advises His disciples to be as wise as serpents (10:16). Such advice would invariably raise eye brows if serpents were seen solely in a negative light. Snakes in the Judean culture were “off the purity scale entirely,” in a similar category as “lions, bears, foxes, and dogs”. I propose that being “off the purity scale” made those animals devoid of the clean-unclean characteristics, rather than “necessarily unclean”. References to the lion of the tribe of Judah in Gen. 49:9, Hos. 5:14, and Rev. 5:5, for example, appear to be positive, rather than referring to a “necessarily unclean” animal. Similarly, Christ’s reference to a serpent in John 3:14-16 would not be seen as a reference to a “necessarily unclean” animal, but rather to a powerful symbol of healing (Num. 21:9) that most Judeans could recognize. Perhaps, the label “brood of vipers” could also refer to something other than “children of ‘necessarily unclean’ animals” or “snake bastards”.
- The Greeks’ relationship with snakes and serpents is even more complex than that of the Jews. Devoid of the clear relationship between a serpent and Satan, which could be argued in relation to Judaic Genesis 3:1-14, Greek culture can treat snakes as either sacred good or sacred danger, but not “unclean” or bad. Even the sacred danger is not just bad, but an evil that comes from gods and is therefore divine. A snake is the wisdom attribute of Athena and the chthonic earth-healing attribute of Asclepius. A snake coils around the staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing and medicine; and two snakes coil around caduceus, the staff of Hermes, the messenger for the gods. In the same manner, Greek Orthodox bishops even today have two snakes coiled around their staff as a symbol of “ultimate pastoral authority”, power, wisdom, and perhaps healing. It may therefore be argued that calling the “multitudes that came out to be baptized” the “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7) may have conveyed a lot of symbolic meaning to a typical reader from the Lucan community.
- So, what meaning would a typical member of the Lucan community, probably a reasonably well-educated Greek, get out of the passage of Luke 3:7 and the context that surrounds it? Many point to the prophetic character of John’s mission: living in the wilderness (Luke 3:2), going “into all the regions around the Jordan,” and “proclaiming repentance” (Luke 3:3), as the Judean and Israelite prophets often did. Furthermore, Luke cements John’s image as a prophet by applying the words of the prophet Isaiah (Luke 3:4-6; Is. 40:3-5, 52:10) directly to John.
- Unlike Judeans, however, the Lucan mostly Gentile community apparently lacked the moral orienteer or etalon necessary for repentance or the “turning from,” since Greek gods, unlike their Judean Counterpart, often symbolized and embodied the very behavior that had to be forsaken. Perhaps for this very reason Luke includes a brief explanation in the question and answer format of what it was that the multitudes, “the brood of vipers,” had to do. The “brood” respectfully asks, “Teacher, what should we do?” and Luke, through John, delivers a powerful social justice message in 3:10-14 as if to say, “Now, this is how you repent; this is the direction in which you should turn your life.” This message, found only in Luke, seems to be absolutely necessary if one were to turn away from anything at all without having the guidance of the Old Testament. Just before delivering his message at the request of the “multitudes” who appear willing to repent and be baptized, John calls them the “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7).
- This question may have been of significance to members of the Lucan community, many of whom would have had a difficult time tracing their family roots back to Abraham and Sarah. The issue of entering into the family of Abraham had to be resolved by other than biological means. The means, the way to enter into the family, is shown as that of bearing “fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8); and, even though “in Luke non-Jews are never called Abraham’s children, as they are in Paul”, the allusion is clearly made that “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Luke 3:8). Thus, through personal and communal transformation and bearing of the fruit of justice, non-Jewish members of the Lucan community can also become “the chosen people of God, Abraham’s progeny”.
- It is important that the multitudes are referred to as “a brood of vipers,” rather than “vipers.” The cultural anthropological insight into the folk beliefs about the way that the viper is born appears to be key. It appears probable that this belief existed within the Lucan Hellenistic community, and that they may have understood the allusion. Just as a viper “kills the mother that gives birth to it and comes into the world, as is said, by tearing through her belly”, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were able to tear through their culture and tradition of self-righteousness and came to repent and be baptized… Since many members of the Lucan community were from the Gentiles and of Gentile background, they too had to tear through their tradition in order to accept Christianity, they too had to leave behind some old beliefs and behaviors in order to accept Christ’s message. They had to become a brood of vipers, tearing through the belly of the old serpent.
- We too are called to tear through the old serpent of our past, reject the old ways of injustice and self-righteousness, and bear a worthy fruit of repentance. We too are called upon not to say to ourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor,” and not to think that we are Christians only because we were born to Christian parents or belong to a Christian church, but to live accordingly. So, what could we say to people who have come to be baptized?—Be like a brood of vipers!