Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

“You, Brood of Vipers!”—Or What to Say to People Who Have Come to Be Baptized

Posted in Articles, Theology by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 22 February 2010

See also “On the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.”

It is usually understood that when John the Baptists thundered “You, brood of vipers!” (Matt. 3:7; Luke 3:7) he was speaking to Pharisees and Sadducees and that this was not a very nice thing to say.  Indeed, Matthew makes it quite clear to whom John was speaking and that they—the Pharisees and Sadducees—were not good people (see Matt. 23:15, 23, 25, 27, 29).  Yet, what we know about the Pharisees is that they were very pious, religious, seekers of God, attempting to fulfill all of the religious rules and customs (Roetzel 39), and that their belief system in many aspects was very close to that of later Christianity (Brown 80).  Additionally, John said those words to the people who came to be “baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matt. 3:6). [1]

In this paper, I shall explore the possible meaning of the phrase “you brood of vipers” found in the parallel passage in the Gospel of Luke (3:7), where John is addressing the crowds.  Are we “much perplexed by his words and ponder what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke1:29)?  What did the author try to express and convey to the community by putting these words in the mouth of John the Baptist?  Was this an insult, a warning, or praise?  What would the intended reader of this passage learn from it?

Authorship of the Gospel of Luke

The authorship of the Gospel of Luke has traditionally been attributed to “Luke, a physician, the fellow worker and companion of Paul” (Brown 226) who may have been a Syrian of Antioch, which assertion is “less well attested” (ibid.).  As to the reliability of the traditional authorship of the Gospel of Luke, Robert Karris writes that “one should accept the tradition that Luke composed the Gospel, for there seems no reason why anyone in the ancient church would invent this datum and make a relatively obscure figure the author of a Gospel” (New Jerome 675).  Powell also points out that “a survey of recent commentaries reveals that many are willing to accept the author of this Gospel as a companion of Paul so long as he is not regarded as the latter’s disciple.  And for those who can accept the author as one of Paul’s associates, ‘Luke the physician’ seems as likely as any (17).”  Luke was likely to have been of Gentile culture since he was “probably not raised a Jew” (Brown 226), although he probably “had become a proselyte or a God-fearer, i.e., was converted or attracted to Judaism some years before he was evangelized” (268); and he wrote for a community whose primary culture may have been Hellenistic rather than Judaic.

Community

The Gospel of Luke and Acts were likely written between 70 AD and 85 AD, since “Luke 21:5-38 presupposes that Jerusalem has been destroyed” and Luke “does not reflect knowledge of the bitter persecution of Christians from the latter part of Domitian’s rule (AD 81-96)” (New Jerome 675).  According to some ancient sources Luke “wrote in Achaia [or Rome or Bithynia]” (ibid.), in other words, he wrote “to churches affected directly or indirectly (through others) by Paul’s mission (Brown 226, 270), yet, according to some scholars, “there is no compelling reason not to place the composition of Luke-Acts in this [Syrian Antioch], the third-largest city in the Roman Empire with a varied population including Jews” (New Jerome 675).

The original language of the Gospel is Greek, a fact which may point to the author being “an educated Greek-speaker” (Brown 226), or that the message was directed to an educated Greek-speaking audience.  Moreover, Luke’s tendency to improve the Greek style and language and his avoidance of Aramaic expressions as well as his “tendency to remove some of the local Palestinian color and generalize the message” (235) may suggest “that Luke’s community may have been composed mostly of Gentiles, including some who could appreciate the higher class of Greek” (Powell 18).  Brown points out that “the last lines of Acts (28:25-28), attributed to Paul, indicate that the future of the Gospel lies with the Gentiles, not with the Jews,” therefore it “would make sense if Luke-Acts was addressed to a largely Gentile area” (270).  It is also likely that by the time Luke was writing his Gospel “Christianity had become, by and large, a Gentile religion” (Powell 51); and Luke wrote to “Christians of the same background spread over a large region” (271) of Greece, rather than to a more geographically compact audience.  Perhaps, we may say that the Gospel of Luke was written for an audience in the same “social location,” a community united by the same “position in a social system which reflects a world view,” and a common “perception of how things work, what is real, where things belong, and how they fit together” (Neyrey 306).   It is through the eyes of this community that we should look at the label (“brood of vipers”) that John the Baptist gave  “to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him” (Luke 3:7).

 

Labeling and Deviance in the Lucan Community

Labeling in the Lucan community may have served a purpose similar to what it does in the modern world.  According to Malina and Neyrey, social labels are the means by which “the reader/hearer comes to evaluate and categorize the persons presented in the story both negatively and positively” (Neyrey 99).  Furthermore, they point out that “brood of vipers” is an example of a negative label, alongside “sinner” and “unclean.”  Here I should like to take a closer look at this assertion through the prism of Labeling and Deviance Theory.  Malina and Neyrey assert that:

As a rule, we consider anyone defined as radically out of social place as a deviant person.  Deviants are invariably designated by negative labels…  Negative labels, in fact, are accusations of deviance.  Behavior is deviant when it violates the sense of order or the set of classification which people perceive to structure their world…  Deviance, like the lines that produce it, is a social creation; what is considered “deviant” is what is perceived by members of a social group to violate their shared sense of order.  In short, deviance lies in the eyes of the beholders… (100)

If we accept this characteristic of deviance as applied to the label “brood of vipers,” we must examine who is given this label, in other words, who is being deviant.

 

Who are the “brood of vipers”?

When we look at the context where the label “brood of vipers” is used, it appears that Luke applies it to “the multitudes that came out to be baptized” (Luke 3:7) by John the Baptist after hearing his call in Luke 3:3-6.  Luke’s source (see section on sources below) may have specified that it was the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to be baptized (see the parallel verse in Matt. 3:7) who actually received the label, but for the Lucan, mostly Gentile community, the political and religious differences between Pharisees, Sadducees, and the rest of the Judeans who came to be baptized by John may have been too obscure (see Brown 270), so the entire multitude is thus labeled the “brood of vipers.”  In addition, “while some references to the Pharisees in Luke’s Gospel are negative, positive allusions weigh heavily” (Roetzel 38).  Thus, even if it could one day be shown that the “hidden transcript” (see Horsley 71) of the passage points to the Pharisees, it would still be unclear whether the label is indeed negative.

It is difficult to imagine that in the Lucan community all Judeans would be assigned a negative label, since Luke himself as well as other members of his community were likely to have been proselytes into the Judean faith before becoming Christians, and since Judean Christians may have been part of the community.  Although Luke “engages in a polemic against Jewish Christians who seek to apply overly strict entrance requirements to those who want to join reconstituted Israel” and “these Jewish Christians are the ‘Pharisees’ of the Gospel” (New Jerome 676), Luke reinterprets his source material and purposefully does not mention Pharisees in the baptismal scene.  It is furthermore unlikely that all those Judeans who came to be baptized by John the Baptist would be negatively labeled since John himself was viewed by Luke as the forerunner of Christ, “God’s prophet” who “inaugurates the period of fulfillment” (New Jerome 685) and “paves the way for Jesus’ ministry” (New Interpreter’s 1857).  Therefore, those who heeded his 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” (New Interpreter’s 1858) 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 and deviance from their (Lucan) community.     

 

How did the Lucan community view vipers and snakes?

If we assume that the label “brood of vipers” as used by Luke carries a meaning, an assumption that necessarily has to be made if we are to treat the Gospel as a sacred text, or at least as an intelligent literary piece, rather than a compilation of slurs and insults, we should examine the view on vipers and snakes in general in the Lucan community in order to understand the meaning of what is being conveyed.  As we have discussed above, the community may have consisted of people of mostly Hellenistic background.  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 (see New Jerome631), 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.  As Malina shows, snakes in the Judean culture were “off the purity scale entirely,” in a similar category as “lions, bears, foxes, and dogs” (178).  Yet, contrary to Malina, I propose that being “off the purity scale” made those animals devoid of the clean-unclean characteristics, rather than “necessarily unclean” (Malina 178).  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” (Malina 154).

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” (Slobodskoy 540), 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.

Perception and Understanding

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?  Of course, we can assume that part of the message is historical, and, as attested to by Flavius Josephus, “John, that was called the Baptist,” did command “the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism,” and that many “came in crowds about him, for they were greatly moved by hearing his words” (Josephus 581 [Antiq. 18:5:2]).  But what theology is Luke trying to develop by including this story in his Gospel and labeling those crowds the “brood of vipers”?

The ministry of John the Baptist “inaugurates the Jesus era” (Brown 235).  Furthermore, Brown writes that “by the expression “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah” (3:2) Luke assimilates J[ohn the] Bap[tist]’s call to that of an O[ld] T[estament] prophet (Isa. 38:4; Jer. 1:2; etc.)” (235).  Other details 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.

Luke, therefore, “raises up John as a model for his churches.  In other words, Luke uses the story of John the Baptist to directly address current and future members of his community, many of whom probably were Gentiles, challenging them to repent (New Jerome 685) and change.  This possibly points to the “presence of conditions for change,” or to a period in the Gentile world when “conditions in the environment or in the behavior of influential persons (a) were unsatisfactory or (b) offered an opportunity for favorable change,” and the Lucan call for change may have been seen as “feasible due to the presence of conditions favorable for change” (Malina 204).

As was discussed earlier, “as part of Luke’s theological concern for the Gentiles,” he reworks his source material “to remove some of the Palestinian color and generalize the message” (Brown 235).  It is difficult to estimate how much of the specifically Judean symbolism may have been understood by Luke’s community, but we may presume that some interpretation of symbolic meaning was available.  John’s call comes in the desert and he is seen calling others to come out to the desert (New Jerome 685)—a clear reference to exodus.  This “new exodus… will be from the exile of death and sin and will be accomplished by Jesus, Whose way John prepares” (686).  Baptism in the Jordan may have symbolized the historical crossing of the river into the “promised land,” and the way is that of repentance, “a turning from sin and turning over a new leaf of moral behavior” (685).  John’s call seemed to be effective and “multitudes… came out to be baptized by him” (Luke 3:7).  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).

In an effort to explain this, McVann states that as “the greatest of prophets… John saw through the masquerade of evil which hides its true nature.  He read the hearts of those approached: “Brood of vipers…” (3:7)  It belongs to prophets to pierce through false exteriors and discern true natures” (Neyrey 344).  New Jerome notes that the label “brood of vipers” refers to “the Pharisees and the high priests” who “respectively rejected John’s baptism [Luke7:30, 20:5]”; and that the literary technique that Luke is using is that of “completing analepsis or ‘flashback’” (686).  Malina agrees that Luke 3:7 is directed at the Pharisees and the Sadducees and adds that this “gravest insult” is an “imputation of doubtful lineage” and “means nothing less than ‘snake bastards,’ a doubly offensive term” (154).  This assertion of the negative nature of the label is not, of course, a revelation produced by the latest discoveries in social historical analysis.  A Bible encyclopedia published in 1891 mentions that the label “brood of vipers” is the strongest negative label used to describe evil and non-pious people (“Ehidna”). Lopukhin’s biblical commentary published between 1911 and 1913 also states that the “brood of vipers” is an insult directed at the Pharisees and the Sadducees who “played a predominant role in the crowd” (3:149).  The Interpreter’s Bible (not to be confused with the New Interpreter’s), published in 1952, dives into a bold hermeneutic asserting not only that the label was addressed to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who “came out from Jerusalem, [and] the ordinary crowd made room for these exalted persons”; but also that the “rebuke must have amazed and halted them as completely as though he had struck them in the face,” and that “the Pharisees were outraged; but the multitude, when they had caught their breath, were undoubtedly delighted” (VIII:73).

Brown, however, points out the obvious fact that “the vituperation that Matt. 3:7 directs to the Pharisees and Sadducees, Luke 3:7 directs to the multitudes” (235).  Indeed, it may be too obvious, but the Pharisees and the Sadducees do not enter the scene of Luke 3:1-22, so it may be argued that the connection between the “brood of vipers” and the Pharisees and Sadducees in Luke is not established and doubtful at best.  Considering that the message of Luke’s Gospel was likely intended as an intelligible proclamation to his community, rather than an obscure literary piece written for a group of savvy critics, analepsis in this particular passage seems unlikely.  Furthermore, it is not clear that the Hellenistic culture of the Lucan community was equally as concerned with the “purity of lineage” in the same particular way as the Judean culture was.  Concerning Judean culture Malina writes: “Now, we might characterize the postexilic Israelite period as focused on the symbol of holy offspring” (154).

This, of course, is a fair observation of a nation that actively awaits the coming of the Messiah and is preparing to physically bear one.  But can we extend the same physiological intensity of messianic expectations to the Lucan Hellenistic community, especially after the Messiah had been born (and the community believed and proclaimed it)?  Calling the multitudes that came out to be baptized “’snake bastards,’ a doubly offensive term” (Malina 154), may not, therefore, be the best pastoral approach.

Source

Many scholars believe that there are two major sources for Luke’s Gospel: the Gospel of Mark (Luke 3:4, for example) and the so-called Q or Quelle, “primarily a collection of sayings with very little narrative” (Powell 22).  Material from this document (if it existed) was incorporated into the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (see Brown 113).  This “two-source” or “two documents” hypothesis helps partly explain the so-called “Synoptic Problem,” yet “no material evidence exists” for Q (Powell 28).

Whether we accept the existence of Q or choose to follow the more traditional Griesbach’s or its modern revival, the “Two-Gospel Hypothesis” (Powell 28), in relation to Luke 3:7-9, “60 out of Luke’s 64 words are identical with the 63 words in Matt. 3:7-10” (New Jerome 686), which means that Luke was working either with the Gospel of Matthew or a source common to both Matthew and Luke.  In the latter scenario, however, it is not completely clear who did the editing of the original source and whether Luke 3:7a, for example, is the original or the edited version of the Q, or whether Matthew purposefully inserted the mention of the Pharisees and the Sadducees into his version.  Most scholars appear to support the idea that it was Luke who did the editing (see Powell 22-31).  Thus, we can propose that 3:7 was taken by Luke from Matthew’s Gospel or a source common to both Matthew and Luke, and that Matt. 3:7 is either the source or a version more true to the source than Luke 3:7.

 

Redaction

Assuming that Matthew’s rendition of John the Baptist’s story (3:1-17) is either the source or more true to the source than Luke’s version (3:1-21), we can see several distinctive redactions made by Luke.  Luke made several notable additions and changes to the original text.  First, Matthew states that John the Baptist “appeared in the wilderness… proclaiming” (1)—Luke’s John only receives his call in the wilderness (2), but then goes to where the people are, “into all the region around the Jordan” (3).  Matthew immediately gives John’s message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (2) and leaves it at that—an apparent sign that in his community this message was well understood and did not need further clarification.  Luke, on the other hand, skips this place with a brief third-person mention that it was “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3) that John was proclaiming, and instead places the actual teaching in verses 12-14 as an answer to the proverbial “crowds’” question (11).  This seems to be an indicator that such an expanded explanation was needed for the Lucan community, and that Matthew’s short “Repent!” had to be made more comprehensible: here is how you do it.

The next notable redaction is Luke’s addition of the text in vv. 5 and 6.  These verses are taken from Isa. 4-5 (LXX) and are not found in Matthew or Mark (1:3), the latter being the probable source for Matt. 3:3 and Luke 3:4.  It appears that Luke inserted these verses as part of “the Lucan theme of universality” (New Jerome 686), in an attempt to relate the Gospel message directly to his community, rather than just the people in “the region around the Jordan” (3).  The addition of a quotation from Isa. 40:4 “seems metaphorical and may be read ethically as radical changes in a person’s life-style” (New Jerome 686), while the call for these radical changes is extended “to include ‘all flesh…’ as part of Luke’s theological concern for the Gentiles” (Brown 235) in the next verse (6) with the addition of a quotation from Isa. 40:5.  This theme of universality and inclusiveness continues through the next verse.

In verse 3:7, the passage that is of special interest to us, Luke deviates from Matthew in what seems to be a strange way.  It has been argued by scholars that Matthew’s calling the Pharisees and Sadducees the “brood of vipers” is a negative label (see Malina 154).  At first glance, the context appears to support this assertion.  Presumably, crowds (multitudes) came to be baptized by John, “but when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them,” you “snake bastards.”  The apparent disconnect between the words of the text (“many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism”) and some scholars’ theory that the negative label “brood of vipers” was assigned to them because they rejected John’s baptism (New Jerome 637) can be explained through imaginative reconstruction of social problems within the Matthean community.  This imaginative reconstruction would necessarily have to be made, since scholars admit that the Pharisees “were not always unfriendly to Jesus, (Luke 13:31) and, in Mark, take no part in His death” to warrant such a “severe” label (New Jerome 637).  But Luke’s generalization and attribution of the label to the entire community (John proclaimed [3]—the multitudes heard and came [7]—he said to them, “You brood of vipers” [7]) is harder to explain.  Luke either did not understand the negative connotation of the label, or he intentionally applied the negative label to the entire community, or we understand neither Matthew nor Luke.

In verses 10-15 we find another important redaction.  In an apparent explanation of John’s call for repentance, Luke delivers a powerful message, pointing to the direction in which the repentance or the “change of mind” (meta-noia—Luke 3:3) should take place.  This message, in fact, may be the introduction of the actual Gospel and ties in with Luke 3:18, “where John the Baptist is said already to be preaching the Gospel” (Brown 236).  The change that is coming from without in the Person of Jesus must also be met from within by metanoia, and John the Baptist is the herald who calls on people to prepare “for the advent of the Lord Jesus” (New Jerome 685).

Finally, another redaction escapes the English translation.  Both eipen of Matt. 3:7 and elegen of Luke 3:7 are translated by NRSV, NAB, and NIV as [he] said.  While the first word indeed means just that, the second more properly may be translated as “[he] was saying” or even “[he] used to say,” as the Russian Synodal, Slavonic, and an English translation by the Holy Apostles Convent (Evangelion 371) render it, to denote the usual and habitual words of John to the crowds.  This is, perhaps, one more piece of supporting evidence that the Lucan author addressed the words that followed to the entire community, not to those whom the community may have viewed as “deviants.”

 

Windows of Understanding

A very insightful window of understanding and interpretation of the passage can be found in the work of a feminist scholar, Turid Seim, The Gospel of Luke (Schussler 2:729-762).  Seim looks at the context of Luke 3:8 as one of “drastic and surprising reversals of inside and outside groups” (737).  The “multitudes” are challenged to be descendants of Abraham through channels that cannot be detected with paternity tests.  This connection to Abraham is necessary to share “in the blessing that is promised to Abraham’s progeny” (737).  Seim writes: “For Luke, Abraham is primarily the original recipient of God’s election and of the promise of the fathers.  The promise holds good for Abraham’s progeny, and to be a child of Abraham implies both a privilege and an obligation.  Thereby, the need becomes urgent of defining who is truly to be counted among Abraham’s children” (737).

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” (Schussler 2:738), 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” (Schussler 738).  This point receives further development in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (1847), but is fully studied or capitalized on in neither The New Interpreter’s nor Schussler.

What to Say to People Who Cane to Be Baptized

Let us reject our own cultural bias toward the label “brood of vipers” and approach the topic with a hermeneutic of suspense.  The basis for this proposal is in a very interesting note by John Chrysostom in his commentary on Matt. 3:7:

He [John the Baptist—S.S.] saw them not sinning, but repenting; it would seem that because of this he should not scold them, but praise and accept [them] precisely for their coming to hear his preaching, having left the city and their homes…  If one carefully examines his [John the Baptist’s—S.S.] words, one even in the scolding will find praise for them, because these words were pronounced out of surprise that they, though late, were able to do the very thing that once seemed impossible. (Zlatoust 7:114—translation here and elsewhere is mine)

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” (see Zlatoust 7:115), the Pharisees and the Sadducees were able to tear through their culture and tradition of self-righteousness and came to repent and be baptized.  Knowing that the Pharisees and the Sadducees largely rejected his preaching and were not willing to admit that they too needed to repent, John the Baptist exclaims genuinely surprised, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7)  This is as if to say, “You did not listen to me; so, to whom then did you listen?”  The next three verses (8-10) could thereby be viewed as showing pastoral support and guidance that John the Baptist offers to the people who were making a difficult step in the right direction.  He tells them to bear worthy fruit and not to rely (as they were accustomed) on their blood lines.

If we now imagine that Luke was aware of this model and extended it to the members of his community by substituting “the Pharisees and the Sadducees” with “the multitudes,” we can propose a possible reconstruction of the meaning.  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.  They were not, however, the recipients of John the Baptist’s preaching, nor was it directed to them, so who warned them to flee from the wrath to come?  How did they come to accept the teaching of a small Judean sect?  The next two verses (Luke 3:8-9) can be viewed in the same light of pastoral guidance as was stated above with a much stronger emphasis on the community’s physical disconnection from the blood lines of Abraham and instead strengthening the moral and spiritual connection to “character and behavior consistent with that of Abraham” (New Interpreter’s 1858).

This imaginative reconstruction is the baptismal message often used in catechization even today.  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!

+

Support our church! Make a small donation today!

To donate through PayPal, click here

Or mail a check to Russian Church, PO Box 913, Mulino, OR 97042

Click this link for the donation page

+

Bibliography

Russian-Language Sources

“Ehidna” Bibleiskaya encyklopediya. Moscow, 1891.

Zlatoust, Ioann, St. Tvoreniya. 12 vols. Kiev: Svyato-Ouspenskaya Pochayevskaya Lavra, 2005.

Lopukhin, . Tolkovaya Bibliya. 3 vols. Peterburg, 1911-1913.

 

English-Language Sources

Brown, R. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Comstock, A. Handbook of Nature Study. Ithaca: Comstock/Cornell University Press, 1986.

Evangelion, The. Buena Vista: Holy Apostles Convent, 2000.

Hapgood, Isabel F. Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church. New York, 1965.

Horsley, R. Jesus and Empire. The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. Minnaepolis: Fortress, 2003.

Interpreter’s Bible, The. 12 vols. Ed. George Buttrick et al. New York: Abingdon, 1952.

Josephus, Flavius, The Complete Works. Trans. William Whiston. Nashville: Nelson, 1998.

Lenten Triodion, The. South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1994.

Malina, B. The New Testament World. Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Louisville: WJK, 2001

New Interpreter’s Study Bible, The. Ed. Walter Harrelson et al. Nashville: Abingdon, 2003.

New Jerome Biblical Commentary, The. Ed. Raymond Brown, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Neyrey, J., ed. The Social World of Luke-Acts. Models for Interpretation. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991.

Powell, M. What Are They Saying About Luke? New York: Paulist Press, 1989.

Roetzel, C. The World That Shaped the New Testament. Louisville: WJK, 2002.

Schussler Fiorenza, E., ed. Searching the Scriptures. 2 vols. New York: Crossroad, 1994.

Slobodskoy, S. The Law of God. Jordanville: Printshop of St. Job of Pochaev, 1996.


[1] The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible is used here et passim.

Advertisements

Comments Off on “You, Brood of Vipers!”—Or What to Say to People Who Have Come to Be Baptized