Snaking Through History

Book cover
The Good and Evil Serpentby By James H. CharlesworthYale Univ. Press. 744p $45

In omnibus cubiculis apparere serpentes” (“serpents can be found in all the bedrooms”) Cicero writes in discussing the ethics of selling real estate in On Duties, iii, 54. Yet many English translations have “vermin” for the Latin serpentes. Perhaps these translators need the chiding that James H. Charlesworth aims at biblical scholars in this massive study of snake symbolism across several millennia. Christian theology dubbed the serpent “evil.” Viewed in a global, cross-cultural perspective, the story is quite different. Snakes were more often considered beneficent than malicious. Often kept as pets, they might serve the same function as our barn cats, keeping the rodent population down.

This tome has a definite ax to grind. Misled by their theological presuppositions, Christian theologians treat the assorted snakes in Genesis 3, Numbers 21 and John 3 as figures of demonic evil. Rereading these stories employing the serpent lexicon that emerges from this study produces very different understandings. The number of positive referents outweighs negative uses of the symbolism (29 to 16).


Charlesworth, professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, has amassed an enormous collection of serpent lore and symbolism. Readers who become frustrated at being dragged through his file cabinets in a repetitious manner might turn to Chapter 6, “Serpent Symbolism in the Hebrew Bible.” There one can see how the apparently arbitrary and tedious classifications serve as lenses through which some familiar texts take on a new look. The serpent, Nachash, of Genesis 3 is identified explicitly as one of God’s creatures and therefore cannot be identified with the chaos monster of ancient Near Eastern mythology. Instead, Charlesworth concludes that the serpent is represented in Genesis as closer to the humans than any of the other animals. At the same time, the serpent’s wisdom provides a link with the divine world: “According to Gn 3:5, the serpent has mysterious knowledge known only to the gods.”

Charlesworth’s final target is the text that introduces the book, Jn 3:14-15: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up, so that all who believe in him may have eternal life.” The initial chapter repeatedly claims that identifying Christ with the life-giving serpent of Numbers 21 is so offensive to experts, theologians and the pious faithful that only some Gnostic heretics entertained the concept. Initially the author is more given to cataloging objections to the work of other scholars on the historical and literary development of the Scriptures than on presenting data about the serpent in biblical texts.

Charlesworth provides an extensive list of previous studies on the serpent symbol with the promise that his work will let the symbol speak on its own terms by leading us into “the world of meaning in which the artist and his or her viewers lived.”

Clearly such an ambitious task of cataloguing as many renderings as possible of serpents—dragons, serpentine beings, serpents associated with deities, serpents as cult objects, serpents as talismans, serpentine jewelry as well as serpents in painting and poetry—leaves little space for theory. It is difficult to discern what distinguishes serpent as symbol from animal lore or fashion statement. Although Charlesworth is as annoyed with Freudian reduction of serpents to phallic symbols as he is with biblical scholars who demonize the serpent, he does not explain how one reaches the interpretations that are proposed for various examples. “Probably, possibly, perhaps” recur throughout the book. Suggestions that a particular representation—for example, Isis with a serpentine body—is part of the deity’s standard repertoire are not based on any statistics. Eventually the ambiguous dual nature of serpent symbolism shifts into a single motif, the serpent as divinity.

Charlesworth provides indispensable material for anyone studying the symbolic use of snakes. Vocabulary lists of the snake words in biblical Hebrew and Greek, a look at serpent images in Pompeii and assorted notes on some early Christian views of the serpent make up the four appendices to the book. The author concludes with more speculative gamesmanship, transforming the puzzling cryptogram known as the Rotas-Sator Square from talisman or brain teaser into a religious object. Its content? An invocation of “Asclepius, the serpent god (and conceivably thence to all gods considered to be symbolized as a serpent).” For Charlesworth this is most of them.

Chapter Two treats the physiology and behavior of actual snakes. Chapters Three to Five make up the heart of the evidence presented. The author includes ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian and Greco-Roman examples. He also makes forays into literature from the Renaissance onward. The survey of physical remains uncovered by archaeology constitutes the most important part of this book. Serpents show up everywhere in antiquity, not simply in such famous pieces as the uraeus on the mask of Tutankhamen. Excavations have turned up a copper serpent comparable to the serpent image made by Moses (Nm 21), which some scholars think had been worshiped in Jerusalem until the religious reform under Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29). In order to make the claim that the Christ typology of Jn 3:14-15 is not simply an allusion to Numbers 21 but another example of worshipping the “divine serpent,” Charlesworth speculates that the second-century Asclepius cult in Jerusalem could be evidence of first-century C.E. beliefs. Chapter Six treats serpent symbols in the Hebrew Bible. Chapter Seven focuses on the New Testament, especially Christ as healing serpent figure in John 3. Along the way, the author introduces material from fifth-century C.E. synagogues and rabbinic academies. A parallel story of Jewish treatments of the serpent from the first century C.E. into the rabbinic period of the fourth to sixth centuries could be teased out of information provided in these two chapters.

Readers can use the book’s extensive indices to track down where the author returns to a particular artifact or text. Photographs throughout the volume make it easy to follow descriptions of physical objects and works of art.

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