Against the reference in Q to “crowds” generally, John the Baptist's response in Matt 3:7 to “Pharisees and Sadducees” who arrive for baptism is, “Offspring of vipers [γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν], who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” In Matt 12:34, Jesus himself denounces the Pharisees as “offspring of vipers [γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν].” Similarly in Matt 23:33, he demands of “scribes and Pharisees” alike, “Snakes, offspring of vipers [ὄϕεις, γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν], how will you escape the judgment of Gehenna?” The fundamentally ambiguous and frequently negative overtones of serpent imagery elsewhere in Second Temple Judaism and the wider Mediterranean world, the prevalence of wordplay and its application to intercommunal Jewish polemic, and the broader function of texts as instruments of community definition together provide an appropriate series of contexts for understanding this invective. Notwithstanding the plausibility of such language on the lips of John and Jesus alike, these terms are singularly appropriate to Matthew's own task of situating his community in relation to that of Pharisaic Judaism in the immediate aftermath of the first Jewish war. This study explores, first, analogous language from Hellenistic and Jewish (especially Dead Sea and Mishnaic) literature and, second, the possibility that behind the references to serpents lies an invidious wordplay on one or both of ספר, “scribe,” and פרושים, “Pharisees.”

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