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The Good and Evil Serpent: How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized
     

The Good and Evil Serpent: How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized

by James H. Charlesworth
 

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In a perplexing passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus is likened to the most reviled creature in Christian symbology: the snake. Attempting to understand how the Fourth Evangelist could have made such a surprising analogy, James H. Charlesworth has spent nearly a decade combing through the vast array of references to serpents in the ancient world—from

Overview

In a perplexing passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus is likened to the most reviled creature in Christian symbology: the snake. Attempting to understand how the Fourth Evangelist could have made such a surprising analogy, James H. Charlesworth has spent nearly a decade combing through the vast array of references to serpents in the ancient world—from the Bible and other religious texts to ancient statuary and jewelry. Charlesworth has arrived at a surprising conclusion: not only was the serpent a widespread symbol throughout the world, but its meanings were both subtle and varied. In fact, the serpent of ancient times was more often associated with positive attributes like healing and eternal life than it was with negative meanings.

This groundbreaking book explores in plentiful detail the symbol of the serpent from 40,000 BCE to the present, and from diverse regions in the world. In doing so it emphasizes the creativity of the biblical authors’ use of symbols and argues that we must today reexamine our own archetypal conceptions with comparable creativity.

Editorial Reviews

America

“Charlesworth provides indispensable material for anyone studying the symbolic use of snakes.”--Pheme Perkins, America

— Pheme Perkins

David Noel Freedman

"In this masterpiece, the snake emerges from the Garden of Eden in Genesis and carries on an unending hostility to human kind in the closing chapters of the book of Revelation. This book is packed with data about this mysterious creature and backed by compelling evidence and argumentation. I recommend it unreservedly to any and all with an interest in this fascinating subject."—David Noel Freedman

James A. Sanders

“Charlesworth has done us all an immense service in pulling together evidence from around the world and through the ages of the crucial role snakes have played in the human story.”—James A. Sanders, Claremont School of Theology
Adolfo Roitman

"Making use of his vast knowledge in archaeology and ancient literature, Professor Charlesworth has written an outstanding research on serpent symbolism, which is certainly to become the standard book of reference to this topic in the years to come."—Adolfo Roitman, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
America - Pheme Perkins

“Charlesworth provides indispensable material for anyone studying the symbolic use of snakes.”—Pheme Perkins, America

International Journal of the Classical Tradition - Isaac W. Oliver

"[A] very handy reference tool for Classicists and specialists in Near Eastern Studies, as well as Biblicists . . . even lay persons will find his book accessible."—Isaac W. Oliver, International Journal of the Classical Tradition
Journal of American Academy of Religion - Marvin A. Sweeney

"[A] superb introduction to, and analysis of, ophidian symbolism and function in the ancient world."—Marvin A. Sweeney, Journal of American Academy of Religion
Publishers Weekly
Despite its imposing size and the reputation of its author as a formidable scholar (Charlesworth is a professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of more than 60 books), this book is a surprisingly readable treatment of all things snake in religious iconography and literature of the ancient Near East. Beginning with the question: why would Jesus be equated to a serpent in the New Testament gospel of John when serpents get such a bad rap (isn’t the Eden snake a symbol of Satan, after all?), Charlesworth goes on to show, in great and well-documented detail, how much more nuanced serpent imagery was in the ancient Near East and in the Bible itself. This includes an excellent treatment of popular assumptions about that Eden snake and the problems with such assumptions. When Charlesworth returns at the book’s end to his initial question, readers can appreciate how powerfully positive the ostensibly puzzling gospel image is. The book could have been better edited to remove some repetition, and it occasionally assumes specialized knowledge, but Charlesworth offers a fascinating treatment overall. (Mar.)
Library Journal
This magnificent study on serpent symbology through the world of pagan, Jewish, and Christian writings represents a six-year labor of love by the eminent biblical scholar Charlesworth (New Testament language & literature, Princeton Theological Seminary). Motivated by a passage from John 3 where Jesus is likened to the raised brass serpent of Numbers 21, Charlesworth embarks on elucidating and critiquing that scholarship that views the biblical serpent as always and everywhere satanic. Snakes are clearly ambiguous symbols, indicating death as well as life, restoration as well as mystery. In fact, Charlesworth finds positive serpent imagery of power, kingship, and divinity as well as health and rejuvenation in the pre-Christian era. Jewish literature finds common cause between the serpent and wisdom, leading Charlesworth to posit the same for John 3. Christianity eventually relegated snakes to the realm of evil and the demonic as it exerted its religious hegemony over pagan religions in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. VERDICT Exposing the rich complexity of historic, symbolic, and religious meanings associated with serpents, this fascinating and comprehensive study is highly recommended.—Sandra Collins, Byzantine Catholic Seminary Lib., Pittsburgh

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780300140828
Publisher:
Yale University Press
Publication date:
03/23/2010
Series:
The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library
Pages:
744
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)

Meet the Author

James H. Charlesworth is George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, and director and editor of the Princeton Dead Sea Scrolls Project, Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author or editor of more than sixty books and six hundred articles. He lives in Princeton, NJ.

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