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.
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.