In Matthew 12:34 when Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees it is written, (NIV)

You brood of vipers,how can you who are evil say anything good?

For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.

What does Jesus mean by referring to them as a "brood of vipers"?

Could he be referring to them as the "seed of the serpent," that is,"Satan's off-spring" namely the children of the Devil.

In John 8:43-44 (when people do not understand the language of Jesus) we read these words of Jesus,

43 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what i say.

44 You belong to your father the devil,and you want to carry out your father's desire.

Reading these scriptures from Matthew and John, it would appear that the father of the Pharisees is the "serpent."

  • 3
    I think he just meant to be insulting, like when he called Herod a fox, or when he called them blind leaders of the blind. Its tempting to turn everything into some mystical statement, but I don't think it works that way. Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 2:02
  • This blog post should give you insight towards your answer. jeffcreightonblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/…
    – Decrypted
    Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 3:31
  • 1
    @david agreed. I had a prof who liked to emphasize that it could've been almost any parent other than Abraham and been a mortal insult, akin to Jesus calling them "snake bastards".
    – fumanchu
    Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 5:34
  • @davidbrainerd it was not my intention to turn my question into a "mystical statement."I am calling on experts in Greek for their thoughts and comments.Click here to help you understand.hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/5886/…
    – Bagpipes
    Commented Jun 14, 2014 at 9:31
  • 3
    @davidbrainerd how in the world is that mystical? Its idiomatic. If we called someone a fox today in America is would have connotations of being "sly". If someone called a woman a "cow" they would think she is overweight. Not to be disrespectful, but it is a very valid insult involving an animal that we, in our culture, understand. This is basic hermeneutics, not mystical symbolism.
    – Joshua
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 17:11

14 Answers 14


After Jesus becomes harsh and gets the scribes' and Pharisees' attention,

Matthew 12:34 (NASB)

“You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.”

two verses later he reminds and warns them of judgment day.

Matthew 12:36-37 (NASB)

“But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. 37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

The scribes and Pharisees might think Jesus is insulting them, but he’s actually giving them a metaphor, specifically the viper, to almost scare them. He’s warning them. He’s very upset, yet this is the first of two times in Matthew he warns them of what they’ll face later, their day of judgment.

Jesus uses harsh words to describe how wicked the scribes and Pharisees are. While he’s calling them snakes, he's specifically using vipers as the best metaphor everyone listening will understand. Everyone knows the viper is the most dangerous and worst in terms of looks, with double-forked tongues and venomous fangs, but also in what they do. When they aggressively attack and bite to give venom, they don’t let go. Their poisonous bites often lead to painful deaths. Furthermore, they multiply quickly.


While Jesus mentioned the viper to help discipline and warn the scribes and Pharisees, he had already mentioned the scribes and Pharisees to help teach and warn his crowds. He told them to do just the opposite of the "religious leaders".

“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)

“So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men.” (Matthew 6:2)

John the Baptist also knew how wicked the “religious leaders” were. In some of his first words in Matthew, John called them vipers, but that was to get their attention and warn them of Jesus.

Matthew 3:7 (NASB)

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"

Four verses later John warned them, but of Jesus (vs. judgment day).

Matthew 3:11 (NASB)

“As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Later in Matthew after the crowds hear Jesus say “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees” (or “blind” ones guides, fools) seven times, he again calls them vipers and immediately mentions their final sentencing.

Matthew 23:33 (NASB)

”You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?

In summary, John the Baptist called the scribes and Pharisees a "brood of vipers" as he warned them of Jesus. What Jesus meant to do when he called the scribes and Pharisees a “brood of vipers” was get their attention and warn about judgment day. At the same time he was using that metaphor to tell his people how dangerous and evil the scribes and Pharisees were (i.e. like vipers); he was warning them also. They'd better not act like either one of them.


Throughout the Old and New Testaments, there was a strong connection between serpents, evil and the underworld and this connection extended into most other mesopotamian cultures as well. Because of this association, serpents developed a highly negative connotation and any association with them was thus considered offensive. This however is a pretty simplistic observation. To begin to understand just how offensive this really is, one must first understand a concept called "Ascribed Honor" and its connection to geneologies.

In a lecture before the Biblical Archaeology Society, Anthropologist Dr. Richard Rohrbaugh explains the importance of Ascribed Honor and its relationship to genealogies. He explains that this honor ranking runs the social system of the middle-east and that one's heritage is the most important social consideration and reputation it tantamount to one's position in the community. I have transcribed some relevant excepts of this lecture below:

Now, The Baltic Culture Continent that you and I live in, anthropologist call a “Guilt Culture”. ...the Mediterranean Culture Continent both today and in antiquity is what anthropologists call an “Honor-Shame Culture”.


Honor is relatively simple actually to understand. Honor is your standing in the pecking order of the village, together with the public recognition of that. There is no such thing as claiming honor that the village does not recognize. To claim honor that the village does not recognize is to be uppity; brash; a braggart; a fool. Honor is public reputation in the village and everybody in the village knows exactly where you stand in the pecking order. The reason for that is there are two primary ways in which you can get your honor rating or ranking in a village. ...

The overwhelming way in which you get your honor rating is from your birth. It's what anthropologist call “ascribed honor.” It's the honor that you get the day you pop out of the womb. It's the honor that you and every member of your extended family has - male and female - everybody in your family has, has always had, and always will have. That kind of Ascribed Honor means that if you are born in a very high family, you have a high honor ranking. If you are born a low-life, you have a low honor ranking and you're probably going to have a till the day you die. So the overwhelming way in which you get your honor is from the family of your birth. Do you now understand why genealogies are so important in the Bible? Genealogies indicate in writing what a village knows orally. Namely, the family you were born in and hence the honor ranking you have.


Genealogies are, if you will, a kind of a map for the whole community - describing exactly where in the scheme of things you fit. Among non-literate people (which in antiquity was about ninety-six percent of the population); among non-literate people genealogies would be very short. Only upper class wealthy people have written genealogies. And you understand that the longer the genealogy, the better? Because it means you're from old money not new money. You understand?

...What I find interesting is the genealogy in Luke - It goes all the way back to “son of seth, son of Adam, son of God”. That is, it traces it to the beginning. That's the longest genealogy possible. Do you understand that in honor claim is being made? In fact we know from Roman texts that people in the Roman world who did become newly rich and wanted to move up the social ladder hired genealogists to create fictive genealogies for themselves and there were a few stars in the pantheon of Roman ancestors they all wanted to be associated with. For a fee, you could get that association. Now you have the map that tells everybody where you fit in the pecking order of things and that had an enormous impact on your life.

I’m going to show you some slides in a minute of some ancient text that describe the fact that your honor ranking determine who ate with whom, who could marry whom, who spoke to whom, who listened to whom. It determined who would speak first in a conversation. It determined who would marry whom and who would do business with whom. In fact it determined most of the social patterns of your life. It's therefore critically important that everybody in the village know exactly where you stand - because it provides the road map for how you and I are going to interact with each other.


Jesus comes from a no-account little village. He's a village – a τέκτων (tektón) he is called in the Greek. We translate it carpenter – it could be a worker in metal, stone, or wood. I don't have time today but to show you just how low on the social scale that really is - It's very near the bottom. People like that don't get up and talk in public. So when Jesus does, It confuses everybody. In the Middle-East they expect somebody born of a great family to be great. You're born of a low family you're going to be no-account. What does not compute in their social compass is somebody born to a low-life family who turns out to be great. How do you explain that?

Well of course what Matthew and Luke do to explain it is they give us these very elaborate birth stories in which they try to tell us that God was somehow unusually involved in this birth. Otherwise there could be no expectation that anybody would listen to Jesus. What do his opponents do in the twentieth chapter of Luke? They say, “Who gives you the authority to speak like this?” Note that they didn't say, “Did you have this authority from your birth?” They know that's not true. “Who gave you this authority?” Their assumption is somebody had to have acquired the honor from somebody who recognized it because all honor has to be publicly recognized.


We're not often aware of it when we read the English Bible but Jesus is extremely skilled at this kind of insult. Some of you may remember that in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, Jesus calls his opponents - It's translated in the English – “A brood of vipers.” That is not exactly what the Greek says. The Greek says, “You snake-bastards” Now think about that in honor-shame culture. If you get your honor ranking from your family, to call some of the illegitimate son of a snake - that is the Mediterranean equivalent of a dirty mouth.

In other words, the closest English equivalent would have been for Jesus to call the pharisees "sons of bitches", except this modern insult probably isn't as offensive as the one Jesus used.


Jesus called them a brood of vipers because like the first serpent (Ge 3:1 ), they had become subtle or cunning (06175 ערום ‘aruwm) in challenging the word of God, and not only the word, but the Word-Jesus. And like Adam were naked (06174 ערום ‘arowm ) before God.

How did Adam know he was naked ערום? Because he had become cunning ערום. (The same word.)

The Pharisees were always cleverly twisting the scriptures to catch Jesus in a trap. But he knew them. They were naked before him. They were very much like the first serpent.

The same imagery is use when Peter was called Satan. (Mt 16:23 ) Peter had just declared that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. So Jesus tells him about the cross, which is prophesied in scripture. Peter tempts Jesus to avoid the cross suggesting that since he is God, he does not need to die. He challenged the word of God.


In Matthew 12:34 what did Jesus mean when he called the Pharisees “a brood of vipers”?

You brood of vipers,how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.

What we say, especially when we are distressed or under pressure, may reveal a lot about what we are really like inside. Jesus said: "For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks."

Both Jesus and John the Baptizer called the Pharisees and Sadducees "Offspring of vipers" because their hearts were full of evil and wickedness and the deadly spiritual harm they could inflict upon unsuspecting persons.​

Matthew 3:7 (NET Bible) (John the Baptist)

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?

Matthew 12:34 (NET Bible) (Jesus)

34 Offspring of vipers! How are you able to say anything good, since you are evil? For the mouth speaks from what fills the heart.


Since they do not hear the Lord, who wants to "charm away" as it were the mankind from Satan by His preaching, but rather slander and denigrate Him, calling Him an accomplice of Beelzebuth (Matthew 12:27), then they are like those vipers in Psalm 58:4-5:

"Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, that will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skillful the enchanter may be."


The Pharisees had just insulted Jesus by expressing their belief that he performed miracles by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of the devils (Mat.12:24). Jesus, knowing their thoughts, did not let them get off with such blasphemy, warning them of the danger of never being forgiven by God. He then warned of the bad fruit of a corrupt tree. Then comes the verse you quote.

What did the Pharisees, and the people who heard what Jesus said, understand about vipers? In Acts 16:16-21 there is an episode of a girl who had a spirit of divining the future following Paul and his entourage, crying out for many days, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” Eventually, Paul was so troubled by this that he turned and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” and it did so immediately. The NIV footnote adds:

“A python spirit, a demonic spirit. The python was a mythical snake worshipped at Delphi and associated with the Delphic oracle. The term ‘python’ came to be used of the persons through whom the python spirit supposedly spoke. Since such persons spoke involuntarily, the term ‘ventriloquist’ was used to describe them.”

This makes the connection between serpents and divination, which can depend on demonic, invisible powers communicating with a willing human agent - the diviner. The priestess at Delphi was called "The Pythoness".

This shows something of the understanding of the significance of Jesus' accusation of the Pharisees. They also knew that speaking of the serpent of Eden, who used lies and deception to bring sin into the world, was connected to Jesus saying they were of their father, the Devil, in John 8:44.

Further, John the Baptist had previously hurled this question at many of the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him for water baptism:

"O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" Matthew 3:7 A.V.

Who knows but that some who Jesus later accused of being "a generation of vipers" had first heard the connotation from the lips of John the Baptist?


Numbers 21:6: (The Bronze Snake) God sent snakes to bite the people in the desert after they sinned against God. God had Moses craft a bronze snake, lift it up, and told the people if they look up to the Bronze snake they will be healed. Fast forward, Jesus called the leaders a brood of vipers, as they were "biting" the people with false testimony; Leading the people astray. Jesus was raised up and if people look up to Jesus they are able to heal themselves from the lies.


The Pharisees were still in the Dead Letter or literal understanding of the Mosaic Laws. They were adding their own man-made opinions to the law of Moses, they were misinterpreting the Torah, the TaNaKh, and the oral law. They were feeding the seed of the serpent to the congregations. They were not illuminated by the Holy Spirit to explain Scripture. Their souls were filled with the serpent teachings and beliefs.

The serpent gave his seed to Eve in the Garden of Eden and she traded the immortal and glorious seed of YAHWEH for a lower seed of mortality. The Pharisees followed this pattern and shut the heavens (realm of the kingdom) over themselves and their students.

All of the above turned the Pharisees into a brood of vipers.


John 8:44-45 King James Version (KJV)

44 Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.

45 And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not.

He's speaking of Cain.

  • Cain is not mentioned in your quote. How is this about Cain?
    – colboynik
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 17:53

Jesus know the to be The Devils spiritual children.

Addressing the false religious leaders in his day Jesus said:-

John 8:12, 13 NWT "Then Jesus spoke again to them, saying: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will by no means walk in darkness, but will possess the light of life.” 13 So the Pharisees said to him: “You bear witness about yourself; your witness is not true.”

John 8:44 NWT "You are from your father the Devil, and you wish to do the desires of your father.*** That one was a murderer when he began, and he did not stand fast in the truth, because truth is not in him. When he speaks the lie, he speaks according to his own disposition, because he is a liar and the father of the lie.

In scriptuire The Devil is equated to The Serpent:-

Revelation 12:9 NWT "So down the great dragon was hurled, the original serpent, the one called Devil and Satan, who is misleading the entire inhabited earth; he was hurled down to the earth, and his angels were hurled down with him.

Thus The Vipers Children!!


This is, I believe a clear allusion to Deuteronomy 32 in which the LORD is more than a little grumpy that the Jewish leaders, thousands of years in the future, are going to attribute their success in battle with Rome (in the first 3.5 years of the Great Revolt) to their own military prowess:

[Deu 32:28-42 NLT] (28) "But Israel is a senseless nation; the people are foolish, without understanding. (29) Oh, that they were wise and could understand this! Oh, that they might know their fate! (30) How could one person chase a thousand of them, and two people put ten thousand to flight, unless their Rock had sold them, unless the LORD had given them up? (31) But the rock of our enemies is not like our Rock, as even they recognize. (32) Their vine grows from the vine of Sodom, from the vineyards of Gomorrah. Their grapes are poison, and their clusters are bitter. (33) Their wine is the venom of serpents, the deadly poison of cobras. (34) "The LORD says, 'Am I not storing up these things, sealing them away in my treasury? (35) I will take revenge; I will pay them back. In due time their feet will slip. Their day of disaster will arrive, and their destiny will overtake them.' (36) "Indeed, the LORD will give justice to his people, and he will change his mind about his servants, when he sees their strength is gone and no one is left, slave or free. (37) Then he will ask, 'Where are their gods, the rocks they fled to for refuge? (38) Where now are those gods, who ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their offerings? Let those gods arise and help you! Let them provide you with shelter! (39) Look now; I myself am he! There is no other god but me! I am the one who kills and gives life; I am the one who wounds and heals; no one can be rescued from my powerful hand! (40) Now I raise my hand to heaven and declare, "As surely as I live, (41) when I sharpen my flashing sword and begin to carry out justice, I will take revenge on my enemies and repay those who reject me. (42) I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword will devour flesh--the blood of the slaughtered and the captives, and the heads of the enemy leaders."'

He predicts that in the second half of the war the Messiah will turn the tide and they will suffer an incalculable defeat:

[Deu 32:43 NLT] (43) "Rejoice with him, you heavens, and let all of God's angels worship him. Rejoice with his people, you nations, and let all the angels be strengthened in him. For he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take revenge against his enemies. He will repay those who hate him and cleanse the land for his people."


Satan the Devil. At Revelation 12:9 and 20:2 God’s principal opposer, Satan, is referred to as “the original serpent,” evidently because of his employing the literal serpent in Eden as his means of communication with the woman. (Ge 3:1-15) As “the original serpent,” he is also the progenitor in a spiritual sense of other opposers; hence Jesus’ classification of such ones as “serpents, offspring of vipers.”​—Mt 23:33; compare Joh 8:44; 1Jo 3:12.

As a most reprehensible part of the seed of the Serpent, the scribes and the Pharisees in first-century Judaism took the lead in persecuting and finally murdering the primary representative of the seed of the woman. Thus, the Serpent was able to “bruise him [the “seed”] in the heel.” (Genesis 3:15; John 8:39-44; Acts 3:12, 15) Why is this described as only a heel wound? It is because this wounding touched him only briefly here on earth. It was not permanent because God resurrected Jesus on the third day and exalted him to spirit life.​—Acts 2:32, 33; 1 Peter 3:18.


Matthew 23:33 also asks how these brood of vipers can escape the condemnation of hell. I have read that the Pharisees could have been hybrids! Ezra 9:1-2 tell us that the Levites and priests intermarried with those mentioned in Numbers 13:33 and not all put away their wives and little ones. They most definitely, like the fallen ones, will not escape hell.

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    Commented Dec 4, 2021 at 4:22

None of the early manuscripts had this verse in them that Jesus called them snakes and vipers. It was added by a copyist. It was be so out of character for Jesus to use these awful names which were the worst name you could call someone.

  • 1
    Which early manuscripts are you referring to specifically? Every single translation, ancient or modern, listed on BibleHub has viper/snake/serpent: biblehub.com/matthew/12-34.htm Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 7:44

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