A viper is any variety of snake in the scientific classification Viperidae. Their common attributes are that they are venomous and have long, hollow fangs that are used to inject their poison into their prey. Known around the world, vipers are divided into two sub-classes, the so-called Old World vipers, and the pit vipers, one of the best-known of which is the rattlesnake of North America. In the Bible, "viper" is used to translate the Hebrew word (pronounced) ef-eh, meaning hissing, used to describe a poisonous snake in general, and the Greek word (pronounced) ek-id-nah, again meaning a poisonous snake in general terms. Viper is used in the Scriptures literally, for actual snakes, and figuratively, for people who, in effect, inject spiritual poison into their victims.
After the shipwreck (see the Fact Finder question below), when the apostle Paul (see Paul's Ministry) made it ashore onto Malta, also known as Melita, he was bitten by a viper while starting a camp fire on the beach, but he miraculously suffered no harm (Paul was still in the "bulletproof" phase of his service to God). The King James Version uses the term "barbarians" for the people of Malta, a word more correctly translated as "native" people, or "islanders" in other translations. As the Scripture record continues to describe through Acts chapter 28, the people of Malta were not "barbarians" - they were peaceful, civilized and hospitable. The original Greek word translated as "barbarians" simply means non-Greek people, or foreigners. Keeping in mind that Malta was the home of the people of Malta, it was actually Paul and his Roman captors who were the "barbarians," i.e. foreigners, there.
"And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita. And the barbarous people showed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold."
"And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds" (Acts 28:1-6 KJV)
John the Baptist (John's purpose was to prepare the way for the Christ - by definition, John's ministry ended when the Christ's began; John's "bulletproof" phase was therefore in the process of ending, but John didn't lighten up in his preaching to save his physical self - see John's Last Days) called some of the Pharisees and Sadducees "vipers" because they were hypocrites - they sought Baptism without truly repenting:
"Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in The River Jordan, confessing their sins."
"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? Bear fruit that befits repentance [see Works Means Obedience], and do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
"I baptize you with water for repentance [see The Origin of Baptism], but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the granary, but the chaff He will burn [see Baptism Of Fire] with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3:5-12 KJV)
Jesus Christ also called some of the Pharisees (not all Pharisees opposed the Christ; Nicodemus saw the light, as did eventually the Pharisee Saul, later known as the apostle Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament) "vipers" for their blasphemy of the Holy Spirit of God:
"But when the Pharisees heard it they said, "It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons [see Baal-zebub and Beelzebub], that this man casts out demons."
"Knowing their thoughts, He said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand; and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you."
"Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit."
"You brood of vipers! how can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." (Matthew 12:24-28,31-34 KJV)
Fact Finder: Did Paul's shipwreck on Malta occur before or after his three major missionary journeys?
See Paul's Journey To Rome
See also Paul's First Missionary Journey, Paul's Second Missionary Journey and Paul's Third Missionary Journey