Snake Handling in Worship—Is That What God Approves?
“A ZEALOUS member . . . was bitten by a rattlesnake Sunday night during a snake-handling ceremony at a rural church” and later died. So reported the New York Times, September 29, 1972. Only four days earlier the Times told of a woman dying “after being bitten twice by a rattlesnake Sept. 16 at the Jesus Pentecostal Church.”
Just a year earlier the Times featured an article entitled “Snake-handling Sect Survives in Appalachians.” It showed pictures of the snake handling done by members of the “Holiness Church of God in Jesus’ Name.” Four members of the group “passed the serpents back and forth, handling them smoothly, keeping one hand free, working the serpents’ heads away from the body, stroking them, soothing them. . . . The serpents flicked their vicious tongues, but never struck, for the five minutes that it lasted.”—New York Times, September 25, 1971.
Why do these people make snake handling a part of their worship? Because in their Authorized Version Bibles Mark 16:17, 18 reads: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; . . . They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”
Is this really what the inspired Bible teaches? An experience of the apostle Paul might seem to indicate this. When he was shipwrecked on the island of Malta, a viper fastened itself on his hand as he was gathering kindling wood. When nothing happened to him, the natives “began saying he was a god.”—Acts 28:1-6.
But did Paul go out of his way to collect poisonous snakes in order to handle them? No! Nor do we read anywhere in the Christian Greek Scriptures where any of Christ’s followers did so. In fact, Paul quickly shook off the viper that had fastened itself on his hand.
What Purpose Is Served?
It may well be asked, What purpose does religious snake handling serve? All the miraculous gifts that God bestowed upon Christ’s early disciples served very practical purposes, such as curing sick people, raising dead persons, making lepers clean and expelling demons. (Matt. 10:8) Even the gift of tongues did so. On the day of Pentecost this gift enabled Jews coming from more than a dozen different lands to hear the magnificent things of God in their own language. (Acts 2:4-11) And later it was to be used for the edification of the Christian congregation. That is why the apostle Paul stressed that no one should speak in a strange tongue unless an interpreter was present so that all could benefit from it.—1 Cor. 14:28.
There are also other matters to consider. If these words at Mark 16:17, 18 about handling snakes and not being harmed authorize Christians to do so, what about the other things mentioned in those verses? Should not Christ’s followers also be able to drink poison and not die? And what about their being able to cure people merely by laying their hands on them? These are pertinent questions, are they not?
Written by the Disciple Mark?
To what conclusion do all these questions lead? That there must be a mistake somewhere. In fact, that is what nearly all modern Bible scholars have concluded, namely, that these words—and not only these words but all of what appears as Mark 16:9-20—were not written by Mark but were added by a later hand. On what grounds do scholars so conclude? On both external and internal evidence.
First of all, there is the telling fact that two of the oldest and most highly regarded Bible manuscripts, the Vatican 1209 and the Sinaitic, do not contain this section; they conclude Mark’s Gospel with Mr 16 verse eight. There are also a number of ancient manuscripts that contain a short ending of just about one verse beyond eight; and other manuscripts contain both conclusions. So, some manuscripts end with Mr 16 verse eight, others have a short ending, others have a long ending, and some even give both endings. In addition to this testimony of the Greek manuscripts, all of which combines to cast doubt on Mark’s having written anything beyond Mr 16 verse eight, there are a number of the oldest versions (or translations) that do not contain the verses in question. Among such are ancient Syriac, Armenian and Ethiopic versions. No wonder that the noted manuscript authority Dr. Westcott states that “the verses which follow [Mr 16:9-20] are no part of the original narrative but an appendage.” Among other noted scholars of the same opinion are Tregelles, Tischendorf, Griesbach and Goodspeed.a
Supporting this testimony of the Greek manuscripts and versions are the church historian Eusebius and the Bible translator Jerome. Eusebius wrote that the longer ending was not in the “accurate copies,” for “at this point [Mr 16 verse 8] the end of the Gospel according to Mark is determined in nearly all the copies of the Gospel according to Mark.” And Jerome, writing in the year 406 or 407 C.E. said that “nearly all Greek MSS. have not got this passage.”
Quite pertinent here is what the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1966), Volume 9, page 240, has to say about these verses: “The manuscript tradition indicates that the Gospel originally ended at 16.8, but that the longer ending that is incorporated in the Vulgate was later added, becoming widely accepted in the course of the 5th century. . . . Its vocabulary and style differ so radically from the rest of the Gospel that it hardly seems possible Mark himself composed it. . . . Mark 16.1-8 is a satisfactory ending to the Gospel insofar as it declares Jesus’ Resurrection-prophecy to be fulfilled.”
Note that the New Catholic Encyclopedia argues that the vocabulary and style of Mark 16:9-20 differ so radically from the Gospel of Mark that it hardly seems possible that Mark himself wrote those verses. Yes, Mark’s style is plain, direct; his paragraphs are short and the transitions are simple. But in this ending, as the Encyclopedia observes, “we have a carefully arranged series of statements, each with its proper introductory expression.” Well has it been likened to a piece of torn satin attached to a roll of homespun.
There is also the matter of vocabulary. There are words used in Mr 16 verses 9 through 20 that do not appear elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel, some words that do not occur in any of the other Gospels, some that do not occur elsewhere in the Christian Greek Scriptures. These verses consist of 163 Greek words, and, of these, 19 words and 2 phrases do not occur elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel. Or, put otherwise, in these verses there are 109 different words, and, of these, 11 words and 2 phrases are unique to these verses.
But most conclusive of all that Mark could not have written these verses and that they are no part of the inspired Word of God is their content. As has already been noted, there is no evidence that Christ’s followers were to be able to drink deadly poison without being hurt, as stated in Mr 16 verse 18. Even in the matter of handling snakes it is very apparent that those handling them do all they can to keep the snakes from biting, and they handle them only for five minutes at a time.
Further, these questionable verses state that the eleven apostles refused to believe the testimony of two disciples whom Jesus had met on the way and to whom he revealed himself. But, according to the account in Luke, when the two disciples found the eleven and those with them, these said: “For a fact the Lord was raised up and he appeared to Simon!”—Luke 24:13-35.
So in view of all the foregoing what do we conclude? That Mark 16:9-20 is not part of God’s inspired Word, and that for the following reasons: (1) These verses are not found in two of the oldest and most highly regarded Greek manuscripts as well as others. (2) They are also not found in many of the oldest and best Bible translations or versions. (3) Such ancient scholars as Eusebius and Jerome pronounced them spurious. (4) The style of these verses is entirely different from that of Mark. (5) The vocabulary used in these verses is different from that of Mark. (6) And, most important of all, the very content of these verses contradicts the facts and the rest of the Scriptures.
Regarding these questionable verses, it might be noted that not only did the ones adding them do a very poor job but it may well be that they proceeded on a wrong premise. How so? In that Mark actually may have ended his Gospel with what is now Mr 16 verse eight. Noting that this could well be, especially in view of Mark’s abrupt style, are Eusebius, Jerome and the New Catholic Encyclopedia as well as Aid to Bible Understanding.
There certainly are grave consequences, even death to some, when additions to God’s Word are made in disregard of repeated warnings. (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18) On the other hand, “the saying of Jehovah endures forever.”—1 Pet. 1:25.
a Regarding this passage, a footnote in The Jerusalem Bible says: “That Mark was its author cannot be proved.”