Bryan Fischer
The problem with snake-handling: it's not in the Bible
By Bryan Fischer
June 1, 2012

Follow me on Twitter: @BryanJFischer, on Facebook at "Focal Point"

Two days ago, the Washington Post published a lengthy story on snake-handling pastor Mack Wolford, who died Sunday night from, well, a snakebite he got in church.

Wolford cited Mark 16:17-18 as the source for his practice of handling rattlesnakes, water moccasins, copperheads and other venomous snakes. And Mark 16:18 does seem clear: "they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them."

There's only one problem: Mark 16:18 is not in the Bible.

The last 12 verses of Mark's gospel were added sometime after the original gospel began to circulate, likely to provide a supplement since Mark's account stops so abruptly in Mark 16:8. The reason for the abrupt end of Mark's original account is likely that the final leaf was somehow lost before it began to be copied.

According to eminent New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger, Mark 16:9-20 is missing from the two earliest and most authoritative manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, from the Old Latin codex Bobiensis, and from ancient Syriac, Armenian and Georgian manuscripts.

Early church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen show no knowledge of these verses, and Jerome and early church historian Eusebius write that the passage was missing from almost all the Greek copies of Mark's gospel they had seen.

Many manuscripts that do contain this section have scribal notations to the effect that older Greek copies lacked it, and in other manuscripts there are scribal markings indicating, according to Metzger, that it is a "spurious addition."

There is considerable confusion in the ancient manuscripts that do include an ending to Mark's gospel. There are four different endings, an indicator that the origins of the ending are problematic at best.

In addition, the vocabulary and style of the Greek in vv. 9-20 are at variance with Mark's customary patterns. (The abrupt change in style is evident to anyone who is able to translate Mark's gospel from the Greek.)

Now the addition of vv. 9-20 was probably done as early as the first half of the second century, which is why it appears in many Greek manuscripts. But were it original, there is no plausible explanation why so many copyists, including the ones that created the oldest manuscripts we have, would have omitted it.

There is no need for a sinister explanation, either. The addition was probably made by someone who knew a form of Mark that ended abruptly in v. 8 and he wanted to supply to his patron with a conclusion that made clear reference to the resurrection.

Until Gutenberg, every copy of the New Testament had to be painstakingly copied by hand, meaning only the rich could afford their own copies of the Bible. A scribe naturally would want to give his benefactor a copy of the gospel which included the resurrection. There was likely no attempt to deceive, just to supplement, perhaps by excerpting the segment from another document in circulation at the time.

Accounts were already in existence in the second century of Christians being forced to drink poison by their persecutors and surviving, and perhaps the phrase about handling snakes is a garbled version of the account of Paul being bitten by a poisonous snake and surviving, as Luke records in Acts 28:3-6. It should be noted that Paul did not "pick up" the serpent. The snake came out of the wood pile and bit him in the hand.

Most contemporary translations of Mark's gospel set this section off in brackets to indicate that there are serious questions about its authenticity. For instance, the ESV sets the entire section off in double brackets with this notation: "Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20."

Metzger summarizes by saying that this section is "secondary," and "was someone who wished to supply a more appropriate conclusion." Says Metzger, this section likely "was excerpted from another document, dating perhaps from the first half of the second century."

If Mack Wolford had been a better student of Scripture, he would be alive today. He watched his own father die of snake bite when he was 19, and his own death was gruesomely similar.

He'd also be alive today if he simply used common sense. According to the Post, he had been bitten numerous times by snakes in religious services, which should have raised questions in his mind about whether the words of Mark 16:18 did indeed come from the lips of Jesus.

There is no biblical justification for snake handling in the worship services of the Christian church. Those who do are basing the practice on a passage which has been added to the word of God and thus has no abiding authority.

Bottom line: snake handlers cannot point the finger at either Christ or Mark if something goes disastrously wrong. They have only themselves and their own folly to blame.

(Unless otherwise noted, the opinions expressed are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Family Association or American Family Radio.)

© Bryan Fischer


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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