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On Snake Handling, Etc.

Daniel Steele (1824-1914)

Daniel Steele (1824-1914)

It was one of those odd coincidences that occur now and then. Just after the news reported the death of a snake-handling Pentecostal preacher, I happened to post this on the Steele’s Answers blog:

QUESTION: Is Mark 16:17, 18 to be taken in its literal meaning? If so, have not all believers the power to cast out devils, to heal the sick, to drink deadly poisons and handle rattlesnakes without harm?
ANSWER: The Revision informs the reader that the last twelve verses of Mark are not in the two oldest manuscripts, and that some authorities have a different ending to his Gospel. Most of the experts regard it as “an apocryphal fragment” (Meyer) and that “the internal evidence is very weighty against Mark being the author.” (Alford.) No less than twenty-one words and phrases occur in these verses, and some of them several times, which are never elsewhere used by Mark. For this reason I have for more than thirty years conscientiously refrained from quoting any part of this passage as a proof-text of any doctrine. It is thought that either he left his Gospel unfinished, having died in the middle of a sentence, or what is more probable, that the last part of his manuscript was accidentally torn off before any copies were made. In India a favorite method of annoying the missionary preaching in the open air is to bring him a cobra, whose bite is fatal, and ask him to handle it in proof of the truth of his sacred books. The grave doubt of the genuineness of this passage affords him a good reason for declining this test. We look in vain in the Acts of the Apostles for any instance of drinking poison or picking up snakes to demonstrate the divine origin of Christianity.
Steele’s Answers p. 105, 106.
Jamie Coots with snakes

Jamie Coots with snakes

I schedule posts to the Steele’s Answers blog a week or two ahead. (Basically, I scan several pages at a time and then edit the posts and schedule them out in advance.) So, I had no way of knowing that this post would appear in the wake of the news of the death of Jamie Coots a snake-handling Pentecostal preacher who was featured on a reality TV show: Reality show snake-handling preacher dies — of snakebite.

The National Geographic show featured Coots and cast handling all kinds of poisonous snakes — copperheads, rattlers, cottonmouths. The channel’s website shows a picture of Coots, goateed, wearing a fedora. “Even after losing half of his finger to a snake bite and seeing others die from bites during services,” Coots “still believes he must take up serpents and follow the Holiness faith,” the website says.

Morgan Guyton — who, like a lot of bloggers, uses his blog as a place to think out loud — suggested yesterday that Snake Handling presents a challenge to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, since if this is the inerrant word, then we should all be handling snakes and drinking poison. Morgan writes:

There really isn’t any fudge room in this passage in Mark. They way to determine whether you “believe” in the form of believing that means that you’re “saved” is to check for five signs: 1) casting out demons, 2) speaking in tongues, 3) snake-handling, 4) poison-drinking, and 5) faith-healing. It says plainly that “these signs will accompany those who believe.” So the Biblical inerrantists have a bit of an awkward situation on their hands with this text.

Really? The wording in Mark 16:16-18 is as follows:

16 ὁ πιστεύσας καὶ βαπτισθεὶς σωθήσεται, ὁ δὲ ἀπιστήσας κατακριθήσεται.  17 σημεῖα δὲ τοῖς πιστεύσασιν ταῦτα παρακολουθήσει· ἐν τῷ ὀνόματί μου δαιμόνια ἐκβαλοῦσιν, γλώσσαις λαλήσουσιν καιναῖς,  18 [καὶ ἐν ταῖς χερσὶν] ὄφεις ἀροῦσιν κἂν θανάσιμόν τι πίωσιν οὐ μὴ αὐτοὺς βλάψῃ, ἐπὶ ἀρρώστους χεῖρας ἐπιθήσουσιν καὶ καλῶς ἕξουσιν.

“The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.  And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues;  they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

greek-nt-openThis passage does not contain any command to handle snakes or drink poison. And it certainly does not say that salvation depends upon doing those things. It says these signs will follow (παρακολουθήσει) or accompany believers. The only condition of salvation mentioned in this passage is faith (verse 16). This looks for all the world like a description of things that were reported to have happened during the time of the earliest church. According to the book of Acts, the apostle Paul was bitten by a snake and suffered no ill effects (Acts 28:4,5). It doesn’t say he or anyone else in the early Church sought out snakes — or sought to drink poison to prove the genuineness of their faith.

This is not an issue about “inerrancy” or “literal interpretation of the Bible” (whatever that means). This passage in no way commands snake handling!

In fact, most Christians would argue that to deliberately handle snakes or drink poison as a proof of faith would be tempting God and thus, a sin (Matthew 4:7)! It says signs follow believers. Believers do not follow signs. And, believers are warned against trying to force God’s hand.

There is no question in my mind that the Shorter and Longer Endings of Mark were not original to the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of Mark ends at an odd place — the sentence doesn’t even seem to be be complete. And Mark 16:7 speaks of a later appearance of Jesus to the disciples — and it really seems strange that this is not recorded in the book. So, it seems like something is missing here, and that later scribes sought to round out the book by putting a suitable ending on it (as Dr. Steele says above.)

However, this passage has been in the Bible for many long years before Biblical scholars determined that it was a later addition. There is nothing heretical about it — and it is very ancient. People were not running around poisoning themselves and getting themselves bitten by snakes right and left until the advent of modern textual criticism.

The issue with Jamie Coots, and other snake-handling preachers, is not about inerrancy or “literal” interpretation — it is about false interpretation. It is an issue of hermeneutics.

Bad theology is deadly. In more ways than one.



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