When I came across this question, my first thought was not how to answer it, but: “Why the question?” For those living in Singapore, snake-handling may be far removed from any association with the Christian faith.
This, however, is not the case in the Appalachian region of the United States. Snake-handling has been a practice in some churches there since the early 20th Century and is still prevalent today. This practice was popularised throughout southeast USA by George Went Hensley (1880–1955), a Church of God Holiness Movement pastor who travelled the region to promote it.
Hensley required snake handling as evidence of salvation. He argued that if believers really had the Holy Spirit within them, they should be able to handle rattlesnakes and other venomous snakes. They should also be able to drink poison and suffer no harm whatsoever. He based his teaching on Mark 16:17–18
“And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
Verse 18 seems to suggest that all disciples should be able to handle poisonous snakes without being harmed—is this correct?
First, how reliable are these verses?
Many of our Bibles have a statement at the end of Mark 16:8 to the effect that Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include Mark 16:9–20. What does this mean?
In brief, the New Testament is not derived from “autograph copies”—i.e. the original document written by the author—since they are lost to us. Rather, the New Testament is put together from manuscripts—i.e. handwritten copies of the original—of which more than 5000 exist, dating from about AD 135 (or earlier) to AD 1200 at the latest.1They show remarkable agreement in general. Naturally, the earlier the date of the manuscript, the more reliable it would be its accuracy, since it is closer to the time of the actual events. Yet we are told in our Bibles that the earliest manuscripts do not include verses 9 to 20!
New Testament scholar James R. Edwards asserts: “The two oldest and most important manuscripts of the Bible, codex Vaticanus (B) and codex Sinaiticus (א), omit 16:9–20, as do several early translations or versions, including the Old Latin, the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, and the two oldest Georgian manuscripts.”2 Even early Church Fathers like Clement of Alexandria and Origen do not show any awareness of the existence of the longer ending, and Eusebius and Jerome attest that verses 9 to 20 were absent from the majority of Greek copies of Mark known to them.3
Moreover, the non-sequitur nature of its contents, coupled with its obvious knowledge of subject matter in the other three Gospels4 (which were dated later than Mark), all cause scholars to conclude that this “longer ending” of Mark must have been inserted later (perhaps by the early Church) to smoothen out what seemed to them an inadequate or lost ending.5 Nevertheless, this does not necessarily render its contents inauthentic. We just need to be aware that it was most probably not written by Mark himself.
Second, do we really have an instruction here to pick up snakes?
The verb “will pick up” in verse 18 (ἀροῦσιν) is an indicative verb, not an imperative one. The same verb is used in Matthew 4:6 and Luke 4:11, when the devil tempted Jesus to throw himself off the highest point in the temple by saying that, as the Scriptures promised, God would command His angels to “lift you up” (ἀροῦσιν). This suggests a “lifting/picking up” that may come in response to a previous action, rather than an instruction to actively do something.
Verse 17 supports this drift by clearly saying: “And these signs will accompany those who believe…” We can therefore safely say that the actions, which follow this line, are those that come by way of accompaniment, rather than an action to be initiated.
As such, what circumstances could the author(s) of this verse possibly be thinking of, when they wrote about Christians picking up snakes in response, and not being harmed in the process? Scholars believe that it is most probably the incident in Acts 28, where Paul and other prisoners landed in Malta, following a shipwreck. The islanders treated them kindly and built a fire to keep them warm. When a viper emerged from the firewood and fastened itself on Paul’s hand, the islanders thought Paul must be so evil that he could not escape death, even though saved from the shipwreck. But seeing that Paul suffered no ill-effects whatsoever, they concluded that he must be a god, which probably facilitated his witness to them.
The author very likely had this incident in mind, since these verses appear in an ending that was later included in Mark’s Gospel. If this was indeed the author’s reference, we can once again confirm that the actions in verses 17–18 are more of responses to situations that occur, rather than initiatives to prove a position, or a feature to be made a regular in the life of the Church.
Third, what is the biblical stance towards snakes in general?
The Bible has at least 53 verses referring to snakes or the like. 6 Most of these verses speak of snakes in a negative light. For example, they are described as dangerous to both animals and humans,7 as poisonous8 and creatures we hope to render harmless one day.9 They are used to refer to Israel’s enemies,10 to things harmful,11 to the ungodly12 and to Satan.13
Only a handful of verses see the creature used to convey something positive. In John 3:14–15, for example, it is used for comparison to Christ’s crucifixion and the salvation it gives. John’s reference for these verses was Numbers 21:7–9, where Moses, under the Lord’s instruction, made a bronze snake and set it on a pole, so that those bitten by fiery serpents would look at it and live.
Nevertheless, this bronze snake that “saved” does not erase the fact that the people’s affliction came by way of snakes in the first place. And interestingly, Moses’ bronze image later became an idol that Hezekiah had to destroy, as people were making offerings to it.14
We see, therefore, that by and large, the biblical witness takes a rather grim outlook on the creature, and is certainly not a source that promotes an active handling of snakes. The snake is, in general, a harmful creature, which God may also use to mete out judgment.
Allow me to highlight one verse in particular. 1 Corinthians 10:9 says: “We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes.” Clearly, we are not to “test” Christ (or “the Lord” in some manuscripts). New Testament scholar Leon Morris says that “testing” here has the idea of “seeing how far one can go” with God.15 Some people have tested God’s limits in this way, Paul tells us, and were consequently killed by snakes.
Reading this verse, I recall that many of the snake-handling preachers of our time died after being bitten by poisonous snakes. George Went Hensley himself died from the bite of a snake he brought to a Sunday Service. Jamie Coots, another famous snake-handling preacher, also died this way. And so did many others. Were these not a consequence of their “testing” God?
In conclusion, it is quite clear that the Bible does not instruct us to handle poisonous snakes. On a practical note, I am rather thankful. There are many snakes within the vicinity of our church here at Rangsit in Pathum Thani, Thailand, and it would not be difficult to find one for Sunday Service. But I think my members would protest! They are more than familiar with the harm and potential danger snakes can pose to their children and the community.
The views expressed in this article are personal and may not reflect the official position of The Methodist Church in Singapore. This version of the article has been edited for brevity. A full version of the article can be found at http://www.trac-mcs.org.sg/index.php/resources/bible-matters?layout=edit&id=264
The Rev Clarence Lee has been a TRAC pastor since 2010. He is currently pastoring at Rangsit Methodist Church in Thailand under the Methodist Missions Society.
1 Edwards, J. R., The Gospel according to Mark, (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002), p. 497.
4 For instance, John 20:1–8 (the story of Mary Magdalene), Luke 24:13–35 (the story of the Emmaus road), and Matthew 28:18–20 (the Great Commission).
5] Cole, R. A., Mark: An Introduction and Commentary—Vol. 2, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989), p. 342.
6] Manser, M. H. Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009).
7 Ge 49:17. See also Ge 3:15; Ex 4:3; 7:9-13; Pr 23:32; Ecc 10:8,11; Isa 30:6; Ac 28:3-6.
8 Isa 14:29. See also Dt 8:15; 32:33; Job 20:14,16; Rev 9:19.
9 Isa 11:8.
10 Isa 27:1; Jer 46:22; 51:34.
11 Mt 7:9-10 pp; Lk 11:11.
12 Ps 58:4-5 See also Ps 140:3; Mt 3:7; 12:34; 23:33; Ro 3:13.
13 Rev 12:9 See also Ge 3:1-13; 2Co 11:3; Rev 20:2.
14 2 Kgs 18:4.
15Morris, L., 1 Corinthians: an introduction and commentary—Vol. 7. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 141.