Biblical Add-Ons, Edits & Agendas: A Challenge to Literalism?

After reading my post about Randy Wolford, the snake-handling pastor, died from a venomous snakebite, blogger Tim Suttle sent me a link to his own post on the subject. Suttle’s angle was different, and I found it fascinating.

Basically, he contends that the verses in Mark that Wolford and others use to justify handling snakes as an act of worship (among other bizarre practices) should not ever have made it into the Bible to begin with. His article cites what he calls a “nerdy academic journal article” from Bible scholar Robert H. Stein. In it, Stein notes a few reasons why the text in Mark chapter 16 beyond verse 8 should never have been included in the Bible.

First, there have been older copies of the manuscripts from which Mark was produced that stop at Mark 16:8. In addition, there’s the historical agreement among scholars that scribes (the guys who copied the texts by hand) did have a propensity for adding to the documents they copied but seldom, if ever, deleted anything. There’s also the fact that ancient scholars whose commentaries on Mark have been found do not mention these verses at all, as well as the agreement among many Biblical scholars that the tone of those verse suggests a different author wrote them.

I think this kind of Biblical scholarship is intriguing, though I expect others see it as a threat. I don’t know about anyone else, but if I claim to base much of my life on the teachings found in a handful of ancient books, I want to know as much about who wrote them and where they came from as possible. But for those who ascribe to a literal interpretation of scripture, I wonder what these kinds of arguments do to their faith, or at least their understanding of what “The Bible” is.

Do they know that the Gospel of John (a favorite among most Evangelicals I know) and the book of Revelation (another Evangelical favorite) almost didn’t make it into the Biblical canon we know today? Ancient theologians such as Origen challenged the use of other Biblical books such as Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John and 3 John as well. Some orthodox churches still do not recognize Revelation as a legitimate part of the Bible.

Meanwhile some Catholics and Orthodox churches use the Apocrypha as part of the Bible, though it isn’t recognized as such my most Protestants. In fact, the word “Apocrypha” has inherent negative connotations, meaning “spurious” or “false.”

Then there are the Dead Sea Scrolls, valued by different groups as holy or sacrilegious, depending on who you ask.

There are those who believe there are secret codes embedded in the book of Exodus and elsewhere, while others claim this is heresy. And even those who claim to believe in Biblical literalism have scads of caveats when it comes to things like stoning adulterers, taking a concubine, owning slaves or keeping all of the Rabbinical laws outlined in the Hebrew Scriptures.

I don’t take personal issue with a literal interpretation of scripture, in and of itself. But when that literalism is used to oppress, condemn, marginalize or even endanger or kill other God-created people, the Bible becomes a weapon of hatred and intolerance. And that, I can’t accept.

Can those who don’t interpret scripture literally use the Bible as a bludgeon against others? Of course. But the inherent lack of room for discussion, critical thought, nuance or even alternate views within the literalist camp is a setup for such abuse.

It seems to me that, if we could get beyond this notion that the Bible was some divine instruction manual to be followed to the letter, the better off we’d all be as fellow human beings, trying awkwardly, and sometimes in vain, to share an ever-shrinking planet.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://twitter.com/TravisStanley Travis Stanley

    If you will permit me a short sermon: I, too, greatly prefer the “shorter ending of Mark”, not the “a bit longer” or “even longer” endings.

    If you end Mark where it should be ended, at vs. 8, you have a beautifully troubling ending: “And they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.”  In the Greek it’s a double-negative, “nothing to no one.”  It’s no wonder that ancient scribes wanted to fix this.  You can’t have the Gospel ending with negativity and fear!
    But why not?  The Gospel of Mark is a lot like a sermon, a sermon that compels the reader/listener to act in response to the Jesus story.  And, it’s not like we don’t know the REAL ending of the story.  After all, if only the women were at the tomb to witness this and if they really remained quiet, then how the hell did Mark get the story?  How did we hear the story?I think Mark’s message is meant to challenge us with the full-weight of the resurrection, asking us the question, “They were scared to speak.  Are you?”  The angel’s testimony sends the witnesses back to Galilee. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  Galilee is where it all happened, where Jesus was, well, Jesus.  Healing the sick.  Preaching to the poor.  Before you speak, go back to where it all happened.  In the face of the poor–in Galilee–you will see Jesus, and then it will all make sense.  Jesus has risen…he’s gone ahead of you.  You’re job: follow after him.  And that seems to be the theme of the entire book of Mark: discipleship.

    Maybe I’m committing the same scribal error as the ancient scribes, trying to tie it all up neatly.  But, I much prefer the sermon that comes as a response to the Shorter Ending, then the bit about snakes and poison.

  • James Snapp

    Dear Christian,

    In the comments at Tim Suttle’s blog I have issued some objections to some aspects of his approach to the issue about Mark 16:9-20.  Basically, he was relying on some shabby research by Dr. Robert Stein — research which led to some demonstrably false claims about certain parts of the manuscript-evidence and patristic evidence pertaining to this passage of Scripture. 

    Since my objections are (I hope!) still there in the comments at Tim Suttle’s blog I won’t repeat them all here.  But it seems to me that it’s a bit hasty to conclude, when one person dies because he misinterpreted and misapplied a passage of Scripture, that the Scripture should be rejected, although it is in over 1,700 Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark, and although the text of Mark ends at 16:8, followed by the closing-title of the book, in just two Greek manuscripts (from the 300′s).  Much earlier, in the 100′s, the patristic writers Justin (160), Tatian (172), and Irenaeus (184) treated Mark 16:9-20 as Scripture.   We don’t have their manuscripts of Mark, but we have the evidence of their utilizations of their manuscripts, showing that those manuscripts included Mark 16:9-20.

    Also, I must say that contrary to Suttle’s claim that “ancient scholars whose commentaries on Mark have been found do not mention these verses at all,” over 40 patristic writers, writing before the fall of the Roman Empire (486), all over the Empire, utilized the passage in one way or another.  (In addition, I must say that I would like for Mr. Suttle to say exactly which collection of commentaries he is talking about, because to the best of my knowledge, although many patristic writers used Mark 16:9-20, the only thorough *commentaries* on Mark that could be even marginally considered early are those by Victor of Antioch and Pseudo-Jerome.  I hope he has not relied on the ridiculous claims that Stephen Miller made on this subject.)

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.
    Minister, Curtisville Christian Church
    Indiana
     

     


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