Snake Handling Pastor Dies Following Disputed Verses that Shouldn’t Even Be in the Bible at All

The Washington Post has been running some articles by Lauren Pond, a photojournalist working on a project documenting Pentecostal snake handling practices. She became friends with the pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford who died after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a worship service. The snake-handling Christians believe they are commanded to handle snakes and drink poison, and if bitten or in danger they are forbidden to ask for medical help, but to pray for healing instead. Pond’s recent article asks tough questions concerning whether or not it is ethical for a journalist to simply watch somebody die in order to document it, instead of getting involved and trying to help the person. Pond is asking the ethics question: should she have simply called 911 and gotten him help? As it was, she snapped pictures while the man died.

It’s a good question and I applaud Pond for asking it. I think biblical scholars need to be asking themselves a similar ethical question – pastors as well. Here’s why.

The practice of snake handling is based in large part on Mark 16:18 which reads, “They will pick up serpents 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.” What most people don’t know is that these verses belong to a group of verses from Mark 16:9-20 which scholars now agree shouldn’t even be a part of the canon. The blame for this senseless death, and the many others just like it, lies with the interpretive community which closes its eyes to current scholarship regarding the ending of Mark.
The main problem stems from the fact that scholars who began to publish bibles in the Middle Ages had only a few older manuscripts from which to translate and produce their bibles. Most translators were working with copies of copies of copies that were not all that old in the first place. Over the years, as historians, scholars, and archaeologists have found older manuscripts, questions began to arise about the disputed verses. More than one alternate ending of Mark seem to exists. More importantly the oldest manuscripts that have been located and studied indicate that all of the alternate versions (anything after Mark 16:8), were tacked on at a much later date.
In a nerdy academic journal article, bible scholar Robert H. Stein gave three compelling reasons we should see Mark 16:9-20 as not part of the original gospel:
First: The oldest copies we have stop at Mark 16:8
The sheer number of high quality manuscripts, including the oldest manuscripts, we now have lack the disputed verses. (See: (Codexes X  and B, itk [Codex Bobiensis], Clement of Alexandria  and Ori­gen, and  the comments by Eusebius and Jerome  that  the majority of Greek manuscripts they we re familiar with lacked it – Robert H. Stein, Bulletin for Biblical Research 18.1 (2008) 79-98). Most of the oldest and best manuscripts end at 16:8.
Second, Copyists often add verses, seldom subtract; ancient Fathers ignore 16:9-20
Scholars believe that copyists over the years would never have omitted 16:9-20 if it was part of the original document. Copyists simply didn’t do this sort of thing. If the first manuscript included the disputed verses, then no ancient manuscript would exits without them. Yet, that is exactly what we have. It seems much more likely that a copyist added them at a later date when they were dissatisfied with the way it ends (the disciples don’t come off that well in Mark). Moreover, the ancient church fathers who commented on Mark seemed completely unaware of 16:9-20. They don’t comment on it, which seems very odd especially given the bit about snake handling.
Third, the language used is completely different from the rest of the book
The vocabulary used in Mark 16:9-20 is different from the rest of the book. It contains 18 terms which are not found anywhere else in Mark. They style of writing – grammar, syntax – doesn’t match the rest of the book, especially the first eight verses of chapter 16. More importantly, the theology of 16:9-20 does not fit with the rest of Mark. The way the gospel is written from start to finish demands that it end with the disciples fearing and not knowing what to do – unable to speak. This text was written by a different author, from a different region, at a different time. 
I applaud this pastors integrity and faith, but I believe he died senselessly. Scholarly opinion today is that Mark ends at 16:8. The verses about snake handling shouldn’t even be in the scripture at all. Most versions of the bible you can purchase today will note this fact, and will printed the disputed verses as either a footnote, or in italics denoting that they are disputed. 
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  • Dear Tim:

    I object strongly to your charge that the blame for Mack Wolford’s death does not lie with the interpretive community which closes its eyes to current scholarship regarding the ending of Mark. Mark 16:9-20 has been used as Scripture by many people who did not misinterpret it and misapply it the way Mr. Wolford did. It is unfair to blame a misinterpreter’s misinterpretation on anyone other than him.

    I do not grant your claim that that scholars agree that Mark 16:9-20 shouldn’t be in the canon. It looks like you have overextrapolated about this. A scholar who regards the passage as secondary does not necessarily believe that it is not canonical. Inasmuch as the Council of Trent affirmed the canonicity of these verses, and inasmuch as the lectionary-cycle of the Orthodox churches features them prominently, it seems to me that you must be referring to a relatively small group of American Protestant scholars.

    And a lot of those scholars, including Robert H. Stein, have been misinformed about the evidence pertaining to Mark 16:9-20. Dr. Stein misrepresented the testimony of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome. The article that you mentioned contains several bad mistakes and inaccuracies. Here are some clarifications and corrections to consider.

    First: The two oldest copies of Mark 16 that we have stop at Mark 16:8. One of those is Codex Sinaiticus (Aleph, not “X”), which was produced c. 350, almost certainly at Caesarea. The page on which Mark ends in Codex Sinaiticus is part of a four-page replacement-sheet, containing Mark 14:54-Luke 1:56, which was not produced by the same copyist who made the surrounding pages. In addition, the rate of the lettering-spacing on these replacement-pages is erratic and indicates that the copyist was aware of some special problem involving the ending of Mark. The other ancient Greek manuscript in which Mark’s text stops at 16:8 is Codex Vaticanus, which was produced c. 325; it, too, was probably made at Caesarea, and one of the copyists involved in the production of Vaticanus may have supervised the production of Sinaiticus. In Codex Vaticanus, the copyist left a special blank space after 16:8, as if he had been copying from a master-copy in which the text ended there, but he recollected the missing verses from another source and attempted to leave room for them in the event that the eventual owner of the codex wanted them to be included. Since Vaticanus and Sinaiticus are the only two Greek manuscripts in which the text ends at 16:8, followed by the closing-title, the sentence “Most of the oldest and best manuscripts end at 16:8” cannot be taken seriously; it cannot be stated by anyone who is honest and well-informed and who believes that there are more than three ancient and good-quality Greek manuscripts of Mark.

    Clement of Alexandria did not quote from 12 *chapters* of Mark, so his non-use of 12 verses says nothing about whether these verses were in his copies of Mark. (In addition, he may refer to Mk. 16:19 in a comment about Jude 24 preserved in Latin by Cassiodorus.) Origen, likewise, did not use Mark very much, and there are numerous and larger parts of Mark’s text from which Origen does not quote; his testimony is a neutral silence.

    [to be continued]

    – James Snapp, Jr.

  • [Continuing. I'm not quite sure where I left off; pardon the overlap if there is any.]

    Second: it is simply not true that copyists often add verses and seldom subtract. This claim has traveled widely but it is incorrect. Royse’s investigation shows that early copyists tended to omit text three times, for every two times they added text. In addition, the claim that “Ancient Fathers ignore 16:9-20” cannot be seriously sustained. The patristic writers who “ignore Mark 16:9-20” tend to ignore the Gospel of Mark as a whole. I have seen statements by over 40 patristic writers – not medieval writers, but writers from the days of the Roman Empire – which utilize Mark 16:9-20 in one way or another. These include writers whose careers are earlier than the earliest extant manuscripts of Mark 16: individuals such as Justin Martyr (160), Tatian (172), and Irenaeus (184).

    The claim that “Scholars believe that copyists over the years would never have omitted 16:9-20 if it was part of the original document” should be adjusted: copyists would not have deliberately omitted verses 9-20 if they believed that it was part of the original document. Factors such as accidental loss (as sometimes happened to the ends of books) and overmeticulous copyists who, one might say, overcleaned the texts they were copying, should not be casually waved away.

    The statement that “The ancient church fathers who commented on Mark seemed completely unaware of 16:9-20” is not true. Again I mention that over 40 Roman-Empire-era writers utilize the contents of Mark 16:9-20.

    Third, the claim that “The vocabulary used in Mark 16:9-20 is different from the rest of the book” should be considered alongside the observation that another 12-verse passage in Mark – 15:40-16:4 – have even more once-used words in it than 16:9-20 contains. But you don’t therefore question 15:40-16:4 too, do you? Of course not. You’ve read some commentator who cherry-picked the internal evidence and only told you about part of the evidence – those 18 terms which are not found anywhere else in Mark.

    It’s really imaginative to claim that Mark 1:1-16:8 /demands/ that Mark ends with the disciples fearing and not knowing what to do, especially if one stops the text at 16:8, the disciples, as a group, are last seen on the narrative stage abandoning Jesus in the garden, back in chapter 14. Inasmuch as Mark leads the reader to expect a post-resurrection meeting – by recording the specific statement about a post-resurrection meeting in 14:28, and again in 16:7 – it rather looks like Mark did not intend to abruptly stop writing in 16:8 – giving readers the false impression that the women were silent even though he would have known, as Matthew did, that they proceeded to report to the disciples.

    I’ve written to you this far, not in hopes of resolving all questions about Mark 16:9-20 in one simple comment, but to encourage you to test your commentaries. There is a lot of misinformation circulating about Mark 16:9-20, and some of it has come from high-level scholars. It is sad that Mack Wolford died the way he did. But if you are going to propose to cut the knot, so to speak, by removing Mark 16:9-20 from the New Testament, instead of untying it via valid interpretation, you need to have a better grip on the facts of the case.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

  • Den

    How about applying some common sense to the whole issue of snake-handling and poison-drinking, rather than arguing about the validity of the passage?

    In the first place, is there anywhere else in Holy Scripture that we are commanded to handle serpents, or to drink poison? Is there anywhere else that makes this an essential part of following the Lord Jesus? More to the point, how does this section of Mark square with the main point of the Gospel – that the Kingdom has arrived, its Lord is Jesus the Christ, and that we are the new people who are already citizens of this Kingdom?

    There are consequences for personal choice. If I choose to walk out into traffic during rush hour, the consequence is likely to be my death from being hit by a car. If I choose to leap from a bridge, the consequence is probably going to be "deceleration trauma" and death at the end of my fall. If I choose to handle poisonous snakes, the consequence is likely to be snake-bite, leading to death. I don't get a pass if I do the first two things I mentioned; why should I expect to get a pass if I handle poisonous snakes?

    I believe in the truthfulness of Holy Scripture, but I also believe that much of it is truth of a super-literal variety. In other words, there are truths revealed in narratives that don't necessarily reflect actual events that happened in history. I'll leave it to others to argue about the validity of this particular set of verses. For me, however, it's all trumped by what I know of the documented behavior of poisonous snakes.

  • Good say, Den. If I were ready to concede the point on textual criticism that Mk. 16:9-20 was part of the original autograph (which I am not anywhere close to doing), my next argument would be that collecting venomous snakes & playing w/them in worship is a flier we should not attempt.

  • Den

    A thought came to me after I posted my original comment.

    In a sense, this phenomenon is akin to putting the Lord to the test. Adherents of snake-handling would probably say that they're putting themselves and their faith to the test, but I don't exactly see it that way. I've seen hugely faithful people pray long and hard for healing, for instance, and the ultimate answer was in the negative. I don't think that indicated a lack of faith in our Lord, just that there were other factors at work, other agendas to be met, other purposes to be fulfilled, and we aren't in control of those things.

    In the case of the snake-handlers, to me it's like a small boy shouting to his father as he scrambled along a building ledge, "Daddy! Are you going to catch me when I jump off? Are you, Daddy?" And the father yells back to his son, "You don't need to do this, son. I never said you had to do this. Climb down, now, and come home to me and your mom."

    It's obvious this whole practice, and related behaviors, are more complex than what I've just written. The worship of the Lord takes a myriad of forms. Some are shocking, and others are mild. And yet, we're all trying to connect with that Lord, and I guess that's what's most important, in the end.

  • It's an interesting analogy, Dennis. I like it. I do think "testing" God is a precarious undertaking, mostly because we have such a limited perspective at any given time in our lives. Most situations during which we are tempted to "test" God will look so different a decade or two later. Time and perspective will really transform our view of the present moment. This is why faith must be much more than a contrived experience. I think snake handling is a blatant contrivance. It doesn't seem at all like obedience to me. I cannot help but wonder what kind of contribution could be made to the kingdom of God if the snake handlers would use their time and resources to try and care for the poor.

  • Den

    There was a really interesting article about the pastor who died on this morning. It went on at some length, giving a lot of background on the whole subject. It seems that Mack Wolford was concerned that the practice of snake-handling was in danger of dying off. So he did what any good advocate would do – he ranged far and wide, holding services where snakes were handled and all the other earmarks of this interpretation of those passages in Mark were present. He died as a result of his convictions, as did his father in the 1980's.

    Frankly, I'm sorry he died. I, like you, Tim, wish he had found a more beneficial way of applying his passion for the Lord.

    It's said the unexamined life is not worth living. This strikes me as another example of the need for us to constantly look at what we're doing, and why, in the light of the Truth we have received.

  • Robert

    I enjoyed reading your posts and the comments, but I was surprised you never responded to James… Have you not yet had time to consider/fact check/evaluate his claims?

  • Tim Suttle

    Thanks Robert. It’s true, I didn’t reply to James. I decided to simply let him have his say. The truth is that I am not capable of doing text-critical work. I don’t have the experience or the training. Incidentally, James actually called me and we talked for a bit. I learned that James does not have the training for text-critical work either. He has no qualifications: no masters in bible or theology, nor does he have a Phd. That in itself doesn’t disqualify his opinion. He might just be naturally brilliant. But he has not submitted any of his academic text-critical work for peer review. No other experts have examined his expert opinion. So I do not yet take it seriously. I have no way to tell if James is making it all up. I need scholars who could tell to look at his work. Until then, I don’t take it seriously. My opinion (presented in the post), on the ending of John derives from the major opinion of the academic community as it stands right now. Hope that makes sense.

  • Tim, I know your heart is to strengthen and encourage the body at large. What was the intended take-away from this piece?

    • Tim Suttle

      Hey J. I think it was that there is a critical biblical issue about which some scholarship could have saved this pastor his life. For the book of Mark to work theologically, I think it needs to stop at 16:8. This is the scholarly consensus. But, even if we keep that as an open issue, I think it would be prudent not to take the alternative ending so literally that we begin to take part in unwise and dangerous behavior as a part of our worship. Worship is SO important in the formation of humans. It should not be so highly invested in things like handling snakes – it’s just too important for that.

      If you take their logic to the extreme, why rattlesnakes? They are very docile & friendly. Why not use a Black Mamba or a Tiger Snake? That would really prove the power of God. You get my point there? The whole thing is a distraction from what true worship should be. Worship is where we practice in microcosm the way we should be at all times in our lives. The snakes don’t help us with this, and there is actually some really good scholarship that tells us that they shouldn’t even be a part of the picture.

  • Jonathan

    Just keep endlessly rationalising away over what each and every (nonsensical) biblical verse REALLY meant to say, to maintain your delusional god beliefs in your own minds, but reality trumps fantasy every time, doesn’t it? If you’re foolish enough to believe in an ancient fairytale invented by ignorant, primitive camel jockeys and seriously believe you can drink cyanide or get bitten by deadly snakes with impunity, evolution has no use for your material and will remove you from the gene pool pronto. I can almost hear it calling: “NEXT!”