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.