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'Snake Handling' preacher's death is sad...and unbiblical

Snake-handling Pastor Jamie Coots was killed after a snakebite
Snake-handling Pastor Jamie Coots was killed after a snakebite
Shelley Mays - AP

As reported by CNN today, a snake-handling preacher in Kentucky died this weekend after being bitten by one of the poisonous snakes used during worship services at his church and refusing medical treatment.

"Jamie Coots died Saturday evening after refusing to be treated, Middleborough police said.

On "Snake Salvation," the ardent Pentecostal believer said that he believed that a passage in the Bible suggests poisonous snakebites will not harm believers as long as they are anointed by God. The practice is illegal in most states, but still goes on, primarily in the rural South.

Coots was a third-generation "serpent handler" and aspired to one day pass the practice and his church, Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, on to his adult son, Little Cody."

[emphasis added]

The passage in question, to which various snake-handling churches appeal in defense of their practice is found at the end of the Gospel of Mark:

"Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils. And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept. And they, when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not.

After that he appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country. And they went and told it unto the residue: neither believed they them.

Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen. And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God. And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen."

Mark 16:9-20 KJV

"And these signs shall follow them that believe...they shall take up serpents..."

From this passage, snake-handling Christians justify the practice of picking up live poisonous snakes during their worship services as evidence that they are among "them that believe" and are following the leading of the Holy Spirit. Some also drink various poisons during the service as well.

After all, if we believe the Bible is the Word of God and that Jesus actually did rise from the grave to Resurrected glory, sending the Holy Spirit to empower and lead His followers as they take His Gospel to the whole world, it only makes sense that we would do what He said and the signs noted in the passage above should accompany our ministry...

...unless the passage above was never in Mark's Gospel to begin with.

Most Christians don't make it a habit to read the footnotes in their Bibles. However, the careful reader of Scripture will find something like the following footnoted in most modern translations when he or she gets to this passage--specifically around verses 8 or 9:

The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20. (NIV)

Some of the most ancient authorities bring the book to a close at the end of verse 8. One authority concludes the book with the shorter ending; others include the shorter ending and then continue with verses 9-20. In most authorities verses 9-20 follow immediately after verse 8, though in some of these authorities the passage is marked as being doubtful. (NRSV)

Some manuscripts end the book with 16:8; others include verses 9-20 immediately after verse 8. A few manuscripts insert additional material after verse 14; one Latin manuscript adds after verse 8 the following: But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Other manuscripts include this same wording after verse 8, then continue with verses 9-20 (ESV)

Some of the oldest mss. do not contain vv. 9-20 (NASB)

These footnotes let the reader know that everything after v.8 of Mark chapter 9 has been added by later scribes or copyists during the transmission of the text hundreds of years after Mark wrote. Nothing after v.8 was written by Mark as part of his Gospel. This is nothing new or shocking. Students of the New Testament learn this during their very first Greek Interp class in most seminaries.

But why is the passage, which is not original to Mark, still included in so many Bibles? The short answer: tradition.

The manuscripts in which the longer endings are found--manuscripts the earliest of which date to many, many centuries after the Gospels were written--were the manuscripts that the translators of the Authorized Version (aka. the King James Version) were working from at the time. They are part of the family of manuscripts of the New Testament known as the "Majority Text" or "Textus Receptus." But in the centuries since the KJV was produced, more and more manuscripts of the New Testament texts have been found--manuscripts which are far older than the Majority Text manuscripts and far more reliable in reconstructing the original text of Mark's Gospel.

In fact, this reconstructing of the Biblical texts from all available manuscript evidence, also known as "Textual Criticism", is an entire field of historical scholarship that has been going on for the past few centuries. And the ending of Mark's Gospel is easily the most well-known example among text critics of a later scribal notation becoming incorporated into the text over centuries of hand-copying. [For an easy-to-understand illustration of how New Testament Text Criticism works and why we can trust it, see "Who Changed the Words of the Bible and Why?"]

The most comprehensive footnote about this section of Mark is found in the New English Translation, also known as the NET Bible. It reads in part as follows:

The Gospel of Mark ends at this point in some witnesses ...including two of the most respected MSS [manuscripts]. ...Most MSS include the longer ending (vv. 9–20) immediately after v. 8...however, Jerome and Eusebius knew of almost no Greek MSS that had this ending. Several MSS have marginal comments noting that earlier Greek MSS lacked the verses, while others mark the text with asterisks or obeli (symbols that scribes used to indicate that the portion of text being copied was spurious)...

All of this evidence strongly suggests that as time went on scribes added the longer ending, either for the richness of its material or because of the abruptness of the ending at v. 8. (Indeed, the strange variety of dissimilar endings attests to the probability that early copyists had a copy of Mark that ended at v. 8, and they filled out the text with what seemed to be an appropriate conclusion. All of the witnesses for alternative endings to vv. 9–20 thus indirectly confirm the Gospel as ending at v. 8.) Because of such problems regarding the authenticity of these alternative endings, 16:8 is usually regarded as the last verse of the Gospel of Mark.

There are three possible explanations for Mark ending at 16:8: (1) The author intentionally ended the Gospel here in an open-ended fashion; (2) the Gospel was never finished; or (3) the last leaf of the ms was lost prior to copying.

This first explanation is the most likely due to several factors, including (a) the probability that the Gospel was originally written on a scroll rather than a codex (only on a codex would the last leaf get lost prior to copying); (b) the unlikelihood of the ms [manuscript] not being completed; and (c) the literary power of ending the Gospel so abruptly that the readers are now drawn into the story itself. E. Best aptly states, "It is in keeping with other parts of his Gospel that Mark should not give an explicit account of a conclusion where this is already well known to his readers" .... The readers must now ask themselves, "What will I do with Jesus? If I do not accept him in his suffering, I will not see him in his glory."

Double brackets have been placed around this passage to indicate that most likely it was not part of the original text of the Gospel of Mark. In spite of this, the passage has an important role in the history of the transmission of the text, so it has been included in the translation.

So whatever the origin of the "snake handling" passage in Mark 16:9ff may be, we can be fairly certain that it was not originally in Mark's Gospel. And since nowhere else in Scripture are Jesus' followers ever told to pick up poisonous snakes as part of a demonstration of their faith, such a foolhardy and irresponsible practice would not be warranted even if this passage were part of the canonical Biblical text.

However, since most churches that practice snake-handling adhere to such a folk-theology, the findings of text-critical scholars are often met with skepticism or dismissed as "human knowledge" that "puffs-up" rather than "Spirit-filled wisdom" that marks the truly faithful. Such folk-theology is often rather harmless. But in this case (and the others like it that have occurred over the years among snake-handling congregations), the results are literally a matter of life and death.

The tragic (and needless) death of Jamie Coots serves as a vivid reminder of why something as seemingly dry and academic as Biblical Text Criticism is actually a much-needed and valuable tool that the Body of Christ should heed and give proper weight to--even if it means having to abandon a "King James Only" approach to Scripture.

After all, the most faithful and Spirit-filled reading of the Bible is the one that sticks to the Scriptures that were actually written by the Biblical authors and Inspired by the Holy Spirit.

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