Monday, August 14, 2017

Snakes

There is in America a sect of extremely fundamentalist Christians who believe that Mark 16:17 endorses the handling of venomous snakes  and that their handling those snakes is a sign of their faith. Though this sect is very new, beginning in the early 20th century, and consists today of only about 40 churches wiki  with about 3000 members in the rural American South, Bible critics like to point out the stupidity of the practice and blame the Bible for it.


   So let's look at what the Bible says. The passage most often quoted is Mark 16:15-18.
15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 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.”

   The accusation by skeptics is that the Bible - Jesus himself since this passage directly quotes Jesus - exhorts snake handling. Before looking at the passage critically, we should note that most conservative Bible scholars today consider the verses at the end of Mark, verses 9-20, to be a later addition to the Gospel. Most modern translations today indicate that in footnotes.

   Yet Mark 16 does mirror the words of Jesus at the end of Matthew where the command to go and preach the gospel is found  and in Luke 10:19 where Jesus says  to the seventy disciples,  " I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you." So what do we do with Mark 16?

   First, we should determine what it says. It includes only one command, and that is to preach the gospel. "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation." The one verb is "preach" (κηρύξατε).  It is an aorist active imperative 2nd person plural. All that means it is a command to the disciples (and us) to preach the gospel until the task is completed. 

   In verse 17 and 18, "drive out," "speak," and  "pick up"  are all future indicative active. That means they are describing what will happen in the future not commanding it. And, in fact, those things did happen. Paul was bitten by a venomous snake and lived; believers spoke in tongues and drove out demons. Some Christians did place their hands on people and they were healed. But not all did so. 

   The passage says these signs will accompany or follow those who believe. It does not say, as the snake handlers preach and as the skeptics affirm, that all believers will do these things. And the rest of the New Testament affirms that few believers, even then, cast out demons;  not all spoke in tongues; and only Paul is said to have handled a venomous snake. 

   Secondly, we should not allow the foolishness of some believers and the critique of skeptics to divert us from the message. Snake handling is not a practice that is to be followed. Speaking in unknown tongues is not for everyone. Even the gift of placing hands on the sick for healing is not a gift for every believer. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:
29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.
   But the command to preach the gospel is for all. And the promise that follows the command is one we can hold on to: "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved."

   Don't let the mistaken ideas of a few and the accusations of the critics deter you.
 

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