Mark 16:17-18: A Biblical Mandate for Handling Poisonous Snakes?

December 2017 Credo

The Practice of Snake Handling

The practice of snake handling, especially venomous ones, can be found in some churches as part of their worship service.  Although snake handling has resulted in deaths from snake bites, it is still being practiced as it is perceived by members of such congregations as a test or demonstration of the snake handlers’ faith.  The scriptural passage often cited to support this practice is Mark 16:17-18:

And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name … they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; … (Mark 16:17-18)

There are two main issues related to such use of this passage: (1) whether 16:9-20 is a latter addition or the original ending of the Gospel of Mark and (2) the interpretation of 16:17-18.

Is 16:9-20 the Original Ending of Mark?

Many English translations such as the ESV, NASB, NIV, NKJV and NRSV note that several of the earliest manuscripts of Mark do not contain 16:9-20.  Early prominent Christians such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome either do not show awareness of 16:9-20 or note that 16:9-20 was missing from most of the Greek manuscripts of Mark.[1]  Many early copies of Mark containing 16:9-20 also have notes indicating the passage as a spurious addition.[2]  Thus, the external evidence (manuscripts) does not support 16:9-20 as original.

The use of literary criticism (internal evidence) also reduces the likelihood of 16:9-20 as the original ending of Mark, such as the incongruence between 16:8, describing fearful and fleeing women, and 16:9, which begins by presupposing the resurrected Christ, using a masculine, nominative participle “arising” (Greek anastas) to refer to Jesus with no male antecedent, to Mary Magdalene, who is described like a new character, though she has appeared just prior to this passage (15:40, 47; 16:1).  Other evidence include the use of numerous new words in 16:9-20 that are not found earlier, and themes that seem to contradict earlier themes, such as the prominence of charismatic signs in 16:17-18 in contrast to Jesus’ reticence to them (cf. 8:11-13).[3]

As such, both external and internal evidence point to 16:9-20 as a later addition to the Gospel of Mark.  However, the addition must have occurred quite early, as early as 145 CE in the Epistula Apostolorum 9-10.[4]

As for the original ending of the Gospel of Mark, the more likely possibility is that (1) 16:8 is not the intended/original ending of Mark than (2) it ending at 16:8.  The strongest evidence for the second view is that the earliest manuscripts ended at 16:8.  However, arguments for such a view, i.e. an open-ended ending, are mostly based on modern literary theory, especially reader-response theory, than the nature of ancient texts that usually state a conclusion, rather than suggesting them.[5]  Literary, linguistic and contextual considerations suggest that either the original ending was lost or the author of Mark was killed or interrupted before completing it.[6]

What does 16:17-18 Mean?

Mark 16:17-18 provides a list of signs of power accompanying those who believe, many appearing as miracles in other parts of NT but are here considered as signs of faith.  We will examine two of the signs: the handling of snakes and drinking of deadly poison.

The Greek term for snake used here, ophis, refers to a generic snake, not necessarily a poisonous one, unlike the term echidna, used in Acts 28:3-6 in the account of Paul miraculously surviving a poisonous serpent bite.  Interestingly, ophis is also used in Genesis 3 in the narrative of the temptation of the primeval couple by the snake.  This raises the possibility that the handling of snakes here could refer metaphorically to the overcoming of the curse of the serpent in the new age of salvation.[7]

As for the sign of drinking poison (Greek thanasimos), there are no other references in the NT concerning Christians drinking poison without any harm.  However, there is a reference to the same Greek term for poison used here, thanasimos, towards the end of the first century, by Ignatius in his letter to the Trallians, that is suggestive for understanding 16:17-18.

As evidenced in Ignatius’ letter to the Trallians, there seems to be a heretical cult related to “poison” that was affecting Christian groups.  Ignatius cautions the Trallians against the food of the heretics, mixed like deadly poisons (thanasimos) with honeyed wine (Ign. Trall. 6), in this case referring either literally to poison or metaphorically to heresy.  This raises the possibility of a similar understanding of deadly poison in Mark 16:17-18, which when combined with the prior understanding of ophis as referring to the curse of the serpent, suggests heresy to be the more likely reference.[8]

Conclusion

Thus, the reference to handling snakes and drinking poison in Mark 16:17-18 should be interpreted metaphorically as believers being freed from the curse of the serpent, with reference to Genesis 3, and being protected from heresy, rather than literally as a test or demonstration of faith.  The examination of this passage emphasizes the importance of understanding the meaning of a biblical passage with respect to the socio-cultural-historical context in which it was written to avoid misinterpretation and misapplication of biblical passages. Nevertheless, like the early church whose missionary gospel was attested by miraculous signs (cf. Mark 16:20), our interpretation does not rule out the possibility of such signs of power accompanying Christians in missionary contexts.  Rather than being tests or signs of faith, these signs of power serve to convince non-believers that the Christian God is real and more powerful than local religions, especially where the occult is prevalent.[9]


[1] Mark L. Strauss, Mark, ZECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 728.

[2] Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, WBC (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 543.

[3] Strauss, Mark, 729; James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 498–99.

[4] Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM, 1985), 168.

[5] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 670–73.

[6] For more details, see Edwards, Mark, 501–3.

[7] Ibid., 506.

[8] Ibid., 506–7.

[9] Ibid., 507.



Rev Dr James Lim teaches subjects related to New Testament at Trinity Theological College. He is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Singapore and serves as an associate minister in Ang Mo Kio Presbyterian Church.