Pass the snakes: How Presbyterians read Scripture

Recently there has been quite a bit of discussion about the incident in the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Middlesboro, Kentucky, where a pastor died from handling rattlesnakes. According to his belief system he was being faithful to biblical injunctions found in a secondary ending of Mark’s gospel (Mark 16:9- 20) that those who believe in the risen Christ “will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.” He said he took the text at face value.

According to an article in National Geographic, the pastor refused treatment after being bitten and went home, expecting
to recover fully. Despite the outcome, the reporter said that he was impressed by the pastor’s devout religious convictions and demonstration of unwavering faith. The reporter noted the congregation quickly moved to cover all theological objections: if the pastor lived he demonstrated faith in the Bible; if he died he would be with the Lord. 

As Presbyterians we look at the Bible quite differently. Although we believe that it contains the “witness without parallel” to God’s truth (Confession of 1967, C-9.27), we also know that texts cannot be understood correctly unless they are examined with critical knowledge derived from careful exegesis, historical understanding, linguistic background and archaeological information. We do not take passages at face value; we do not worship the written word of the Bible, but the living Word, Jesus Christ, to whom the texts point.

What is more, it is clear that the passage the pastor fervently accepted is not in the Bible at all. The New Revised Version treats it as a later addition and places it in double brackets. Joel Marcus points in “The Anchor Yale Bible” that the words about snakes and poison were not in the original version of the gospel. They are not found in any of the most ancient versions of Mark 16. Mark never wrote them. He ends his story of Jesus in a surprising way (see 16:8), but not like that. So to say that one believes in the Bible in verses 9-20 is a total misunderstanding, and in this case, a tragic and final one.

As Presbyterians and members of the Reformed faith we are called to be informed readers of the Scriptures. And we certainly are not asked to leave our brains in the coatroom when we listen to sermons. Although aspects of our confessions may seem ridiculous to some outsiders, we try not to abandon common sense or ignore scientific knowledge in our interpretations. Jesus says to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). We know, however, that he was talking about taking risks in the proclamation of the gospel, not urging us to throw ourselves away with entertaining public displays. Discipleship means service that follows the will of God and opens the gospel. Jesus knew that it was possible to be tempted to do the wrong thing for the right reason (Matthew 4:1-11) and alienate the good news from the God it tries to proclaim. As the Confession of 1967 reminds us, we have an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding. We also must take care not to sacramentalize our own interpretations because we know they remain open to change through study or continuing revelation from the Spirit.

Pass the snakes, please. No thanks.

earl-johnson-jrEARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired pastor living in Johnstown, N.Y., and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.