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Snake-Handling and the Gospel of Mark


Here is something to break up a bit my thread on the Gospel of Mark, studied from a literary-historical perspective (to be resumed in my next post).   This current post is related to Mark but it’s well, different.

There was a recent CNN report that some of you may have seen.   I include it here, below, with the link to the site at the bottom.   This practice in some southern circles (especially in the Appalachians) of handling deadly snakes as part of a worship service is based on the saying of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, after his resurrection, where he tells his disciples that those who come to believe in him will be able to speak in foreign tongues (as happens in Pentecostal churches, e.g.), that they will be able to handle deadly snakes, and if they drink any poison, it will not harm them.

Offhand, I don’t know what in additional to snake-handling churches, we don’t have poison-drinking churches.  Maybe we do?  I’m sure someone on the blog can tell me.  In any event, there are snake –handling churches, as this article makes abundantly clear.  And as it makes equally clear, this practice is really a very bad idea.

What is most striking to me as a scholar of the NT is that the passage in which Jesus’ words about handling snakes are contained was not originally part of the Gospel of Mark.   Or of any other book of the NT.   The oldest form of the Gospel of Mark that we can reconstruct ended with 16:8.  Jesus has been dead and buried, on the third day some women go to the tomb, Jesus is not there, a young man who *is* there tells them that he has been raised and that they are to tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee, and then – the climax of the scene, and arguably of the Gospel – the women “fled from the tomb and didn’t say anything to anyone, for they were afraid.”   Period.  That’s it.  That’s where the Gospel ends.

Scribes who were copying this Gospel were taken aback.  How cold it end there?!?  The *other* Gospels tell of Jesus appearing to the disciples after the resurrection.  Doesn’t Mark?  Surely it does!  Scribes dealt with this problem by *adding* an ending – the final 12 verses in the King James Bible that in most modern translations are in brackets, with a note indicating that they probably weren’t original.  “Probably” isn’t strong enough.  They almost *certainly* were not original, as almost every textual scholar on the planet agrees  (They are missing in our two oldest and best manuscripts; they contain numerous words not found elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel; the writing style is different; and there is an impossibly rough grammatical transition between vv. 8 and 9).

I’ve always thought that someone in the ambulance on the way to the hospital ought to tell one of those snake handlers, “You know, that verse wasn’t originally in the Bible.”

Anyway, here’s the CNN story.


A Kentucky pastor who starred in a reality show about snake-handling in church has died — of a snakebite.

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.

The National Geographic show featured Coots and cast handling all kinds of poisonous snakes — copperheads, rattlers, cottonmouths. The channel’s website shows a picture of Coots, goateed, wearing a fedora. “Even after losing half of his finger to a snake bite and seeing others die from bites during services,” Coots “still believes he must take up serpents and follow the Holiness faith,” the website says.

On Sunday, National Geographic Channels spokeswoman Stephanie Montgomery sent CNN this statement: “In following Pastor Coots for our series Snake Salvation, we were constantly struck by his devout religious convictions despite the health and legal peril he often faced.

“Those risks were always worth it to him and his congregants as a means to demonstrate their unwavering faith. We were honored to be allowed such unique access to Pastor Jamie and his congregation during the course of our show, and give context to his method of worship. Our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.”

In February 2013, Coots was given one year of probation for crossing into Tennessee with venomous snakes. He was previously arrested in 2008 for keeping 74 snakes in his home, according to National Geographic. Tennessee banned snake handling in 1947 after five people were bitten in churches over two years’ time, the channel says on the show site.

On one episode, Coots, who collected snakes, is shown trying to wrest a Western diamondback out of its nook under a rock deep in East Texas. He’s wearing a cowboy hat and a T-shirt that says “The answer to Y2K – JESUS.”

The pastor is helped by his son and a couple of church members.

“He’ll give up, just sooner or later,” one of the members says. “Just be careful. Ease him out.”

The group bags two snakes, which a disappointed Coots says hardly justifies the trip to Texas.

“Catching two snakes the first day, ‘course we’d hoped for more,” Coots says in the video. “We knew that the next day we was gonna have to try to hunt harder and hope for more snakes.”



Mark’s Suffering Son of God
More on Mark



  1. Avatar
    FrancisDunn  February 20, 2014

    I guess the moral to this story is, don’t play with poisonous snakes; you are going to die!!

  2. Avatar
    TubaMike  February 20, 2014

    What timing. I have on my nightstand, waiting for me to finish my current read, “Salvation on Sand Mountain” by Dennis Covington. Having grown up in Appalachia I have been looking forward to this book.

  3. gmatthews
    gmatthews  February 20, 2014

    Good lord! You start with those outlandish accusations about the ending of Mark and you’re liable to start WWIII up in the mountains (and just about everywhere else here in NC)!

    What I find equally amazing is that you hear a fair amount about these snake-handlers, but you never hear about the poison-drinking (apparently it’s rare but isn’t unknown and they drink strychnine). It just goes to show that fundamentalists of this type will cherry pick what they choose to believe and what they choose not to believe!

  4. Avatar
    drdavid600  February 20, 2014

    What? No one said this was Jesus calling him home? I’m sure someone saw it this way.

    It’s not just Mark and not just Christianity. All of religion is a bet saying if you follow some ritual, you’ll be paid off for it. What bet anyone will make this way in the name of faith is a mystery. It seems to require following someone else’s example, as this pastor was. Rational calculation would enter in for some people, like me, but not everyone. What is death to someone determined to overcome flesh?

    I’m no martyr. I would have sacrificed to the Roman Emperor out of fear of immediate punishment over the risk of being less faithful. Similarly I’m not handling rattlesnakes. I do like my flesh and hope God doesn’t mind. Isn’t that the majority?

    • Avatar
      willow  February 21, 2014


      Perhaps his mustard seed sized faith wavered for just a second? Who’d dare to say it, though, but behind closed doors, in very dark rooms, and in near inaudible whispers?

  5. Avatar
    lderochi  February 21, 2014

    Offhand, I don’t know what in additional to snake-handling churches, we don’t have poison-drinking churches. Maybe we do? Sigh. Of course there are.


  6. Avatar
    ktn3654  February 21, 2014

    If you believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, I’m not sure why it would trouble you if more than one person contributed to some of its books. If God could inspire Mark to write, couldn’t he just as well inspire someone else to add some extra verses? Then God could inspire the church in general to accept those verses.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 21, 2014

    It is sad that a little knowledge of textual criticism would have made the preacher realize that he did not have to handle snakes. When did the current ending start appearing in texts? Was this ending in Codex Bezae on which the King James translation was based?

    All in all, this is still another illustration of the dangers of “literal” interpretation” which you have spent so much time trying to change with evidence..

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 23, 2014

      It goes back to the second century; Irenaeus may know it, and it is in Latin and Syriac witnesses which, although themselves not dating from the 2nd century, appear to be based on mss that were. It is in Bezae as well. But the King James was not based on Bezae.

      • Avatar
        RonaldTaska  February 24, 2014

        So, the longer ending in Mark was added fairly early in Christian history.

        Silly me! I just plain got mixed up about Codex Bezae being a source for the King James version. Indeed, you explained the sources of the King James version in one of your past posts where you reviewed parts of a speech you gave connected with the anniversary of the book. So, I know better. I got confused because I was reading a book where the author divides Biblical texts into three types, namely Alexandrian, Byzantine, and Western and so on and so forth and I just got confused. My error. Thanks for correcting my mistake. There are a lot of details to keep straight when studying this subject.

  8. Avatar
    Arlyn  February 21, 2014

    An interesting thought, is the publisher of the KJV liable in any way? Other versions have noted the snake text as dubious but the KJV has held to it and IIRC, to satisfy those who value tradition in their text. Does that desire to satisfy their readers by ignoring the evidences against use of the current text or at the minimum, providing a notation, bring with it liability?

  9. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  February 21, 2014

    I have family who have attended these snake-handling churches. For show, not that they believe. Funny how people defend them. Dr. Ehrman as with drinking the poison, I heard they do that too, by multiple people over the years. I doubt it is actual poison. Ha!

    I tell these people those versus aren’t original and show them those versus in brackets, in their own Bibles they carry. They say “God wanted them in there. That’s why he added them.” My reaction is, “you believe the Devil is the root of most evil. How do you know the Devil didn’t add those last versus!! It leads to death in a church!” Not that I believe that. Blank stare every single time. Funny!

    As to most snake-handlers, its been researched, tested, and made a fact, that most of these churches “milk” the snakes so their venom won’t be as potent when their bitten.

  10. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  February 21, 2014

    Ooops. But let me guess how the fundies will explain this: this guy was not a True Christian(tm), that’s why he died!

    And yes, how comes Christians are still dying if they swallow deadly poison … ?

  11. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 21, 2014

    Can’t help wondering whether the National Geographic Channel was irresponsible in giving this guy air time, encouraging him…

  12. Avatar
    alexandra_101186  February 22, 2014

    This article has a church with a sign posted on the door warning people they are not responsible if they are injured from the snakes or the the poison. However, they will pray with you. At the time of this article there were around 5,000 people that participated in this kind of thing..

  13. Avatar
    clarenceclutterbuck  February 23, 2014

    Maybe if these Appalachian snake handlers could start their hobby before reproductive age and thus enable Darwinian natural selection to take effect, the urge could eventually be bred out of the population. [IMG]http://i565.photobucket.com/albums/ss91/clarenceclutterbuck/thinking.gif[/IMG]

  14. Avatar
    jrhislb  February 23, 2014

    Is there not a passage in the Gospel of Luke that also supports snake-handling?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 24, 2014

      No, but Luke 10:19 talks about the disciples being given power to “trample on snakes.”

  15. Avatar
    Mohy  February 24, 2014

    i need to know do ordinary Christians know that there are 12 verses added to the Gospel of Mark and aren’t original
    you say its written between brackets in King James version , i want to assure u that in the Arabic bible there are no brackets at all , how do bible scholars live with this fact how do they respond to you in your debates when you say so

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 25, 2014

      I’m not sure what “ordinary Christians” are or what they believe!

      • Avatar
        Mohy  February 25, 2014

        sorry you did not get me right i mean people in general who are born as Christians and didn’t study the bible in a college or something are they aware of the fact that 12 verses in Mark16 are not original i mean these verses are not inspired, for example here in Egypt i opened the bible in Arabic of course and those 12 verses were not written between brackets and there are no notes written showing this fact

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 25, 2014

          I don’t think most people know this, no. Unless they’ve read books by people like me!

  16. Avatar
    EricBrown  February 24, 2014

    Drinking poison as an act of faith? Well, alcohol is a poison, so does anyone want to join me in single-malt services?

  17. Avatar
    John E Paver  February 27, 2014

    This seems to be a yearly occurence! I wonder why none of these snake-handling pastors never learn when they see their fellow “snake-handlers” die of snake bites! It is doubly baffling when somebody sees his father die of a snake bite and then does the same thing himself!


  18. Avatar
    kidron  March 8, 2014

    Mark is not the only place in the KJV about handling snakes. In Acts, there is the account of Paul handling a snake without harm.

    “And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 9, 2014

      YEs, true — that may be where the Mark account started from. But in Acts we’re not told that Jesus followers will be able to handle snakes.

  19. Avatar
    Dave403  August 3, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I’m a new member and trying to catch up with all the posts and comments. Please excuse a very late comment.

    The use of the Longer Ending (snakes and poison) as the Canonical Ending has always been somewhat of a mystery to me. Since there are at least four known endings to Mark, not including the original 16:8 ending, it is apparent that the early church struggled with a gospel in which Jesus never forgave the twelve apostles who abandoned him.

    Could you comment as to why the early church might have felt the need to include snakes and poison in the Canon.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 5, 2014

      I think they included the ending because it was the fullest account of Jesus’ meeting with his disciples available. And maybe they thought the snakes and poison business simply corroborated their views about Jesus as having astounding powers.

  20. Avatar
    sticksofkansas  August 27, 2014

    I had a Bible student at an unnamed Bible college who posted this comment regarding issues with New Testament text where brackets are found: “It’s simple. Someone copies the text and omits a verse, runs off to the north with it. Someone else copies the same text in it’s entirety and runs off to the south. The text with the omitted verse is the mistake … The way the NT was transmitted makes additions or omissions obvious. It could be called miraculous that we can and do spot them. No other ancient text can make that claim. When someone adds to or subtracts from the NT, we see it … Who could have changed the NT? No one without it being spotted and this glaring truth is proofed by our ability to reconstruct the NT. The NT is unique in the ancient world and is unalterable. That doesn’t mean people wouldn’t try but once again, we can spot it. That’s the miracle of the NT. It’s transmission makes alterations obvious.”

    I’ve tried to dissect the conjectures in this logic pattern, but cannot find a Cliff-Notes version how to respond to this. We cannot illustrate collaboration between the many New Testament scribes in antiquity .. or can we? I don’t gather there was a central authority when the first manuscripts were developed and copies were traced when some were transmitted to the North, others to the South, and others to Ethiopia, etc.

    This might be long winded, but I’d like to hear a response from you better educated Bible scholars (I could only dream of becoming).

    Many thanks,

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 27, 2014

      Yes, a good reply would take … a book. I’d suggest your student-friend read some. 🙂 In the meantime, if in fact we “know” whenever a scribe changed a text, why is it that bona fide textual scholars who have spent thirty years of their lives studying these issues intensely do not agree with one another over what the original text was in so many places? If your friend knows the answer to all the textual problems, he could become very rich indeed….

      • Avatar
        sticksofkansas  August 27, 2014

        Many thanks, Dr. Ehrman!
        -Say, I don’t know how often you make your way back to Lawrence KS, but if it’d ever be possible, I’d like to meetup sometime so I could get your autograph in my three books of yours. I’m a huge fan of yours (and Dr. Amy Jill Levine as well).

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