In general, the things that Jesus is reported to have said are fairly benign. (I do not want to get into the question of whether Jesus actually existed or said these things, which is something over which there is heated debate). But there is one thing that is highly problematic and that is found in the verses Mark 16:17-18 where, after his resurrection, he told his disciples the following:
“And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 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.”
There is some controversy as to whether this passage, that appears at the very end of the gospel, was a later addition. But since it is in the Bible it carries great heft for the faithful. In particular, some Pentecostal sects have taken the passage, not as a mere statement that they will have protection if they should happen to get bitten, but as an active command that they should deliberately handle venomous snakes to prove their faith. Furthermore, in the event they do get bitten, some will refuse medical treatment because that would imply a lack of faith. The result is predictable. Some have been bitten and died. This has happened frequently enough that a few congregations have stopped the practice but not enough to eliminate it entirely.
I was curious as to why there had not been more serious instances of suffering and death from snake bites and this fascinating article about snake handling congregations suggests a possible explanation. It is because not all the bites of venomous snakes that they typically handle, typically rattlesnakes, carry lethal amounts of venom.
Handled gently, reptiles are unlikely to bite, and weak snakes can’t inject a lethal dose of poison. But the more one handles, the greater the likelihood of bites. Rattlesnake venom, which contains hemo- and neurotoxins, induces numbness and swelling, blurred vision, paralysis, and respiratory failure. It destroys skin tissue and blood cells, leading to internal hemorrhage. Victims can survive if they receive antivenom within two hours, but without medicine, death can occur within six to 48 hours.
It appears that quite often the bites are ‘dry’ (i.e., lacking any venom) and that can lead people to think that they were saved from the effects of the bite by faith, thus enabling the continuance of this practice with tragic consequences.
Marcus Ranum says
I recall Bart Ehrman saying that particular chunk of Mark is probably a forged insert. Of course Ehrman’s work is controversial (especially to those it threatens) but if he is correct, the stuff about the snakes isn’t anything that Jesus was even alleged to have said at the alleged time he was supposedly alive, or undead, allegedly.
Maybe they are misreading this. It could be “they will pick up snakes with their hands” —no mention of venomous snakes.
” and when they drink deadly poison” —well in small quantities arsenic is said to improve the complexion.
Reginald Selkirk says
Questionable. The earliest known manuscripts of Mark do not have that section. But it appears in manuscripts much earlier than say, the ‘story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery’. And about half the epistles of Paul are believed to be forgeries. Serious scholars have even suggested the entire Gospel of John is a forgery. My point is: Christians do not have a tradition of removing material suspected, or even proven to be forged from the canon. Some early works did not make it into the canon, and some sections which Protestants find doctrinally inconvenient are printed in a separate section (Antilegomena and Apocrypha).
file thirteen says
Does milking the snake for venom beforehand also imply a lack of faith I wonder. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it…
It’s the snakes I feel sorry for…
If you look at Mark 16 in the oldest complete manuscripts, you can see that the text simply ends after the women leave the empty tomb. The parchment is not damaged, torn, or otherwise disfigured. It is simply blank. There is more blank space, and then the next gospel begins.
I’m with Dunc, I feel bad for the snakes. Why do they have to get dragged into it? I wish people would leave them alone.
John Morales says
Also, the babbling — or glossolalia, to be nicer. Or, ‘speaking in tongues’, as they call it.
According to Acts 2, each listener should hear what is said in their native language.
Not exactly what happens in real life, but hey… it is most amusing to watch.
Give them a taipan to handle without telling them. Their devotion will protect them… right?
Why snakes? Why aren’t they drinking poisons too or instead? If they drank bleach from the bottle, they could prove their faith to both of their gods at once.
steve oberski says
If they drank bleach from the bottle
It was touted as a treatment for COVID by a certain failed wannabe dictator.
And there is a thriving market for chlorine dioxide products (“Miracle Mineral Solution”) as a cure-all for almost all diseases, including malaria, HIV/Aids, cancer.
Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says
“Also, the babbling — or glossolalia, to be nicer. Or, ‘speaking in tongues’, as they call it.”
My dude is a believer in this. He’s stopped talking to me about it since I referred to it as “baby talk.”
11) @ steve obersky: “It was touted as a treatment for COVID by a certain failed wannabe dictator.”
That’s why I said “both of their gods.” 🙂
What does it even mean, to believe in it?
I can do it. It’s not hard or mysterious.