Pinks, Purples, Greens, Blues and Cold
Scholars, Bias, and the New World Translation

Snake Handling in Worship....You Can't be too Careful

Some things you don't forget.

Like that time I was doing magazine work with Tom Pearlsenswine. He was new then, and deadly serious. This was back when the magazines had no pictures on the cover - back when there was only a list of the articles within, like Craigslist. We were working with the issue about Snake Handling in Worship - that article had top billing. Now, in all fairness to Pearlsenswine, how do you offer an article about snake handling in worship?

"Sir, we are speaking with our neighbors about the alarming practice of snake handling in worship," he led off.

“I don't think we have to worry about that here," the householder quite sensibly replied.

Soberly and deliberately, Pearlsenswine answered: "You can't be too careful."

No, you can't. The article Tom offered focused on that verse in the last chapter of Mark, really the only verse you could have written such an article  from:

Furthermore, these signs will accompany those believing: By the use of my name [Jesus] they will expel demons, they will speak with tongues, and with their hands they will pick up serpents, and if they drink anything deadly it will not hurt them at all. They will lay their hands upon sick persons, and these will become well.”    Mark 16:17,18

It’s an odd verse, to say the least. You mean we have to carry snakes and Draino with us, in case anyone wants proof of discipleship? I mean - use of God's name, obedience to the Christ, proclaim God's Kingdom, love and unity among selves, no part of the world - yes, all these things we hear about as earmarks of discipleship. But snake handling? Drinking poison? It doesn't really fit the pattern, does it? You can't quite imagine Jesus saying it.

Further, the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) notes that "it's vocabulary and style differ so radically from the rest of the gospel, that it hardly seems possible Mark himself composed it," - that is, verses 9-20, not just verses 17-18. Of course, the King James Bible of 1611 uncritically runs all verses, but not so newer translations - translations which, counter-intuitively, are generally more accurate, since they reap the benefits of archeological progress - that is, the discovery through the years of more ancient manuscripts. And the most ancient manuscripts are without verses 9-20.

The New International Version, wishing to spare its readers boring details, inserts just before verse 9, the phrase "the most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20." That's further than most translations go. The Revised Standard Version, wishing to step upon nobody's toes, states: "Some of the most ancient authorities bring the book to a close at the end of verse 8. One authority concluded the book by adding after verse 8 the following: [text supplied]....Other authorities include the preceding passage and continue with verses 9-20. In most authorities verses 9-20 follow immediately after verse 8; a few authorities insert additional material after verse 14."

They're all "authorities!" No attempt is made to distinquish the windbags from the knowledgeable. Choose whichever you like. All roads lead to heaven. It’s the classic milquetoast take-no-stand approach.

The New World Translation is more helpful. It lists (through abbreviations - the key to which is provided in the preface) just which "authorities" (manuscripts and versions) contain the passage and which do not. If you're a student of the Bible, and not just one willing to be talked down to with drivel about "authorities," this information is crucial. You can do research. And you will find that the manuscripts not including the verses are more ancient than the ones that do. Bible translator Jerome, in the fifth century, said that "almost all the Greek codices [are] without this passage."

And yet, it's not such an obvious fraud as the more cleverly written insertion  at 1 John 5:7 that explicitly states the Trinity. That insertion appears in no manuscript before the sixth century CE. Since its only effect is to plainly state a doctrine not plainly stated anywhere else, it's hard not to conclude that it was stuck in for that purpose by some Trinitarian translator getting madder and madder in the course of his work that his favorite dogma is not really in the Bible, so he determines to slip it in himself.

Yet, if Jerome, in the fifth century, said almost all Greek codices were without the extra verses of Mark, that means that some included it. So few translations pull the verses entirely (as many do with the 'trinity' insertion); instead, they footnote it.

It’s not real clear just why extra verses would have been added to Mark, but you might get some idea through reading that last chapter. It ends very abruptly, so maybe you can picture some scribe, who likes tidy endings, figuring he might "flesh it out" a little. Maybe he thought there actually had been an ending which, somehow, got lost, so he figured he himself would rise to the occasion. You’re not really supposed to do that, but perhaps it is understandable.

Mark’s style is abrupt. There’s strict economy of words. Not chatty at all. It lends that gospel a peculiar power, even an urgency. For example:

And on that day, when evening had fallen, he said to them: “Let us cross to the other shore.” So, after they had dismissed the crowd, they took him in the boat, just as he was, and there were other boats with him. Now a great violent windstorm broke out, and the waves kept dashing into the boat, so that the boat was close to being swamped. But he was in the stern, sleeping upon a pillow. So they woke him up and said to him: “Teacher, do you not care that we are about to perish?” With that he roused himself and rebuked the wind and said to the sea: “Hush! Be quiet!” And the wind abated, and a great calm set in. So he said to them: “Why are you fainthearted? Do you not yet have any faith?” But they felt an unusual fear, and they would say to one another: “Who really is this, because even the wind and the sea obey him?”   Mark 4:37-41

Much more gripping than Luke’s account, found at Luke 8:22

Note, too, Luke’s account of a woman seeking help from Jesus:

And a woman, subject to a flow of blood for twelve years, who had not been able to get a cure from anyone, approached from behind and touched the fringe of his outer garment, and instantly her flow of blood stopped.   Luke 8:43-44


Luke, it must be pointed out, was a doctor. But Mark wasn’t, and apparently had little patience with the breed. His description of the poor woman is that "she had been put to many pains by many physicians and had spent all her resources and had not been benefited but, rather, had got worse."


Pop would approve.


So snakes are not necessary in one‘s book bag. This is very good news and makes it likelier that Indiana Jones may someday become a Witness. He does, after all, know God's name.










Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the book ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the book, 'In the Last of the Last Days: Faith in the Age of Dysfunction'


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