On the Benefit of Textual Criticism (Or: Snake Handling is Not Such a Great Idea) (Skinner)

snakes-620x362I was just discussing the so-called “Longer Ending” of Mark (16:9-20) with my students last Monday and I mentioned that the primary proof-text snake handlers have for their practice is found in a piece of tradition that is most likely not original to Mark’s Gospel:

15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 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.”

Since we are located in NC, I was not surprised that several of my students had visited a church in which snake handling was a regular practice. When speaking of this issue I (somewhat sarcastically) joked about how a even a little knowledge of textual criticism could be very helpful for determining certain Christian practices. Then today I saw this story about a reality show snake-handling pastor from Kentucky who just died from an untreated poisonous snake bite. To seminary and divinity students I say (with a certain level of seriousness), truly a little bit of textual criticism can go a long way.