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Snakes and Scripture

June 2, 2012

“And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” — Mark 16:17-18

Mark Randall “Mack” Wolford, 44, died this week after being bitten by a rattlesnake. Wolford, a West Virginia preacher, staked his life on the belief that the verses quoted above are both authentic and applicable to him. In an interview with The Washington Post Magazine last year, he said, “I know it’s real [everything stated in those verses]; it is the power of God.”

So, there it is. A Christian stood up publicly and staked his life on the veracity of the Scriptures. Pretty admirable, right?

But did he really stake his life on the veracity of the Scriptures? And were his actions admirable?

My answer to both questions is “no.”

Before giving the reasons for that answer, let me say that I am not slamming Wolford’s testimony as a Christian, per se. I have no knowledge about his personal walk with the Lord. All I know is what I’ve read in news reports, that, as a public statement of his faith in the verses quoted above, he sat down next to a rattlesnake and offered it the chance to bite him – an offer the snake accepted. And, I am also not denying Wolford’s zeal. He obviously was willing to risk his life for his faith.

But let’s look at questions:

Did Wolford stake his life on the veracity of the Scriptures? I said my answer was “no.” The problem isn’t with the veracity and authority of the Scriptures. They are both true and authoritative. The problem is whether Mark 16:17-18 truly is a part of those Scriptures. If they aren’t, then the issue is moot.

I know, I know. These verses are included in the Authorized Version (the King James Bible); but, unfortunately, the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 is still heavily debated, and their inclusion or exclusion from a modern (or semi-modern) English translation does not resolve the issue.

To suggest that “Mark 16:9-20” is not part of God’s Word may sound like heresy. How could anyone think that sentences and paragraphs accepted by the King James translators and marked by chapter and verse are not authentic? But such incredulity can be addressed by simply observing that chapter and verse markings were not indicated by Mark, the King James Version was not translated from Mark’s original manuscript, and that it is possible and certain that words and phrases have been added and removed from copies of the original manuscript.

But why is the validity of these particular verses so heavily debated? Let me list just a few of the issues that have been raised. These bullet points are taken Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament and are not comprehensive. They are only meant to be illustrate the depth and complexity of the controversy:

  • Four endings of the Gospel according to Mark are current in the manuscripts.
  • The last twelve verses of the commonly received text of Mark are absent from the two oldest Greek manuscripts, from the Old Latin codex Bobiensis, the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, and the two oldest Georgian manuscripts (written A.D. 897 and A.D. 913).
  • Clement of Alexandria and Origen show no knowledge of the existence of these verses; furthermore Eusebius and Jerome attest that the passage was absent from almost all Greek copies of Mark known to them.
  • The original form of the Eusebian sections (drawn up by Ammonius) makes no provision for numbering sections of the text after 16:8.
  • Many manuscripts containing the passage have scribal notes stating that older Greek copies lack it, and in other witnesses the passage is marked with asterisks or obeli, the conventional signs used by copyists to indicate a spurious addition to a document.
  • The expanded form of the long ending [according to Metzger] has no claim to be original. Not only is the external evidence extremely limited, but the expansion contains several non-Markan words and expressions. The whole expansion has about it an unmistakable apocryphal flavor.

Do these bullet points prove conclusively that the passage is not original? No, not conclusively, but for me, along with other similar considerations, they prove that it is probably not original.

To put that another way, I would place this passage in a secondary position beside Scripture. It is valuable, but I do not trust it as Scripture. As valuable, even revered, but not included in the Canon of Scripture, it reminds me of the books in the Apocrypha. I can gain, for example, from reading 1 and 2 Maccabees. There are principles in them that are true, reliable and spiritually edifying, but those principles are only authoritative over me inasmuch as they are identical to the ones proclaimed in the Scriptures.

So, returning to Wolford, I would suggest that he should have relied on other passages in the Scriptures. It was unwise to entrust his life to a text that was highly questionable at best, unsupported by other Scriptures. This is particularly true as it encouraged (or seemed to encourage – which raises a question about his hermeneutical approach) an unusual ritualistic activity – the handling of snakes.

And, now, for just a moment, let’s look at that second question: were Wolford’s actions admirable?

My answer, again, is “no.” I believe God has created us to be intelligent, thinking beings. This ability was and is marred by man’s fall into sin – granted. No one is perfectly logical. But, still, if anyone should be able to exercise genuine discernment, it should be Christians. We should be able to demonstrate Spirit-led and Spirit-enlightened reason. And Wolford didn’t do this. He demonstrated foolishness.

Well, maybe someone will say I’m being too hard on this West Virginia preacher. Maybe he was just ignorant. Maybe he just didn’t know any better. But does his ignorance really excuse his actions? If a guy really believes he can fly and then jumps off a skyscraper to prove it, am I really supposed to admire the strength of the conviction that compelled him to leap?

And, really, isn’t there a bigger danger here too? Wolford wasn’t merely the metaphorical jumper; he was the jumper who was encouraging others to jump and fly with him. And if so, are we wise to ignore and minimize the potential harm he has caused?

Now, if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably guessed that the issue I’m addressing is bigger than snake-handling, and you are right. As Christians, we must be careful that our doctrine is truly built on the Scriptures, and we must remain aware that we too may have dogmatic blind spots. Let’s think through our positions. God has given us a brain. Let’s use it. (Oh, and don’t get into that ‘King James only’ stuff.)

And by the way, if you thought I was too hard on Wolford, maybe this will change your opinion: his father died of a rattlesnake bite at age 38 in 1983.

NEWS YOU CAN USE

  • Apologizing to the LGBT Community. Read this article and see how you would respond to the author. I think this perspective is one we will be confronted with more and more, and I believe we need to be able to offered a living, but firm, response. Incidentally, be warned. This article may frustrate you. Read it at: http://thinkchristian.net/apologizing-to-the-lgbt-community.
  • Take Back Your Life in Seven Simple Steps. This short article from the Harvard Business Review summarizes some basic, simple, and effective steps to getting a busy life back under control. It was written for a business audience, but I think most people can profit from the suggestions. Read it at: http://blogs.hbr.org/schwartz/2012/05/take-back-your-life-in-seven-s.html
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3 Comments
  1. Dear Christian:

    (This is going to be a long comment. I hope the paragraphing doesn’t disappear.)

    As you said, God has given you a brain. So use it to test Metzger’s claims; don’t just casually repeat them. It’s tragic that Mr. Wolford needlessly died, and that he misinterpreted the Scriptures. However, that does not give anyone a valid reason to spread misinformation about the evidence pertaining to Mark 16:9-20.

    Let’s consider some of Metzger’s statements:

    (1) “Four endings of the Gospel according to Mark are current in the manuscripts.”

    If one counts the abrupt ending at 16:8, the “Shorter Ending,” and the usual 12 verses, that’s three endings. Metzger counted, as a fourth ending, the usual 12 verses with an interpolation between v. 14 and v. 15, as attested in Codex W (which is, contrary to footnotes in the NLT and ESV, the only extant manuscript in which this interpolation appears). But that is not an independent ending; it has more than the usual 12 verses but not less.

    (2) “The last twelve verses of the commonly received text of Mark are absent from the two oldest Greek manuscripts” —

    This refers to Vaticanus (produced c. 325) and Sinaiticus (produced c. 350). What Metzger does not say is that Vaticanus has a distinctive blank space after 16:8, as if the copyist, although his exemplar did not contain verses 9-20, recollected the passage and attempted to leave space for it, in case the eventual owner of the codex wanted it to be included. Also, in Sinaiticus, all four pages containing Mark 14:54-Luke 1:56 are written on replacement-pages that were not produced by the copyist who made the surrounding pages, and on these four pages the lettering-rate shifts erratically. Plus, there is a high probability that one of the copyists who worked on Vaticanus later supervised the production of Sinaiticus, in the scriptorium at Caesarea.

    (3) — “from the Old Latin codex Bobiensis” –

    This Old Latin codex, produced c. 430, has one of the most unreliable texts of Mark in existence. In Mark 16 it is particularly anomalous: the names of the women are missing, and part of verse 8 has been excised, and there is an interpolation beween 16:3 and 16:4 that depicts Christ’s ascension as if it occurred at the time of His resurrection. The interpolation seems related in some way to the docetic (or seemingly docetic) text known as the “Gospel of Peter.”

    (4) – “the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, and the two oldest Georgian manuscripts (written A.D. 897 and A.D. 913).”

    These witnesses merit their place on the scales. But a few things should be noticed: first, the Sinaitic Syriac is not the earliest witness to the Syriac text; Aphrahat, c. 335, used the contents of Mark 16:17-20 in one of his compositions. Second, those Armenian MSS are medieval, and descend from a common ancestor. (Many more Armenian copies, btw, include Mk. 16:9-20.) A much earlier Armenian witness, Eznik of Golb (who helped make the revised form of the Armenian version in the 430’s) used Mk. 16:17-18 in his composition “De Deo.” Third, the Georgian Version was translated from Armenian, so the impression that we are looking at two distinct strands of evidence when we look at the Armenian, and then the Georgian, evidence, is illusionary.

    (5) “Clement of Alexandria and Origen show no knowledge of the existence of these verses.”

    Inasmuch as Clement of Alexandria does not quote from 12 chapters of Mark, and hardly ever cited the Gospel of Mark except for chapter 10, his non-use of 12 verses cannot seriously be considered evidence that they were not in his copies of Mark. Similarly Origen does not quote from most 12-verse sections of Mark, including some chunks of much more than 12 consecutive verses. So not only is Metzger arguing from silence, but the silence is clearly the effect of Clement’s and Origen’s demonstrable tendency not to use the Gospel of Mark very much.

    (6) “Eusebius and Jerome attest that the passage was absent from almost all Greek copies of Mark known to them.”

    If you take the time to read Eusebius’ “Ad Marinum,” in its full form – not in snippets, as many commentators do — you will see that the statement by Eusebius to which Metzger referred is something that Eusebius presented in a hypothetical framework, as one of several things that someone might say to resolve a perceived harmonization-difficulty between Mt. 28 and Mk. 16, regarding the timing of Christ’s resurrection. Eusebius does not explicitly say that he is reporting about copies that he himself has seen. In addition, he proceeds to recommend to Marinus that Mark 16:9 should be punctuated (and thus retained, with the rest of the passage) so as to harmonize with Mt. 28. Further along in the composition, Eusebius says that “some copies” of Mark state that Jesus cast out seven demons from Mary Magdalene (which is stated in 16:9), and later still he says, without qualification, that this is something stated by Mark.

    As for Jerome, Metzger’s description is quite misleading! For in the relevant part of Jerome’s Epistle 120 (“To Hedibia”), Jerome condensed and loosely translated Eusebius “Ad Marinum,” including even three questions that Marinus asked (in the same order) – all without crediting his source. (Nowadays Jerome would be considered a plagiarist. He considered himself an efficient user of earlier works, as he explained to Augustine in Epistle 75.) In this part of Jerome’s Epistle 120, we are looking at a translation of Eusebius’ work, not an independent statement by Jerome about the results of his own investigation into the contents of manuscripts of Mark. Jerome, when he produced the Vulgate Gospels in 383, stated in their Preface that he standardized the Latin text using ancient Greek manuscripts – that is, MSS that were ancient in 383. And in the Vulgate, he included Mark 16:9-20.

    (7) “The original form of the Eusebian sections (drawn up by Ammonius) makes no provision for numbering sections of the text after 16:8.”

    This claim by Metzger involved a false statement, plain and simple. It is true that the Eusebian Sections originally did not include Mark 16:9-20. But Ammonius did not draw up the original form of the Eusebian Sections; Ammonius’ Matthew-centered presentation merely inspired Eusebius’ systematic cross-reference system. Metzger has erroneously misrepresented the work of Eusebius.

    (8) “Many manuscripts containing the passage have scribal notes stating that older Greek copies lack it” —

    Out of over 1,700 extant Greek copies of Mark, 14 have special annotations about 16:9-20. I think it is misleading to call that “many.” Plus, these are not 14 independently drawn-up notes composed by 14 independent copyists; we are basically looking at a note which has taken three forms, in two distinct families of manuscripts. In one of those forms, the note says that although in some copies the text stops at 16:8, in many copies the following verses are present. Another form also mentions that the Eusebian Canons do not include verses 9-20. And the third form states that although some copies do not contain the passage, in the ancient copies it is all present. While any note must be younger than the manuscripts it describes, it must be obvious that Metzger’s note gives a very misleading impression about the contents of these annotations. While Metzger says that the scribal notes state that older Greek copies lack Mk. 16:9-20, one form of the note specifically states that the ancient copies include the passage!

    (9) — “in other witnesses the passage is marked with asterisks or obeli, the conventional signs used by copyists to indicate a spurious addition to a document.”

    That is not true. In every case that I have been able to investigate, the marks in these manuscripts have no text-critical significance. They are symbols related to the lectionary, and signify that at Mark 16:9 the third lection in the Heothina-series begins, and that Mk. 16:9-20 is to be read on Ascension-Day. What Metzger says is the result of sloppy misinterpretations by earlier scholars who obviously did not understand what they were looking at.

    (10) When Metzger referred to “The expanded form of the long ending” which “has no claim to be original,” he was not referring to Mark 16:9-20. By “the expanded form” he was referring to the form in Codex W that has the interpolation known as the Freer Logion. (Metzger himself regarded Mark 16:9-20 as canonical, and said so. We routinely regard as canonical passage which were not added by the primary author of a book of the Bible – passages such as Jeremiah 52, or Proverbs 30-31. Metzger held a similar view of Mark 16:9-20.)

    If you would like to read more about this, e-mail me a request and I would be glad to send you a digital copy of a research-book on the subject.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

    • Dear James,

      I appreciate your thoughtful response to my post, and I apologize for taking so long to respond. Still, I do want to respond.

      First, I appreciate your point that Metzger’s claims should not be accepted uncritically. I agree. Your assumption, however, that I have accepted Metzger’s claims without testing them is erroneous.

      Second, the mere fact that you disagree with Metzger’s opinions does not negate the fact that he is a widely respected scholar whose opinions matter. He is quoted as a respected scholar in this field.

      Third, my quoting of Metzger’s opinions was given to illustrate the reality that many well-respected scholars remain unconvinced concerning the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20. Quoting his opinions, in that context, should not be categorized as the ‘spreading of misinformation.’ I believe I accurately presented a thumbnail sketch of his opinions. To the contrary, ignoring the opinions of such a scholar as Metzger would constitute, in my opinion, the spreading of misinformation.

      Fourth, you commented on the word “many” under section eight of your response. You say the use of the word “many” was misleading. That may be true. If so, the error is entirely mine, not Metzger’s, and I apologize. The word “many” was an editorial decision on my part as I summarized some of Metzger’s arguments. His actual wording was “not a few manuscripts.” I thought that was a bit wordy, thinking primarily of writing for a general audience, and I replaced those words with “many.”

      In keeping with the third point above, I am grateful for your responses. You have helped to demonstrate the complexities of this textual issue. I believe your response underscores what I meant to be the point of my post, that this text is not an undisputable part of the authoritative Scriptures, and, as such, should not be a text upon which a believer founds his life and doctrine.

      In Christ,
      christian

  2. Dear Christian,

    Honestly: if you had really tested Metzger’s claims, wouldn’t you have detected his mistakes and refrained from repeating his false claim that the Eusebian Canons were drawn up by Ammonius, and his false claim about asterisks and obeli, and wouldn’t you have discerned how misleading the claims about Clement, Origen, and Jerome are?

    It’s not Metzger’s *opinion* about Mark 16:9-20 that I disagree with (he held the opinion that Mark 16:9-20 is canonical, and I agree with that). I disagree with some of his claims about specific pieces of evidence — claims that are demonstrably false and/or misleading — and I object to the fuzziness of some of his wording (such as the vague reference to “Not a few” manuscripts which invited you to use the term “many” to describe a group of just 14 manuscripts).

    I don’t see how you can seriously claim that it would constitute the spreading of misinformation to not repeat Metzger’s statements. Some of his statements are wrong, and some are inaccurately worded. You presented them as if “they prove that it is probably not original.” It looks like you’re saying that it would constitute the spread of misinformation if you were to refrain from continuing to repeat false statements and represent them as if they prove that Mark 16:9-20 is probably not original. That can’t be what you really want to say.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

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