Mark 16.8 taking up serpents_poisonous snakes_drink poison

Snake handling or serpent handling[1] is a religious ritual in a small number of Pentecostal churches in the U.S., usually characterized as rural and part of the Holiness movement. The practice began in the early 20th century in Appalachia, and plays only a small part in the church service. Practitioners believe serpent-handling dates to antiquity and quote the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke to support the practice:

Mark 16:17-18 New King James Version (NKJV)[2]

17 And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; 18 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.”

Luke 10:19 King James Version (KJV)

19 Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.

Another passage from the New Testament used to support snake handlers’ belief is Acts 28:1-6, which relates that Paul was bitten by a venomous viper and suffered no harm. (More on this below)

Founders of Snake Handling

George Went Hensley preaching in 1947 outside a Hamilton County, Tennessee courthouse in which a snake-handling minister was on trial (from Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky by David L. Kimbrough)

George Went Hensley (1880–1955) introduced snake-handling practices into the Church of God Holiness, about 1910.[3] He later resigned his ministry and started the first holiness movement church to require snake handling as evidence of salvation.[4] Sister-churches later sprang up throughout the Appalachian region.[5]

Snake Handlers Today and Practices

As in the early days, worshipers are still encouraged to lay hands on the sick, speak in tongues,[6] provide testimony of miracles, and occasionally consume poisons such as strychnine.[7] Gathering mainly in homes and converted buildings, snake handlers generally adhere to strict dress codes such as uncut hair, ankle-length dresses, and no cosmetics for women; and short hair and long-sleeved shirts for men. Most snake handlers preach against any use of tobacco or alcohol.

Most religious snake handlers are still found in the Appalachian Mountains and other parts of the southeastern United States, especially in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Ohio. However, they are gaining greater recognition due to news broadcasts, movies, and books about the non-denominational movement.

In 2001, about 40 small churches practiced snake handling, most of them considered holiness-Pentecostals or charismatics. In 2004, there were four snake-handling congregations in the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. Like their predecessors, today’s snake handlers believe in a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible, and most Church of God with Signs Following churches are non-denominational, believing that denominations are human-made and carry the Mark of the Beast. Worshipers attend services several nights a week, where if the Holy Spirit “intervenes,” services can last up to five hours, the minimum is usually ninety minutes.

Risks of Snake Handling

Some of the leaders in these churches have been bitten numerous times, as indicated by their distorted extremities. Hensley himself, the founder of modern snake handling in the Appalachian Mountains, died of snakebite in 1955.[8] In 1998, snake-handling evangelist John Wayne “Punkin” Brown died after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake at the Rock House Holiness Church in rural northeastern Alabama[9] although members of his family contend that his death was probably due to a heart attack. Brown’s wife had died three years earlier after being bitten in Kentucky. Another snake handler died in 2006 at a church in Kentucky.[10] In 2012, Pentecostal Pastor Mack Wolford died of a rattlesnake bite sustained while officiating at an outdoor service in West Virginia, as did his father in 1983.[11]

Herpetologists have opined that the risk of fatal bites is significantly reduced by the familiarity of the snakes with humans, and by the poor health of snakes that are insufficiently fed and watered.[12]

Does not Mark 16:17, 18 (NKJ) show that ‘snake handling’ would be a sign that one is a believer?

Mark 16:17-18 New King James Version (NKJV)

17 And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; 18 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.”

First, there is the telling fact that two of the oldest and most highly respected Bible manuscripts, the Vaticanus 03 and the Sinaiticus 01, do not contain this section; they conclude Mark’s Gospel with verse eight. This is true of the early versions as well: Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, and Georgian. The early church fathers, Clement, Origen, Cyprian, and Cyril of Jerusalem had no knowledge of anything beyond verse eight. There is little wonder that the noted manuscript authority Dr. Westcott states, “the verses which follow [9-20] are no part of the original narrative but an appendage.” Among other noted scholars of the same opinion are Tregelles, Tischendorf, Griesbach, Metzger, and Comfort, to mention just a few.

Adding weight to this evidence of the Greek manuscripts, versions and church fathers are the church historian Eusebius and the Bible translator Jerome. Eusebius wrote that the longer ending was not in the “accurate copies,” for “at this point [verse 8] the end of the Gospel according to Mark is determined in nearly all the copies of the Gospel according to Mark.” In addition, Jerome, writing about 407 C.E. said, “nearly all Greek MSS have not got this passage.”

The vocabulary and style of Mark 16:9-20 vary so drastically from the Gospel of Mark that it scarcely seems possible that Mark himself wrote those verses. Mark’s style is plain, direct; his paragraphs are short and the transitions are simple. However, in this ending, there is well-arranged succession of statements, each of them having proper introductory expressions.

Then there is the consideration of the vocabulary of Mark. Verses 9 through 20 contain words that do not appear elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel, and some that do not appear in any of the Gospels, and some still that do not appear in the whole of the Greek New Testament. Verses 9 through 20 contain 163 Greek words, of which, 19 words, 2 phrases do not occur elsewhere in the Gospel of Mark. Looking at it another way, in these 12 verses there are 109 different words, and, of these, 11 words and 2 phrases are exclusive to these 12 verses. Moreover, the doctrinal thesis of Joseph Hug showed that when compared with the vocabulary of the other Gospels, the Apostolic Fathers, and the apocryphal literature, you have 12 verses in “an advanced state of tradition.” The note at the end of Metzger’s The Text of the New Testament, where I found a summary of Hug’s thesis, states:

The vocabulary suggests that the composition of the ending is appropriately located at the end of the first century or in the middle of the second century. Those who were responsible for adding the verses were intent, not only to supply a suitable ending for the Second Gospel, but also to provide missionary instruction to a Christian Hellenistic community that participated in charismatic activities… (Metzger 1964, 1968, 1992, 297)

The content of these verses also remove them from being considered as original. There is nothing within the whole of the New Testament, which would support the contention in verse 18 that the disciples of Christ were able to drink poison, having no harm come to them. In addition, within this spurious text, you have eleven apostles refusing to believe the testimony of two disciples whom Jesus had come across on the way and to whom he made himself known. However, when the two disciples found the eleven, their reaction was quite different, stating, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Luke 24:13-35

In summary, Mark 16:9-20 (1) is not found in two of the oldest and most highly regarded Greek manuscripts as well as others. (2) They are also not found in many of the oldest versions. (3) The early church fathers had no knowledge of anything beyond verse eight. (4) Such ancient scholars as Eusebius and Jerome marked them spurious. (5) The style of these verses is utterly different from that of Mark. (6) The vocabulary used in these verses is different from that of Mark. (7) Verse 8 does not transition well with verse 9, jumping from the women disciples to Jesus’ resurrection appearance. Jesus does not need to appear because Mark ended with the announcement that he had. We only want that because the other Gospels give us an appearance. So we expect it. (8) The very content of these verses contradicts the facts and the rest of the Greek New Testament. With textual scholarship, being very well aware of Mark’s abrupt style of writing, and abrupt ending to his Gospel does not seem out of place. Eusebius and Jerome, as well as this writer, agree.


Mark 16:17-18 New King James Version (NKJV)

17 And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name (1) they will cast out demons; (2) they will speak with new tongues; (3) 18 they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; (4) they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

Is This Really, What the Bible Teaches?

While Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake and survived, we never find anyone in the New Testament going out to find poisonous snakes, for the purpose of handling them in a religious service. To the contrary, Paul quickly shook off the poisonous snake that had attached itself to his hand. One must ask, ‘what purpose would religious snake handling have?’ All of the gifts that were bestowed on the first century Christians had a practical purpose. The number one purpose was to evidence to the Jews that the Israelite nation was no longer the way to God, faith in Jesus Christ was.

“Thou Shall Not Tempt the Lord”

1 John 4:8 in the King James Version reads, “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” “Symptoms of a venomous snakebite include pain and swelling followed by nausea, vomiting, and weakness. These signs usually emerge within 30 to 60 minutes of the bite, but may also be delayed for several hours.”[13] Does it seem like a loving God, who would expect his followers, purposely to inflict pain, suffering and possibly death on themselves?

There is a far greater difference of a God, who expects his followers to be faithful unto death, as opposed to violating Scripture; contrasted with one, who expects his followers needlessly to demonstrate their faith by handling poisonous snakes that can inflict pain and even death. This is especially true, when God can read their heart and mind, and knows whether they are faithful, and would be faithful in a life-threatening situation. Moreover, Christians, who die or suffer pain for their faith, are usually the result of an enemy of God inflicting it on them.

Now, recall the words of Satan to Jesus,  “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.” Jesus responded, “It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” (Matt 7:6-7) When a minister asks you to test God, or prove your faith, by risking your life in snake-handing, would not Jesus’ very words apply? If you test God, are not you demonstrating a lack of faith? Are you not forcing him to carry out your will and purposes of protecting you, upon being bit?

What About Luke 10:19?

Luke 10:19 King James Version (KJV)

19 Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.

If this was meant to be taken literally; then, all of those pastors mentioned above, and far more, would have never suffered in pain, until they died. In addition, no true Christian ever bitten by a poisonous snake or scorpion would have felt the pain of the poison from that bite.

These words have frequently been quoted in close connection with Mark 16:18. A literal interpretation is then given to both passages. At times Acts 28:3 is also cited. But Paul did not deliberately pick up a venomous snake nor did he step on it. As to the authenticity of Mark 16 (16:9–20) see N.T.C. on Mark, pp. 682–687. In the passage now under discussion, namely, Luke 10:19, the figurative explanation is almost certainly the correct one. Note the following:

  1. Jesus often made use of figurative language, though such language was frequently interpreted literally (Matt. 16:6–12; Luke 8:52, 53; John 2:19–21; 3:3, 4; 4:13–15;6:51, 52; 11:11–13, etc.).
  2. In the immediately preceding passage (verse 18) the Lord had used symbolical language when he spoke of seeing Satan falling from heaven like lightning.
  3. If elsewhere Satan is called “dragon” and “serpent” (Rev. 12:9; 20:2), why should it be strange if also here in Luke 10:19 the domain of the prince of evil is called that of snakes and scorpions? Is it not Satan’s intention to poison the minds of men and to impart the sting of death to all who oppose him?
  4. There is no record of any literal fulfilment of this statement.
  5. The true interpretation is also supported by the explanatory expression “(I have given you authority over) … all the power of the enemy.” For explanation see Rom. 16:20, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”

As to the promise, “And nothing will in any way hurt you,” see John 10:27, 28; Rom. 8:28–39.

In addition, there is no record of snake handling until the modern day charismatic church. If this was meant to be practiced, we would have historical records over an 1800-year period, but we do not. Moreover, the apostle Paul was able to resurrect people from the dead, and he did survive many life-threatening moments, yet he never purposely risked his life, testing or demonstrating his faith, or testing God. (1 Timothy 5:23; 2 Timothy 4:13) Paul did not look for opportunities to resurrect people, to show he had the ability to do so.

What are Christians actually asked to do with their bodies?

Romans 12:1 King James Version (KJV)

1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

2 Corinthians 13:5 King James Version (KJV)

Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?

No, we do not risk our lives to ‘examine whether we are in the faith,’ we rather look at our new Christian personality, making sure that we live by Scripture, evidencing our true Christianity by doing as James said, “faith without works is dead.” If we need to test something, it is our doctrinal positions: are they biblical, or just the word of man.


[2] We are using the King James Version throughout this chapter, because that is the only translation the charismatic snake-handlers will use. Therefore, we want you, the reader, to know what their preferred translation says.

[3] Encyclopedia of American Religions gives the year as 1909; the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South gives it as 1913.

[4] Anderson, Robert Mapes (1979). Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism. New York, New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 263.

Hood, Jr., Ralph W.; Williamson, W. Paul (2008). Them That Believe: The Power and the Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. pp. xiv, 37, 38.

[5] David L. Kimbrough (February 2002). Taking up serpents: snake handlers of eastern Kentucky. Mercer University Press. pp. xiv, 37–51.

[6] See Volume one of Basic Teachings of the Bible, Is Speaking in Tongues Evidence of True Christianity?

[7] Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (Reading, MA.: Addison-Wesley, 1995).

[8] Brown, Joi. “Snake Handling in the Pentecostal Church: The Precedent Set by George Hensley”. Virginia Tech. Archived from the original on 2005-07-18. Retrieved 2014-01-13.

[9] Custody of ‘snake-bite orphans’ split between grandparents”. CNN. 1999-02-12. Retrieved 2014-01-13.

[10] “Woman fatally bitten by snake in church”. USA Today. Associated Press. 2006-11-08. Retrieved 2014-01-13.

[11] Duin, Julia (2012-05-30). “Serpent-handling pastor profiled earlier in Washington Post dies from rattlesnake bite”. Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-01-13.

[12] John Burnett (2013-10-18). “Serpent Experts Try To Demystify Pentecostal Snake Handling”. National Public Radio.