Snake Handling and the Gospel of Mark

The curious sectarian-Christian practice of handling deadly snakes is the stuff of news headlines and reality tv these days. This strange early twentieth-century expression of religious faith is not widespread -- confined to a small number of churches in the southeastern United States -- but has its roots in a literal reading of a cluster of biblical metaphors. So what does the Gospel of Mark say about snakes? And how does this first-century Gospel echo earlier biblical texts referring to human interaction with dangerous animals? Though there is much more to say about this fascinating topic, here are a few preliminary perspectives.

1. Jesus at Peace with the Natural World. When approaching this topic, it deserves notice that early in Mark's Gospel Jesus is in the wilderness "with the wild beasts" (1:13). This brief reference to unlikely companions, a scene in which animals do not fear him and he does not fear them, alludes to the peaceful conditions of the Garden of Eden when humanity lived in harmony with animals (Genesis 2:19-20). It also anticipates a restoration of those conditions. In Job, for instance, we read of a time when there is no more enmity between predator and prey, humans and animals: "[you] shall not fear the wild animals of the earth .... the wild animals shall be at peace with you" (Job 5:22-23; cf. Isaiah 11:6-9). The incident with Jesus in the wilderness suggests a reversal of the fear and dread animals experience in the post-flood world (see Genesis 9:2), and represents an important backdrop against which to read the passage about snake handling at the end of the Gospel of Mark.

2. Miraculous Protection of Early Christians as a Sign of the Kingdom of God. According to Mark 16:17-18, various signs accompany those who believe: they cast out demons, speak in new tongues, and heal the sick. If they drink poison, it does not harm them and, curiously, the same is true when they pick up snakes. This unusual remark appears in a later addition to the original form of Mark's Gospel (i.e., 16:9-20), which explains why it sits awkwardly within the wider context of the book and indeed the New Testament as a whole. There are, however, a few intertextual echoes perhaps underlying the author's thinking. Luke announces that snakes are no longer a threat (Luke 10:19) and also reports that Paul's encounter with a snake causes him no injury (Acts 28:3-6). In both passages overcoming snakes illustrates the authority of the kingdom of God.

3. Snake Handling and the Restoration of Peace to the World. Perhaps the author of Mark 16:18 also has in mind the consequences of Adam and Eve's disobedience, which includes the enmity between the serpent and the woman's offspring: "he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel" (Genesis 3:15). What 'Mark' indicates in 16:18 is that the resurrection and the proclamation of the gospel inaugurates a reversal of the curses of Genesis and an undoing of the damage resulting from this "enmity" between humanity and the rest of creation (Genesis 3:17-18 cf. Romans 8:19-22). When Isaiah represents the restoration of peace in the world, he envisions a nursing child playing over "the hole of the asp," and a weaned child putting "its hand on the adder's den" (Isaiah 11:8-9). 'Mark's' strange image of interspecies peace (handling snakes without harm) reveals an early Christian expectation that eschatological transformations are manifest in present realities.