“Does The Bible Really Say That? (Three) Believers Will Take Up Serpents?”

(More Bible Studies Available @ www.marktabata.com)

It is written:

Mark 16:17-19-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.” 19  So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.

Several people that I have worked with have told me that they attend churches where it is commonplace to pick up snakes during the church worship service and dance with them. I have seen videos of this from people that I have studied the Bible with. It is truly frightening to watch otherwise rational people pick up deadly serpents and literally dance with them, to the instrumental music playing in the background, with people all around shouting and jumping.

What does the Bible teach us about this?

Let’s study.

In the Great Commission of Mark 16:15-20, the Bible tells us that some would “take up serpents.”

Consider several things with me.

First, the Greek of Mark 16:15-17 suggests that there are two different groups of believers under discussion: the first group is the Apostles (who when they first saw Jesus were unbelieving, Mark 16:14); and then those who would hear the Word that the Apostles preached and would then be subsequently become believers in Jesus and be baptized (Mark 16:15-16). Grammatically, the “signs” of Mark 16:17-20 seems to tie back to the Apostles.

“The Lord then used the plural pronoun, and refers back to the plural noun ‘ELEVEN,’ of verse 14, when he said: “And these signs shall follow THEM that believe; (those unbelieving apostles who would become believers in his resurrection) in my name shall THEY cast out devils; THEY shall speak with new tongues; THEY shall take up serpents; and if THEY drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; THEY shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover.’ (Mk. 16:17-18). Let us bear in mind the fact that the plural pronouns ‘THEM’ and ‘THEY’ in verses 17-18 refer back to the plural noun ‘ELEVEN,’ of verse 14, and not to the SINGULAR NOUN ‘CREATURE,’ to be preached to, in verses 15-16. All pronouns must agree with their antecedent nouns in number. Hence, the promise of signs to follow was for the apostles, to encourage them to carry out the great commission.” (Gus Nichols, Sermons: Volume 3, 120; Jasper, AL.)


“The antecedent of “them” is “the eleven themselves” (Mark 16:14); and the only way this can be avoided is to change the singular pronouns in Mark 16:15-16 into plural pronouns contrary to the Greek text. There is nothing difficult in this interpretation, since it is simply basic English… The antecedent of “they” is likewise “the eleven apostles themselves,” determined by the primary allusion to “them” in the same clause. There is no grammatical device by which this word may be understood as reference to any persons whomsoever except the eleven apostles. (Burt Coffman, http://www.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=mr&chapter=016)

So, the signs that are promised here seem to apply to the Apostles. The only other ones in the New Testament church who had this ability to work miracles were those upon whom the Apostles laid their hands.

Acts 6:1-8-Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. 2  Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. 3  Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; 4  but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5  And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, 6  whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them. 7  Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. 8  And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.

Acts 8:14-18-Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, 15  who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. 16  For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17  Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18  And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money,

Acts 19:6-And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.

2 Timothy 1:6-Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands.

To be an Apostle of Christ, one had to be an eyewitness of His resurrection (Acts 1:21-22), and since the Apostle Paul was the last eyewitness of Jesus resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-8), then there are no more Apostles today-and hence no way for those miraculous gifts to be transmitted!

Second, let’s talk about the actual history of “snake handling” as it is understood in modern day churches. The tradition had its’ origins long before the time of Christ, and was actually heavily practiced in pagan religions.

“Relying largely on Freudian theory, Rousselle (1984) compared the serpent handling of Hellenistic Greece with that practiced among serpent-handling sects of contemporary America. A brief survey of early Greek literature found links between the snake and the phallus, as well as heroes who had gained semidivine status after death. At least two Greek cults, those of Sabazius and Dionysus, were observed to have practiced ecstatic serpent handling.” (Ralph Hood & W. Paul Williamson, Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition, 1358-1360 (Kindle Edition); Los Angeles, CA: University Of California Press)

Indeed, we see examples of this even in the Bible, when Moses confronted the Egyptian sorcerers!

Exodus 7:11-12-But Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers; so the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments. 12  For every man threw down his rod, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.

“In the Bible and in the history of religions, Satan worship is often identified with the snake cult. This goes back to the original temptation tion in Paradise, where the devil appeared to the first man and woman in the form of a snake. The inhabitants of the land of Canaan worshipped Satan in the form of a snake. We find the same thing in Egypt. The magicians who withstood Moses belonged to the snake cult. They were able to hypnotize snakes so that they became stiff like a stick. These sorcerers were able to do the opposite miracle to that of Moses. Moses could, by God’s power, change his rod into a snake. The sorcerers could, by Satan’s power, turn snakes into rods, and then bring them back out of the hypnotic state.” (Kurt E. Koch, Occult ABC: Exposing Occult Practices and Ideologies, 2822-2825 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications)

There is no evidence that “snake handling” was practiced by professing Christians until the last hundred years.

“Snake-handling seems to have started in 1910 by George Went Hensley, an illiterate preacher who was in his late twenties at the time. He had been doing a lot of thinking about that curious passage in the Book of Mark and, like most members of the Pentecostal churches of the time, he was inclined to take whatever he read in the Bible very literally. If speaking in tongues was part of a service, then why not also take up serpents? The following Sunday he was preaching a sermon about that passage from Mark at an outdoor service near Cleveland, Tennessee and reached into a box of rattlesnakes that had been conveniently left next to his pulpit. He grabbed one of the serpents and held it up in the air over his head, to the wonder and amazement of the people who had gathered to watch. With a snake in one hand and the other hand pounding on the pulpit, he challenged his congregation to handle snakes, too. If they didn’t, well, they just might be “doomed to eternal hell.” A new and spectacular tradition had been born and Hensley became known as the “original prophet of snake-handling.” Hensley spent the next few years traveling around Tennessee, holding services where snakes were one of the main attractions. It wasn’t long before he had built a small following. Again, taking a cue from Mark, he also pioneered the practice of drinking poison–creating a mixture of strychnine and water he called a “salvation cocktail.” Skeptics often came to his services and brought snakes with them. During one of Hensley’s services, a box of copperheads, cottonmouths, and rattlesnakes was dumped on the floor by a group of unbelievers. According to a witness Hensley picked them up “like a boy would gather stove wood in his arms to carry to the house.” He also spawned many imitators. In 1912 a former Baptist names James Miller starts his own snake-handling cult and spread the tradition through Alabama and Georgia. As word spread Hensley’s activities came to the attention of A.J. Tomlinson, a former Bible salesman who founded the fundamentalist Church of God in 1903. He invited Hensley to come and speak at one of his churches–with his snakes, of course–and was so impressed that he immediately ordained him as a pastor. Snake-handling then spread quickly through the Church of God, but enthusiasm waned a bit in 1918 after one preacher was bitten and took several weeks to recover. That same year an Alabama man named Jim Wiley Reece became the church’s first recorded casualty. Hensley himself even strayed from snake-handling for a time. After going through some marital problems, he became what he’d later call a “backslider,” coining another fundamentalist title. For the next few years, he made moonshine and spent some time in jail. He came roaring back in 1922 though, with a new wife and a new excitement about dancing around with snakes in his hands. He brought the practice to Kentucky and popularized it there.” (Troy Taylor, Taking Up Serpents: American Cults, Messiahs, and Madmen, 130-132 (Kindle Edition): Jacksonville, Illinois; American Hauntings Ink)

As such, snake handling was a common element of pagan religion long before the time of Christ. This is a good reason to believe that what is being discussed here in Mark 16:17-10 is not “snake handling” as practiced in modern day man-made churches which are so heavily influenced by paganism.

Third, the sign of “taking up serpents” is an interesting phrase. The very language could indicate that the phrase “taking up serpents” is speaking of something figurative!

“The word for “snake” is the Greek word ophis, which means a generic snake or serpent, although not necessarily poisonous, as does the Greek word echidna (so Acts 28: 3-6). 29 Given the reference to poisonous drink immediately following, one would have expected the latter word in v. 18. The word ophis is, however, the same word used in Genesis 3 (LXX) of the temptation of the serpent. This raises the question whether the image of “picking up snakes in their hands” cannot be understood metaphorically, that is, that in the age of salvation the curse of the serpent has been overcome.” (James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark (The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC)), 8884-8887 (Kindle Edition): Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

This is especially interesting when we consider that the writers of the New Testament wrote these Books in koine Greek, and yet likely spoke in Aramaic, and this exact phrase is Aramaic for an idiom. We use idioms all the time! An idiom is “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deductible from those of the individual words (e.g., rain cats and dogs, see the light).” (Google definition of idiom).

In Kentucky, we have lots of idioms that we use everyday.

“That car has had the lick” actually means, “that car is wore out and is about to die.”

“They are going to a hen party” actually means, “there is going to a discussion among women where men are not allowed to join.”

“High Falutin” means, “that person is rich and doesn’t understand the hard times that common people face.”

“I’m gonna learn you something” means, “I am going to teaching you something.”

Now, we understand what these sayings mean because we use them. However, when I moved to Kentucky, I had no idea what these expressions meant! Imagine for a moment if we were to translate those expression into other languages, and someone were to read those expressions, they would likely be extremely confused! It is only when we learn that those words could have meanings beyond their literal sense that we can appreciate the reality of these idioms.

Let’s apply this knowledge to what we are studying here in Mark 16:17-20. While the New Testament was written in Greek, the people who lived in ancient Palestine likely spoke in Aramaic (a form of Hebrew). With that in mind, it is worth noting that the phrase “taking up serpents” was a figure of speech in the Aramaic language!

“The King James Version was translated in 1611 when little regard to the Aramaic and its idioms. Hence we have Mark 16: 11 telling us: “They shall take up serpents….” I recently read where a Baptist pastor, albeit one who was uneducated and preaching in some backwoods church, demonstrated his faith by picking up a rattlesnake expecting his faith to protect him from the snake’s venom. It didn’t, and he died. Would it have made any difference had he known that when the King James Version was translated, the study of sociology and linguistics was primitive at best? As a result, the translators had no way of knowing that “taking up snakes” was an Aramaic idiom that meant to unknowingly collaborate with an enemy? The picture was that when you share the Gospel unknowingly with an enemy and that enemy uses your testimony against you; you will not be harmed.” (Chaim Bentorah, Aramaic Word Study: Exploring The Language Of The New Testament, 14 (Kindle Edition): Travelers Rest, SC: True Potential, Inc.)

To me, this illustrates yet again why Christians must be willing to study the Bible in its’ fullness and richness. Realizing that this is a figure of speech in the original languages of the Bible demonstrates that we must be diligent to study and rightly divide the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15). Some Christians discount and ignore the need for Bible study which includes studying things outside the Bible. Yet even the Bible reminds us that it is good and appropriate to study outside the Bible (cf. Joshua 10:13; Acts 17:26-28; 1 Corinthians 15:33)! Let us do away with these childish beliefs and let us apply ourselves to studying the Word of God by utilizing the tools that we have been blessed to have in our day and age.

Fourth, even if the phrase “take up serpents” had reference to the Apostles literally picking up serpents, we need to realize that they did not have snake handling church services in the New Testament!! In fact, the only possible example of this scenario in the Scriptures is found in Acts, where Paul was bitten by a serpent and yet miraculously lived through the encounter.

Acts 28:3-6-But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. 4  So when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live.” 5  But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6  However, they were expecting that he would swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had looked for a long time and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.

There is no indication that Paul or the early Christians were having church services where people were foolishly picking up serpents and dancing with them as a demonstration of “faith.”

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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