A number of years ago my nephew-in-law, a licensed herpetologist, owned a female cottonmouth rattler named PK – short for Preacher Killer. She had ended the career of at least one snake-handling preacher, and was something of a celebrity in the herping world. He eventually donated her to the Atlanta Zoo, where she resided in solitary splendor until she passed on to her just reward last year.
Sunday one of her kin repeated her performance, ending the ministry of the Appalachian Pentecostal minister Mack Wolford. After being bitten by a rattler at a prayer event Sunday afternoon, the Rev. Wolford refused treatment and died several hours later, surrounded by the prayers of family and his congregation.
Wolford, 44, was the son of another snake-handling pastor who died of a rattler bite when Wolford was in his teens. You would think he’d have known better… until you look at the basis for this testament of faith.
At his isolated, tiny Church of the Lord Jesus in Matoaka, West Virginia, Wolford and his congregation handled poisonous snakes, drank strychnine and played with fire to prove their faith. Wolford told an interviewer last year that “those who die from snakebites are never criticized for lack of adequate faith; it is believed that it was simply the deceased’s time to die.” How convenient.
 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.
 And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?
 And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.
 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.
 And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.
 But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.
 And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.
 Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.
 And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept.
 And they, when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not.
 After that he appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country.
 And they went and told it unto the residue: neither believed they them.
 Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen.
 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
 And these signs shall follow them that believe; 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.
 So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.
 And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.
The Gospel of Mark is believed by most modern Biblical scholars to have been the first written gospel, dating to around 70 CE, set down by an early Christian in Syria from probably first-hand sources, both written and oral. That it is credited to Mark the Evangelist, the companion of Simon Peter, reflects the probable source of much of the Gospel, and that it was written for a non-Jewish Christian community whose origin predated the ‘Apostle’ Paul.
Now, the kicker about Mark chapter 16 is that most scholars hold the view that verses 9-20 were not part of the original text. Scholars have identified two distinct endings—the “Longer Ending” (vv. 9-20) and the “Shorter Ending”. The “Shorter Ending,” with slight variations, runs as follows: “But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”
Whereas the Gospel of Mark is dated to around 70CE, the “Longer Ending” didn’t appear for nearly 150 years afterward. It is an accepted fact that the early church writings underwent centuries of revision to bring them into line with the theologies and doctrines of whatever sect was ascendant at the time, culminating in the final revisions that were adopted as the “official” books of the bible.
The Gospel of Mark, in fact, reflects one of the principal schisms of the early church: was Jesus human or divine? The Gospel doesn’t have a nativity narrative; it begins with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Jesus refers to himself throughout as the “Son of Man” (13 times), where he is only referred to as the “Son of God” by others (3 times). The official version of chapter 1 verse 11 reads: “And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” An early fragmentary manuscript of Mark reads instead “And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. This day I have begotten thee.”
Remember, the winners write the history. Always.
What does this have to do with a dead snake-handling minister? Well, if verses 17-18 were added 100 or so years after the gospel was written, to bring the gospel in line with a proselytizing, judgmental, unforgiving version of Christianity, are they truly the Word of God?
If they aren’t, then it follows that the promises made to the “believers” in those verses are false…
Which could be why, sometimes, the snake wins.