Today’s reading contains a large portion called the ‘long ending’ that is prefixed in many translations with “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient manuscripts do not have Mark 16:9-20”. The gospel would come to a crunching and rather odd end if it finished in v8, so the theory goes that v9-20 are a later addition to round it off, but it contains a weird bit about snake handling!
The two earliest manuscripts of Mark 16 do not contain 16:9-20, but there are several other ancient manuscripts which contain these verses (such as Codex Washingtonensis, Codex Alexandrinus, and Codex Ephraemi). There are 1500 ancient undamaged Greek manuscripts of Mark and only 2 of them don’t contain v9-20. Three early church fathers, so not canonical writers, seem to attest to v9-20…
Justin Martyr, who died in A.D. 165, wrote in his ‘First Apology’ ch. 45 that the apostles “going forth from Jerusalem, preached everywhere.” Three of the words here represent three Greek words identical to Greek words used in Mark 16:20, including the somewhat rare word ‘pantachou’. A comparison of this paragraph of Justin’s work shows that it is highly likely that he was borrowing his terms from the Long Ending.
Irenaeus wrote in ‘Against Heresies’ (about A.D. 185), Book III, 10:5-6, “Also, towards the conclusion of his Gospel, Mark says: ‘So then, after the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God.” This is clearly a quotation of Mark 16:19.
Papias, a writer in the early-mid 100’s, recorded that Justus Barsabbas (the individual mentioned in Acts 1:23) once drank a poisonous drink and suffered no ill effects. (This is preserved by Eusebius of Caesarea and by Philip of Side). His motivation for mentioning this story may have been to provide an example of the fulfillment of Mark 16:18.(http://lavistachurchofchrist.org/LVarticles/AuthenticityOfMark16920.html)
The main problem people have with it is in v17-18 where Jesus says “they will pick up snakes with their hands” (of course many have problems with tongues – so they would need to also rip out Acts, parts of Romans and 1 Corinthians too!). Some crazy church groupings, typically in America have majored on the minors and taught that snake handling is a sign of faith. Paul was bitten by a serpent in Malta while tending a fire, but he flicked it off and was not harmed (Acts 28:1-6). He certainly did not go out of his way looking for dangerous serpents. Indeed, he did not devote entire church services to messing around with a bunch of deadly snakes. Snake handling is an act of human bravado, testing God, rather than a sign of faith – unless you are a gun-toting, tobacco chewing, yee-haw crazy Pentecostal from the Southern states!
There’s two simple principles of how to understand scripture we need here…
1) Don’t build a doctrine out of one verse.
2) Balance the hard stuff with the clear – the Bible teaches us not to put God to the test except in the area of tithing (Matt 4:7 and Mal 3:10). So testing God by picking up snakes is clearly a no. But there may be occasions where a snake bite happens with no ill-effect like with Paul – a descriptive text not a prescriptive text!
Back to what do we do with Mark 16:9-20. I read it as Scripture, but if I want to use a verse to explain or illustrate something I go elsewhere as the meat is in the other gospels. It just reads differently to the rest of the Gospel and has a different flavour. But please don’t put a snake in my bed if you don’t agree!