The Snake Handling Churches of Appalachia: Part 3, Theology and Serpents

In our analysis of the snake handling churches we have focused on their interpretation of Mark 16. And, given that the key verses 0f 17-18 were most likely not a part of the original text of the gospel of Mark, it would seem that snake handling has tenuous and dubious biblical support.

And yet, if you pause to consider, the practice of snake handling actually has a rich theology. In fact, a richer and deeper theology than what we find for many more mainstream church practices.


The serpent appears at the very beginning of Scripture as the prime mover in the Fall. And after the Fall there is this notion that the offspring of Eve will have victory or power over the snake. These events in the Garden set up the soteriological trajectory of Scripture and the serpent is mixed in with all of it.

Genesis 3.1-5, 13-15
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"

The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.' "

"You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this you have done?"
The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate."

So the LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this,
"Cursed are you above all the livestock
and all the wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel."
The Hebrews were similar to many other cultures in this regard, finding the serpent to be a powerful (if malevolent) spiritual symbol. Consider how Moses and Pharaoh use power over serpents in their dual to free the children of Israel from bondage:
Exodus 8.7-12
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "When Pharaoh says to you, 'Perform a miracle,' then say to Aaron, 'Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,' and it will become a snake."

So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the LORD commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron's staff swallowed up their staffs.
In short, power over snakes becomes a sign of God's liberating and salvific action. Power over snakes is one of the signs of God's Exodus. This soteriological theme finds its way into the New Testament by connecting the cross with power over snakes. Specifically, in Numbers 21, as a punishment for unfaithfulness, the camp of the wandering Israelites becomes overrun with poisonous vipers. Many die. To save the community Moses approaches God for help and he gets a curious, but effective, response:
Numbers 21.8-9
The LORD said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
What is striking about this story is that Jesus uses it in the gospels, comparing his death on the cross to the bronze serpent:
John 3.14-15
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
In all of this we continue to see power over snakes as symbolic of the saving actions of God, the breaking in of the Kingdom of God. Thus, manuscript evidence aside, it is not, from a theological stance, surprising to see serpent handling as one of the signs of the Kingdom of God. There is biblical evidence that leads us to expect just such a sign. We've seen how the serpent is a motif of the Fall, the Exodus, and the Crucifixion. In short, power over serpents is a powerful soteriological symbol.

And there is more. The book of Acts includes a story where survival from snakebite is taken as a sign of the gospel. The story recounts events shortly after the apostle Paul and his associates were washed ashore on the island Malta after a storm at sea:
Acts 28.1-6
Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, "This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live." But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead, but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.
For the snake handling churches Acts 28 corroborates their interpretation of Mark 16. Immunity to snake venom is a sign of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. And, as a final biblical thread, there are the eschatological themes from Revelation where victory over the Serpent of Eden is recounted:
Revelation 20.1-2
And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.
What I find interesting in all this is that the snake handling churches are often considered to be hermeneutical and exegetical naifs. Witness their nonsensical enshrinement of the King James Version and their simplistic plain-sense hermeneutic. In short, we wouldn't expect the snake handlers to be particularly keen on theology. But here's the interesting thing, to me a least. If the snake handlers did go in for academic theology I think they could make a respectable case. I've just sketched how such a project might look. There are rich soteriological and eschatological themes associated with power over serpents. The serpent is implicated in critical soteriological events--The Fall, the Exodus, the Crucifixion. Power over serpents is a sign of the proclamation of the gospel (Mark 16 and Acts 28). The serpent is there in the beginning scenes of Genesis and in the final events of Revelation, dramatically linking the two.

In short, although the snake handling churches might look like biblical simpletons, from a theological stance, if you step back and look at it, what they are doing seems very consistent, fits right in, with the biblical narrative. That is, you couldn't, on biblical grounds, win an argument with them. If anything, they would have you biblically and theologically cornered.

On to Part 4

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3 thoughts on “The Snake Handling Churches of Appalachia: Part 3, Theology and Serpents”

  1. You know, it would make church more interesting. I get sleepy on Sundays...

    No, the post is mainly a reflection on the ubiquitous snake imagery in Judaism and Christianity, not to mention other religions. Combine that with the psychoanalytic and mythological interest in serpents and you find it's a rich area of reflection. Snakes, apparently, tap into some deep archetypes.

  2. One can't help think of the cadeucus, the symbol of medicine since ancient times: another place where healing is associated with the source of poison, just as it is in the John 3 reference, and indeed, in more general New Testament theology where the Cross, the instrument of death, provides the pathway to new life.

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