The Snake Handling Churches of Appalachia: Part 1, Texts, Codes and Translations

Last year it was my pleasure to attend IRPS hosted by Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University. Each year at IRPS there is a guest lecturer and last year it was Dr. Ralph Hood who presented on his recently published book Them That Believe.

Them That Believe (coauthored with W. Paul Williamson) is the most comprehensive and scholarly social psychological assessment of the snake handling churches in America Appalachia. For a psychology of religion researcher this was a fascinating subject and I'd like to devote a few posts to the snake handling churches using this subject to make some observations about religion generally.

What I found most moving about Dr. Hood's work was his deep sympathy for the snake handling churches. Before he did any filming Hood would spend over a year developing relationships. And Dr. Hood is very sensitive about sensationalistic exploitation, media or journalists presenting the snake handling churches as crazy or a circus show. Hood and Williamson wanted to present a deep view, a view that was scientifically objective but that really tried to understand the snake handling experience from the inside out. I want to follow their lead (and I hope you will to) in thinking about these churches.

First, some history.

Historically, the snake handling churches emerged from the Church of God (and from its schisms the Church of God of Prophecy and the Church of God with Signs Following which split off from the Church of God in the 1920s). The Church of God and its schisms come from the Holiness and Pentecostal traditions. The Holiness tradition makes the snake handling churches pietistic and sectarian. The Pentecostal influence makes them charismatic and revivalistic. The Church of God eventually repudiated the practice of snake handling. Consequently, some refer to the snake handling churches as the "renegade Churches of God."

Here's a pretty balanced news report on the snake handling churches:

To really understand snake handling one has to understand Penecostalism. I'll like to talk about that in the next post. In this post I'd like to go directly to the bible and examine the biblical warrants offered by the snake handling churches.

The central text is Mark 16.17-18 from the King James Version of the Bible:
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.
Given the plain-sense meaning of the text Mark 16 suggests that five signs will follow "them that believe":
  1. Casting out of devils
  2. Speaking with new tongues
  3. Taking up serpents
  4. Being unhurt after drinking poison
  5. Healing the sick
According to the snake handling churches four of these signs are "mandatory" and one is "conditional." This teaching is also derived from the plain-sense hermeneutic. Four of the five signs--casting out devils, tongues, taking up serpents, healing the sick--are connected with the words "they shall." Which is read to be an imperative/command. One of the signs breaks this template and begins with "if" making the practice of this sign--drinking poison--optional or voluntary. Most snake handling churches do provide poison--often strychnine or carbolic acid--in their service.

I'd like to make a couple of interrelated observations about how the snake handling churches read Mark 16.

First, I'm struck by the fine-grained nature of the plain-sense reading. A single word--the change from "shall" to "if"--affects a very important (and perhaps deadly) teaching: How many signs are there? And are these signs "mandatory"?

But I'm not really surprised by this as I come from a plain-sense tradition and I've seen great debates swirl around the exact phrasings in Scripture. For example, in our tradition local congregations select "elders" who guide the spiritual (and business) affairs of the church. Some of the "qualifications" of elders are given in I Timothy 3.1-7. There it says that an elder ("overseer") must manage his "children" well. Well, in the church of my youth a man was being put up to be an elder but he only had a single child. Objections were raised by some in the congregation that the bible specifies the plural, it's "children" not "child." Thus, this man was biblically unqualified to be an elder.

Such are the joys of fine-grained plain-sense readings. Incidentally, this sort of reading is not unique to fundamentalist Christians. Certain Jewish sects believe that every letter of the Torah is infused with spiritual significance. This finds it most extreme expression in the Bible Code craze. Those believing the Bible Code suggest that prophetic/predictive messages are encoded in the biblical text. The most common method for extracting the code from the biblical text is the Equidistant Letter Sequence method where you pick a letter from the bible and begin to count a fixed number circling each letter in the sequence. As critics point out, this method only works when every single letter in the bible is exactly accurate! But, as any biblical scholar knows, there are many, many textual variants in existence. Given this situation, which text is the "true" and authoritative Word of God? Because one letter out of place throws the Equidistant Letter Sequence completely out of whack.

The Bible Code aside, there are legitmate interests in the letters of Scritpure. There are many places where the Tanakh (Old Testament) engages in letterplay to make a point about the Torah structuring life and the cosmos. This letterplay is generally lost in English translations. Consider the great Torah song Psalm 119. Psalm 119 is one of several alphabetic acrostic poems in the book of Psalms. Psalm 119 is a song about delighting in the Law of God. To make this point visually as well as semantically the psalm has its 176 verses divided into 22 stanzas of eight lines each. Each of the 22 stanzas corresponds to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet and each of the eight lines within a given stanza starts with the letter governing that stanza. Thus, stanza one is Aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and each of the eight lines in the first stanza begins with the letter Aleph. The next stanza is Beth. All the way to the final stanza of Tav. English readers of Psalm 119 miss all this. For example, here are the first verses of Psalm 119, the Aleph section:

You see, reading from right-to-left as you do in Hebrew, that each line begins with the letter Aleph.

The point of the letterplay in Psalm 119 is to show how the Torah structures our whole lives. This is communicated not just in the meaning of the text but in the visual display of the text on the page.

The point here is that meaning is conveyed in the Tanakh (Old Testament) visually as well as semantically. The actual letters and how they are used often convey great meaning. English translations of the bible lose this visual aspect. And this brings me to my second point.

The only way Christians can maintain a fine-grained plain-sense hermeneutic is for them to fix (similar to the Bible Code) the translation within their tradition. Very often this is the King James Version. The KJV is considered to be the authoritative text, the exact Word of God. Obviously, this is a strange claim as the bible was written in Greek and Hebrew. The KJV is a translation. And, as a translation, it has numerous flaws and problems. Regardless, we can get a sense here as to why a tradition might want to fix and formalize the translations its people will use. If everyone is using the KJV and the eact wording of the KJV is authoritative then we can resolve congregational debates. A side effect of this are those fine-grained distinctions between "shall" versus "if" and "children" versus "child." If many disparate translations are in use within a given congregation the waters get muddy very quickly as the alternative translations muck up a fine-grained plain-sense reading. If the KJV and the New International Version have different wordings which should be taken as the authoritative Word of God?

This is why many fundamentalist church see leaving the KJV as the first step on the road to relativism. Once you allow multiple translations in the church you quickly face the problem of hermeneutics and interpretation which confuses how we are to discern the "truth." In short, although the claim that the KJV is the authoritative Word of God is strange to the extreme, we can see what the fundamentalist churches are trying to accomplish by restricting themselves to an authoritative and common text. Without a teaching office many fundamentalist churches are reduced to a populist method of reading and interpreting Scripture (i.e., everyone gets a say). This populist style is very prone to conflict. Multiple translations would only make the situation worse. Restricting use to the KJV becomes, then, a conflict-reduction strategy.

The use of the KJV has important implications for the snake handling churches. Specifically, although Mark 16.17-18 is included in the KJV modern scholars consider this part of Mark to be a later addition. One of several in fact. Most modern translations alert the reader to this scholarly consensus (check your own translation to see how they accomplish this, some are subtle some very obvious). In short, the authoritative text for snake handling isn't really a part of the original biblical text (if there is such a thing as "the original biblical text").

But facing up to this fact creates a problem similar to the one we discussed above. If we admit modern scholarship into the bible (i.e., if you read that footnote in your modern translation) we begin to see the the bible as a historical and contested human product. We begin to enter the debates about the Canon, how the bible was written and selected. And as New Testament scholars tell us, this process was very messy and very often political. And it is still going on! All this raises the specter of relativism, modernism and secularism.

On to Part 2

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8 thoughts on “The Snake Handling Churches of Appalachia: Part 1, Texts, Codes and Translations”

  1. Fascinating essay, Richard. Makes me wonder how the Biblical "plain readers" handle other forms of visual and aural symbolism in the scripture? Puns, metaphors, images, playful language, references back and forth. These are all ways that the Jewish tradition uses to interpret the "meaning" inherent in the "text" as well as typical ways we look at/understand poetry and art generally. Are these forbidden in the "plain text" version of hermeneutics? do they tend to muddy the waters?


  2. Thanks Richard. I appreciate the clarity you bring to the subject of biblical interpretation.

  3. Excellent post. Once I participated in a Bible study group (we thought it was the prelude to formally organizing a church, but it fizzled) where one of the families tolerated the rest of us using other versions, but was convinced that only the KJV was God's Word. One evening I presented the case for why this isn't true and asked them what they expected missionaries overseas to use where English isn't the common language. That stumped them. After I moved to Brazil and began mission work I learned that there is an old translation there that KJV-only folks have edited to comform to its English counterpart. They call it the "corrected and faithful" version.


  4. Haven't checked in at ~experimental theology~ for a while...and what do I see but a discussion with snake handling churches...quite fascinating. These believers' devotion and loyalty to their bible reading is worth looking into further.

    I liked the Bible Code and the Bible Code II. The most unusual feature of the book for me is that the author--at the time we last heard--still does not believe in a personal God but deeply admires the gentleman who "found" the code and believes in an intelligent being involved in the affairs of men.

    Your thoughts never cease to amaze me. Kent just said you know a lot of big words. :)

    Happy Holy Days

    [blogger won't let me post with url]

    signed Kent and Linda

  5. Richard,

    Re: King James Version. You have stopped preaching and gone to meddlin'. It is possible to appreciate its dramatic, lofty and captivating language without buying into a "magical literalist" hermeneutic. The "thee" and "ye" is also helpful in understanding the corporate and communal character of the original languages. In my opinion, it also lends itself better to public reading than modern translations which tend to be hyperindividualistic.


  6. George Cooper,
    I don't think that's a fair rendition of Richard's argument--he's not saying whether there are, or are not, great things in the KJV (my favorite translation, hands down) but simply demonstrating that any plain text focus runs afoul of the fact that the KJV like all other translations is...well...a translation. And the word for "translation" in french, for example, is "traduire" or (loosely) to betray. Did you ever read "God's Secretaries?"--read it back to back with "Misquoting Jesus" and "Lost Christianities" and you are really getting somewhere in understanding that there can't be a singular, perfect, understanding of a singular biblical document no matter how we pretend. That isn't a bad thing, but its a fact.


  7. aimai,

    Hmmm. Traducing? Rendition? I don't think I slandered and hijacked Richard's argument, spirited it to a third world dungeon and subjected it to enhanced interrogation. I do, however, sometimes place my tongue in my cheek. By the way, the French are naturally suspicious of anything not French. But "diffamer" or "calomnier" is the closer, uhh, translation of the French traduire. The Latin "translatus" is related to "transferre."

    Those books you cite are worth a read. I am currently finishing "Lost Christianities." Alan Nicolson, author of "God's Secretaries," and I spoke over drinks shortly after publication about the benefits and perils of translation. Even "original" texts mediate, i.e. translate, transfer, some kind of experience.

    Blessings and Happy New Year!

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