Ripley: Literal Bible interpretation risky



Warning: the Bible, if taken literally, can be dangerous to your health. Just ask the friends and relatives of the late Pastor Mark Wolford.

As reported by ABC News, back in 2012 Wolford hosted an outdoor worship service in West Virginia. As his sister Robin tells it, Wolford passed around a poisonous timber rattlesnake. He laid it on the ground and sat down next to the snake. It bit him on the thigh. The pastor was taken to a family member’s home about 130 kilometres away to recover. When his condition deteriorated, he was taken to a hospital where he later died.


Sadly, it seems to be a family tradition; Wolford watched his own father, also a pastor, die under similar circumstances.

In case you’re wondering what handling a rattlesnake has to do with Christianity, the connection comes at the end of the Gospel of Mark. “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.”

Only a handful of Christian congregations of the Holiness Pentecostal stream still engage in snake handling today as a testimony of faith. But the larger point is how the Bible should be taken.

Let’s begin with two inconvenient truths.

While some believe the Good Book is the “inspired word of God, fully trustworthy, and the final authority in all matters of the Christian faith and life”, most Christians accept that not everything recorded in the Bible happened. How could Noah herd every species of life on Earth into a boat somewhere in Turkey? How could Joshua’s shout raze walls?

Fair enough. But if only parts of the Bible are historically true, who decides what did or did not happen? What is history and what is metaphor?

Those who consider it a source book for morality and good living are forced to approach the Bible like a smorgasbord, picking out the plausible or pleasant parts and disregarding the rest. Are we to emulate its maniacal nationalism, tolerance of slavery and vindictive laws or are we to relegate them to an era best buried and forgotten?

The other truth is the Bible evolved. Take the record of Jesus of Nazareth. When we meet Jesus in Mark, the oldest of the four gospels, Jesus is a grown man being baptized by John in the Jordan River. Details such as his virgin birth and bodily resurrection do not appear at all. The narrative ends with an enigmatic empty tomb. Only in later gospels do we hear about Joseph of the Christmas crèche and post-mortem appearances of a risen Jesus.

But tacked on to the end of Mark are 12 verses which, to put it briefly and bluntly, are bogus. Because of their language and content, they are considered a forgery added in to make the short story of Mark more like the other gospels.

Don’t believe me? Check your Bible and it will likely point out in the margin or footnote that these last verses were added much later to the original ending.

And it is this final passage that tempts believers to test the power of God’s word by handling snakes to dubious and sometimes disastrous ends.

As I said, the number of snake handling congregations is few, but it behooves all believers to pause before acting on a verse of the Bible just because it’s there. Was it really inspired by a wise and wonderful God or was it a story or opinion inserted by an enthusiastic ancient scribe?

Put another way, God may not have turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, but believers should take the entire Bible with a grain of salt. If they did, there might be a lot less sorrow and suffering and pastors like Mark Wolford would still be alive.

Rev. Bob Ripley is a retired United Church minister.

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