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Serpent Handling at Jolo, West Virginia and the Legitimacy of the Marcan Appendix

by Howard Dorgan

Dewey Chafin handing a large timber rattler at the Church of the Lord Jesus, Jolo, West Virginia, Sept.1, 2001. Note his bandaged right hand. He was bitten two weeks before this event and the bite area was still healing. Chafin, 68 years old when photographed, is well know in serpent-handling circles, and claims to have been bitten over a hundred times. To the right, standing on the pulpit riser, is Brother Bob Elkins, 78 years old and the patriarch of a large Jolo serpent-handling family. During the Sept. 1, 2001, service, Elkins drank strychnine.

Chafin a few seconds later. The snake began to look like it wanted to strike, but Dewey Chafin deftly lowered the position of the serpent and thus appeared to thwart that intention. Throughout his handling of a serpent, Chafin keeps his eyes glued to the object of threat, the head of the snake. This could lead the observer to believe that there are some learned skills involved. He argues, however, that if there is any craft present in his serpent handling it is simply because God gives him that craft at the moments of anointment. He doesn't develop the power to "take up" the serpent, he asserts: God gives him that power, one "anointed-by-the-Holy-Spirit" moment at a time.

photo currently unavailableNotice the snake boxes on the edge of the pulpit platform. My observation was that the snakes seemed to be more nervous-their rattlers more loudly heard-when they were in their boxes rather than when they were being handled.

Articles of Faith

I. A faith practice with a weak scriptural validation, having a biblical reference that must be labeled at least "questionable," perhaps "apocryphal."

A. Identified by biblical scholars as the "Marcan Appendix," Mark 16:9-20 was deleted when the Revised Standard Version of the Bible's translation of this gospel was published (1951), just as this "long version" of Mark has been deleted in a number of translations.

B. The reason for this deletion: these verses were not included in the earliest versions of Mark, and when included were occasionally listed as having questionable legitimacy.

1. The assumption being that these verses were not written by the original author of Mark.

a. Textual evidence (vocabulary and style) suggests-to what appears to be a judgment of the majority of biblical scholars-that these verses do not match the rest of Mark.

b. The argument has been made that this segment (called the "long version") was added by a third century AD scribe to make Mark's narrative conform more with Matthew and Luke by including Christ's appearances to Mary Magdalene and the disciples; however, what motivated the inclusion of the "signs" segment?

2. Also, these verses still appear to be out of parallel, narrative-wise, with the particular ascension stories provided in the other two synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, and particularly in Christ's mentioning of the five signs: casting out of demons, speaking in new tongues, the taking up of serpents, the drinking of deadly things, the laying on of hands to heal.

C. The most ancient versions of Mark end with 16:8 and do not include any reference to Christ's risen appearance to Mary Magdalene and to the disciples, thus also deleting the evangelical mandate "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" and all that follows relative to the "five signs," Mark 16:17-18. Cordex Sinaiticus is the only ancient Greek manuscript that contains the entire New Testament, and it does not include the Marcan Appendix.

D. In addition to the five signs passage not being included in the other two synoptic gospels, John's gospel doesn't include it either; however, in John, Acts, Corinthians I and II, and elsewhere there are statements about Apostolic actions being supported by "signs," referenced in a general way, but not by the specific five signs mentioned in Mark 16.

photo currently unavailable

E. "And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs," Mark 16:20. Such a testimony for the validity of the "five signs" is not provided in other gospels or elsewhere in the New Testament.

F. When the New Revised Standard Version was published in 1989, the scholars/editors placed Mark 16:9-20 back into the main flow of Mark, but only after clearly indicating that the "Shorter Ending of Mark" closed with Mark 16:8, and after also providing a lengthy footnote noting the questionable character of Mark 16:9-20.

1. This return of the Marcan appendix may have been in response to the loud outcry that in 1951 arose from Pentecostals and other "practicing the signs" groups, condemning the Mark omissions, both of the "five signs" passage and the "Go into all the world . . ." mandate, which can be found elsewhere in the Gospels.

2. However, the act of bringing this passage back to the main flow of Mark 16 was not a great deal different from what was done in the Original Revised Standard Version, since in that rendering the full passage was included in a footnote, with all of the information about the short version there also.

The Church of Lord Jesus, Jolo, WV. Take Virginia 635 across Stateline Ridge, and the church will be seen on your right about three miles down the West Virginia side of the ridge.

II. A faith practice that has been given so much attention in the popular media and in published scholarship that much of the non-Appalachian American public views this religious behavior as normative for the region, while such is far from the truth.

A. Appalachian scholars in search of core elements for the region's religious base seldom mention serpent handling, because the practice is so deviant even in Appalachia.

B. It is difficult to find a religious movement in the region that is as limited in number and general distribution as is serpent handling.

III. A faith practice that even in Appalachia is still less than 100 years old. By way of contrast, the American origins of several of the "Old-Time" Baptist sub-denominations in Appalachia can be traced back well over 200 years.

A. Students of the practice identify George Hensley, of the Church of God Cleveland, Tennessee, as the originator, or at least popularizer, of the Appalachian serpent handling movement.

B. Hensley witnessed a 1910 serpent handling at an outside church service in Cleveland, Tennessee, and promptly went out into the nearby mountains, discovered a rattlesnake asleep in the sun, prayed for the power to handle the serpent, and then picked it up, all to no harm to Hensley.

C. Early in the second decade of the 20 th century, Hensley demonstrated his newfound power in numerous Pentecostal/Holiness churches in western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, southeastern Kentucky, and elsewhere, building the movement as he traveled.

D. The serpent handling church that he established, in 1945, at Birchwood, Tennessee, was named The Dolly Pond Church of God With Signs Following, this added prepositional phrase now being a popular one throughout the region.

IV. A faith practice that has been, with only limited law enforcement success, outlawed in all states of central and southern Appalachia, except West Virginia; however, with considerably varied stipulations relative to punishable actions, and with sharply varying levels of state enforcement.

A. State legislation against serpent handling and the sensitive issue of religious freedom

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