Next week will mark the second anniversary of Jamie Coots’s death. He was a father, pastor, and one of the stars of the National Geographic Channel’s reality series, Snake Salvation. The show followed Coots’s life and ministry as a prominent leader in a sect of Holiness Pentecostals who incorporate handling poisonous snakes into their worship in fulfilment of the promise of supernatural power and protection in Mark 16:17-18.
Coots died from a snakebite.
Snake handling—once popular throughout the Appalachian states—has dwindled to a tiny subculture of Pentecostals who believe in the practice of the extreme signs and wonders described in Mark 16:17-18. Specifically, they teach that they have the ability to cast out demons, speak in tongues, handle poisonous snakes, drink poison, and heal the sick (they also expose themselves to open flames, although that particular sign is not included in Mark’s gospel). And every couple years, the movement garners headlines because another pastor or congregant has died attempting to fulfill those supposed promises.
Virtually all other charismatics would disavow such extreme behavior, while holding just as tightly to the promises conveyed in the closing verses of Mark’s gospel—albeit more selectively.
For example, charismatic prosperity preacher Benny Hinn cites the passage in defense of his faith-healing ministry: “I knew the Lord had told me to pray for the sick as part of preaching the gospel, just as He told the disciples, in Mark 16:18: ‘They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.’”  Benny Hinn, The Anointing (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997) 49.
And in his book When Heaven Invades Earth, Bill Johnson—pastor of Bethel Redding, one of the most influential charismatic churches in the country—points to the end of Mark’s gospel as a promise of God’s ongoing miraculous work.
As our ministry teams travel around the world, we have come to expect certain things. Healing, deliverance, and conversions are the fruits of our labors. While healing is seldom the subject we teach on, it is one of the most common results. As we proclaim the message of the Kingdom of God, people get well. The Father seems to say, Amen! To His own message by confirming the word with power (see Mark 16:20).  Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth (Shippensburg, PA: Treasure House, 2003) 89.
We could go on with examples of how charismatics of various traditions lean heavily on the closing verses of Mark’s gospel, but you get the point. For many it’s a foundational passage—one that explicitly promises all believers the power to perform signs and wonders.
But is that really the point of the passage? And more importantly, do those verses even belong in your Bible to begin with? Even a simple reading of the text raises some significant questions about its Scriptural authenticity.
Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons. She went and reported to those who had been with Him, while they were mourning and weeping. When they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it. After that, He appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking along on their way to the country. They went away and reported it to the others, but they did not believe them either. Afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed. [And they promptly reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. And after that, Jesus Himself sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.] (Mark 16:9-20)
As you can see, there are actually two endings to Mark’s gospel contained in the above quote. Verses 9-20 are referred to as the longer ending, while the portion in brackets at the end of verse 20 is called the shorter ending—on its own it would appear immediately after verse 8. Both have appeared individually in a variety of translations—the NASB includes both.
But neither ending appears in the earliest and most reliable New Testament manuscripts. No ancient book has been more carefully preserved than the Bible—we have several thousand manuscripts, with some dating all the way back to mere decades after they were first written. And through the science of textual analysis, scholars have determined that the final verses of Mark were not in the original, inspired text.
On top of that, as John MacArthur explains in his commentary on the passage, there are also several internal indications that Mark didn’t write either ending.
First, the transition between verse 8 and verse 9 is awkward and disjointed. The conjunction now (from the Greek word de) implies continuity with the preceding narrative, but the focus of verse 9 abruptly shifts to Mary Magdalene rather than continuing a discussion of the women referred to in verse 8. Moreover, it would be strange for Mark to wait until the end of his narrative to introduce Mary Magdalene, as if for the first time . . . when she was already mentioned three times in the prior context (Mark 15:40, 47, 16:1). A similar discontinuity regards Peter, who is singled out in verse 7 yet not mentioned again in verses 9-20. The “shorter ending” . . . attempts to rectify those incongruities by highlighting both Peter and the other women. . . . But this shorter ending has even weaker manuscript evidence to support it than the longer ending.
Second, the vocabulary, style, and structure of the longer ending is not consistent with the rest of Mark’s gospel. There are eighteen words in this section that are not used elsewhere in Mark. For example, the title “Lord Jesus” is used here (v. 19) but is never used anywhere else in Mark’s account.
Third, the inclusion of apostolic signs does not fit the way the other three gospels conclude their accounts of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Though many signs mentioned in this section parallel portions of the book of Acts (cf. Acts 2:4; 9:17; 10:46; 28:8), some are clearly without biblical support, such as being able to “pick up” venomous “serpents” (though perhaps loosely based on Paul’s experience in Acts 28:3-5) or “drink any deadly poison.”  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Mark 9-16 (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015) 411-412.
Summing up the case against the scriptural credentials of Mark 16:9-20, John MacArthur writes,
The evidence, both external and internal, conclusively demonstrates that verses 9-20 were not originally part of Mark’s inspired record. While they generally summarize truths taught elsewhere in the New Testament, they should always be evaluated in light of the rest of Scripture. No doctrines or practices should be established solely on them. The snake-handling preachers of the Appalachians provide a prime example of the errors that can arise from accepting these verses as authoritative.
Nonetheless, knowing that Mark 16:9-20 is not original should give believers more confidence in the accuracy of the New Testament, not less. As noted above, the science of textual analysis makes it possible for biblical scholars to identify the very few passages that were not part of the original. Such places are clearly marked in modern translations, making it easy for students of Scripture to identify them. Consequently, believers can approach the rest of the text with the settled assurance that the Bible they hold in their hands accurately reflects the original. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Mark 9-16, 412.
That conclusion then begs the question: Where did these verses come from?
Most likely, they were added in by a scribe who felt Mark’s original ending was missing something. However, it does not appear that he was so audacious as to concoct an ending from his own imagination. Instead, Mark 16:9-20 is a patchwork quilt of other biblical passages concerning the life of Christ after His resurrection, His commissioning of the apostles, and stories from their ministry in the founding of the church.
Time and space don’t permit me to break down the probable origin of each verse, but let me encourage you to listen to John MacArthur’s sermon on the passage, called “The Fitting End to Mark’s Gospel,” or consult his commentary on Mark 9-16 for more details on how this extrabiblical passage was likely assembled.
And what of Mark’s original ending? Why was it deemed so deficient in the first place? True, it is abrupt and to the point: “They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). But as John MacArthur explains, that abrupt ending perfectly fits both Mark’s style and his purpose for writing at all.
Mark’s ending is abrupt but it is not incomplete. The tomb was empty; the angelic announcement explained that Jesus had risen; and multiple eyewitnesses confirmed those events. The purpose of Mark’s gospel was to demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). Having amply made that point, no further proof was necessary.
Throughout his gospel, Mark consistently punctuated key events in the life of the Lord Jesus by emphasizing the wonder He evoked in the hearts and minds of others. Mark simply moves from one point of amazement about Christ to the next. So the narrative ends where it ought to end. It climaxes with amazement and bewilderment at the resurrection of the crucified Savior (cf. John 20:31). In so doing, it leaves the reader in a place of wonder, awe, and worship, centered on its glorious subject: the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Mark 9-16, 417-418.
So while Mark 16:9-20 may be a significant proof text for many charismatics, their interpretation is invalidated when we understand that those verses never belonged in Scripture to begin with.
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