Pastor Jamie Coots, a snake-handling minister from Middlesboro, Kentucky and former star of the National Geographic reality show Snake Salvation, died after being bitten by a snake in church.
History has no shortage of vocation-induced tragi-ironic deaths. Jimi Heselden, manufacturer of the Segway, was pronounced dead on the scene after driving his “vehicle” off a cliff and into a river. Alexander Bogdanov, Lenin’s right hand man and pioneer in the field of eternal-life blood transfusions, died after – you guessed it – an elective blood transfusion. And now Pastor Jamie Coots has moved on to his eternal reward after receiving a snake bite. Three individuals whose fervent belief in their inventions, hypotheses, and God led them to take chances others might not.
Where Coots is different is that he was just following the Bible as he interpreted it. Coots was just reading the Bible literally. It’s something that many Americans do on a daily basis. But God’s Holy Word is more dangerous than you’d think. Here are five Biblical ideas that should come with a “do not try this at home” warning.
Snake-handling, a popular practice among some branches of charismatic Christianity, is grounded in a literal interpretation of Mark 16:17-18 in which those who “take up serpents” will remain unharmed.
Except, as the tragic death of Pastor Coots shows, things don’t always turn out that way. In May 2012, Mark Wolford, a third-generation snake handler, also died after being bitten by a rattlesnake. Coots and Wolford knew the risks, but even their years of experience and faith did not preserve them.
The good news is that this idea wasn’t originally in the Bible. The earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark conclude abruptly in 16:8 with the women finding the tomb of Jesus empty, being given instructions to return to the disciples, and running away afraid. There’s no resurrection story or opportunity to advise the disciples about anything. The additional verses, known as the longer and shorter endings of Mark, were added roughly a century later in the 2nd century CE.
Perhaps Christians should leave the snake charming to Harry Potter and company.
2. Drinking Poison
In the very same passage, the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus tells his disciples that, “if they drink anything deadly it will by no means hurt them.” Just like snake handling, this is a later tradition that was based on apocryphal stories about the apostles that circulated long after the death of Jesus. According to a second-century Greek text known as The Acts of John, the apostle John drank from a poison cup in the presence of the emperor Domitian and lived.
Not that the fictional origins of this passage seem to matter much. The cynical will note that fundamentalist charismatics do have some sense of self-preservation. No matter what the Bible says no one seems to be drinking poison anymore. Unless you count aspartame.
3. Failing to adequately prepare for Court Cases
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus predicts that his followers will be handed over to counsels, flogged, and dragged before kings and governors to testify because of him. “When they do hand you over,” says Jesus, “do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:19-20).
It’s like I’ve always said: mock trial is for teens who don’t trust the Holy Spirit.
While some followers of Jesus – like Paul – appear composed and articulate when faced by hostile crowds, others do less well. Stephen’s speech about Jewish governance of the Temple and mistreatment of prophets ends in his martyrdom. And he’s not the only one; early Christian martyrs refused to answer the questions that were put to them by judges.
Is the Holy Spirit trying to get people killed? The Bible does say that “precious in the eyes of the Lord are the deaths of his faithful ones” (Psalm 116:15), so it is an - albeit unlikely - possibility. In the meantime it’s worth preparing for that deposition. Leaving things to the Spirit can turn a property dispute into a lynching.
4. Confusing your Priest for your Doctor
According to the Bible, priests are supposed to oversee worship, animal and vegetable sacrifices, temple administration, marriage counseling, the installation of kings, and a whole host of other duties – including not only diagnosing illnesses but also declaring someone healed.
So if you do get snake bite or ingest poison, the Bible says you should go see your priest. Although with so few priests going to med school these days, the best treatment you’ll get is probably your Last Rites.
5. Questionable Travel Advice
There are many practical issues that the Bible does not address. A person could get lost in a Biblical guide to marriage, for example. Then there are the guidelines you’d be safer off ignoring. Like the Biblical travel tips.
If the boy scouts encourage you to always be prepared, then the Bible almost dares you to wander out into the desert GPS and flare gun free. In Numbers, Moses and the Israelites spend forty years wandering in the wilderness subsisting on a diet of manna from heaven and whatever quails God happened to blow in on the east wind.
Try to live forty years in the desert solely on whatever bread or quails happen to fall from the sky. I bet you couldn’t last more than eight or nine years at most.
It’s not as if Jesus urges people to do differently. He may have limited his desert getaway to 40 days and nights, but he tells his Apostles to pack light when he sends them off to evangelize. In Luke, he says, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, bag, bread, or money – not even an extra tunic” (Luke 9:3). So, if you’ve ever thanked God for the back-up iPhone cable you took on vacation, bear in mind that Jesus would have told you not to bother.
The Bible may well be a source of comfort, consolation, and hope, but obeying every word of it could end up with you being stranded in the desert, starving, poisoned, snake-bitten, and in need of both a lawyer and a doctor. Which sounds like the plot of the next James Franco movie.