Using a Kentucky pastor's death-by-snakebite as her hook, Daily Beast contributor Candida Moss -- whose day job is teaching New Testament at Notre Dame -- opted to troll Christian readers with a story headlined "Bible Passages That Could Get You Killed."
Moss' story was highlighted by Beast editors this afternoon, placed in the lightbox under the teaser headline "Bible Passages to Die For?" [see screen capture below page break] "A pastor died trying to charm a snake because it says so in the Bible. Professor Candida Moss look [sic] at other Biblical directives that could get you killed," teased the caption accompanying a photo of a man holding a poisonous snake in a worship service. Moss began (emphasis mine):
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.
Of course we see what Moss is doing here. She's attempting to set up how reading the Bible "literally" is, well, "literally" dangerous to your health and may very well kill you.
But there's a vast difference between foolishly misreading Scripture in a woodenly-literal way which does violence to genre of the text and reading it in a truly rich literal way which reads it in light of the genre in which it's written. For example, Jesus refers to Himself repeatedly as the "Lamb of God," yet no Christian who reads the Bible literally believes Jesus is an infant sheep.
But never mind that. That would kill all the fun in mocking the Bible and mocking those who take it seriously as God's Word which is to be read and obeyed.
Moss begins with the text in the Gospel of Mark which references snakes and deadly poisons:
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.
"It's all a fraud!" Moss seems to be shouting. But while there's merit to the criticism that Mark 16:9-20 is not contained in the earliest reliable manuscripts, that doesn't mean that the gospel accounts themselves are not reliable records by eyewitnesses of the ministry of Christ.
What's more, serious Christians who read and revere the whole of Scripture would say two things with regard to the passage about snakes and poison. First, as the gospel accounts themselves teach, Jesus held that one should not put the Lord God to the test. It's the same concept that a non-Christian might call "tempting fate." Simply put, you don't put yourself in a harmful, deadly situation simply presuming upon God's protection.
Secondly, even in the Mark 16:9-20 passage, the snake-handling and poison-drinking items are listed as indicatives, not as commands. Jesus is listing some miraculous signs that will accompany the spread of the gospel by the apostles:
Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:14-18, ESV)
In this passage, Jesus's commands were "go" and "proclaim," with the implicit command to baptize converts. The "signs [that] will accompany" are not commands of things to do but supernatural evidences of the divine mission which Jesus commissioned the eleven apostles.
It's no mistake that the vast majority of Christians throughout church history have not seen the Great Commission passage in Mark as anything resembling a mandate to handle snakes and chug Clorox.
But wait, as the late-night infomercials say, there's more. Moss has three more instances of Bible texts she insists are deadly, and throughout she spins in her derisive attacks on Christian Scripture and its divine Author, the third Person of the Trinity (emphasis mine):
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.
Time doesn't permit me to go into detail explaining all the ways Moss is employing shoddy exegesis and violating all manners of rules of literary interpretation. And, indeed, doing so would risk answering a fool according to her folly.
Suffice it to say, Ms. Moss -- who, again, keep in mind is in the employ of a major religious university -- thinks that living your life in accord with the Bible is what's worthy of derision. It's a shame a so-called religion scholar feels the need to go out of her way to offend quiet, unassuming Christians who have never done anything to her.
It is, however, sadly par for the course that the Daily Beast thinks this is scintillating writing worthy of promotion.