Religious expert tells TheWrap that bible passage at the heart of the snake-handling tradition is the subject of “scholarly debate”
National Geographic's “Snake Salvation” star Jamie Coots died Saturday after refusing treatment for a poisonous snake bite. Now, a Bible passage at the center of the American snake-handling tradition is stirring up controversy, a religious expert told TheWrap on Monday.
Rudy Busto, associate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told TheWrap that the passage, Mark 16: 17-18, is the subject of “scholarly debate,” and has differing interpretations.
The passage in question reads, in part, according to the King James version of the Bible, “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.”
As Busto told TheWrap, there is a question over whether the passage was originally included in the Gospel, or if it was included later on.
“As with many passages in the Bible that appeal to supernatural powers there is controversy over the meanings and origins of such language, especially in the great diversity of Christian traditions in the United States,” Busto explained. “There is scholarly debate over whether or not verses 17 and 18 are original to the Gospel, or were added later.”
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However, Busto noted, Pentacostals such as Coots — who practiced at a church in Middleboro, Ky., and was featured on the National Geographic series “Snake Salvation” — are likely to ignore the controversy surrounding the passage.
“[The concept of] the Bible as a sacred text is held by many Christians, especially Evangelicals and Pentecostals to be the inerrant word of God, and so contrary opinions by scholars are easily dismissed,” Busto said.
Busto added that the interpretation of the passage as condoning snake-handling is supported by other New Testament passages, such as Acts 28 1-6, which details the apostle Paul suffering no harm after being bitten by a snake.
While “there is never one accepted reading” of the passage by contemporary Christians, Busto said, many in the snake handling tradition would read the phrase “they shall” as a commandment, while other Evangelicals would read the passage as “the potential of God's miraculous power” without regarding it as a commandment. Liberal Christians, Busto said, “will read the passage as editorial bravado by early Christians eager to declare the triumph of Christianity over death as proven by the resurrection of Jesus.”
Coots had twice survived snake bites previously, refusing treatment each time. However, in August 1995, 28-year-old Melinda Brown died after being bitten by a rattlesnake at his church.
While God's law on the topic is a matter of debate, Kentucky law is more clear on the matter, banning people from handling or using “any kind of reptile in connection with any religious service or gathering. However, the punishment for violating that law is relatively light, carrying a fine of “not less than $50 nor more than $100.”