The conversion of Saul of Tarsus, a man who persecuted early Christians, is one of the most famous conversion stories in the Bible's New Testament. Looking into the circumstances surrounding this conversion, a scientist is saying that natural phenomenon might have played a role.
In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, Saul on the road to Damascus was blinded by a "light from heaven flashed around him." Three days later, his sight was restored by a man the Bible says was ordered by God to lay his hands upon Saul's eyes. Afterward, Saul, who would thereafter be called Paul, was baptized and would go on to become an apostle who brought the word of Jesus Christ to the gentiles.
In this frame grab made from a video done with a dashboard camera, on a highway from Kostanai, Kazakhstan, to Chelyabinsk region, Russia, provided by Nasha Gazeta newspaper, on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 a meteorite contrail is seen. (Photo: AP)
William Hartmann with the Planetary Science Institute, a nonprofit based in Arizona, published a paper in the journal Meteoretics and Planetary Science in March where he compared several modern celestial events to one that might have caused Paul to go blind for three days.
"The well-recorded Chelyabinsk event, the Tunguska event, and the re-entry of the Zond IV vehicle offer opportunities to compare reactions of modern eyewitnesses to eyewitness accounts of possible ancient fireball events," Hartmann wrote in his paper.
The Chelyabinsk event was a meteorite that hit in Russia's Ural Mountains in 2013, causing a bright light to appear across the sky, along with a loud boom that broke glass windows. The Tunguska event happened in 1908 in Siberia and was so strong it killed animals and felled 80 million trees in a radial pattern, according to NASA.
The details in the Acts of the Apostles about a light "from heaven," Hartmann continued, "offer a strikingly good match to a Chelyabinsk-class or Tunguska-class fireball."
What's more, he said that the symptoms of temporary blindness caused by "intense radiation" are similar to those of what's now known as photokeratitis. This condition is basically like having a sunburn on your eye, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
"Photokeratitis [...] usually go away on their own, so treatment is focused on making you feel better as your eyes heal," the academy stated.
Raj Das-Bhaumi, who works at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, told New Scientist that the symptoms Hartmann is saying could have been caused by a meteor as written in the Acts of the Apostles — that scales fell from Paul's eyes after Ananias laid his hands on him — aren't quite what he's seen with eye injuries caused by exposure to extreme light.
"You wouldn't expect bits of the eye to fall off; I've not come across that at all," he told the website. "If this were a meteorite, I'm sure you'd have other damage as well."
Hartmann wrote that the reentry of Zond IV, a Soviet Union spacecraft, was seen over the U.S. as it disintegrated in the 1960s, generating many UFO reports at the time.
"An analysis of the re-entry of debris from the Russian Zond IV over the eastern United States in 1968 shows how actual perceived phenomena in an unfamiliar natural celestial apparition are often conceived by the observer in terms of current cultural conceptions, and it is suggested that this happened also in the first-century case," Hartmann continued in the paper's abstract.
Bill Cooke with NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office told New Scientist that other "well recorded [...] extraterrestrial impacts have helped to shape the evolution of life on this planet."
"If it was a Chelyabinsk fireball that was responsible for Paul's conversion, then obviously that had a great impact on the growth of Christianity," Cooke added.
Cooke went on to call Hartmann's ideas "informed speculation," New Scientist reported.
"But like so many other things in the ancient past there is no real concrete evidence, no smoking gun," he said.
Hartmann is not the first to suggest that the flash that blinded Paul was caused by a meteor. Theologian Albert Barnes in his book "Scenes And Incidents In The Life Of The Apostle Paul: Viewed As Illustrating The Nature And Influence Of The Christian Religion" wrote that a meteor was one of the ways "in which men seek to dispose" of Paul's conversion experience. However, he concluded "as far as I can see, no other, save that which admits the narrative to be true, and the religion to be from God."
(H/T: Daily Mail)