Blinded by the lightThe Damascine Conversion
Author: Paul Chambers
Paul Chambers ponders the Damascine conversion of St Paul and receives a flash of inspiration on the beginnings of the Christian church.
The conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus is one of the most famous and enduring Bible stories. It is commonly cited as an example of divine intervention, but is there a better explanation? Some in the medical community certainly think so.
Saul of Taurus, as St Paul was originally known, was a noted persecutor of the early Christian Church until he decided to journey from Jerusalem to Damascus. As he neared the city, a light from heaven flashed all around him. Saul fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” It was Jesus reprimanding the future saint for his bad attitude.
The Bible records that: “…the men which journeyed with [Saul] stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.” Another of the Lord’s disciples was ordered to visit Saul, “And immediately there fell from [Saul’s] eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith…” Afterwards, Saul was baptised into the faith and became one of its most vocal supporters, promoting the Roman version of Christianity that is prevalent today. 1
Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus has some notable medical aspects to it. There is the light from heaven, seen by him alone. There is the sound heard by his travelling companions, the three days of blindness and Paul’s sudden zest for Christianity. To the faithful, these are acts of God, but some think that the symptoms better fit known medical syndromes.
Two early theories concentrate exclusively on Paul’s blindness. They suggest that he was suffering from keratitis, an inflammation of the eye that can lead to loss of vision; or solar retinopathy, damage caused to the eye after staring at the Sun for too long. Neither explanation fits the facts very well. 2
A better theory was put forward in 1978 by ophthalmologist John D Bullock. He suggests that St Paul was struck by lightning – which would explain both the flash of light, the associated noise (thunder) and him falling down incapacitated. But surely a lightning strike would have killed him? Apparently not. Only around one in five people hit by lightning are killed by it (around 1,000 deaths a year worldwide); the rest exhibit a range of injuries which can include temporary blindness related either to the brightness of the flash, brain injury or the formation of cataracts. It can also induce brain seizures, which might account for the voice Paul heard and/or his sudden conversion to Christianity. 2,3
However, Paul’s friends did not see the flashing light that affected him – which, had it been a lightning strike, they would surely have done. Also, Paul is not recorded as having any other injuries, which is rare in lightning cases where people usually suffer severe burns, nerve damage or brain hæmorrhages. He would certainly have had difficulty walking to Damascus immediately afterwards.
The idea that the light seen by Paul was unique to him has led to the suggestion that the saint might have been suffering from a migraine headache. This is not too far-fetched, as around 15 per cent of migraine victims suffer from ‘visual aura’ before the onset of pain which can include seeing sparkling zig-zag lines, dancing lights or a blotting out of vision. This will be followed by the incapacitating pain of the headache itself. Associated migraine symptoms include photophobia, anorexia and epilepsy, which also fit Paul’s conversion experience, as does his full recovery afterwards. 4
Further evidence that Paul might have been a migraine sufferer comes from his own description of a recurring illness that afflicted him. “There was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me,” wrote Paul, adding that “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.” 5
A final theory concerning Paul is that old FT favourite, temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE).6 In recent years, seizures in the brain’s temporal lobe region have been cited as being behind alien abduction, mediumship, divine visions, ghosts and a host of other fortean experiences. Californian psychologist Vilayanur Ramashandran has made a particular study of the links between TLE and religiosity. “I have temporal lobe patients walking into my laboratory wearing a huge cross and carrying a 500-page tome on the nature of God,” he says adding that around 25 per cent of TLE patients will exhibit an obsession with religion. “These patients are seeing depth in every little thing.” TLE might explain the conversion experience, but perhaps not the three days’ blindness. 7
After 2,000 years, Paul’s conversion still remains an enigma, with few of the theories fitting the known facts perfectly. This may have as much to do with the Bible’s scant description of the conversion rather than the failings of modern medicine – but had it not occurred at all, the history of Western civilisation would have been very different indeed.
1 Acts 9:7-9, 18.
2 Ophthalmology, v.85, 1978, pp.1044–53.
3 Survey of Ophthalmology, v.39, 1994, pp.151–60.
4 Cephalalgia, v.15, 1995, pp.180–1.
5 2 Corinthians 12:7–8.
6 Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, v.50, 1987, pp.659–664; Epilepsy and Behavior, v.4, 2003, pp.78–87.
7 Psychology Today, Mar/Apr, 1998.
See also FT210:18, 217:14.