The meteor sighting on the road to Damascus: why do we believe what we believe?

William Hartman is the co-founder of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, which presumably makes him a reputable scientist. In a March 2015 article in the journal Meteorites and Planetary Science, which is presumably a reputable scientific publication—you get a bit wary about these things—he argues that the bright light that Paul saw as he approached Damascus could have been a fireball meteor like the one seen above Chelyabinsk in Russia in 2013. The points of correspondence are moderately impressive.

  • Paul saw a “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun” (Acts 26:13). The Chelyabinsk meteor was estimated to have been three times brighter than the sun.
  • Paul and those travelling with him fell to the ground (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14). When the Chelyabinsk meteor exploded in the air, it created a shock wave that blew out windows and knocked people off their feet.
  • Paul heard the voice of the exalted Christ speaking to him: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). His companions heard it—heard something—but could not understand it. The explosion of the Chelyabinsk meteor caused a thunderous sound.
  • Paul was blinded by the brightness of the light and had to be led by hand into Damascus (Acts 22:11). He could not see for three days. When Ananias prayed for him, “immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight” (Acts 9:9, 18). Hartman notes that the UV radiation from the Chelyabinsk meteor caused sunburn, skin peeling and temporary blindness. Photokeratitis is a type of temporary blindness caused by exposure to ultraviolet light—snow blindness is an example. Healing occurs in one to three days.

There are some discrepancies. The effects of photokeratitis are not usually noticed until a few hours after exposure to UV light, whereas Paul appears to have been blinded straightaway. There is no mention in Acts of the pain, weeping and eyelid twitching associated with the condition. Nor does it provide an explanation for the “something like scales” that fell from Paul’s eyes—the New Scientist quotes a very reputable eye doctor on this matter. But if we allow for the inevitable fuzziness that results from recollection, retelling and refraction through an ancient worldview, the match seems pretty good.

It’s not too difficult to imagine that Paul interpreted this “heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19) as a divine reproof of his aggressive campaign against the Christians. After all, the astrologers from the east may have made the journey to Jerusalem because they had interpreted a conjunction of the planets as a sign of the birth of a king in Judea. The historian Josephus writes without irony or scepticism about the signs—including a star and a comet—that preceded the destruction of Jerusalem:

Thus were the miserable people persuaded by these deceivers, and such as belied God himself; while they did not attend, nor give credit, to the signs that were so evident and did so plainly foretell their future desolation; but, like men infatuated, without either eyes to see, or minds to consider, did not regard the denunciations that God made to them. Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year. (War 6:288–289)

Should we suppose, then, that the dialogue with the risen Lord took place in Paul’s disturbed mind, in his distressed Jewish apocalyptic imagination? [pullquote]Would faith in Paul’s unenlightened interpretation of a fireball be any different from faith in Paul’s claim actually to have seen the risen Christ?[/pullquote] Either way, we’ve only got his word for it. Would he have been wrong—theologically speaking—to have interpreted the scientifically explicable phenomenon as a revelation from heaven? Or is the story somehow bigger than the empirical facts?

How does Hartman assess the implications of his theory? Somewhat disingenuously. “My goal is not to discredit anything that anybody wants to believe in. But if the spread of a major religion was motivated by misunderstanding a fireball, that’s something we human beings ought to understand about ourselves.”

That is the unavoidable tension between science and religion. The serious question here for a strongly historical and realistic hermeneutic is this: how far can we go in explaining away the “supernatural” elements in the narrative—in such a historical and realistic fashion—before it ceases to be the story of the people of the one, true, living creator God? If you let enough gas out of the balloon, sooner or later it will sink back down to earth.

What is it that keeps the biblical story airborne for us as the church? The resurrection alone? The resurrection plus a certain number of miraculous events? Or the much less focused, intangible, but persistent experience of a people which throughout the ages has believed itself called to serve the interests of the God who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them? That Jesus was raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God—as Paul learnt somehow—is a decisive moment in that story. But the resurrection makes sense only as part of that story, not as an isolated proof or ground for faith. So it is to the whole story that we must go to find good reason to believe what we believe.

Good points Andrew. The thing that i find incongruous is that if the incarnation and resurrection are true (and it can be argued that they are not “deal breakers” if not) then where’s the difficulty in believing for other, even seemingly “benign” divine interventions? 

Is the incarnation strictly a miracle? There was nothing overtly “incarnate” about his appearance or behaviour.

The resurrection is a different matter, but there’s no suggestion that Paul actually or literally saw the ascended Jesus in heaven at the right hand of God. As with Stephen seeing the Son of Man at the moment of his martyrdom (Acts 7:56), this appears to be a “vision”.

So it’s more a question of the nature of visionary experience? Is the “revelation” disqualified by the fact that it was bound up with the misinterpretation of a natural phenomenon? I don’t see why it should be.

I said the resurrection was another matter. And I did not say that the incarnation wasn’t “supernatural”. I said it was not a miracle. Jesus was not obviously God incarnate. He looked like an ordinary human being—and everyone who saw him took him as such. He didn’t glow. That’s very different to Lazarus coming back to life after being dead for four days.

1 Corinthians 15:4-8 — all ‘appearances’ fall into the same category: Jesus in a resurrection body. Or was his ‘appearance’ to Paul different from the other resurrection ‘appearances’? The language here doesn’t seem to suggest it.

But it’s Paul’s language. Clearly he believed that he had seen the risen Christ, even if the modern rationalising reader suspects that what he really saw was a fireball. The question is whether we could allow that he correctly interpreted the physical phenomenon as a challenging encounter with the risen Christ.

An exploding fireball could explain Paul’s Damascus road experience.  So could hallucination, dehydration, or just a straight up fabrication — no exploding fireballs necessary.  There are all kinds of alternative explanations for virtually anything recorded in the Bible that seems extraordinary — resurrection included.

I imagine Paul’s story probably sounded crazy to the apostles who had actually seen Jesus.  ”Hey, guys, I saw Jesus, too!  Unlike yourselves, nobody with me can verify my story.  In fact, everyone with me says they didn’t see him.  But trust me on this!”  And yet, whatever he told them seemed compelling enough for Luke to record it as early church history, for the early church to accept Paul’s teachings as authoritative, and for the other apostles to at least tolerate him.

I appreciate the attempt to make Paul’s experience look like an honest mistake (hey, we’ve all had celestial fireballs explode in front of us, right?) instead of a deliberate deception, but in the absence of any other evidence, this is just a story about the phenomenon.  Paul has a different story, and I believe his story when I hear it and all the foolish ramifications that come from it.

Couldn’t we say that God used the meteor to challenge Paul’s vehement opposition to the Jewish believers in Jesus and that Paul correctly—perhaps subconsciously and according to a pre-scientific worldview—interpreted the phenomenon? Do we have to suppose otherwise that authentic visions are wholly supernatural events with no natural origins or catalyst?

That’s a good point, and I’d say no, it doesn’t have to be a blatantly supernatural phenomenon.  As you mentioned, comets and stars are used as portents in the biblical world.  In fact, a phenomenon being a signifier seems to be more important to the definition of “miracle” than “something that appears contrary to the way nature normally works.”

But I guess the part I question is, what reason do we have to believe the fireball thing happened to Paul and how would this meaningfully differ from Paul’s experience being due to a stroke (I guess you could argue that the others experienced it, but they experienced hearing the voice — they didn’t see anything)?  Or why is it more probable?

And in the end, maybe it doesn’t matter.  Luke’s account is to identify the persecution of the early church with the persecution of Christ, provide an explanation for Saul’s radical change of career, introduce the idea of an apostle to the Gentiles as well as Israel, and cast Paul as someone who will suffer for Christ’s sake.  This is all accomplished by Luke’s story regardless of the specific underlying facts of the situation.

But I guess the part I question is, what reason do we have to believe the fireball thing happened to Paul and how would this meaningfully differ from Paul’s experience being due to a stroke (I guess you could argue that the others experienced it, but they experienced hearing the voice - they didn’t see anything)? Or why is it more probable?

Well, yes, that is the rational question, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be asked. People can debate whether, on the evidence available to us, a fireball better accounts for the event than a stoke, or a Lukan fabrication, or whatever.

And in the end, maybe it doesn’t matter. Luke’s account is to identify the persecution of the early church with the persecution of Christ, provide an explanation for Saul’s radical change of career, introduce the idea of an apostle to the Gentiles as well as Israel, and cast Paul as someone who will suffer for Christ’s sake. This is all accomplished by Luke’s story regardless of the specific underlying facts of the situation.

Exactly. Well put.

Well, yes, that is the rational question, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be asked. People can debate whether, on the evidence available to us, a fireball better accounts for the event than a stoke, or a Lukan fabrication, or whatever.

My fundamentalist roots may be starting to show, here, but to this point, the only evidence we have for the event is the Lukan account.  If the fireball article had offered some geological evidence or some backwards astronomico-historical projection that indicated an explosion, then I’d probably be inclined to seriously entertain that as an explanation for what triggered Paul’s experience.

I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t have a particular -reason- to think anything in particular happened beyond what Luke describes (other than perhaps the fact that it’s highly unusual, but I guess so are atmospheric exploding phenomena).  Luke’s story is all I’ve got.  A supernatural phenomenon is certainly possible, by my lights, anyway, so what’s my motivation to look for a theoretical supplementary explanation?

I mean, I believe an intinerant rabbi in the first century who was killed by the Roman government to quell political unrest has been raised from the dead by God and now rules the universe at His right hand.  So, the natural plausibility ship has kind of sailed.

Just to be clear, the atmospheric explosion theory is entirely possible.  I don’t feel threatened by it, nor do I feel the truth value of Luke’s story is threatened by it.  But I also don’t know why I would embrace it as likely, either.  If I felt like I needed a more naturalistic explanation back of Luke’s account, there are plenty of options.  But I don’t feel like I need one in the absence of any other data besides Luke’s account.

Over lunch, I was thinking about what my expectations were for the Damascus road story.  Am I expecting it to be an airtight historical account?  Am I expecting it to be loosely historically accurate?  Do I even know what language game that story is playing?  Is it history, or is it something else?

Why is that story even told?

Maybe what I think about Paul and the Fireball (GREAT title for a children’s book on higher criticism) says more about my expectations than it does about the text.

I formulated some basic answers to the above questions, but I think I’ll let them just sit for the time being.

Ricky Fairs | Thu, 11/04/2021 - 02:31 | Permalink

Isn’t it obvious that all of us simply believe what we want and choose to believe and don’t believe what we don’t choose to believe?

The justifications for those beliefs may seem logical and convincing or illogical and unconvincing but are not the real reasons for the belief.