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.