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Detail, The Conversion of St. Paul. Paul and companions are knocked to the ground during the profound event.

Ancient Signs in the Sky: Did a Meteorite Change the Course of Christianity 2,000 Years Ago?

Did an ancient meteor have such a life-changing impact on witnesses of the day that it shaped a religion and altered the course of history? Astronomers theorize that the dramatic flash and boom that converted Paul the Apostle may have been an exploding meteor.

In the Christian Bible, it is written that a man named Saul experienced an event so extreme that it changed his views in an instant, and he became one of the most influential evangelists in early Christianity.

Saul was said to have been a vehement persecutor of the followers of Jesus and was traveling in search of disciples of Jesus for punishment. It is written in the fifth book of the New Testament, Acts of the Apostles , that Saul was on the road to Damascus, Syria, when a bright light appeared in the sky. So intense was the light that he was blinded for three days. What he heard was described as a great thunderous sound, or a divine voice. He and his companions are said to have been knocked to the ground by the force of the event. The experience was so profound that Saul changed his name to Paul, took up missionary journeys across the Mediterranean, and became instrumental in spreading Christianity.

The Conversion of Saint Paul – Paul and his companions are knocked to the ground by a resounding boom and brilliant light. Did a meteor cause this ancient event?

The Conversion of Saint Paul – Paul and his companions are knocked to the ground by a resounding boom and brilliant light. Did a meteor cause this ancient event? Public Domain

William Hartmann, co-founder of the Planetary Science Institute in the U.S. has connected Paul’s experience with similar accounts of exploding meteors, such as the well-recorded Chelyabinsk meteor which broke up over Russia in 2013, injuring over 1,500 people. The eyewitness descriptions and physical reactions to meteors or fireballs in the sky seem to parallel what is recorded about Paul.

Meteor trail over Chelyabinsk, Russia.

Meteor trail over Chelyabinsk, Russia. Wikimedia Commons

If true, then it’s possible that an act of nature may have been contributory in the spread and evolution of Christianity in its early days, and therefore shaped the course of history.

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In a study published in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science , Hartmann cites major events like the meteors or asteroids over Chelyabinsk, Russia and Tunguska, Siberia as offering “opportunities to compare reactions of modern eyewitnesses to eyewitness accounts of possible ancient fireball events.” There are consistencies among the many accounts suggesting the biblical descriptions of Paul’s experience closely match known modern events, reports NewScientist.

In the biblical accounts, Paul was blinded for three days due to the intense light from the sky; it was “brighter than the sun, shining round me,” according to the text. This matches the Chelyabinsk meteor, as it was calculated to be shining around three times as bright as the sun. The blazing fireball made shadows move around the ground as it travelled.

Paul and his companions were said to have been knocked to the earth, and this also corresponds to the shockwave generated by the powerful Chelyabinsk meteor as it blasted out windows, knocked people off their feet, shook cars and buildings, and collapsed roofs.

The divine voice is said to have either boomed like thunder, or questioned Paul’s behavior (the exact sound is debated). Meteors create great, explosive booms and roars which can be scary or painful even for those who know what they’re experiencing.

To the ancients the incredible and unfamiliar natural celestial events were interpreted through cultural understandings of the day – which is to say, they were considered divine or damning.

The Chelyabinsk meteor gave off small amounts of radiation, enough to cause sunburn and temporary blindness in witnesses. Harmann suggests that Paul could have suffered photokeratitis, a temporary blindness from intense ultraviolet radiation, and this explains the return of his sight after healing.

Paul having his sight restored after being blinded by a celestial light that might have been a meteor.

Paul having his sight restored after being blinded by a celestial light that might have been a meteor. Public Domain

Hartmann told NewScientist, “Everything they are describing in those three accounts in the book of Acts are exactly the sequence you see with a fireball.”

IBTimes writes that the Acts of Apostles text describes three events of bright lights “from heaven” which took place around Damascus during the 30s B.C. If meteorites can be found in Syria, and accurately dated to the relevant timeframes, it might give support to the published theories.

Hartmann’s research aim is not to discredit Christianity, but to demonstrate how the interpretation of ancient events may have shaped how we exist today, spiritually and culturally.

This wouldn’t be the first meteorite in history to have potentially inspired worship or acted as an agent of change. In antiquity meteorites were seen as messages from the gods , or profound omens, and many cultures saw fallen meteorites as religious icons to be worshiped or as objects of protection. Jewelry and art has also been created from the space rocks.

Each year devout Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, circling the Kaaba, or black stone, and give a nod or a kiss to the meteorite that is said to rest inside the Grand Mosque. The worship of the Black Stone goes back to pre-Islamic shrines, when Semitic cultures used unusual stones to signify sites of reverence. According to Muslim belief, the stone originates from the time of Adam and the Islamic prophet Muhammad set the Black Stone in place after it fell from the skies.

A 1315 illustration inspired by the story of Muhammad and the Meccan clan elders lifting the Black Stone into place. Was the black stone a meteor from space?

A 1315 illustration inspired by the story of Muhammad and the Meccan clan elders lifting the Black Stone into place. Was the black stone a meteor from space? Public Domain

In a more modern example, after the dramatic Chelyabinsk event over Russia in 2013, the ‘Church of the Meteorite’ was set up, and the followers hold rites on the shores of Lake Chebarkul where pieces of the space rock fell.

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Some scientists regard the Conversion of Paul theory as speculation, but seem to welcome further evidence.

Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office told NewScientist, “It’s well recorded that 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.”

Indeed, “Some scholars call Paul the second founder of Christianity” says Justin Meggitt, religious historian at the University of Cambridge. Without the fireball, and without Paul’s conversion, perhaps Christianity would be different than it is today.

“Christianity probably would be very different without him,” Meggitt concludes.

Illumination from 1450 depicting Paul's conversion – the bright light and sound come from the sky. The event was said to change Paul, and may have changed history.

Illumination from 1450 depicting Paul's conversion – the bright light and sound come from the sky. The event was said to change Paul, and may have changed history. Public Domain

Featured Image: Detail, The Conversion of St. Paul. Paul and companions are knocked to the ground during the profound event. Public Domain

By Liz Leafloor

Comments

A fun, interesting article, speculating about the origins of the stories in some of our historical documents...

But wow, does that rile up the religionists!

The gods (and the religions that sprung from them) were some of our first attempts to understand and explain the world around us. Both the first, and by being first, of course, some of the worst! The idea that maggots spontaneously generated from meat is not an unreasonable hypothesis - until you develop magnification, and can see flies lay eggs.

We can see farther now. We have more knowledge, and additional discoveries are piled on top at an ever increasing rate. Sure, this article is pure speculation, but in doing so, it offers a hypothesis for a series of historical observations that is plausible based on facts we now know to be true.

We could no more expect the authors of those stories to consider meteors as a potential explanation for their observations, than for them to understand that flies lay eggs before they could observe them for themselves. But it's a vastly more likely scenario than invisible sky-friends!

Paul did not "change his name due to that profound experience". He was born both a Hebrew and a Roman. His Hebrew name was Saul, his Latin name (Roman name) was Paul. And he went by both names his entire life. There was never a "name change". It just depended on who he was hanging out with as to which name he was called. After his conversion, he hung out with a different crowd and they called him the name they were more familiar with. But he was always both Paul and Saul.

A meteor explanation for Paul's conversion does not address the root issue in Christianity.
Either Jesus rose from the dead or he didn't. Everything else is ancillary.

Consider the words of Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette:
"Why, among all the cults and philosophies competing in the Greco-Roman world, did Christianity succeed and outstrip all others? Why did it succeed despite getting more severe opposition than any other? Why did it succeed though it had no influential backers in high places, but consisted mainly of the poor and slaves? How did it succeed so completely that it forced the most powerful state in history to come to terms with it, and then outlive the very empire that sought to uproot it? It is clear that at the very beginning of Christianity there must have occurred a vast release of energy perhaps unequaled in our history. Without it, the future course of the Christian religion is inexplicable."

In a word, Constantine.

SOTERPHILE --

You've summed it up perfectly!!!

God, Jesus, & The Holy Spirit will, when warranted, create cosmic phenomenons as signs to us.

That's the way that it is instead of the other way around where cosmic phenomenons are the ones to create God, Jesus, & The Holy Spirit.

You pointed out that the odds were actually against the ability of Christianity to be a lasting and strong religion -- but, yet, it still endures today!!!

Christianity in its purest form is summed up in a threefold commandment to:

Love Jesus
Love Others
Love Yourself

I'm new to this site, and this is my first contribution.

While I could be wrong, I believe that the following permalink will refer back to SOTERPHILE's comment, so I'm going to post a link to it right here:

http://www.ancient-origins.net/comment/10948#comment-10948

That's all for now. I have the feeling that I'm going to enjoy reading and posting at this site!!!

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