Did a meteorite change Christianity?

St. Paul is widely considered as perhaps the most important person after Jesus in the history of Christianity. The Bible’s Acts of the Apostles gives three accounts of how he went from Saul of Tarsus, a zealous persecutor of Christians, to Paul, a man who traveled thousands of miles spreading Christianity. Based on those accounts, a planetary scientist believes a meteoric fireball may have led to Paul’s conversion.

Acts contains a third-person account of Paul’s conversion, believed to be written by St. Luke, and two of his own. Although differing slightly in details, they are relatively uniform. He was traveling to Damascus to arrest Christians and return them to Jerusalem for punishment. About midday, he saw “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun shining round me and those who journeyed with me.” (Acts 26:13). They all fell to the ground. Paul then heard the voice of Jesus asking why Paul was persecuting him. The stories differ on whether his companions heard the voice.

“The Conversion of St. Paul” by Luca Giordano

All three accounts say the light came “from heaven.” Luke’s version and one of St. Paul’s also say the light blinded him for several days. A Christian in Damascus laid hands on Paul, according to Luke, “[a]nd immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.” He was then baptized.

On February 15, 2013, a meteorite about the size of a six-story building streaked through the sky above Chelyabinsk, Russia, before exploding into a fireball. The ubiquity of cameras and the number of people who saw the event make it the most well-documented of such incidents. The details of Paul’s conversion are a “strikingly good match” to the Chelyabinsk fireballs and similar incidents, according to a 2015 paper by William Hartmann. “Everything they are describing in those three accounts in the book of Acts are exactly the sequence you see with a fireball,” Hartmann, co-founder of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, told New Scientist magazine.

Hartmann’s paper compared the stories in Acts with information about the Chelyabinsk event, the huge 1908 explosion caused by an asteroid in Tunguska, Russia, and other fireball incidents. He based his hypothesis on several factors, including:

  • the accounts say the light was brighter than the sun even though it occurred around noon. The Chelyabinsk fireball was estimated to be about three times brighter than the sun.
  • the travelers saw the light in the sky, and the accounts suggest it was moving, which is consistent with a meteorite coming to earth.
  • Paul and everyone accompanying him fell to the ground, suggesting a shock wave. The explosion in Chelyabinsk knocked people off their feet, broke thousands of windows, and collapsed roofs. The Tunguska explosion also knocked people to the ground and broke windows.
  • whatever Paul heard was after he saw the light and people were on the ground, a sequence expected with a fireball.
  • descriptions of Paul’s blindness and recovery are consistent with a condition known as photokeratitis, temporary blindness caused by exposure to intense radiation. Saying the recovery of his sight being like scales falling from his eyes “beautifully matches” how sight can return in severe cases of photokeratitis.

Hartmann admits that the information in Acts is too sketchy for conclusive findings, especially since little to no additional evidence exists. “My goal is not to discredit anything that anybody wants to believe in,” he told New Scientist. Instead, he is pointing out that cultural concepts influence perceptions of extraordinary events. It would not be unusual for someone in the first century to consider a fireball a divine event. “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,” Bill Cooke, manager of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, told the magazine.

Paul helped make Christianity more than a branch of Judaism by insisting his mission was to preach the gospel to Gentiles. But, given Hartmann’s analysis, one can’t help but wonder if Christianity became a universal faith because of an exploding meteorite.

If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be–a Christian

Mark Twain’s Notebook

(Originally posted at History of Yesterday)

Comments are closed.