A friend of mine and an excellent planetary scientist, Bill Hartmann, is of an age where he’s not afraid to publish way-out-there ideas, and his most recent one suggests that the bright flash and loud noise that accompanied St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was in fact a meteorite fall!
It’s delightfully goofy. Of course, it’s also trivial to refute.
This paper was first presented at the Meteoritical Society meeting in Edmonton and rather thoroughly refuted in the discussion there; I am surprised that the author has decided to submit it for publication in any event.
Hartmann’s idea is that the events described in the New Testament book of Acts as occurring to St. Paul during his conversion experience can be explained as the result of a bolide coinciding with his famous trip to Damascus. The difficulty is that this proposal is a classic case of the logical fallacy of the “undistributed middle” and that, in fact, there are certain obvious and difficult to refute arguments against this proposal.
First, to the logical fallacy. The author states, correctly, that impact events like that of Chelyabinsk or Tunguska are accompanied by large, blinding flashes of light and loud noises. He notes that the event of Paul’s conversion was also accompanied by a large flash of light and a loud noise. He then concludes that the one event was the same as the other. This is equivalent to saying that “the sun is yellow; bananas are yellow; therefore the sun is a banana.”
One can conclude that, if Paul had experienced a bolide, he would have seen a flash; but one cannot conclude that if Paul saw a flash, he must have experienced a bolide. (The case “bolide” is not distributed to all events of “flash and noise”; hence the “undistributed” nature of this middle term.) Not all events that involve large flashes of light and loud noises are meteorite impacts.
This is, at best, a not-inconsistent-with argument. If you propose that the conversion event of St Paul was the result of a meteorite strike, one might first ask if Paul noticed a flash of light and a loud noise — check — and conclude, so-far-so-good. But that by itself is hardly proof. The event described in Acts might have been a stroke of lightning or some similar atmospheric/electrical phenomenon; or the explosion of a rotting dead animal filled with methane gas; or the experience from Paul’s point of view of suffering an epileptic fit or some other malady; or a truly supernatural event. Indeed, it might be argued that the entire story is Paul’s dramatization of his own internal conversion experience with no actual physical analog.
Consider the argument from the opposite point of view. What if one were to argue, instead, that the bright flash of light and loud noise heard in Chelyabinsk was proof that someone in that Russian town had suddenly received a message from God? If one insists that a meteor strike is the same thing as Paul’s conversion experience, then asserting that a vision of God occurred in Chelyabinsk is just as valid as asserting that a meteorite strike occurred on the Damascus road.
Of course, there is counter-evidence to the “saint-of-Chelyabinsk” theory. In Chelyabinsk we have three lines of evidence that there was, in fact, a meteorite strike. We have the widespread accounts of more than a million people who saw the bolide in the sky; we have the craters and other physical damage made by the falling stones; and we have many examples of the stones themselves.
These three lines of evidence are specifically lacking in the proposed Damascus event.
First, to the obvious: there is no crater, there is no meteorite. There is no physical evidence at all backing up the assertion of a meteorite strike.
In addition, it is difficult to imagine that such a large event would have gone unnoticed or unrecognized in that place, at that time. The distance from Jerusalem to Damascus is about 220 km so at no point in the journey would St. Paul have been more than 110 km away from one of those large cities. In fact the distance between Nazareth and Damascus (which is on a likely route between Jerusalem and Damascus) is only about 130 km so at no point in the journey would St. Paul have been more than 65 km from either city. By contrast, the strewn field alone of the Chelyabinsk pieces extends for roughly 50 km. The Chelyabinsk fireball occurred at an estimated altitude of 20-40 km and traveled laterally for several hundred kilometers. It was observed from places as far apart as of more than one thousand kilometers, including “Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk, Tyumen, and Orenburg Oblasts, the Republic of Bashkortostan, and in neighbouring regions in Kazakhstan” (to quote wikipedia).
It is possible (as the author argues) that a meteorite might not be found, or a crater not formed, if the event large enough to result in an airburst like the event at Tunguska. But that makes the problem even worse. We know from historical records that the Tunguska event resulted in “a column of bluish light” visible for hundreds of kilometers, and that following this event there was a visible night light glow seen across Europe and Asia for several nights. Effects from the blast were felt as far away as London. The bigger the event, the more likely it is that it would have been seen and recorded by the estimated 10-20 million people living in the Asian part of the Roman Empire at that time.
On the other hand, if one argues that the meteorite fall was small enough to go unnoticed except nearby, then one no longer has a fall of sufficient energy to produce the blinding flash and shock wave described in Acts. Furthermore, the smaller the event, the more commonly they occur; one must then ask why more people over history have not experienced the effects that Paul describes.
The Romans, Greeks, Persians, and Indians of that era were not scientific illiterates, nor did they fail to record remarkable events of natural history. If nothing else, one expects that the astrologers of that time would have noted and recorded such an event if it had occurred. (The most famous natural historian of that century, Pliny the Elder, would have been a teenager at that time.)
Indeed, this whole discussion reminds me strongly of the endless and pointless literature on the Star of Bethlehem. The fact is, the historical record that we have is far too sparse to make any definitive statement of science. Instead, a small cottage industry has developed with hundreds of books (and now videos) produced on the slimmest of evidence to determine that this event, or that event, was the true Star of Bethlehem.
Like the Star, the question of what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus is something that can never be determined uniquely by science. What’s more, it really isn’t important. It makes no difference to our understanding of meteoritics – we know from evidence far better than the account in Acts that such events do occur, and having one more data point will not particularly improve our understanding of the statistics of their occurrence. And it would have absolutely no effect on the our understanding of the history, much less the philosophy or theology, of St. Paul.
Many people have experienced bright bursts of light and loud noises. Most of them have not become religious figures of note as a result. What is unique about Paul is the philosophical change that this particular event, whatever it was, triggered in him. Contrary to the characterization of Paul given by the author of this paper, what is notable about Paul is that rather than making him even more of a fanatic, this conversion event actually resulted in a remarkable moderation in his behavior. Afterwards, he rejected his former rigid legalism and insistence on the enforcement of rules even to the point of death, and instead argued for the accommodation of religious practices to the needs and cultures of the places he visited. Whether that was due to a lightning strike, a meteor, or a miracle, is rather beside the point.
In conclusion, I find the proposal of this work to be highly unlikely and of dubious merit, either scientifically or historically.