Did the Apostle Paul suffer from Epilepsy?

by Peter Salemi

The conversion of Paul is an extremely perplexing fact of history for skeptics.  Paul was an ardent opponent of Christianity and had everything to gain by destroying its claims. He persecuted the early Christians with zeal and thought he was serving God. When someone must confess such a drastic error in embarrassing detail, it is not likely they are fabricating their testimony. Accordingly, the testimony of a hostile witness is considered extremely convincing in a court of law. For these reasons skeptics have concocted fanciful theories such as Paul suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy or conversion disorder. Is this true?

Of course, the basis of this comes from the Bible and the conversion of Paul. Interesting how these skeptics don't believe in the Bible, not a word, yet used the Bible to concoct these theories.

Skeptics speculate on Paul's conversion; they try and disprove it as an epileptic seizure therefore not divine intervention, and therefore all of Christianity is false. Yet they left alone the mental condition of Peter, James, and John on the mountain when they beheld the raiment of the Lord white as snow, as they saw His face above the brightness of the sun, and as they were eyewitnesses of his dazzling majesty; no they conveniently left alone this narrative, and simply attacked Paul for seeing the same thing. Why?

Was Paul a person who had a history of neurological disorders? What evidence do we have? Was Paul in the frame of mind to hallucinate the risen Jesus, and does he fit the medical profile of someone who is likely to experience conversion psychosis?

The psychological profile provided for conversion disorder strongly opposes an application to Paul. It most frequently occurs in women (up to five times more often), adolescents and young adults, less-educated persons, people with low I.Q.s or low socioeconomic status, and combat personnel. Not a single characteristic applies to Paul (Harold Kaplan, Benjamin Sadock, and Jack Grebb, Synopsis of Psychiatry, 7th ed. (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1994), 621.

No evidence exists to posit the preconditions for such a disorder from what we know about Paul, We have no indication that Paul experienced the slightest inner conflict, doubt, or guilt concerning his previous rejection of Jesus. Since he persecuted early Christians (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13, 23). We do not know of any guilt on Paul’s part, for he considered his actions to have been both zealous and faultless (Phil. 3:4-6). In short, there is no indication of any prior desire for conversion by Paul. To suppose otherwise is groundless. Paul is a poor candidates for this disorder.

His unbelief is a poor basis for producing hallucinations! Paul the persecutor, this is an exceptionally tough obstacle for the hallucination thesis. To say otherwise is mere conjecture apart from historical data. Not only is Paul a poor candidate for hallucination, but we need both visual and auditory hallucinations, which stretches the case even further. These two phenomena are relatively uncommon occurrences. Paul therefore, fails to qualify for the disorder in the first place, and even apart from this malady, they were additionally not predisposed to experience hallucinations. (Harold Kaplan, Benjamin Sadock, and Jack Grebb, Synopsis of Psychiatry, 7th ed. (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1994), 621.).

In this frame of mind, Paul was in no way set for a conversion disorder.

Epilepsy?

Symptoms before a seizure is:

  • Déjà vu (a feeling of being there before but never have)
  • Jamais vu (a feeling that something is very familiar but it isn’t)
  • Smells
  • Sounds
  • Tastes
  • Visual loss or blurring
  • “Strange” feelings
  • Fear/panic (often negative or scary feelings)
  • Pleasant feelings
  • Racing thoughts (http://www.epilepsy.com).

Do we see this in the book of Acts? No! It says, "And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:" (Acts 9:3). Don't you think that if Paul just before he had a seizure would have been aware of what was happening and Luke would have recorded that a "strange feeling" was coming upon him, or fear or panic?

The Common symptoms during a seisure are:

  • Loss of awareness (often called “black out”)
  • Confused, feeling spacey
  • Periods of forgetfulness or memory lapses
  • Distracted, daydreaming
  • Loss of consciousness, unconscious, or “pass out”
  • Unable to hear
  • Sounds may be strange or different
  • Unusual smells (often bad smells like burning rubber)
  • Unusual tastes
  • Loss of vision or unable to see
  • Blurry vision
  • Flashing lights
  • Formed visual hallucinations (objects or things are seen that aren’t really there)
  • Numbness, tingling, or electric shock like feeling in body, arm or leg
  • Out of body sensations
  • Feeling detached
  • Déjà vu (feeling of being there before but never have)
  • Jamais vu (feeling that something is very familiar but it isn’t)
  • Body parts feels or looks different
  • Feeling of panic, fear, impending doom (intense feeling that something bad is going to happen)
  • Pleasant feelings (ibid).

Any evidence of this in the Bible? Paul was blind! Yes! But he was blind due to the Light "from" heaven, not a seizure, in his head. "And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus." (Acts 22:11).  And this light did not occur only to Paul, but the others as well (Acts 22:9) So this was an external source not internal.

Was this a flashing light? Luke simply mentions “a light from heaven,” while in Acts 22:6 Paul calls it “a great (hikanon) light” “about noon” and in Acts 26:13 “above the brightness of the sun,” as it would have to be “at midday” with the sun shining. Jesus is called the light of the world, the sun of righteousness. His face shines like the sun. What he saw was a light like the sun and not flashing lights.

The Common symptoms after a seizure are:

  • Slow to respond or not able to respond right away
  • Sleepy
  • Confused
  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty talking or writing
  • Feeling fuzzy, lightheaded or dizzy
  • Feeling depressed, sad, upset
  • Scared
  • Anxious
  • Frustrated, embarrassed, ashamed (ibid)

Do we see this with the Apostle Paul after his conversion? No! Instead we see, "And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God...But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ. (Acts 9:20, 22).

Do the Accounts contradict?

Do the three conversion accounts in Acts contradict one another?

Skeptics, because the hallucination or epilepsy theory is on shaky ground at best, they seek to nitpick at the details in Acts to derive contradictions.

The first account was written by Luke. The second and third was Paul's testimony to what happened. Acts 9:3-9 says, "And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: [Acts 22:9; 26:13 says they "saw the light" and the light was "round about Me and them"]

"And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? [Acts 22:7 agrees with Acts 9, but Acts 26:14 says, "And when we were all fallen to the earth,"]

"And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

"And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.

"And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. [Acts 22:9 "but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me."]

"And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.

"And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink." 

Can these alleged contradictions be rectified?

Absolutely! The problem with the skeptics, they do not look to rectify, and study further. They just see what apparently seems to be contradictions and just leave it be without further study.

First, Luke says the light was around Paul. Paul says that they "saw the light" and that the light was "round about" Himself and them. Contradiction? No! Luke in Acts 9 is only focusing on Paul and his conversion, not the others, so to leave them out is perfectly normal when reporting something that is totally focusing on the subject at hand which was Paul's conversion. "What is important to notice is that the Gospel writers never created these sayings, rather, they reported them. Further their reports were in accordance with the journalistic standards of the day" (When Critics Ask, by Geisler, p.347, emphasis his).

In Paul's two accounts Paul says they "saw the light" and the light was "round about Me and them." Contradiction? No! They saw the light, and they "were afraid" why? "For it shone about them, as well as Saul" (Gill's Commentary). For them to be afraid, the light must have shine about them as well as Paul.

Next contradiction is verse 4 that says Paul fell to the earth as does Acts 22:7. But Acts 26:14 says, "And when we were all fallen to the earth." Just because the Apostle Paul and Luke do not mention the others falling to the ground does not mean it did not happen! It will surprise you to know that, as well as the above scriptures, that "...people during that time did not feel 'that a verbatim account of someone's speech was any more valuable or accurate than a reliable summary, paraphrase or interpretation'...Modern desire for precision must not be imposed on ancient authors, who often, though not always, preferred to write in a generalizing fashion...it is illegitimate for someone in the 21st century to impose modern standards of precision on first century writers and dismiss them as inaccurate"(Questioning the Bible, by Jonathan Morrow, pp.110, 11, emphasis added).

So what of Acts 9:7, that says, "And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man."? Skeptics say this clearly contradicts Acts 22:9 that says, "but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me." Is this a contradiction?

This is quite easily reconciled when one understands the context of both verses. Luke says here, "And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man." They heard "a voice." When a voice is muffled or far away you can hear this voice but you cannot understand it.

In Acts 22:9 it says, "And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me." Notice the context. They heard the sound of a voice but could not understand it. Paul is saying they did not hear the words that Jesus spoke to Paul! They heard a voice but did not know the words that were being said, that's what Paul is saying. While the Greek term, "phone," can be rendered “hear”, it is also is used for “understand” or “comprehend” as in the case of Mark 4:33.

The JFB Commentary writes, "But just as 'the people that stood by heard' the voice that saluted our Lord with recorded words of consolation and assurance, and yet heard not the articulate words, but thought 'it thundered' or that some 'angel spake to Him; (John 12:28, John 12:29) - so these men heard the voice that spake to Saul, but heard not the articulate words. Apparent discrepancies like these, in the different narratives of the same scene in one and the same book of Acts, furnish the strongest confirmation both of the facts themselves and of the book which records them." (emphasis theirs and mine).

Bullingers Companion Notes says the same, "The companions of Saul heard the sound of the voice, but did not distinguish the words spoken. Compare Acts 22:9. This is expressed by the word 'voice' (phone) being in the genitive case here, and in the accusative case in Acts 9:4. Compare John 12:28-30."

Added to this Luke said they "saw no man" as opposed to Paul who saw Jesus Christ, "Ananias, it seems, was informed that there had been a real appearance, for, in addressing Saul, Acts 9:17, he says, The Lord Jesus that Appeared unto Thee in the way as thou camest, etc. And Barnabas intimates thus much, when he brought him before the apostles at Jerusalem, for he declared unto them how he had Seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken unto him; and, Acts 22:14, where the discourse of Ananias is given more at large, he says, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee that thou shouldest know his will, and See that Just One, and shouldest Hear the voice of his mouth; so we find that hearing the voice, or words of his mouth, was not what is called the appearance; for, besides this, there was an actual manifestation of the person of Christ. But St. Paul’s own words, 1Cor 9:1, put the subject out of dispute: Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I Not Seen Jesus Christ Our Lord? To which may be added, 1Cor 15:8, And last of all, He Was Seen of Me Also, as of one born out of due time." (Clarke's Commentary). Why did Luke mention this unless Paul actually saw Jesus the Light of the World, when Paul said "Who art thou Lord?" after he heard the voice speaking.

So the account of the Apostle Paul's conversion is a genuine divine intervention from God Almighty to one of the greatest persecutors of the church of God. And extreme hatred towards Jesus and his followers, turned into the greatest conversions the world had ever known.