Mark Owen writes

The Road to Damascus: a road to Delusion

Paul first appears in Christian pseudo-history as Saul.  Not very long after he mysteriously turns into Paul and no explanation whatever is given, a remarkable fact indeed!  We simply have some early accounts of the man's activities, under the name Saul, then, abruptly, in Acts 13:9 we read: 'But Saul, who is also called Paul'  That's it, the  bald statement.  Thereafter the latter name is always used.  

This verse is obviously another of those bridging passages between two accounts, i.e. between different documents from which was forged what we now know as the New Testament. Its presence must make us very suspicious indeed.  In fact it is quite possible that the compilers have drawn material from the lives of two distinct individuals, as they do elsewhere.  This deceitful handling of historical data is endemic to the New Testament account, as anyone who investigated its claims will discover.  But it does go a long way towards explaining inconsistencies in the life of Saul/Paul.  I propose to use both or either name as the context requires.

Saul/Paul is one of those larger-than-life figures thrown up every so often by the historical process.  He was humourless, intense, obsessive and zealous, on his own testimony, to the point of fanaticism (Acts 26:4-11). One night as I was watching television, some angry crowd scenes were shown, relayed from Jerusalem. Black-garbed fanatical Jewish holy men were protesting about sabbath-breaking in Israel.  I immediately thought of St Paul.  He would have been among their number, probably their leader.

This zealot also had another unpleasant trait - he seemed to hate women.  He refers on three occasions to having entered homes and not only arresting the menfolk but also dragging off the women, whom he 'bound and delivered into prison,' showing neither chivalry nor mercy.  His jaundiced views on the marriage state are well known, his comments showing a certain horror of sex.  And he taught that women were subservient to men.

Now Jesus had said to Cephas/Peter, the fisherman, so we are told:  'Upon this rock I will build my church' (Matthew 16:18).  As I have shown elsewhere, this statement was undoubtedly a spurious addition to the original (if we may use such a term) text.  Spurious or no, the Popes of Rome, shrewd politicians that they are, have ever extracted great mileage out of these words.  In reality the promise was not only false; it turned out to be wholly wrong!  Peter, in fact, represented but one of the warring parties vying for supremacy in the early church.

So in the book of Acts we find Pau 'yet breathing out threatening and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord' (Acts 9:1), on the road to Damascus, and at midday (Acts 9:1-22), Saul was dazzled by a light even brighter than the sun. Saul fell to the ground and a voice came from heaven. It was the very voice of Jesus, who forthwith commanded Saul to travel to Damascus (blinded for the next three days) where he would receive further instructions as to the future course of his life.

Now all this sounds very impressive; it certainly impressed me in the days of my Christian obsession. In fact, I once thought it one of the most impressive passages in the whole Bible. The account appears to be from firsthand sources, presumably the writer of Acts (said to be St Luke), who gained the information from Saul himself.  Pity isn't it that this same supposed author of the book of Acts seems to be ignorant of the Epistles of Paul and even contradicts them!  So much for another of the ‘certainties’ of the faith. 

It should not, then, surprise us one whit that this story takes on a somewhat different hue, disturbingly different, when it is retold by Paul in two recorded sermons (Acts 22:3-16 and Acts 26:9-18).  We detect some minor discrepancies first.  In one sermon Saul falls alone to the ground, in the other it is Saul together with his companions. And the message from Jesus seems to expand with the telling. Another curious point: Jesus spoke to Saul in the Hebrew language, yet he had previously always spoken in Aramaic, the lingua franca  of the Palestine of that time.

I may appear to be nit-picking, bringing up such matters at all, but they do seem to me to be important in an 'inspired' work like the Bible. All right, let's say I am nit-picking but worse follows; there is a more startling discrepancy concerning Saul's companions. In Acts 9:7 we read: 'The men that journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but beholding no man.'  But in Acts 22:9, recounting a later sermon, the very clear statement is made: 'They that were with me beheld indeed the light but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.'

Amazing isn't it?  Come on, you clever Christian apologists.  Wriggle out of this one! Was Paul's memory as faulty as this? How could such a drastic mistake be made by St Luke or Mr Anonymous, whoever it was who wrote the book?  What has happened to this inerrant Bible that two completely conflicting accounts of this amazing encounter with Jesus' spirit are peddled as truth? 

Speaking for myself I can well dismiss the encounter of Saul/Paul with a spirit-being right at this point but some people may remain uncertain so we will examine the matter a little more closely. The suggestion, often made, that Saul suffered sunstroke (or heatstroke as it is now called) on his journey to Damascus is naturally dismissed by Christians out of hand.  But there is strong evidence to suggest that sunstroke was indeed responsible for the hatching in the fevered mind of the Apostle the plot of Christianity.
Sunstroke is a common condition suffered by travellers and others exposed to the sun in tropical climes.  But it is known to strike victims in temperate regions as well during very hot summers.  And Syria, through which Saul passed, was not merely temperate but actually subtropical.  In parts of the country extremes of temperature are often recorded, certainly high enough to bring on sunstroke.  The journey from Jerusalem to Damascus, a distance of some two hundred km, is estimated by commentators to have taken Saul about six days and at least a significant portion of the route ran through dry and arid country; conditions just right for an attack from the sun.
In their book, The Life and Epistles of St Paul (Longman's, 1898), two convinced Christians, Coynbeare and Howson, wrote of this journey: 'Leaving now the Sea of Galilee....we follow the company of travellers over the barren uplands which stretch in dreary succession along the base of Antilibanus.  All around are stony hills and thirsty plains, through which the withered stems of the scanty vegetation hardly penetrate.  Over this desert, under the burning sky, the impetuous Saul holds his course, full of fiery zeal....' (p.71).  This was the area known as the Wilderness of Damascus.  And it was midday, as the Bible says, with the sun at its zenith.  It was dry and it was hot and the journey was a long one and Saul was a very determined, zealous man.
Now when we describe the brightness of the sun, we do not mean the sun seen by staring directly into it.  This is, as we know, a very dangerous thing to do.  Bright sunlight means light shining on us and around us directly from the sun but reflected from other objects and thus, by the laws of physics, always somewhat less than the full brightness of the actual beams of sunlight.  When we catch the glare of the sun reflected from a plain white surface or from shiny metal we are receiving almost a full measure of the rays' power.  But when reflected from a darker surface the rays are weaker.  If now we stare straight into the sun's light then the brightness is indeed brighter than that which we normally perceive as 'bright sunlight’.
Sunstroke is described in medical literature as being 'an often fatal affection of the central nervous system.'  Through its attack on this system it also affects other parts of the body and in extreme cases causes complete physical breakdown of many bodily functions.  Some reports in the past have given a figure of 50 percent fatalities.  Pre-disposing factors not only include high temperature (the major one) but also dry atmosphere, stress or anxiety on the part of the victim, overwork, poor nutrition and 'prolonged marches.'   And recent studies indicate that in many cases a state of mental confusion sets in, people affected not being properly aware of their surroundings.

As I write, then, I picture the zealous, highly-strung figure of Saul breathing out his threatenings and slaughter, marching with his entourage onwards to Damascus, single-minded, intent on dragging Christians found there 'bound to Jerusalem' (9:2), to see in their suffering the release of his own pent-up hatred and contempt for them.  A psycho case indeed! 

But the Bible itself gives the game away for it tells us, doesn't it, that it was midday, and we know it was hot, and we know it was dry, and we know the journey was a long one.  In fact, we know that all the conditions were ripe for the occurrence of a dramatic event.  But that event was not Saul's confrontation by a dead rabbi, as we are led to believe, which is an absurdity anyway; it was the prostration of Saul beneath the awesome primeval power of the midday sun.  Caught up in a state of mental confusion and detachment, it is easy to understand how ghostly visions could trouble him. And perhaps, as he fell to the ground with sunstroke, he might have stared momentarily into that bright and burning sun and been temporarily blinded. 

Oh, yes, I know, this is conjecture on my part.  We have but sketchy facts to go on but such as we have are surely of great interest.  Remember Saul/Paul has already been found out giving conflicting accounts of his alleged conversion. And if he did not do so, certainly his biographer did; either way, the fabulous Word is discredited.  So why should we believe that he really met up with a ghostly presence?  The idea of sunstroke at least has logic and science on its side, more than can be said of the former notion.
But I haven't quite finished with this episode.  It should come as no surprise to us, for example, that Saul's blindness was said to last three days - a common magical mystery period that bobs up in the Bible from time to time!  One cannot help but be a trifle suspicious as to the authenticity of the story with the interposition of this conveniently neat three-day period.   

We come then to the final and perhaps most significant matter - Saul's blindness.  Why do I think it is of such significance?  For this reason: The Bible gives no spiritual reason whatever for the condition of blindness that descends upon Saul.  But there is, of course, a probable physical reason.  It is plainly obvious that Saul must have come perilously close to losing his eyesight altogether.  Remember how he described the light he saw as brighter than the sun (Acts 26:13)?  And we have already seen how this phraseology aptly describes the effect of staring straight into the sun's rays. 

Still not convinced that Saul suffered sunstroke?  Let us turn yet again to the Bible itself (which here, as in many places, gives itself away).  In both his second letter to the Corinthians and the letter to the Galatians (leaving aside the interesting question as to whether Paul actually wrote these letters) we have the Apostle referring, with some feeling, to 'an infirmity in the flesh' he suffered (2 Corinthians 12:7 and Galatians 4:13). This affliction bothered him often. In fact he tells us himself that he prayed for its removal. Alas, his prayers were not answered!  They frequently aren't, even though the Bible assures us that believing prayers are answered! 

Now most Christian commentators seem to think this infirmity was - an eyesight problem!  Perhaps Paul was part-blind or had even lost the sight of one eye.  What else could he refer to but such an affliction when he says of the Galatian Christians: 'I bear you witness that, if possible, ye would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me'  (Galatians 4:15).  I am justified in asking my readers: Is the view I have propounded all that untenable?

Why, my readers may be wondering, have I gone to such lengths to dissect the Saul/Paul conversion story?  Because so much flows from it.  Paul was, as I've said, the chief architect of Christianity.  And his story typifies the manner in which the supposed revelations from on high find their way into the history books.

Maybe, just maybe, even after all this evidence has been examined, some will still find substance in the story of the conversion of St Paul.  Standing alone, yes, perhaps, but seen in the context of the evidence I bring forward elsewhere regarding the life, death and supposed resurrection of Jesus the Nazarene (all in due time; I crave my readers' patience still further) and other aspects of the Christian pseudo-history, I think not.  The story of Saul/Paul will, I believe, collapse with the whole house of cards when we examine the full account of the coming of Christianity into the world. 

© Mark Owen, 2012 -