Did Paul have temporal lobe epilepsy?
So I was asked about the possibility of Paul having TLE. Now with anything, a mere assertion doesn’t make it more plausible, so what is the case and response to this objection?
The case is Paul experienced a vision on the road to Damascus because of a pre-existing condition of TLE. Lets look at the passage in question.
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. t’s take a look at the passage in question.Acts 9:1-9
The case for TLE
This is how it’s been described to me in the past
- He saw a burst of light
- people with TLE can hear voices
- The solider’s hearing were likely a late addition to pad out this passage
So did Paul see a deceptive vision? Let’s break down this objection.
1. No external sources or other Christian sources suggest any such TLE or psychological issues with Paul
This is firstly just to rule out any sources: Christian, Jewish or sceptic regarding the state of Paul’s mental condition. Everything points to a dedicated Jew who wasn’t a fan of heresy (There are some strong religious leaders today who observe heresy with the same state of mind, yet a more just of a mindset than have a psychological condition like TLE.
2. The passage doesn’t support TLE
TLE blindness is incredibly short
Several things will be said here. Sure he experienced blindness from the experience, but it lasted three days. Epileptic blindness will often stem between 30 seconds to 10 minutes maximum. Three days blindness is unheard of in the medical textbooks and would be regarded as a miracle in itself.
Many who have TLE quickly or nearly always forget what happened during the seizure.
It is true you can hallucinate during TLE, but to have life changing epiphanies are unheard of again in any medical textbook. Especially towards someone you desire to kill. And for that person to simply be unrecognisable in this vision whom you then know doesn’t fit the textbook cases. See Also my articles on Epiphany, conversion disorder, Visions, Hallucinations & Delusions.
Soldiers multiple attestation
Now Luke, the author of Luke & Acts (due to the similar writing style that is well established) convey Paul seeing a light and hearing a voice, why doesn’t he use the word vision?
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”Acts 9:11-12
Why would Paul describe the two differently?
Now as for the soldiers which heard but did not see, to say this is an embellishment when Acts are extremely likely written at the beginning of the 60’s is unlikely (see my article on Acts). Also what more supports the soldiers case for them being there is Acts 22:8 whe Paul shares his testimony:
Then Paul said: 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. 4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5 as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
6 “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’
8 “‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.
“ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. 9 My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.
10 “‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked.
“ ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ 11 My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me.
12 “A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. 13 He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him.
Now to have the soldiers come up 12 chapters later in a speech of Paul detailing also they saw this light is less of an embellishment otherwise why didn’t it mention earlier they saw the light? It’s only Paul’s later emphasis that it’s relevant, the soldiers are not the focus in chapter 8 but here their eyewitness testimony is more valuable to mention. Dismissing the soldiers sighting when attested in Luke and Paul’s words.
Rabbi’s also no longer considered that God spoke to his people anymore. Josephus and the Maccabees attest to the silence of Jewish prophecy. so for Paul to take this seriously, never mind remember it, is very un-Jewish
So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight.Acts 9: 17-18
A feature of something like scales to fall from someones eyes, no matter what source material has nothing to do with TLE. This again doesn’t sound like legendary embellishment. it doesn’t dramatise, nor theologise the scales, in fact the text isn’t sure exactly what fell form his eyes, all it knows is something “happened” around his eyes to clear his vision.
Ananais commands TLE to go
Since when is TLE relieved on command? It’s not, nevermind the three days.
3. Paul elsewhere grants that Jesus rose bodily from the dead
If it was all TLE, or at least a vision, why does Paul describe Jesus as physically rising from the dead? Paul understood he had seen the glorified Jesus but it was a physically risen Jesus. Acts chapter 13 Paul describes Jesus as physically risen from the dead but more importantly the passage in 1 Corinthians 15
We know from the Gospel accounts on multiple occasions together the disciples saw and touched Jesus, ate with him the same food they shared in. Paul here is saying “yes he appeared to them as you know an he also appeared to me”. Paul associates his testimony to that of the apostles. and so his proclaims confidently the risen Christ. Acts gives us the short end of the testimony, in Paul’s letters we see him talk about a physically resurrected Jesus over 30 times. Make no mistake, Paul believes Jesus physically rose from the dead and goes as far as to suggest the appearance to him was as real as the disciples.
Paul’s testimony has not only been preserved In Acts, but also in this 1 Corinthians 15 creed but also in Galatians and Philippians, his other letters.
4. They know the difference between visions and reality
The psychological phenomena is not a modern day understanding. For someone to say Jesus spiritually rose would cause no stir, for everyone does in their mind. But to suggest Jesus physically rose from the dead would be a message many would struggle to believe. they would more likely tell you “get yourself another Messiah, move on, we were wrong”. the Jewish expectation of a dying and rising Messiah was something no Jews had room for. A conquering Messiah over the romans was the Messiah that existed for them.
5. Even if it was a pure vision of even TLE, could God not use this as a means?
Throughout the New and Old, God has used many unusual ways to speak to his people, so why can’t He use a process that He created and could use? Would we dare so god is not allowed?
6. What motivation would Paul have to make it up in this way?
Paul was a student under the highly Gamaliel, Judaism was legal, he had Roman citizenship, the world was on his plate, yet he would give it all up for 17 years of persecution before receiving any recognition from the apostles? Even then, what power he had still put him in prison, got him beaten and Paul never achieved the heights he would’ve done had he remained a pharisee and climbed the ladder. The fact that people through their cloaks before him (Acts 8) suggests he was proudly known already. Also if you’re going to have a testimony, why have yourself thrown under the bus so hard? blinded, starving yourself, had to be led by hand to Damascus. there was nothing glorious about it and in an honour/shame culture it would come across as quite embarrassing. but the truth is the truth.