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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 21.2 > Agony and Ecstasy

Agony and Ecstasy

Were Saint Paul’s Christian Beliefs a Symptom of Epileptic Personality Disorder?

A PHARISAIC JEW NAMED SAUL, ZEALOUS FOR THE Jewish tradition and overtly anti-Christian, traveled on a commission from the chief priests to arrest the followers of Jesus when, on the road to Damascus, he underwent a religious conversion. As the self-appointed apostle Paul, he would always maintain that his new faith was first revealed to him then and there by the spirit of Jesus Christ (Acts 9:3-9):

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind.

Paul’s moment of conversion bears the symptoms, described variously as an aura or visionary experience, which may occur seconds before the onset of a grand mal epileptic seizure. This visionary state can arise just as readily whether the person happens to be religious or not; and while not every epileptic becomes hyper-religious, we know that religious conversion can occur in some patients. 1 The loss of muscle control (the “falling sickness” as it was called) and the temporary blindness that Paul suffered are also common indicators of a seizure, and in some cases—a point for further consideration— the possibility that the seizure can trigger an orgasm.

Most controversy regarding Paul and the possibility he suffered from epilepsy centers around that moment of ecstasy that occurred on the road to Damascus. Some identify it as the pre-ictal (pre-attack) aura which has been reported in patients suffering from epilepsy. Believers tend to dismiss this idea altogether. Yet neither party has examined Paul’s interictal mental states (his normal states of mind between attacks) to see if they reveal symptoms of an epileptic personality disorder.

The passages in his Epistles tell us that Paul suffered from some kind of chronic disorder. Researchers have usually understood the problem Paul refers to as an “affliction,” a “weakness,” a “thorn in the flesh” in reference to some kind of physical ailment. In a thoroughly researched article, “St. Paul and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy,” D. Landsborough argues that: “While the true state of Paul’s health cannot be known, it is suggested that…‘the thorn in the flesh’ was the occasional supervention of grand mal seizures.” 2

Paul claimed that during his conversion experience he received “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12). It doesn’t make sense that he would regard a divine supervention as a thorn in his flesh. When speaking of his affliction Paul had to be alluding to something other than what occurred at the onset of his seizures. He contended that nothing good, but only sin and evil dwell in the flesh (see below); and this evil wars with one’s psyche (“the flesh lusteth against the Spirit …so that ye cannot do the things that ye would,” Gal. 5:17), and compels persons to act against their better judgment (“what I hate, that do I,” Romans, 7:15). No physical infirmity fits that description. As for a grand mal seizure, it results in a total loss of muscle control, rendering the victim totally incapable of acting in any way, unlike this affliction that supposedly compelled Paul to act in sinful ways. The evil thorn, which Paul says was sent by Satan (see below), more likely refers to some kind of psychological disorder, a mental/ emotional affliction that kept him from acting in a reasonably moral way.

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UPLOADING YOUR BRAIN SPECIAL ISSUE: Uploading the Mind to a Computer Mind Uploading: An Argument for the Scientific and Technical Plausibility of Preserving Thoughts Indefinitely by Kenneth Hayworth; Uploading Your Mind Does Not Compute by Peter Kassan; Virtual Immortality: Why the Mind-Body Problem is Still a Problem by Robert Lawrence Kuhn SPECIAL SECTION: What Motivates Extremists? Once Upon a Time: Re-Thinking the Fight Against Extremists by Tina Dupuy; Dealing With Islamism: Trust, Costly Signaling and Forming Moral Teams by Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay; Apocalypse Soon?: How Emerging Technologies, Population Growth, and Global Warming Will Fuel Apocalyptic Terrorism in the Future by Phil Torres ARTICLES Paleoanthropology Wars: The Discovery of Homo naledi has Generated Considerable Controversy in this Scientific Discipline by Nathan H. Lents; Charlie Sheen’s HIV Goat Milk Doctor by Harriet Hall, M.D.; Massachusetts: Mass Hysteria Cover Up by Robert E. Bartholomew; Agony and Ecstasy: Were Saint Paul’s Christian Beliefs a Symptom of Epileptic Personality Disorder? by Harry White; In Defense of Anti-Science: Why the Anti-anti-science Movement Has Gone too Far by J. Howard Siegal; The Decline of Intelligent Design: The 10th Anniversary of the Dover Decision and the Demise of Intelligent Design by Donald Prothero COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Flu Shots Facts and Fallacies by Harriet Hall, M.D.;The Gadfly: How Accurate is the “Cycle of Abuse”? by Carol Tavris REVIEW “Sacred Cows: A Lighthearted Look at Belief and Tradition Around the World” by Seth Andrews reviewed by Donald Prothero JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Man-Eating Plants: The Cannibal Tree of Madagascar by Daniel Loxton.
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