The fact that Christianity is a major world religion today and not merely a footnote in history owes a great deal to the apostle Paul. The so-called apostle to the Gentiles, this Jew, born a Roman citizen, had the novel idea to spread Christianity not just to other Hebrews, but to the rest of the people of the Roman Empire.
As a young man, Paul was an avid persecutor of the Christians, even holding the coats for those participating in stoning St. Stephen to death. A profound change occurred in Paul, however, as he journeyed to the city of Damascus, intent on further helping to stamp out the Christian faith. Acts 9:1-21 describes how “…suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him.” He fell to the ground and heard the voice of Jesus asking: “…why do you persecute me?” He subsequently made a profound conversion. From this day on, Paul devoted his life to proselytizing for Christianity.
Paul himself makes reference to some type of physical ailment, he calls “a thorn in the flesh” (II Corinthians 12:7) though this is not otherwise identified. There has been speculation as to what medical cause could have resulted in Paul’s sudden conversion en route to Damascus and what his “thorn in the flesh” might have been.
Some have hypothesized a stroke, but this seems unlikely as the apostle was only a young man at this time and he appears to have stayed in reasonable health for thirty years after his conversion. Surely a predisposition to stroke would have appeared later in life and would have caused some significant disability over a 30- year period.
Migraine is commonly given as an explanation for Paul’s experience en route to Damascus, but hearing voices would be a very unlikely symptom of migraine. Most migraineurs, though, would find the characterization “a thorn in the flesh” quite descriptive. Other causes postulated for Paul’s symptoms include various psychiatric disorders, eye ailments such as retinal detachment, and even being hit by lightening. These all, however, fail to take into consideration another characteristic of St. Paul, his hypo-sexuality or lack of sex drive.
In I Corinthians 7:1-9 Paul makes it clear that he has only an academic appreciation of the human sexuality. He asserts that while abstinence such as he practices is best, “…it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
There is one ailment, however, which neatly explains all of Paul’s symptoms: temporal lobe epilepsy. Seizures in this area can be associated with a feeling of religious ecstasy, accompanied by visual and auditory hallucinations. An initial seizure would be a profound experience in one as devout as Paul and could certainly result in an about-face in religious beliefs. In addition, in the February 25, 1984 edition of Lancet, Spark, Wills and Royal describe hypo-sexuality in ll of 16 men with temporal lobe epilepsy, tying Paul’s symptoms together nicely.
Temporal lobe epilepsy can manifest in different ways at different times and might be described as “a thorn in the side” if frequent and tending to generalize to “grand mal” or tonic-clonic fits.
Perhaps a seizure disorder was God’s way of conscripting Paul into his service. Whatever the reason, Paul went on to be the most effective public relations tool for the fledgling Christian religion. While others had aimed their attempts at conversion primarily to other Jews, Paul quickly became disillusioned with this focus. During his three famous missionary journeys he met with almost universal hostility from most members of local Jewish communities, precisely those to whom he initially wished to spread the word of Jesus.
Paul thus decided to start preaching to the Gentiles, a source of a controversy among fellow Hebrew-Christians. Two primary issues arose over the conversion of Gentiles. Many Hebrew-Christians felt new members should have to undergo circumcision, something uncircumcised adult Gentiles were loathe to consider. Hebrew dietary laws or kashruth were also not exactly “kosher” with non-Jews. Paul dispensed with the requirement for circumcision and while not requiring adherence to kashruth, he suggested that Gentiles attempt to avoid offending those who did adhere to these rules.
Paul’s primarily Greek audience was fertile soil for his teachings and he soon had active churches in Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Philippi and other cities. Paul’s Roman citizenship proved to be a potent tool in his missions. Only a small minority of residents of the empire held this coveted status.
Local magistrates were often harsh with those perceived to be trouble-makers, and contention followed wherever the apostle visited. For example, the city of Ephesus had a large temple to the goddess Diana. Silver workers made a good living casting images of the goddess and her temple for pilgrims. Feeling their trade threatened, the silversmiths, led by a Greek named Demetrius, started a riot.
But Paul was treated with kid gloves and allowed to leave the city, no doubt because imprisoning or punishing a Roman citizen can result in harsh punishment to an official if it is found to be without basis. Since any Roman citizen could appeal to the emperor for justice, an official could find himself being hauled off to Rome and asked to justify his actions. Failure to do so could result in a one-way trip to the arena.
On another occasion in the city of Philippi, Paul was charged with exorcising the demon from a slave girl with powers of divination. Since her talent for prognostication also fled with the demon, the owner lost a good source of income and had the magistrates flog and throw Paul into prison. When they found out that their prisoner was a citizen of Rome the officials came humbly to the prison and begged him to leave the city quietly. Yet again, Paul’s citizenship allowed him to continue his missionary work.
Ultimately, however, it was Paul’s citizenship which may have proved his undoing. Returning to Jerusalem he was charged and brought before the Sanhedrin the senate of Jerusalem, which consisted of both Pharisees, who believed in resurrection, and Sadducees, who didn’t. Cleverly playing on his heritage from a powerful Pharisee family he played these groups against one another until a violent dispute broke out.
Paul was subsequently held in custody by the Roman’s for two years. The governor Festus proposed to have him tried and Paul, fearing hostile witnesses in Jerusalem, requested judgment by the emperor in Rome. Held under house arrest in Rome for two years, Paul subsequently was allowed to travel to Spain, Crete, Macedonia and Crete. He returned to Rome and was executed either in 64 or 65 ACE after a missionary career spanning over 30 years and most of an empire. The emperor at that time was not likely to give a Christian a favorable hearing. His name was Nero.
Though Paul was gone, the seeds he had sown would bear fruit 300 years later when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This would never have occurred if Paul had not had the foresight to include the Gentiles in his vision of Christianity. And Paul would likely never have done so if he had not suffered from a seizure disorder.
1. Harper Study Bible, Revised Standard Version
2. The Bible as Literature: The New Testament, Barnes and Noble Books, Second Edition 1968.
3. Lancet, Feb. 25, 1984;1(8374):413-7
A repository of ancient sacred texts on the shore of the Sea of Galilee © George Burden
The River Jordan near its outlet from the Sea of Galilee © George Burden
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre — the altar over the site of the Crucifixion © George Burden
Excavated portion of Old Jerusalem from St. Paul’s time © George Burden