St. Paul’s Damascene conversion sparked by epileptic fit, not divine intervention - researchers

Israeli scientists may have found an alternative explanation to St. Paul’s spiritual ‘revelation’ which supposedly spurred his allegiance to Jesus.
Researchers made the discovery while monitoring a patient who suffered from temporal lobe epilepsies at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus.

While the 46-year-old patient (who was Jewish, but reportedly not particularly religious) was hooked up to brain-monitoring equipment to undergo tests to help treat the neurological disease, he claims to have communicated with God.

“[W]e had the rare opportunity to record a delusional religious conversion in real time in a patient with right temporal lobe epilepsy,” doctors Shahar Arzy and Roey Schurr wrote in a study published in the neurological journal of Epilepsy and Behavior.

“In this patient, a messianic revelation experience occurred several hours after a complex partial seizure of temporal origin,” the researchers explain.


I have seen claims like this before and never thought much about it, but is this in anyway new to other similar claims?

I am also not particularly happy at the fact that the research team claiming this is Israeli either.

This story seems to have a lot more to do with religiosity and “Jerusalem Syndrome” than with actual religious experiences or conversion. (And it is well known that people can have religious experiences or even experience physical healings without converting to anything.)

Also, there are plenty of people who experience epileptic and other kinds of seizures, minor and major, and they are not anything like religious experiences.

There are certain brain areas which have been associated with religious meditation and contemplation, but my understanding is that in scans,nothing seems like malfunction when they are operating - any more than optical areas are malfunctioning when they start working on sensory info from the eyes. One can induce the brain in certain areas into working on sensory info that doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t mean that the proper info does not exist.

As for St. Paul, a seizure certainly didn’t cover his eyes with something like scales.

So yes, a very questionable interpretation of a study.

So this is the argument used against Muhammed, the prophet of Islam. But that is because there is documented evidence that suggests he possibly had some of the symptoms of TLE.(not saying he had it though) With Paul, there is no evidence of such:

Muhammad and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE)

By Ali Sina

The Physical Effects of Muhammad’s Ecstatic Experiences:

Here is how Muhammad described his mystical experiences:

“The Revelation is always brought to me by an angel: sometimes it is delivered to me as the beating sound of the bell–and this is the hardest experience for me; but sometimes the angel appears to me in the shape of a human and speaks to me.” [40]

“Those who saw the Prophet (pbuh) in this state relate that his condition would change. Sometimes he would stay motionless as if some terribly heavy load was pressed on him and, even in the coldest day, drops of sweat would fall from his forehead” [41] At other times he would move his lips.

Ibn Sa’d says, “at the moment of inspiration, anxiety pressed upon the Prophet, and his countenance was troubled” [1]

“He fell to the ground like one intoxicated or overcome by sleep; and in the coldest day his forehead would be bedewed with large drops of perspiration. Inspiration descended unexpectedly, and without any previous warning.” [2]

“Then Allah’s Apostle returned with that experience; and the muscles between his neck and shoulders were trembling till he came upon Khadija (his wife) and said, “Cover me!” They covered him, and when the state of fear was over” [3] and [4]

All these are symptoms of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. The following is a partial list of the Temporal Lobe Seizure Symptoms & Signs as defined in

Hallucinations or illusions such as hearing voices when no one has spoken, seeing patterns, lights, beings or objects that aren’t there
Rhythmic muscle contraction Muscle cramps are involuntary and often painful contractions of the muscles which produce a hard, bulging muscle
Abdominal pain or discomfort.
Sudden, intense emotion such as fear.
Muscle twitching (fasciculation) is the result of spontaneous local muscle contractions that are involuntary and typically only affect individual muscle groups. This twitching does not cause pain.
Abnormal mouth behaviors
Abnormal head movements
Flushed face
Rapid heart rate/pulse
Changes in vision, speech, thought, awareness, personality
Loss of memory (amnesia) regarding events around the seizure (partial complex seizure)
All the above symptoms were present in Muhammad during the moments that he was allegedly receiving revelations.

He had visions (hallucinations) of seeing an angel or a light and of hearing voices.
He experienced bodily spasms and excruciating abdominal pain and discomfort
He was overwhelmed by sudden emotions of anxiety and fear
He had twitching in his neck muscles
He had uncontrollable lip movement
He sweated even during cold days.
His face flushed. His countenance was troubled.
He had rapid heart palpitation
He had loss of memory. (There is a tradition that states Muhammad was bewitched and used to think that he had sexual relations with his wives when he actually had not. [5]
It is also interesting to note that Muhammad’s hallucination was not limited to seeing the Angel Gabriel but he also claimed seeing Jinns and even in one occasion while praying in the mosque he started struggling with an imaginary person and later said “Satan came in front of me and tried to interrupt my prayer, but Allah gave me an upper hand on him and I choked him. No doubt, I thought of tying him to one of the pillars of the mosque till you get up in the morning and see him. Then I remembered the statement of Prophet Solomon, ‘My Lord ! Bestow on me a kingdom such as shall not belong to any other after me.’ Then Allah made him (Satan) return with his head down (humiliated).” [6]

Muhammad’s belief in Satan was such that he seemed to think that not even he is immune from his whisperings. [7]

One of the embarrassing events in Muhammad’s life occurred when Satan put words in his mouth.

Tabari says: “When the messenger of God saw how his tribe turned their backs on him and was grieved to see them shunning the message he had brought to them from God, he longed in his soul that something would come to him from God which would reconcile him with his tribe. With his love for his tribe and his eagerness for their welfare it would have delighted him if some of the difficulties which they made for him could have been smoothed out, and he debated with himself and fervently desired such an outcome. Then God revealed:

“By the Star when it sets, your comrade does not err, nor is he deceived; nor does he speak out of (his own) desire…”

and when he came to the words:

Have you thought upon al-Lat and al-Uzza and Manat, the third, the other?

Satan cast on his tongue, because of his inner debates and what he desired to bring to his people, the words:

"These are the high flying cranes; verily their intercession is accepted with approval.

The Quraysh left delighted by the mention of their gods. Amity was restored and the news of that reached the followers of Muhmmad who at his behest had migrated to Abyssina and some of them returned. Muhammad realizing the consequence of this is giving up on his monopoly on God and the contradiction that it entails, claimed those verses and his Allah consoled him saying, “Never did We send a messenger or a prophet before thee, but, when he framed a desire, Satan threw some (vanity) into his desire: but Allah will cancel anything (vain) that Satan throws in, and Allah will confirm (and establish) His Signs: for Allah is full of Knowledge and Wisdom”: 22:52 [8]

I am always amazed by “religious” people who say that they believe in an all-powerful God, but when you take a look at what they actually believe, they limit God to only working in a direct way: for example, directly knocking Paul off his horse (or not, depending on what version you like) and directly communicating with him.

But what if God choses to work in an indirect way by causing (maybe very indirectly–through genes, pre-existing conditions, etc.) an epileptic fit which causes Paul to believe they he had a vision of God?

How is the indirect causation less religious? Why insist that God only work directly?

I haven’t even started talking about how God works.

I’m talking about how epilepsy works, in people I know who have epileptic seizures all the time, or who have other kinds of seizures all the time.

I’m also talking about what is known about true religious experience (which is associated with a great deal of sanity and peace) versus the tangle of mental conditions known as religiosity (which are associated with anything but sanity and peace).

Christian tradition, and Jewish tradition before that, draws a very strong line between people who are truly inspired by God, and those unfortunate people who are possessed, ill, making it up, or mistaken.

And beyond tradition, it is God Who tells us to do this: to discern the spirits, to watch out for false prophets, to refuse to be deceived if even an angel should bring us another Gospel.

If you are interested, there is a lot of material available about these topics. Spiritual directors have to study this stuff, and so do a lot of people living deep lives of prayer.

Not surprising, Israelis aren’t exactly friendly to Christians.

Unbelievers will claim anything… same with believers too,but its all just silly thinking that people can ‘prove’ the existence or non existence of God.

Just because there is a part of the brain that is related to ‘god’ experience doesn’t mean that is all there is with no reason to it. Neither does it mean that if someone has an epileptic seizure and thinks God is talking to them mean necessarily that it isn’t God either! If you want to think ‘logically’ on something like this you can always wipe away the miraculous.

Frankly, I believe if there is a part of the brain that is the 'god spot' then there **must **be a god- otherwise He wouldn't have designed it there... Why have it then?   Just as someone has hunger pains doesn't mean that food is not real or that his hunger is false!   No, we have hunger pains to stir us to eat...  a necessity for staying alive.   So if we have a 'god' spot we have something to spur us onto seeking God.   Maybe a seizure is just what is needed in someone who's soul might be hardened!!!  (Like St. Paul who if you remember was holding coats for people slaying St. Steven  ...  Of course this doesn't mean every seizure is from God, but as Scripture says about The Holy Spirit no one knows where it comes from or where it is going....  

John 3:8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

We are also to watch out for lying spirits.  I feel confident that if the 'god spot' of the brain can be used towards God, so too can the wrong ones use it as well.  

Just my two cents.

Esp. not Paul.

My husband is a Clinical Psychologist who has worked in neurology/neuro-psych in the past. Besides the other details that don’t line up, and the incredible “happenstance” of timing, there is the ongoing change and conversion in Paul far past what happened on the road to Damascus. In short, looking at the facts, Epilepsy does not explain them. Epilepsy doesn’t bestow new knowledge in the brain, amongst other things.

Could Paul have had epilepsy, sure. Does an epileptic fit explain the road to Damascus or Paul’s full conversion to the Christian faith (remember he already believed in God)? Nope. The facts do not fit.

Why? Are the researchers not Israeli, or did they not perform their study in Israel?

It’s an inadequate explanation. Perhaps if that was his only experience with the Divine. But he was healed of his blindness by someone praying over him. He raised a dead boy to life by praying over him. Many miracles are attributed to Paul in his ministry, and many miracles happened FOR Paul in his ministry including when he was stoned, and possibly actually dead and having been drug out of the city, rises and walks away or when he and his companions are miraculously freed from prison. One fit of epilepsy - or even a lifelong issue- doesn’t account for these things. There is also no reason to believe that epilepsy is the medical condition Paul says he suffers from in his epistles- it’s far more likely he suffered from visual problems based on comments he makes in his epistles although it’s never fully identified what his medical issue was.

Hey, I came up with this cool theory during my (liberal) residency days too. :stuck_out_tongue:

And then I found it was over a hundred years old; William James had criticized it before my grandparents were born:

“Medical materialism seems indeed a good appellation for the too simple-minded system of thought which we are considering. Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate.” (from The Varieties of Religious Experience)

Needless to say, it’s materialistic error of the worst kind. I have seen enough patients with “epileptic personality change”, and none of them is a Saint Paul. :wink:

Nonsense. Pure nonsense.

Pope Benedict XVI:

This is a great post.


Thank you! :blush::slight_smile:

Some people will believe anything, Was it an epileptic ghost that spoke to Paul ?? Good grief!! God Bless, Memaw

Shows how hateful people will do anything to pervert the Faith.


This is all too common in our modern world, I have noticed over the years, more and more, our secular ‘experts’ are trying to push explanations for things once believed to be truly spiritual or supernatural, and telling us it all normal, nothing to do with anything divine or supernatural.

Kind of like in times past, many things people attributed to demonic activity, but since, ‘modern experts’ now laugh about that and supposedly have the real reasons now, and whats worse, majority of people are falling for this hook line and sinker.

This is a deliberate and methodical process done in order to change peoples perception and beliefs in the supernatural/ spiritual, and most people dont even recognize whats going on.

I would bet at some point, whether it be 50 yrs or 200 yrs in the future, the ‘experts’ in those times will be trying to explain away most of the bible and likely God in general, Im sure they will have very convincing explanations and presentations to why we should believe them too.

I am starting to believe all those past civilizations that blamed things we dont think twice about today, on demons…I think they may have been right all along. After all, Jesus himself told us its NOT flesh and blood we wrestle with, it is evil in high places, sad that society has gotten so far away from this.

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