Daily Archives: 2015-05-17 23:09:12 UTC

Did Paul See a Fireball on the Road to Damascus?

the Conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus...

The Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus — by Michelangelo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, David Ashton commented here on Vridar:

May I annoy our totalitarian mythicists even further by suggesting that Paul, also a real person, experienced a reparative hallucination, precisely because of a pre-crucifixion hostility to Jesus and his activists, although he may not have engaged Jesus in debate or observed him directly in person. Jacob Aron suggests that Paul’s Damascene Light was the result of a fireball (“New Scientist”, April 25, 2015, pp. 8-9); not so much a medical epilepsy as a meteoric epiphany.

I’m not a mythicist, but I do think the Doherty/Carrier theory is worth considering. I confess I did bristle a bit at the term “totalitarian.” You’d think that ten years as a cold warrior would inoculate me from such charges. And you’ll be hard pressed to find a blog with a more permissive comment policy than Vridar’s. So, I suppose that’s why I responded with the flippant:

Oooh, a fireball! I don’t see why a story invented by the author of Acts requires an ad hoc explanation as to “what it really was.”

But perhaps I was too hasty. Let’s take a look at this story more closely and see if we can learn anything from it. When I checked on line, I could find only brief summaries, so in the end I had to rent the article, Chelyabinsk, Zond IV, and a possible first-century fireball of historical importance (Meteoritics & Planetary Science, 50, Nr 3), for 48 hours. Yes, even stuff like this gets trapped behind paywalls.

A flash and a crash

The author, William K. Hartmann, holds a PhD in astronomy and works at the Planetary Science Institute. He suggests that the narratives of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus accurately describe an atmospheric encounter with some object that produced a bright light and a big boom, similar to the Tunguska Event of 1908 or the more recent encounter with the Chelyabinsk meteor. For your entertainment, we present a video compilation from the Chelyabinsk event.

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Truth and History

Come on, Bart. You can do better than this. Think through this postmodernist jargon.

In my recent post in which I made a paean to memory – which will be the way I end my current book dealing with memory and the historical Jesus — I said the following.

MY REMARK:  “The comment that I sometimes get from readers that I find puzzling or disheartening is when they tell me that if there is something in the Gospels that is not historical, then it cannot be true, and if it is not true, then it is not worth reading.  My sense is that many readers will find it puzzling or even disheartening that I find this view puzzling and disheartening.   But I do.

Please call me a prophet if you must, but I would like to point out that a number of readers on the blog did indeed find my view puzzling and disheartening.   Mainly puzzling.   The following was a very well reasoned response from a reader, to which I would like to reply:

READER’S COMMENT:  Indeed, stories that aren’t true are no less worthwhile to read. The Bible most definitely is an important part of literature that should be read and studied (I wouldn’t want you to be out of work!). However, I’m not sure I understand what you mean by the word ‘truth’. To me (and I am not a native English speaker so maybe this is a linguistical problem), truth has always meant something that corresponds to reality. If a story didn’t happen, I don’t see how it can be true. The very definition of a true story is that it happened. It can still be important, have significance in our lives, etc, but I don’t see how it can be called truth.

I completely understand this point of view.  It is a point of view that I myself had for a very long time.  It’s not one that I hold now, and I want to explain why.

In my view, there can be true stories that never happened. . . . 

(From http://ehrmanblog.org/truth-and-history/)

That’s postmodernist semantic confusion. (The remainder of the article turns on the example of the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, but you have to donate to Bart’s own favourite charities in America to read this.)

To say a story that never happened is nonetheless a true story renders the word “true” meaningless. I know what is meant. The moral of the story is relevant to the readers, for example. Aesop’s fables tell us about many true real-life principles. The story of Pinocchio teaches the “true” principle that lying can lead to trouble. I learned in primary school that tales about talking animals and lies causing noses to grow embarrassingly long are not true. I also learned to enjoy these stories and knew well the “truths” they taught: that I should beware of tricksters, be prudent and not tell lies.

As Paul Boghassian has observed [in another context]: “To say some claim is true according to some perspective sounds simply like a fancy way of saying that someone, or some group, believes it. (Cited in Richard Evans, In Defence of History, p. 220)

I recall years ago Christians expressing abhorrence at the relativism being espoused by postmodernism. That was quite some time ago. I have since seen Christian scholars embracing postmodernism as their own intellectual saviour and defender. It enables them to argue for the relevance of the Bible by means of semantic confusion such as Ehrman is recycling.

Let’s not lose grip of semantic and logical coherence and consistency.