St Paul and the meteorite?

Dateline: Chelyabinsk, Russia 09.20 15 February 2013. As in many parts of Russia drivers in this Oblast in the Urals Economic District use an in-car camera during rush hour, hopefully to have proof of innocence in the event of a traffic accident. On this day, such cameras recorded a massive fireball streaking low across a clear, frosty sky. Some people on foot were temporarily blinded by its light, about 4 times that sunlight, and others were thrown off their feet by a large shock wave. Travelling at about 20 km s-1 the fireball exploded, the blast shattering windows where people were gazing at the remarkable sight, about 1500 needing medical treatment. This event is the first in modern times to record the atmospheric entry of a superbolide and air blast, probably similar to what happened in the deserted area of Tunguska in Siberia on 30 June 1908.

Meteor trail and fireball seen over industrial estate in Chelyabinsk, Russia (credit: Russia Today)
Meteor trail and fireball seen over industrial estate in Chelyabinsk, Russia (credit: Russia Today)

Cut to the Levant in the 1st century of the Common Era: on the road to Damascus a Jewish fundamentalist with Roman citizenship, sworn to destroy the early Christian movement, is on a mission to arrest Christians and take them in chains to Jerusalem. Saul witnesses a great light in the sky and a deafening sound that he believes is the voice of Jesus, saying ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’(Acts 9:4). He is flung off his feet, struck blind and convinced of the error of his calling. Three days later, in Damascus ‘…there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized’ (Acts 9:18), taking the name Paul.

The conversion of Saul by Michaelangelo
The conversion of Saul by Michaelangelo

William Hartmann of the Planetary Science Institute at the University of Arizona, among the first planetary scientists to propose the giant impact origin for the Moon (see next item) and in his case to visualise it in a famous painting, has drawn a somewhat obvious hypothesis linking the two events (Hartmann, W.K. 2015. Chelyabinsk, Zond IV, and a possible first-century fireball of historical importance. Meteoritics and Planetary Science, v. 50, p. 368-381: doi: 10.1111/maps.12428). These days such a scary observation is easily rationalised as a natural phenomenon, but in earlier times Hartmann believes such a shock would have convinced witness of the almighty power of the supernatural ‘in terms of current cultural conceptions’. He suggests that Saul of Tarsus may, at the time, have been struggling with his conscience about his attacks on his countrymen: hence his conversion. The phrase ‘ scales fell from his eyes’ has entered common parlance for sudden changes in mental state and attitude: in fact it matches an outcome of severe photokeratitis of the eye’s epithelial coating, the dead tissue eventually becoming detached, when clear sight is restored to some sufferers.
While claiming to have no intention of undermining anyone’s spiritual beliefs, Hartmann suggests that such rare and spectacular events are capable of having emotionally changed influential figures of the past and thereby re-routing the course of history. Hartmann cites modern cases of lesser bolide-entry phenomena, such as destruction of satellites over the US and Russia, which some witnesses misreported as rockets with lighted windows; i.e. UFOs. There are plenty of medieval cases where spiritual connotations were widely attached to strange natural phenomena. I have heard accounts from people living in Asmara, capital of Eritrea, who ascribed saintly intervention to a full solar halo with sun dogs connected by cruciform arcs on a misty morning in 1991. This occurred a few days before the occupying Ethiopian forces surrendered to Eritrean nationalist forces whose struggle for self determination had lasted for the previous three decades.

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