paul the apostle
Paul having his sight restored after being blinded by a 'bright light' that could have been a meteor. Pietro De Cortana

The course of Christianity was changed because of a massive meteor, a scientist has said.

William Hartmann, co-founder of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, has suggested the life-changing event experienced by Paul the Apostle was likely a meteor that exploded in the sky above Damascus, Syria, over 2,000 years ago.

Paul – who was then known as Saul – was travelling from Jerusalem on a mission to get the early disciples of Jesus in order to take them back for punishment. However, on route he was blinded by a bright light and the resurrected Jesus spoke to him, asking him "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?"

After three days of blindness, his vision returned and he converted to Christianity, preaching that Jesus is the Son of God and going on to become a major figure in the spread of the religion.

However, Hartmann said that Paul's description of the bright light closely aligns with accounts of those of the massive Chelyabinsk meteor that struck Russia two years ago.

"The well-recorded Chelyabinsk event, the Tunguska event, and the re-entry of the Zond IV vehicle offer opportunities to compare reactions of modern eyewitnesses to eyewitness accounts of possible ancient fireball events," the study published in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science said.

They wrote how the Acts of the Apostles gives three separate descriptions of a bright light "from heaven" that took place during the 30s BC around Damascus. The study also points out that Paul's temporary blindness fits in with a condition caused by intense radiation from a meteor explosion.

"The details offer a strikingly good match to a Chelyabinsk-class or Tunguska-class fireball. Among the most impressive, unexpected consistencies with modern knowledge is the first-century description of symptoms of temporary blindness caused by exposure to intense radiation, matching a condition now known as photokeratitis."

Researchers added that the perception of an unfamiliar natural celestial apparition are often explained by the observer in terms of the current cultural conceptions, "and it is suggested that this happened also in the first-century case".

Commenting on the study, Bill Cooke, head of Nasa's Meteoroid Environment Office, told New Scientist it is not out of the realms of possibility that a meteor could have altered the course of Christianity.

"It's well recorded that extraterrestrial impacts have helped to shape the evolution of life on this planet. If it was a Chelyabinsk fireball that was responsible for Paul's conversion, then obviously that had a great impact on the growth of Christianity."

Mark Bailey, from the Armagh Observatory in the UK, added that Hartmann's theory could be proved but it would be no easy feat: "If a meteorite is discovered in modern Syria in the future, the first thing to test would be how long it's been on the Earth and whether it could potentially be associated with such a recent fall."