Saint Paul

born 5-15 AD in Tarsus/Cilicia, died approx. 64 AD in Rome

In old Ireland, epilepsy was known as 'Saint Paul's disease'. The name points to the centuries-old assumption that the apostle suffered from epilepsy.

To support this view, people usually point to Saint Paul's experience on the road to Damascus, reported in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament (Acts 9, 3-9), in which Paul, or Saul as he was known before his conversion to Christianity, is reported to have a fit similar to an epileptic seizure: '...suddenly a light from the sky flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him: ''Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me?''...Saul got up from the ground and opened his eyes, but he could not see a thing... For three days he was not able to see, and during that time he did not eat or drink anything.'

Saul's sudden fall, the fact that he first lay motionless on the ground but was then able to get up unaided, led people very early on to suspect that this dramatic incident might have been caused by a grand mal seizure. In more recent times, this opinion has found support from the fact that sight impediment-including temporary blindness lasting from several hours to several days-has been observed as being a symptom or result of an epileptic seizure and has been mentioned in many case reports.

In his letters St Paul occasionally gives discreet hints about his 'physical ailment', by which he perhaps means a chronic illness. In the second letter to the Corinthians, for instance, he states: 'But to keep me from being puffed up with pride... I was given a painful physical ailment, which acts as Satan's messenger to beat me and keep me from being proud.' (2 Corinthians, 12,7). In his letter to the Galatians, Paul again describes his physical weakness: 'You remember why I preached the gospel to you the first time; it was because I was ill. But even though my physical condition was a great trial to you, you did not despise or reject me.' (Galatians 4, 13-14) In ancient times people used to spit at 'epileptics', either out of disgust or in order to ward off what they thought to be the 'contagious matter' (epilepsy as 'morbus insputatus': the illness at which one spits).

--- close this window ---

German Epilepsymuseum Kork - Museum for epilepsy and the history of epilepsy