Epilepsy and the Apostle Paul by Wm. Menzies Alexander, M.A., B.Sc., B.D., C.M., M.D., Glasgow Professor of Divinity 1904
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This view [that Paul was an epileptic] is associated with the names of Holsten, Ewald, Hausrath, v. Hofmaun, Klopper, Lightfoot, Schaff, Schmiedel, Krenkel, and others. Its acceptance may seem to some to be fraught with danger to dogmatic interests. That fear may be instantly dismissed. Epilepsy is not of necessity incompatible with a vigorous intellectual life. Among distinguished epileptics may be named Julius Caesar, Mohammed, King Alfred, Savonarola, Peter the Great, and Napoleon.
It is clear that Paul was of a nervous temperament, but from that fact alone no inference of epilepsy is permissible. Strauss is not to be followed here. Farrar would even attach the hypothesis of epilepsy to that of acute ophthalmia, because connected with the cerebral disturbances in severe cases. That conclusion requires the support of analogous cases, but these are not forthcoming. It finds no corroboration whatever from the narrative of Paul’s career. It would make him a prodigy, unmatched even by the much-enduring and crafty Ulysses. As good as blind and a confirmed epileptic! Yet he weathers every storm!
Lightfoot takes the case of King Alfred as a close parallel to that of Paul. This ruler in his youth is said to have suffered from some kind of eruption which caused him such torture that he began to despair of life. He feared that his bodily infirmities, or perhaps leprosy or blindness, might render him incapable of exercising the royal power or despicable in the sight of the world. From such a plague he prayed to be delivered, and all signs of his malady disappeared not long afterwards. But at the very moment that he had taken to himself a wife, in the midst of the marriage festivities, the evil against which he had prayed overtook him. ‘He was suddenly seized with fear and trembling; and to the very hour that Asser wrote, to a good old age, he was never sure of not being attacked by it. There were instants when this visitation seemed to render him incapable of any exertion, either intellectual or bodily; but the repose of a day, a night, or even an hour would always raise his courage again.’
Asser’s confused account shows that the youth of Alfred was marred by a complication of disorders, and his manhood by a form of epilepsy (petit mal). Lightfoot singles out certain features in the preceding description as analogous to the case of Paul. These are the despair of life, the fear of blindness or becoming contemptible, the prayer for deliverance, the sudden seizure with fear and trembling, the liability to recurrences, and the consequent prostration. The diagnosis of epilepsy must here rest on these three last symptoms. But while fear and trembling, repeated attacks, and temporary incapacity are mentioned likewise in the connexion with the apostle’s ‘infirmity,’ the sequel shows that these must bear quite another meaning and belong to a wholly different disease. No real analogy exists between the two cases. The attempted comparison is indeed vitiated by the arbitrary selection of special symptoms.
Krenkel has sought a new basis for the theory of epilepsy in the peculiar remark of Paul concerning his ‘infirmity’: ‘Ye did not set it at naught, nor did ye spit it out’ (OUK EXOUQENHSATE OUDE EXEPTUSATE, Gal 4:14). This at first sight seems to press the latter term unduly; but it is always found in its literal sense of spitting out. Krenkel therefore emphasizes the fact that persons witnessing an epileptic seizure were accustomed to spit out. But more precisely we note that Plautus regards the epileptic himself as the object of the spitting: ‘Et illic isti qui insputatur morbus interdum venit. Et eurn morbum mi esse ut qui me opus insputarier. Ne verere, multos iste morbus homines macerat, quibus insputari saluti fuit’ (Cap. 111. iv. 18, 19, 22, 23). Pliny explains the Roman antipathy to the eating of quails by alleging the liability of these birds to epilepsy: ‘Comitialem propter morbum despui suetum’ (HN. x. 23). But he knew of many occasions for the superstitious practice of spitting; epilepsy being the chief: ‘Despuimus comitiales morbos, hoc est, contagia regerimus ’ (H.N. xxviii. 7). Fascinations were thus repelled, and portents attendant upon meeting a person lame in the right foot. Those who indulged extravagant hopes appeased the gods by spitting into their lap. Those taking medicine, thrice spat on the ground and thrice conjured their malady by way of aiding the action of the remedy. On the entrance of a stranger, or on a person looking at an infant asleep, the nurse thrice spat on the ground. Pliny’s additional examples, some amusing and others unsavoury, need not be quoted. It is evident that, if the Galatians were like the Romans in these matters, lameness in the right foot not less than epilepsy would claim their attention. Krenkel, however, would strengthen his thesis by dragging in the case of the lad at the Mount of Transfiguration. The result is unwittingly most grotesque. It makes Paul an epileptic idiot! For the ailment of the boy was undoubtedly epileptic idiocy. Krenkel’s theory thus fails entirely.
But a theory of epilepsy can never maintain itself. In the first place, it is contradicted by the SKOLOY/skolops. The unconsciousness of the epileptic state is void of pain. On recovery from an attack there may be some headache or some complaint of bruising. But there is nothing corresponding to the intense and prolonged agony of a ‘stake for the flesh.’ In the second place, it is impossible to find room in the history of the apostle for such an impetuous disorder. Had there been any taint of this sort in the constitution of Paul, that was bound to have manifested itself on many occasions, as when stoned at Lystra, mobbed at Jerusalem, or pleading repeatedly for his life. Yet under these most trying circumstances, there arises not the remotest suspicion of a disabling attack of illness. Certain uncharitable Corinthians declared that Paul was beside himself, and Festus called him mad. But no one ever ventured to make what was in some respects a more damaging charge by asserting that he was the victim of the disease which Greek and Roman called ‘sacred’ and deemed accursed.