After nine months in the clear from epilepsy, I succumbed once more to “Saint Paul’s Disease” on Friday morning. Also – it’s Epilepsy Awareness Day today! This prompted me to write a short post about epilepsy and the Bible and my experience of it in a faith setting. This will finally fill in the void where my ‘personal’ posts are supposed to go!
Firstly, however, I’d be really grateful if you could take a quick look at basic epilepsy first aid. It will take 5 minutes of your time, could save a life and will make you feel far more comfortable and in control if you ever happen to be with someone having a seizure at the time.
Now – on with the show!
1. Epilepsy in the Bible
Epilepsy is a modern neurological term and does not appear in the original languages of the Tanakh and the New Testament (NT), though the condition is often said to appear in their pages. The NRSV translates seléniazomai (σεληνιάζομαι) as ‘epileptic’ in Matthew (4:24; 17:15), along with the NIV, NET, ESV, ISV, NASB, GNB, NLT and many others. These translations are all wrong; this is why I say that you ought to always go back to the original Hebrew and Greek, as best as anyone can with conflicting manuscript traditions, to get the real sense and authorial intent of the passage. At least the good old KJV gets it right here! The KJV translates the term as ‘lunatick’, which is close enough to the true meaning. The people being healed by Jesus in Matthew were ‘moonstruck’ folk, people turned crazy by the moon.1
This association of the moon with lunacy is a bizarre one, given that the rest of the Biblical texts are entirely positive about the earth’s closest satellite. It is called ‘good’ by God and ‘the work of [God’s] fingers’ as well as ‘an enduring witness in the skies’ by the Psalmist.2 The moon is said to be ‘moving in splendour’ by Job, while the prophets (inc. Jesus) refer to the terrifying vision of the moon ‘darkened’ and ‘turned to blood’ on the ‘Day of the Lord’.3 The horror of the vision only makes sense if the moon’s (reflected) light was originally a good thing.
In fairness to the translators, the father’s description of his ‘moonstruck’ boy, for whom he pleads, certainly does match that of epilepsy: ‘he often falls into the fire and often into the water’.4 According to Jesus, however, this is a false diagnosis; the true cause of his ailment is demonic, not lunar.
Modern Jews, by and large, do not accept the existence of ‘demons’. This is because there are clear references to demons neither in the Tanakh nor in the Jerusalem Talmud.5 The great Jewish rationalists Maimonides, Saadia Gaon and Abraham ibn Ezra denied their existence and their thinking became mainstream Judaism. However, in Jesus’s day – the era referred to as ‘Second Temple Judaism’ – there was a widespread belief in demons and Ha-Satan (הַשָּׂטָ֔ן) had been elevated to a new status as the chief rival of God, whereas he had previously been his agent.6 Some scholars place this change down to the influence of Zoroastrianism and its dualities on the Jewish people during their time in Exile, an era that is fundamental to comprehend if you want to properly understand the Tanakh / ‘Old Testament’. (The Babylonian Talmud, in contrast to its Jerusalem cousin, is rife with mentions of spirits and demons.)
2. Jesus’s Healing of Epilepsy and Demons
The fact that both Jesus and “Luke” identified epilepsy (albeit ‘being moonstruck’) as a different condition from demonic activity has not stopped a few Christians saying to me that my epilepsy was caused by demons. In truth, it is easy to see why – if the two sets of symptoms are the same, why one and not the other? It is a tale I have heard frequently from both gay friends of mine and disabled friends of mine – “demons are the cause”, “why don’t you pray it away”, “if only you had more faith”.
It hurts! And if it hurts me with a minor disability which has a marginal impact on my life, then imagine how it equally hurts those with disabilities which affect their everyday lives and those who have no disability at all, but are practically forced into believing that they do because they happen to be of one particular sexual orientation. The cause of these often unwittingly insensitive responses becomes apparent when we read that Jesus rebukes the boy’s father, proclaiming:7
‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.’
As discussed previously, it is best not to typecast Jesus as one thing or another – sometimes his remarks can appear unnecessarily cutting to otherwise apparently kind and desperate people. Do you not feel sorry for the poor father in this story? If not, then you may have a worrying lack of empathy. Conservative interpretations of the Gospels lend themselves to this insensitivity since it is equally inescapable that, in response to the disciples’ curiosity about their inability to heal the boy, Jesus then says:8
‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’
Much as I have pointed out here, here and here, we need to be cautious toward accepting the biblical texts at face value, whether Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists or anything else. Such uncritical acceptance can lead to really damaging interpretations and – consequently – to really hurtful actions. Instead, be like Habbukkuk or Job, who asked questions and didn’t settle for easy answers.
3. “Saint Paul’s Disease”?
7 … even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Much has been made of this “thorn… in the flesh”, especially given Paul’s trances, visions, blindness and religious ecstasy. This is not without some merit. In 1987, D. Landsborough offered some reasonable evidence in the JNNP that he may have suffered from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE).10 A number of Irish Catholics still refer to epilepsy as “Saint Paul’s Disease”. This is not without merit. Take, for example, the passage Paul writes in Galatians:11
13 You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; 14 though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.
He also writes in ‘large letters’, indicating either shakiness or bad eyesight.12 He praises the Galatians, saying, ‘had it been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me’.13 Moreover, his ‘thorn’ was given to him by God because of the ‘exceptional character of the revelations’.14 He has visions of ‘a man of Macedonia’, being ‘caught up to the third heaven’, hearing ‘things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat’.15 In Jerusalem, Paul falls into a ‘trance’, like a number of the prophets of old.16 I could offer more evidence, but have a look for yourself! I’m not exactly made up on the matter myself; I just think it is both cool and perfectly plausible.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tour of the Bible and epilepsy, including for the very first time a more personal reflection. Please give your personal reflections below in the comments – also like the Facebook page! Moreover, did you know that there are more than 40 patron saints of epilepsy, the most famous of which is Saint Valentine himself? No, I bet you didn’t. I certainly didn’t. That is why I enjoy writing!
If you’re interested, there’s an excellent and remarkably fair 30 minute BBC documentary on the faith healing of disabled people currently online: Heal Me In the Name of Jesus. Both my wife and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
- Riva, M. A.; Tremolizzo, L.; Spicci, M; Ferrarese, C; De Vito, G; Cesana, G. C.; Sironi, V. A. (2011). ‘The Disease of the Moon: The Linguistic and Pathological Evolution of the English Term “Lunatic”’. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences. 20(1). pp. 65–73. ↩
- Genesis (1:14-19); Psalms (8:3; 89:37). ↩
- Job (31:26); Isaiah (13:10); Joel (2:10, 28-32; 3:15); Mark (13:24); Luke (21:25-28). Acts (2:14-21) and Revelation (6:12) clearly quote the idea of the ‘blood moon’ during the eschatos hemera (ἐσχάταις ἡμέραις; ‘last days’) from Joel. For the Apostle Peter in Acts, the expanded quote he takes from Joel is supposed to justify the strange happenings at Pentecost, yet is also clearly an apocalyptic reference to the imminence of the end of history, because he doesn’t stop at v29 in Joel; he carries on until v32. Jesus, his immediate disciples, Paul, John of Patmos and many others evidently believed that the end of the world was nigh. I shall write a future post on this. ↩
- Matthew 17:15. While ‘falling into fire and water’ can be a sign of many conditions, the text describes him as ‘moonstruck’ (i.e. “crazy”) and his condition was interpreted by Jesus to be caused by demons. Also, notice that the text indicates ‘falling’ rather than ‘throws himself into’. This suggests epilepsy of some form. ↩
- Only two references to ‘demons’ (shedim, שֵׁדִים) are found in Deuteronomy (32:17) and Psalms (106:37). The term ‘demons’ here is being used literarily rather than literally here in order to denigrate foreign deities. ↩
- There are more expansive arguments on why Ha-Satan (‘the Satan’; it is a title, not a name) is an agent of Yahweh in the mainstream Jewish perspective here, here and here. The last one is interesting because it is from a Christian perspective, arguing that none of the OT “Satans” are the one we know from the NT. Satan’s purpose as Yahweh’s agent, at least in Jewish frames of thought, is to test human beings to see if they use their free will for good or evil, and then to accuse them in front of God, who may either forgive them or condemn them. ↩
- Matthew 17:17. ↩
- Matthew 17:20. ↩
- 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. ↩
- Landsborough, D. (1987). ‘St Paul and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy’. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry. 50(6). pp. 659–664. See also: Nicastro, N; Picard, F. (2016). ‘Joan of Arc: Sanctity, Witchcraft or Epilepsy?’. Epilepsy & Behavior. vol. 57. pp. 247-250. For an opposing view (of agnosticism), see Joseph, K.T. (2016). ‘Did Joan of Arc and Saint Paul suffer from epilepsy?’. Atlas of Science. [Online – Accessed 26.03.2017] ↩
- Galatians 4:13-14. ↩
- Galatians 6:11. ↩
- Galatians 4:15. ↩
- 2 Corinthians 12:7. ↩
- Acts 16:9-10; 2 Corinthians 12:1-4. ↩
- Acts 22:17; Daniel 8:18, 10:9. ↩