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Paul converted to Christianity after experiencing a bright light and a divine voice while he traveled on a road towards Damascus in Syria, as depicted in this painting by Michelangelo, but it may have been a meteor
It was a vision that apparently led the biblical Paul to become one of the most influential figures in early Christianity by helping to spread the religion around the world.

But now astronomers believe the bright light in the sky that triggered the conversion of Paul the Apostle may have actually been a falling meteor 2,000 years ago.

They say descriptions of Paul's experience - in which he was blinded for three days after seeing a bright light - match accounts of the fireball that streaked across the sky above Chelyabinsk in Russia in 2013.

Dr William Hartmann, co-founder of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, examined three accounts of Paul's conversion in the Bible.

Writing in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science, he said: 'The first-century book, Acts of the Apostles, gives three separate descriptions of a bright light "from heaven", which occurred probably in the 30s (C.E.) near Damascus, Syria.

'The details offer a strikingly good match to a Chelyabinsk-class or Tunguska-class fireball.'

In the accounts given in the Bible, Paul had been one of the zealous persecutors of the followers of Jesus.

However, during a journey to Damascus, Syria, he and his companions saw a bright light in the sky.

Paul was blinded for three days and he heard a divine voice or sound.

The experience apparently so affected Paul that he converted to Christianity and undertook several influential missions to spread the word of Christ around the Mediterranean.

Many believe Paul's preaching led to the rise of much of the theology and traditions in the Roman and Protestant faith strands that exist today.

However, some have attempted to explain Paul's vision as being the result of some kind of seizure or of sunstroke.

Dr Hartmann, however, says the description of the light in the sky, the thunderous sound and the temporary blindness all match the events of a meteorite.

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The meteorite that streaked across the sky above Chelyabinsk in Russia (above) created a bright light and noise that may have been similar to those experienced by Paul the Apostle in 30 AD, claims astronomer
He said the Cheyabinsk meteor, which exploded in the atmosphere close to the Russian city, is a good example of what Paul may have experienced.

He said that the bright light in the sky - which was 'brighter than the sun, shining round me' - matches videos of the Chelyabinsk meteor, which was estimated to be three times as bright as the sun.

Its movement across the sky created fast moving shadows that would have given the impression of the light moving around Paul.

Dr Hartmann says that the shockwave created by an exploding meteor could also have been responsible for knocking Paul and his companions to the ground after the light.

The shock wave created by the meteor that exploded above Chelyabinsk shattered windows, rocked cars and knocked people over.

Dr Hartmann also argues that the sound of the explosion could also have been the source of the 'voice' Paul heard.

The three accounts of his experience in the Bible differ, with some saying it was a voice and others a sound.

Paul's temporary blindness could also have been caused by the intense ultraviolet radiation from the meteor - creating a condition called photokeratitis.

Dr Hartmann said: '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.'

In Chelyabinsk the radiation given off by the meteor was strong enough to cause sunburn and some temporary blindness.

Speaking to New Scientist, Dr Hartmann said: 'Everything they are describing in those three accounts in the book of Acts are exactly the sequence you see with a fireball.

'If that first-century document had been anything other than part of the Bible, that would have been a straightforward story.'

He added that unfamiliar natural phenomena like an exploding meteor are often interpreted in the context of 'current cultural conceptions'.

He added however that he does not intend to discredit Christianity with his interpretation, but hopes to show how a meteor may have changed the course of the religion.

Other researchers said that a search for meteorites in and around Syria could help to prove his theories.

Even if his theory does prove to be correct, others say that it is unlikely that Christianity would not have spread if Paul had not encountered the meteor.

However, Justin Meggitt, a religious historian at the University of Cambridge, said that the religion could have been very different.

He told New Scientist: 'People's interpretation of Paul is absolutely fundamental to some of the central figures of Christianity.

'Christianity probably would be very different without him.'