It's an odd word there. I've never thought that I had "scales" on my eyes when I couldn't see. Why didn't they use something like "darkness" or "clouds"?

When I think of scales I think of Lady Justice and her scales. Is the writer talking about reptile/fish scales? That still doesn't make any sense.

  • 1
    I have snakes, and if they don't shed thoroughly they get "eye caps" which obscure their vision. I perceive these as scales covering their eyes, though it's hard to imagine people keeping snakes in antiquity, though I suppose they might have killed snakes with eye caps.
    – Margot
    Feb 20, 2021 at 20:36

4 Answers 4


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this expression comes from the Bible:

Taken (after Acts ix. 18) as a type of that which causes blindness (physical or moral).

Etymologically, it comes from "scale" in the fish sense, with the first example of "scales" being used like this coming from the 1382 Wycliffite Bible or Cursor Mundi (a1325-a1400) according to the OED. For more information, see the freely-available Middle English Dictionary.

As for what exactly is being described here, Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers on Acts 9:18 says:

The description suggests the thought that the blindness was caused by an incrustation, caused by acute inflammation, covering the pupil of the eye, or closing up the eye-lids, analogous to the "whiteness," that peeled (or scaled) off from the eyes of Tobit (Tobit 11:13). Like phenomena are mentioned by Hippocrates, and the care with which St. Luke records the fact in this instance, may be noted, with Acts 3:7; Acts 28:8, as one of the examples of the technical precision of his calling as a physician.

Elsewhere on BibleHub it says that the original word used in Acts 9:18 is "λεπίδες", which is defined as:

a scale, a scaly substance thrown off from the body.

  • It's contextually unclear what exactly the full OED (in their second of 10 entries for scale) is referring back to with of that in subdefinition #4 which you have cited. of that entry (perhaps something of a "proofreading error" there?). Conceptually it could be any of the three preceding definitions, but the first one does well enough: (assumed to be) a type of that small thin membranous or horny outgrowths or modifications of the skin (as defined above). Sep 6, 2018 at 15:54
  • This seems a bit circular. The OED is saying the expression comes from the Bible. I'm asking why the Bible was translated with "scales" instead of some other word that would mean something like tumors or growths.
    – jcollum
    Sep 6, 2018 at 17:42
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    @jcollum It looks to be a faithful translation of the Greek (see edit). I don't think it's describing something lumpy like tumors; it was probably a flakey crust covering the eyes (which superficially resembled scales). After all, we still talk about "flakey scaly skin".
    – Laurel
    Sep 6, 2018 at 18:41

Further to Laurel and Michael Harvey's answers, the Online Etymology Dictionary refers to scale as

"skin plates on fish or snakes," c. 1300, from Old French escale "cup, scale, shell pod, husk" (12c., Modern French écale) "scale, husk," from Frankish *skala or some other Germanic source, from Proto-Germanic *skælo "split, divide" (source also of Dutch schaal "a scale, husk," Old High German scala "shell," Gothic skalja "tile," Old English scealu "shell, husk"), from PIE root *skel- (1) "to cut."

In reference to humans, as a condition of certain skin diseases, it is attested from c. 1400. As what falls from one's eye when blindness ends (usually figurative), it echoes Acts ix:18 (Latin tanquam squamæ, Greek hosei lepides).

One can presume that Saul had scale-like incrustations on his eyes.

  • 2
    It appears the meaning of Acts 9:18 has long been a matter of controversy. Ex.: NAB has the author describing a physical manifestation: "immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight." On the other hand, NJB has the author using metaphor to express the quickness of the change: "it was as though scales fell away from his eyes and immediately he was able to see again".
    – MetaEd
    Sep 6, 2018 at 17:13

Yes, fish or reptile scales. The expression is a standard phrase from early English translations of the Christian Bible's New Testament, and "the scales falling from one's eyes" has come to have a figurative meaning, to suddenly be able to see a situation clearly and accurately. Saul had been blind for three days, and his eyes may have covered with some kind of growths. Some scholars believe these may have been cataracts. They fell from his eyes when God healed his blindness. Some modern translations say "something like scales fell from his eyes". Of course, not everybody believes that these events ever happened.

  • See my comment on bookmanu's answer.
    – MetaEd
    Sep 6, 2018 at 17:13

I've concluded the "scales" referred to are fish scales. Ancient (And modern) Jews needed to identify which fish had scales to conform with dietary restrictions. I have no direct association with fish scale, but believe them to be small semi-transparent bits of tissue found on a fish's skin (or maybe it is the skin). Check this website for pictures of dried fish scales for sale: https://www.alibaba.com/product-detail/Dried-Fish-Scales-for-Collagen-with_50029530009.html

  • This doesn't really add anything that isn't in the existing answers. Apr 30, 2021 at 15:29

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