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What was Paul’s “Thorn in the Flesh”?

Mike on October 24, 2014 - 10:05 am in 2 Corinthians, Biblical Studies, Theology, Tough Questions
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In 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul writes “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” (NIV)

The precise identity of this “thorn in the flesh” has been the subject of considerable debate over the years.  Unfortunately, we will probably never be able to answer this question with absolute certainty…at least until we can ask Paul himself!  There is simply not enough context for this enigmatic statement to allow for any kind of dogmatism on this issue.  However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t identify the option(s) which are most likely to be what Paul has in mind.

Suggested options for this “thorn in the flesh” can all be divided into two basic categories:  internal options and external options.  Internal options include physical (malaria, speech impediment, disfigurement, et al) or psychological ailments (depression, lust, et al) while external options include various circumstances Paul faced from others such as persecution, oppression, imprisonment, dissent, et al.

In favor of some kind of internal “thorn” is the phrase “in the flesh” which rather naturally suggests a physical (or possibly mental) torment.  However, in spite of the surface-level attractiveness of such options, it seems to me that there are several observations which make such options less likely:

  1. The common usage of the word translated “thorn” implies a metaphorical meaning. The word here is skolops. While English translations[1] have historically tended to translate this as “thorn”, the word can also be translated as “splinter” or “stake”. While the term occurs only here in the New Testament, it does make several appearances in the LXX (Greek translation of the Old Testament) where it has a strongly metaphorical sense and describes external circumstances of opposition (cf. Num 33:55, Hos 2:8, Eze 28:24).[2]  In Rabbinic literature, this term typically refers to something which causes irritation or annoyance but not typically to sickness or physical affliction.[3]  While this does not necessarily mean that Paul cannot be using it to refer to a physical or psychological malady, it makes such options significantly less likely.
  2. The context of 2Co 12 seems to provide some insight into Paul’s meaning. The primary issue in view in 2Co 12 is the so-called “super-apostles” (2Co 11:5, 12:11). These were false teachers who were attempting to take control of the Corinthian church and drive a wedge between the Corinthian believers and Paul by questioning Paul’s ministry and credentials as an Apostle.  Given this context, it would be natural to expect Paul to be referring to such vexing opposition rather than going off on a tangent to speak of an unrelated physical annoyance.[4]  The conclusion of this section in 12:10 also seems to identify external opposition as being central to what Paul is talking about:  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties, for when I am weak, then I am strong.  Note that Paul has already associated his “thorn in the flesh” with “weakness” several times in this section and here, in v. 10 he seems to closely associate “weakness” with insults and persecutions.  This may be a simple matter of “if A = B and B = C then A = C”.
  3. It seems contrary to New Testament teaching that Paul should have been directly, physically afflicted by a demonic spirit (e.g. “an angel of Satan”) and been unable to do anything about it. This is not to say that demonic spirits are never able to physically afflict Christians,[5] but the consistent New Testament teaching is that all believers are able, in the name of Jesus,[6] to cast out such spirits.  In my opinion (and experience), Christians may sometimes experience such affliction for long periods of time because they do not recognize that a demonic spirit is involved in their suffering and therefore never use their delegated authority as believers to cast out the spirit, but this is certainly not the case here.  Paul clearly identifies a demonic spirit as being involved in this “thorn” and, that being the case, it is difficult to imagine why he would not have simply cast it away in the name of Jesus.  It is possible, of course, that God simply suspended Paul’s normal ability to cast out evil spirits in this instance, for the purpose of keeping him humble, but this seems very unlikely.  It seems far more likely that the demon mentioned here was not “physically” present to Paul but was rather operating at a distance, stirring up opposition and trouble for Paul among non-believers.  Therefore, Paul’s normal authority as a representative of Jesus could not be directly applied against this spirit, requiring him to ask God to intervene directly.

As mentioned above, the primary strength of the internal options and, by extension, the primary weakness of the external arguments, is the phrase “in my flesh”.  Certainly on the surface, this phrase suggests a physical malady of some sort.  However, it is equally possible that what Paul means here is not “within my flesh” but rather “with respect to my flesh”.  This is a perfectly natural way of understanding the Greek construction here and, if taken this way, Paul is saying that this “thorn” was only an obstacle in an earthly, fleshly sense; that is, this “thorn” was incapable of affecting Paul – and perhaps even the ultimate effectiveness of his ministry – on a spiritual level.  Paul may, in fact, have been expressing something quite similar to what Jesus said in Mat 10:28:  “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul…”

Taken together, then, these considerations strongly suggest that the “thorn in the flesh” that Paul struggled with was some kind of external affliction rather than a sickness or psychological malady.  Especially given the context of 2 Corinthians, it seems very likely to me that Paul was referring to persistent opposition that he faced from detractors[7] who were being influenced by a malicious spirit.  Again, as I said earlier, it is not possible to assert this view with anything approaching absolute certainty but the exegetical and theological considerations listed above do make this identification of the “thorn” as an external opposition considerably more likely.

[1] On the other hand, as Garland notes, German translations of tended to favor “stake”; Dave E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, NAC (Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1999), 519.

[2] The word also appears in Sir 43:19 where it refers to literal stakes.

[3] Rudolph Bultmann, The Second Letter to the Corinthians, ed. by E. Dinkler, trans. by R.A. Harrisville (Augsburg, 1976), 224.

[4] To be fair, however, one must also acknowledge that this “thorn in the flesh” business may simply be part of Paul’s developing rhetoric about “boasting” only in his weakness, in which case, there is no particular reason why it should need to be directly related to the opposition he was facing from these “super-apostles”.

[5] Contrary to popular teaching that Christians are immune to demonic afflictions.  This view is based on an overly simplistic understanding of several theological issues.  I am not saying that a Christian can be “possessed” by a demon.  I think this is very unlikely, but it is important that we recognize that what we call “possession” is really only an extreme form of demonic affliction and there is no biblical teaching which easily allows us to draw a line through the spectrum of affliction and say that a Christian can be afflicted “to this extent and no further”.

[6] That is, as a representative of Jesus.  See Luke 9 & 10 especially.

[7] The fact that Paul uses skolops (thorn) in the singular might suggest that he has one particular individual in mind.

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