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“Paul’s thorn in the flesh”
Toward partial completion of course Requirements for NBST 522 Professor Myron Kauk
By: Erick Soledispa
9 March 2011
CHAPTER ONE: THE THORN IN THE FLESH IN BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE……..3-4
CHAPTER TWO: THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT………………………………………...5-7
CHAPTER THREE: THE LARGER CONTEXT OF 2 COR. 12:7……………………….8-9
The meaning of the Pauline expression “thorn in the flesh” has been disputed at great length in Christian literature. The various interpretations that have been proposed throughout history can be summarized under three headings1: (1) Physical illness or disability; (2) External Opposition and (3) Internal Psychological state. The first line of interpretation -which is also de earliest- has its origin in Tertullian, who suggested that Paul was afflicted by head pains.2 Although Tertullian’s interpretation may have been prompted by linguistic appreciations,3 subsequent interpreters in the same line have opted to look for interpretive clues in the reports of Paul’s physical weakness in Acts and the Pauline letters. This has issued in various theories ranging from “Paragnosis” (an eye disease), to hypochondriac disorder, to a stammering in his speech, to just some unknown disease which
continually impeded his efforts and shackled his energy.4
The second line of interpretation has its origin with Chrysostom. Chrysostom proposed that the “thorn in the flesh” represented people. In his view what afflicted Paul was the opponents that he encountered everywhere he went.5 Many people have followed Chrysostom’s lead and modern interpreters seek to identify who the opponents where exactly.
See Margaret E. Thrall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Second Epistle to the Corinthians Volume I, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 809. 2 Tertullian On Modesty, 13. 3 The verb that Paul uses to describe the modus operandi of the thorn in the flesh can mean “to beat” or “to strike”. 4 See Edward Beecher, “Dispensations of Divine Providence Toward the Apostle Paul: An Expository Dissertation On 2 Cor. 12:7-10,” Biblioteca Sacra 12, No.47 (July 1885): 500. 5 Chrysostom To Olympias, 295.
The third line of interpretation comes in two forms. Following the manner in which the Vulgate translates the Greek, stimulus caris, some interpreters before the Reformation thought that the “thorn in the flesh” consisted in sexual temptation.6 Calvin and Luther rejected this view and regarded Paul's thorn in the flesh as “all the temptations of every kind by which Satan aroused it [Paul’s flesh] to action.7 Which of these interpretations is correct? In my view the second line of interpretation is correct but the list of prospective opponents should be reduced to one group in particular. Accordingly, in this paper I will argue that the “thorn in the flesh” mentioned by the Apostle Paul in 2 Cor. 12:7 is a figurative reference to the Judaizers whom he is opposing in this epistle. This is an interpretation that is consistent with the use of equivalent expressions elsewhere in the Bible, that best fits the immediate context of the verse in question and that best fits the larger contexts of Chap. 10-13 and the epistle as a whole. In order to substantiate my thesis I will divide this paper into three chapters. In chapter one I will put the intriguing expression in Biblical perspective to show that it does have a figurative character and that it can refer to people. In chapter two, I will examine the immediate context of the expression to prove that it naturally suggests that Paul is referring to a personal opponent. Finally in chapter three, I will examine the larger context of 2 Cor. 12:7 to prove that Paul uses the expression as a reference to the Judaizers.
Frank J. Matera, II Corinthians NT Library (Louisville: WJK Press, 2003), 283. Ibid. 2
THE “THORN IN THE FLESH” IN BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE
The intertextuality of the expression suggest that it refers to a human enemy It is a hermeneutical principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. Not only does this mean that the New Testament interprets the Old but it also means that the Old Testament sheds light into our understanding of the New. Inevitably, then, we must study our Bibles with the conviction that the Old Testament is a well of themes and ideas that crop up in the NT, sometimes openly sometimes in covert. One of the ways in which OT themes and ideas recur in the New Testament is by means of Intertextuality. Intertextuality can be defined as:
“. . . the multiple ways in which any one literary text is in fact made up of other texts, by means of its open or covert citations and allusions, its repetitions and transformations of the formal and substantiate features of earlier texts, or simply its unavoidable participation in the common stock of linguistic and literary conventions that are “always-ready” in place and constitutes the discourses into which we are born.”8
Paul’s thorn in the flesh is a good example of an Old Testament expression that is alluded to in the New. The parallel expressions appear in several passages: Joshua 23:13.
“Know with certainty that the LORD your God will not continue to drive these nations out from before you; but they will be a snare and a trap to you, and a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good land which the LORD your God has given you.”
Numbers 33:55 “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall come about that those whom you let remain of them will
M. H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2009), 364.
become as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they will trouble you in the land in which you live.” Judges 2:3
"Therefore I also said, 'I will not drive them out before you; but they will become as thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.'"
"And you, son of man, neither fear them nor fear their words, though thistles and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions; neither fear their words nor be dismayed at their presence, for they are a rebellious house.
In view of all this examples it can be said with a good degree of certainty that Paul is alluding to this expressions in 2 Cor. 12:7. Now, what is the meaning of the expression in the Old Testament? It is but obvious that in these passages -and others can be consulted too- the expression serves as a literary idiom for an enemy.9 But the question is does Paul intend his readers to understand “thorn in the flesh” as a literary idiom for an enemy, and in particular as an idiom for false teachers such as the Judaizers? Only context can help establish whether or not Paul used the expression in this way. After all there is nothing that in principle forces Paul to use it to mean “enemy”. And there is in fact some weight in the opinion that “angel (or messenger) of Satan”, the descriptive phrase Paul uses for “thorn in the flesh”, qualifies to be related to an infirmity.10 If only context, then, can determine the exact meaning of “thorn in the flesh”, we shall turn to the issue of context in the following chapters.
Terence Y. Mullins, "Paul's Thorn in the Flesh," JBL 76 (1957) 302. See Lk. 13:16. 4
THE INMEDIATE CONTEXT
It has been shown up to this point that consistently in the Old Testament the parallel expression for “thorn in the flesh” is used as a figurative idiom that refers to people that are enemies to both God and his elect. Now it is time to see if the immediate context of the expression suggests the same rendering.
“Thorn in the flesh” “messenger of Satan” “to buffet me”: A person is in view Everybody aggress that the word “thorn” is used figuratively here.11 If it were not, then we would have to think that Paul had some kind of sting or stake incrusted in his body all the time! The real dispute is with respect to the word “flesh.” If it can be proven that “flesh” refers to literal flesh or “body”, then we have to admit that an infirmity is in view here. Those who take “flesh” to mean literal flesh, immediately interpret flesh as “body.” “Messenger of Satan to buffet me” would be either a reference to a demon that inflicts pain or to infirmity personified. Historically, there have been many suggestions with respect to what kind of situation might have afflicted Paul’s body.12 One of the suggestions that have been made, and that is worth taking seriously, is the suggestion that Paul suffered from Paragnosis, an eye disease.13 Based on the account Paul’s experience on the Damascus road, when Jesus appeared to him for the first time (Act. 9: 1-8), and based on the fact that Paul alluded to sight problems in Galatians 4:14-15, plus the fact that
Although some think that the word should be rendered “stake” instead of “thorn.” See David M. Park, “Paul's σϰόλοψ τῇ σαρϰί: Thorn or Stake? (2 Cor. XII 7),” Novum Testamentum, Vol. 22, Fasc. 2 (April 1980), pp. 179-183. 12 See the introduction above. 13 See Alan Hisey and James S. P. Beck, “Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’: a Paragnosis,” Journal of Bible and Religion, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Apr., 1961), pp. 125-129. 5
Paul seems to have had a peculiar handwriting (cf. Gal. 6:11; 2 Thes. 3:17), some have argued that Paul never really recovered from his sight problem (cf. Act. 9:8, 12). This sight problem is, according to this view, Paragnosis. In making a case for Paragnosis, Hisey and Beck comment of Paul’s thorn in the flesh:
“[The sum of the evidence] points to an injury in the auditory and visual receptive areas in one of the cerebral hemispheres. This appears to have been in an occipital lobe and in its adjacent temporal lobe. The nature of the injury is defined by three characteristic features: First, it must have been stimulating to the receptive elements of the cortical areas. Second, it must have been dulling or deadening to them in the aftermath of stimulation. Third, it caused permanent defective vision and a peculiarity in writing. The loss of function of the visual area was characterized by blindness; the loss of function in the auditory and speech area was characterized by aphasia. Expressive aphasia is manifested in two forms; one is related to articulate speech, the other to writing. In one, the difficulty lies in the speaking of words; in the other, it lies in the making of letters in the act of writing. The latter is the type of injury that Paul refers to, and it was in all probability part of his ‘thorn in the flesh.’14
One of the reasons why this view is so attractive is because it seems to provide an explanation for peripheral details such as Paul’s handwriting and Paul’s admitted lack of competence as an orator (cf. 2 Cor. 11:6). Other interpreters, taking “flesh” also literally, offer other suggestions. The suggestion that is second to “Paragnosis” in importance is “speech disability”. C. K. Barret affirms: “If a specific physical defect is to be looked for, possibly as good a suggestion as any is that Paul suffered from an impediment in his speech. This would allow for the fact that he could make a very bad first impression (Gal. 4:13 ff.) and be judged poor in presence and in speech, but impressive in his letters (2 Cor. 10: 1, 9, 10, 11; 11:6).”15
Alan Hisey and James S. P. Beck, “Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’: a Paragnosis,” p. 128. C. K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: Hendrickson Publishers, 1977), 315.
As can be seen, this suggestion also has its merits. It puts Paul’s words in the immediate context of Chapters 10 through 12 and tries to make sense of the expression from within the letter. The interpretations that take “flesh” literally face some problems, though. First, the phrase “thorn in the flesh” is further explained in the immediate context (v. 7b) by the expression “messenger of Satan to buffet me”. Those who say that this expression refers to an evil spirit that attacked Paul with infirmity or with some kind of disability, face the difficulty that “to buffet me” does not sound like a reference to an infirmity, and the verb ( κ ο λ α φ ι ζ η ) is one
which describes a rather human and distinct personal activity –that of beating with the fist.16 And second, those who say that “messenger of Satan” refers to infirmity or disability personified fail to take into account the fact that “messenger” is never used in the Bible in that way, and Paul never uses “α γ γ ε λ ο σ ” to mean anything other than a personal entity.17 Furthermore
“there is the fact that Paul retains his reference to a person throughout the paragraph, speaking of beseeching the Lord about him (τ ο υ τ ο υ ), not this thing, nor this.”18
It turns out, then, that there are difficulties for thinking that “flesh” means here literal flesh or Paul’s body. What does “thorn in the flesh” mean, then? I have tried to prove that the immediate context of the expression points to a human being because “messenger” and “to buffet me” naturally suggest a personal entity, and a human being at that. Are there any clues in the larger context of the letter that can help us establish this interpretation? The following chapter tries to demonstrate that the larger context of the letter supports this position.
Terence Y. Mullins, "Paul's Thorn in the Flesh," p. 302. Ibid. 18 Ibid.
THE LARGER CONTEXT OF THE LETTER
The flow of thought in 2 Cor. 12:7: a defense against the Judaizers For us to understand 2 Cor. 12:7 we must locate the passage in the flow of thought that gives unity to chapters 10-13, where Paul is making a defense of his apostolic authority. Commenting on the cohesion of these chapters as a literary unit, William Baker remarks: “Interpreters of 2 Corinthians agree universally that 10:1 initiates a clean break from what comes before in chapter 9. The doxology of 9:15 makes the end of Paul’s initiative in chapters eight and nine to prepare the Corinthians to restart their collection for the Jerusalem Christians. The issue is not brought up again even by inference. Interpreters also agree that in 2 Corinthians 10-13 Paul returns to a defense of his apostolic ministry, which has already occupied his attention for the most part of chapters two through seven.”19 So Paul then wants to make a defense of his apostleship, but against whom? In earlier stages of his letter he has referred to problematic outsiders who are “peddlers” (2:17), they come to the Church with “letters of recommendation” (3:1), they “take pride in what is seen” (5:12), and they “corrupt” and “exploit” (7:12).20 Chapters 10-13 elaborate on a strong defense against these outsiders who, in the opinion of Carson and Moo, are some kind of Judaizers.21 The flow of thought of this defense is detailed by Carson and Moo as follows:
“Paul appeals for a faith that is obedient (10:1–6) and condemns the opposition for its ugly boasting and one-upmanship (10:7–18). In 11:1–15 he exposes the false apostles who have usurped authority in the church and denounces their false criteria. Then, answering fools according to their folly, Paul engages in a little boasting of his own—by inverting all the criteria of his opponents and boasting in things they would despise (11:16–33). In fact, Paul boasts in weakness, William R. Baker, 2 Corinthians, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin: College Press Co, 1999), 344 20 Ibid. 21 D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) 446- 447.
because he understands that his weakness is the condition under which the power of God powerfully operates through him (12:1–10). The Corinthians themselves are to blame for not taking decisive action against the opponents, who are channeling the church toward a cross-disowning triumphalism. Paul contrasts his own motives (12:11–21), begging the Corinthian believers to reconsider their course and warning them that if necessary, he will take strong action when he arrives on his third visit (13:1–10). The epistle ends with a final appeal, greetings, and the words of “the grace” (13:11–13).”22
As it can be seen, this section makes up an entire literary unit. This section is saturated with a sense of conflict between Paul, a true apostle (12:12) and the false apostles (11:13). In this connection, Paul begins to construct an imagery that will help him describe what really happens in the spiritual realm. In (11:14) he speaks about Satan disguising himself as “an angel of light” . And 11:15 he says that Satan has “ministers” that disguise themselves as “ministers of righteousness.” In Paul’s mind there is something demonic behind the activity of the Judaizers. In 2 Corinthians 12:7, just a few verses later, Paul speaks of an angel of Satan as an enemy of his. Paul, then “has moved from the realm of enemies-in-general, servants of Satan that they are, to a specifically obnoxious member of the clan, a particular ‘angel of Satan.’ ” Not only the context of the letter says that Paul’s opponents are Jews23, but who else would have understood the idiom “thorn of the flesh” as referring to an enemy?
D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, Ibid., 419. Note 11:22: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I.”
In this paper I have presented three lines of evidence in support of the theory that the “thorn in the flesh” referred to in 2 Cor. 12:7 is figurative reference to the Judaizers whom Paul is opposing in the epistle. In chapter one I explained that the expression “thorn in the flesh” is in fact an allusion to similar idioms found in the Old Testament. In all the instances where the idioms are found, they are used figuratively to denote the enemies of God and the enemies of the people of God. In chapter two I explained, against competing explanations, how the immediate context of the expression supported the view that “thorn in the flesh” referred to a personal opponent. Finally in chapter three I referred to the larger context of 2 Cor. 2:17 to explain that the party in opposition to Paul was the group of Judaizers whom Paul denounces through the epistle.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Baker, R. William 2 Corinthians, The College Press NIV Commentary. Joplin, MO: College Press Co, 1999. Barrett, C. K., A Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Black’s New Testament Commentary. London: Hendrickson Publishers, 1977. Beecher, Edward, “Dispensations of Divine Providence toward the Apostle Paul: An Expository Dissertation on 2 Cor. 12:7-10,” Biblioteca Sacra 12, No.47 (July 1885): 500-510. Hisey Alan, and Beck S. P. James, “Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’: a Paragnosis,” Journal of Bible and Religion, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Apr., 1961):125-129. Mullins, Y. Terence, “Paul's Thorn in the Flesh." JBL 76 (1957): 299-303. Matera, J. Frank II Corinthians, The New Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2003. Thrall Margaret E., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Second Epistle to the Corinthians Volume I. Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1994.
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