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Who Was the Apostle Paul's Thorn?

Posted: 08/03/2012 1:11 pm

Several times in Paul's writings He was forced to exaggerate his role as Apostle; no better example exists than his claim to have been "taken to heaven" where he received his famous "Thorn in the Flesh."

"And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated" (2 Corinthians 12:7).

Although Paul prayed three times, God would not remove this "thorn" because Paul needed humility.

For centuries, Scholars have debated Paul's mysterious "barb." It has been the source of much speculation, including Paul's lusts, sexual preference or physical ailments, including malaria and eye disease.

Some scholars suggest that Paul's visions and great revelations point to epilepsy, which is commonly accompanied by seizures. A factor that would make sense if we held to Luke's "vision" on the Damascus' road as literal, not a story device.

No one theory stands on specific verses alone; all need to be contextualized with the fragments of Paul's life and letters, by using an Ockham-like "sliver" toward the fewest assumptions to make sense.

It is highly unlikely with Paul's years of extensive travel, that his "thorn" would be physical in nature. And His sheer power of mind manifested in his constant debates eliminates any mental affliction.

As to his sexuality, the idea of apostle as "tortured soul," defined by hidden longings, seems more attributable to a Lutheran "depraved" sense or even 19th century English novel than Paul's first century Greco-Roman milieu.

Paul does suffer an identity crisis, but it was not sexual in nature. In Corinthians, he asserts, "He had the right to take a wife like Peter and the others" and was emphatic about his moral standing, as he stated, "perfect according to the law."

Our best clues into this mystery might be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the primary source for Paul's thoughts and language. When he uses "Thorn in the Flesh," he is quoting a very old term in a new setting.

Thorn or skolops (in the Greek) can mean an ongoing "annoyance," which in Paul's case is the "messenger of Satan," an actual Satanic force, which is highly unlikely given Paul's teachings on the power of Christ over Satan.

As Catholic scholar Frank Matera points out, "It is possible that, the messengers are those spoken of in Corinthians (plural), or elsewhere, but Paul speaks of this thorn as one person" (Matera, 2003, 2 Corinthians).

Also, Paul claims the thorn was given in response to his grandiose vision, a goad of humility to prevent boasting. "It did not mean internal conflict, but a physical other" (CK Barrett 2 Corinth 1993).

In the Hebrew Bible a metaphor for Israel's enemies was to call them "thorns."

"But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell" (Numbers 33:55).

"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" (Judges 2:3).

"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" (Ezekiel 3:6).

Though scholars will debate the numbers of sects during Paul's life, there is little evidence that from 40-60 A.D. there were strictly organized spheres of influence beyond that of Temple-centered Jerusalem.

Only a Temple based community would have held so strongly to Jewish law and circumcision or been able to send out a "a messenger of the Adversary" who could harangue the original Apostle.

In light of what we know, it seems Paul's thorn could only be the manifestation of one of his main opponents in Jerusalem; always an undermining source of tension.

"Be on your guard against these dogs, these wicked workmen, these would-be mutilators of your bodies!" (Phil 3:2-3).

"You have such admirable tolerance for impostors who rob your freedom, rip you off, steal you blind, put you down -- even slap your face! I shouldn't admit it to you, but our stomachs aren't strong enough to tolerate that kind of stuff. Do they brag of being Hebrews, Israelites, the pure race of Abraham? I'm their match" (2 Corinthians 12:20-22).

If their job as thorns was to "annoy" Paul, they did their work well, in Macedonia, Greece and Jerusalem. The Apostle fought this same battle with his peers in Antioch, where he captures their betrayal in Galatians.

To Paul, their message of a Gospel of grace-plus-law was a "dispensation of death" one under the "influence of an evil spell," an oppositional Gospel to that of the Jesus he knew from his visions.

The conflicts that inform Paul's letters are best understood not by an "argument of silence" from groups that "might have been" Jewish sects of the Diaspora, but from those who directly challenged His apostleship.

Paul was concerned with opinions as when Apollo's showed up in Corinth, but on a more extreme level, Paul reacts most violently to those distorting, or "adding to," his Gospel which is one of "freedom from the Law."

A message he hoped might have been shared earlier, but as time went on, had him kicked out of the synagogue and pushed away from Jerusalem, until late in his life, when His collection was rejected.

We can only conclude that the "Thorn in the Flesh" was someone from Jerusalem; perhaps one of the "false brethren," exerting overwhelming pressure on the Jewish Apostles, or possibly the leader, James, the Lord's brother himself.

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