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2 Corinthians 12:7-10 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
Speculation has abounded on what it is that Paul means when he refers to his "thorn in the flesh". The reason this is an apologetic issue is because, while some have proposed "harmless" solutions (i.e., they supposed it to have been a problem with Paul's eyesight), others have used this point to make other speculations (e.g., it was epilepsy, and that explains Paul's experience on the road to Damascus; it was his rejection as an apostle; or, as John Shelby Spong proposed, it means that Paul is a repressed homosexual).
By providing a reasonable and definitive exegesis, we intend to undermine these wacky interpretations.
Our programmatic source for this essay is Verena Jucher-Berger's essay, "'The Thorn in the Flesh'/'Der Pfahl im Fleish': Considerations About 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 in Context with 12:1-13," found in The Rhetorical Analysis of Scripture: Essays from the 1995 London Conference (386-397). Jucher-Berger notes:
- The word used by Paul, skolops, has the meaning both of "thorn" and "stake".
- Paul has, in the Corinthian correspondence, been addressing the matter of his lack of competence as an orator -- for more on this, see link below. This was the point upon which his critics gave him a hard time. As noted in the link, rhetorical skill was often linked to spiritual power in the ancient world.
- The word skolops is found only here in the NT. Elsewhere it is used metaphorically to refer to an annoyance or irritation. In rabbinical literature it refers to something that causes pain or annoyance, but never an illness. The expression, "to throw thorns in the eyes" means to annoy, vex, or irritate. Other linguistic forms support this meaning.
- The "messenger of Satan" alludes to the Septuagint version of the story of Balaam's donkey, in which the angel of the Lord stood in Balaam's way. The passage uses the verb form of satanos and the same word that Paul uses for "messenger".
- Aristotle's Rhetoric used the metaphor of an orator "carrying a stake", "with a stake" as one who "makes his speech stiffly, 'as if he had swallowed a ruler.'"
It is Jucher-Berger's contention, then, that Paul has used an expression of significance to both Jewish and Greco-Roman readers, and that his "thorn in the flesh" is his inability to speak well rhetorically, as something that stands in his way as the angel of the Lord stood in Balaam's way. He admits to this weakness in some detail (2. Cor. 10:10). In a display of irony Paul here makes light of his weakness, and turns it into a positive: It was a weakness given to him to keep him from being tempted to raise himself (as his opponents have done).
There is thus no grounds for interpreting this thorn as any sort of disease or temptation, for the context of the Corinthian correspondence provides a firm enough definition.