BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

In search of the apostle’s mysterious affliction

The Apostle Paul by Rembrandt van Rijn (c. 1657). The apostle sits composing his letter, contemplating the sword that stands before him. Public Domain, Creative Commons Zero.

The Apostle Paul by Rembrandt van Rijn (c. 1657). The apostle sits composing his letter, contemplating the sword that stands before him. Public Domain, Creative Commons Zero.

One of the apostle Paul’s most-discussed passages occurs in 2 Corinthians 12. In the span of ten verses, Paul alludes to not one but two scenarios from his life that often leave readers scratching their heads in confusion.

The first is Paul’s account of “someone” he knows who received a miraculous vision of heaven 14 years prior to the letter (he is undoubtedly referring to himself). This “someone” saw and heard things that humans can’t understand and should never repeat. Most likely, members of the Corinthian church were claiming to have had ecstatic spiritual experiences and were lording it over their fellow Christians. Paul’s response was to tell them of his own amazing experience without truly claiming it to be his own.

Instead of going into further detail and inflating his own ego, Paul does the opposite. He tells of a second puzzling scenario and boasts of an affliction that God had apparently bestowed upon him. “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (12:7–9). He goes on to say that he pleaded for healing of this particular affliction on three separate occasions but was always denied.


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This unexplained “thorn in the flesh” has puzzled readers of 2 Corinthians for centuries and its meaning is often debated. Early commentators such as John Chrysostom (c. 347–407 CE) held the view that Paul’s “thorn” was in fact the persecutions he often experienced. Those of the late Middle Ages, such as John Calvin, saw the thorn as temptation in general, or sexual temptation in particular. Modern interpreters have similarly varied in their analysis, although many Pauline scholars believe Paul was referring to an actual bodily affliction that had been troubling the apostle for years.

In his article “Finding Paul’s Weakness,” in the Summer 2024 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Ben Witherington III discusses his view of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” and that the apostle did not struggle with persecution or temptation, but rather poor eyesight. “Paul’s problem seems to have been with his eyes, and this was no small problem. In that world, not only were the eyes seen as the windows of the soul but also as projectors of light or darkness.” Indeed, in Galatians, one of Paul’s earliest letters, the apostle mentions an ailment that caused trouble for those who heard him preach the gospel. Again, Paul does not go into detail about his issue, but he alludes to the fact that most people would commonly scorn or despise him for it. Instead, Paul claims the Christians of Galatia would have “gouged out their eyes and given them to me” (Galatians 4:15).

If Paul’s “thorn” was poor eyesight, it would make sense for him to contrast this particular affliction with the miraculous visions he’d been privy to in the past. Unlike the people of Corinth, who had been boasting of the ability to see spiritual wonders, Paul would rather boast of his inability to see anything clearly at all.

To learn more about Paul’s affliction, and why it could be his eyes, read “Finding Paul’s Weakness” by Ben Witherington III, published in the Summer 2024 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


Subscribers: Read the full piece, “Finding Paul’s Weakness” by Ben Witherington III, published in the Summer 2024 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Paul and the New Covenant

Paul’s First Missionary Journey through Perga and Pisidian Antioch

Paul and Sacred Prostitution in Corinth

Water from a Walking Rock

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Collection: Paul’s Journeys

Paul: How He Radically Redefined Marriage

Paul’s Contradictions: Can They Be Resolved?

Archaeology Gives New Reality to Paul’s Ephesus Riot

On the Road and on the Sea with St. Paul: Traveling conditions in the first century

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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