Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

New Clues for an Old Problem
Kenneth Berding

Kenneth Berding presents a helpful work on what Paul’s thorn in the flesh may have been. Paul mentions this as something Jesus did not take away after he prayed for it three times (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). Many have attempted to pinpoint what this thorn in the flesh lies, but Berding presents new evidence and puts his evidence within 20 questions that must be asked to get an idea of what it may have been.

He begins the study of this topic by talking about the presuppositions we as Westerners and modern leaders bring into the text as we read about Paul’s thorn. Many scholars refuse to look at all the possibilities partly because of historical interpretation of the passage, and partly because of the refusal to look at historical possibilities.

Berding is open to any evidence from the time of Paul and shortly after, as well as looking at the idea of curses and anything else that Paul might have believed, as what he says in the text that Satan was involved. Our Western mindset did not allow us certain possibilities that the people of the Bible would have considered or known about.

He includes suggestions by others of when Paul’s thorn may have been. Some believe it was a pain or body ailment. They range from not wanting to hazard a guess to specific elements people may have proposed. Others suggest alternate theories from trials in ministry from human opponents to temptations of various kinds to demonic attacks and reminders of his persecution of the Church before his apostolic ministry. He also poses problems with the lists of various hypotheses.

The author takes us first through the historical cues that may help us understand what Paul was talking about. Paul says that this was something that came from Satan. The historical context, what a person of that time period would’ve understood as witchcraft. A curse may have been put on Paul. People of this ancient world believed in magic and curses. The author shares details about these beliefs.

Paul’s claim that “an angel of Satan” was attacking him would’ve also pointed to power encounters in the book of Acts. The author gives more detail to his power encounters in Acts. God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, and he could have been exposed to all manner of exorcists, witches, and other forces that could have placed curses on him. God could take any of these away by His power, unless his greater power in Paul’s suffering was by God’s will, thereby God allowing Paul to suffer it.

Paul speaks throughout his letters about angels and demons and spiritual warfare. Anyone, after looking at the evidence of how many times he refers to spiritual warfare, angels, and demons involved with his ministry or against it, cannot see the supernatural possibility as what Paul refers to. He specifically addresses whether God would allow a demon to attack Paul. He answers to theological questions: whether God would allow all to be a tent by a demon, and whether God would allow Paul to be attacked by a demon by the hand of a magician.

Next, the author shows the connections between Paul’s thorn in the flesh and the literary text of Job 1-2 he gives further accidents that Paul references Job and his affliction. Job does not only share literature connections but also conceptual concepts. He enumerates the connections between the two texts. There are connections between Job’s suffering in his bones and flesh, also what Paul was suffering. There is also a connection with stinging over stabbing with a sharp object. It’s amazing how many connections the author makes between Paul and Job.

Berding addresses the literary context of 1 Corinthians 12:7. He uses four concentric circles to evaluate the literary context of the sentence including Paul’s thorn. He deals with the words “thorn” and “flesh.” Then he deals with the “angel of Satan.” He sees Paul saying that he was punched in the face, and continually stabbed with a sharp object. He associates being slapped in the face as attached to the honor and shame culture of his day.

The author continues talking about literary clues to put Paul’s thorn in the flesh may have been. He discusses that this thorn was 14 years. It probably happened after Paul had revelations of the third have. Some of these details help us to narrow down what chronology of Paul’s thorn. He considers other literary criteria that may help narrow down what this the thorn in the flesh was.

He moves to consider Paul’s thorn in the flesh from the context of the larger discourse section (2 Corinthians 10-13). Paul describes his weakness through which the Lord promises to be strong. Many people thought Paul was weak, and this talks about the honor/shame culture of the Bible. He deals with the false apostles all labels “super apostles,” and the weaknesses they said he had. He also talks about his sufferings for Christ in ministry as weaknesses. He makes suggestions about how all the themes and words are connected throughout the letters.

The author continues to address the literary context of the book. The “super apostles” attacked Paul because of his weakness. Paul talked about having a weakness in his body and suffered humiliation and shame. He goes through the illusions in the text to Paul’s face. He speaks about the other possibilities raised by other scholars about Paul’s thorn not being physical.

He talks about how Paul’s suffering is like the suffering of Jesus in chapter 8. Paul identified himself with the suffering of Jesus. There are interesting parallels between Jesus’s suffering through piercing and facial abuse to Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Berding provides detailed explanations of how Paul might have seen his thorn in the flesh as part of Jesus’s suffering.

The author moves on in chapter 9 to address the evidence coming from the early church fathers. The first two church fathers say Paul’s thorn in the flesh relates to a physical condition. In an oral tradition culture, and being so close to Paul’s life, their testimony of what Paul’s thorn was is incredibly valid. He strings the evidence gathered from a couple of these early church fathers that Paul endured an actual bodily injury of some sort.

Next, Berding examines the evidence from the book of Galatians. He looks for clues between Galatian: 13-15 and 2 Corinthians 10-13. He finds some surprising connections. Paul specifically mentions that the Galatians would have given him there eyes. Many interpreters discount this because it was in the middle of an exclamation. But All the other clues he gives in the book, it is very much a possibility that it has to do with Paul’s illness. He also gives some comparisons in Galatians 3:1 and 6:17.

The author then considers arguments for Paul’s thorn in the flesh that do not match the context of the passage or make sense compared to some of the other evidences she is already considering. He goes on to apply the contexts he has listed throughout the book to come to a conclusion, or at least the number of conclusions that viably fit the language and context of 2 Corinthians 12.

In chapter 13, the author begins to pull all this research and reasoning together. His list of 20 criteria has been his roadmap through this book. Now he summarizes the list he has gone through so far. This detailed list of the criterion and how he has presented claims for all 20 criteria is a detailed summary. In chapter 13, he compares positions on what Paul’s thorn may have been. He produces a chart to compare these positions.

Chapter 14 gives the author the opportunity to guide the reader through the process of how to get to a partial solution on what Paul’s thorn might have been. He lists the physical and medical conditions Paul could have had. I am never seen such an approach to this age-old question. In chapter 15, the author presents a fuller portrait of Paul to gain further insight into Paul’s life. He holds this quick study of Paul to within the 20 criteria for discerning what his thorn in the flesh was.

I like that the author included direct quotations of papaya we and other original source material so you can read for yourself the research he has uncovered about these issues. No one would question the scholarship of this work. The author has gone to great pains to present the original text and translate it when necessary for the reader. These original documents help us to see the worldview of the Bible and what people believed was possible.

This is a fascinating look not only into the text of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, but into the culture around Paul and his times. We can gain clues from everything from the text itself to the rest of the Bible to extra biblical resources. I think Berding treated the subject of Paul’s thorn in the flesh with an extremely well-documented and contemplative approach. Like him, I believe we can know from these clues the probable suffering of Paul through this thorn. If you are interested in what Paul may have suffered, you need to read this book and see the study of Paul’s physical suffering.

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