A New Ridiculous (or Ridiculously Convincing!) Theory about the Thorn in the Flesh

OK, I had my students write up a text-study assignment on 2 Corinthians and at the end of the paper they could raise questions they had about the letter. Almost every student asked about the “thorn in the flesh” (12:7).

Now, I have been pretty strongly convinced for several years that the theory that makes the most sense is that the “thorn” is not a physical malady, but rather Paul’s persecutors who pester him in his ministry. This has some support from the metaphorical use of the word “thorn” in the LXX. It also makes sense of the kinds of things Paul boasts about in 2 Cor 12:10 (“insults…persecutions…”)

So, my favored theory is that the “thorn” is his his pesky opponents.

But I had another thought recently – perhaps a bit more tenuous, but what are blogs for if not floating such theories?

Here goes:

What if Paul is referring to the “revelations” he received when he met Christ on the way to Damascus.

What if the “thorn” is his blindness he received after that?

What if this example is not an ongoing problem, but a temporary one. His prayer for release would have happened in those days of blindness. Christ originally denied his prayer to force him to place his dependence newly on the God revealed to him.

Here is why I think this theory might work.

(1) The “revelations” could be related to his own initial experience of Christ; if he appealed to this event in 2 Corinthians, it could give credibility to his ministry and authority (something to boast in). He could underwrite his weakness and authority simultaneously.

(2) This would make sense of his subsequent blindness (for humility); he may have felt during that time he was being tested by God in his blindness, feeling that this punishment is also from Satan who perhaps accused him in that time. The fact the he waited and fasted during his blindness, by analogy to Jesus in the Gospels, could mean that he sensed he was being tested and wanted to withstand Satan’s attacks.

(3) one could imagine Paul asking for relief from his blindness. Obviously Paul did not stay blind, but perhaps Christ allowed him this extended period of blindness to teach him a lesson about a weakness-ministry.

(4) If Paul learned this weakness-ministry lesson later than the damascus road encounter, we might have detected that in his earlier letters, but from 1 Thess on we see his cruciform message clearly (and it seems from Acts that he started his ministry knowing this as well). Thus, it appears to be something he learned very early on. Indeed, Luke recounts how God tells Ananias that God will reveal to Paul how much he will suffer for the gospel (9:16).

(5) Paul plays around with so many light/darkness themes in the letter (esp chs 3, 6, 11) that it would fit well into his argument. The whole letter is about “seeing” and how powerful it would be if he could leverage his own copernican revelation about sight and wisdom. Rhetorically, this could be very powerful. Certainly his “Damascus road” revelation was something everyone knew about Paul. Paul could be slyly introducing this pretending to be coy: “There is this ‘guy’ I know…and he saw this ‘vision’… (hint, hint)…”

Problems with this theory

(1) The timing is not right (more than 14 years before) – but perhaps 14 is not an exact number.

(2) It is not clear how his blindness would be perceived as a “thorn” or a “messenger of Satan” (though all medical theories have this problem)

(3) His blindness ended so soon, when did he pray for his healing, and if he was rather quickly relieved of it (3 days), how much of a lasting lesson would it be? My theory works if he prays “three times” on the first day (being led by hand to Damascus) and he is told “no” that same day. Thus, he has two more days to “accept” his fate. By then he has “learned his lesson” and his sight can be restored. However, almost all theories about the thorn read it as a chronic problem. This is not absolutely necessary, but makes a lot of sense.

What do you think? Is it possible as a theory? Does it fit well into the wider shape of the letter? Have you heard anyone else ‘float’ this idea?

The Unbelievers, the unfaithful, and the Infidels (and 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1)

This post is about the unbelievers, unfaithful, and the infidels – no it is not about Chris Tilling or Peter Enns or James McGrath. It is about 2 Corinthians.

I think there is a serious mistake that is regularly made when interpreters approach 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 and the issue of being “unequally yoked” with “unbelievers.” Both scholars as well as my own students note how bizarre it is that Paul switches subjects all of a sudden, moving away from his conflict with the Corinthians and turns to a brief excursus on how to live in a pagan world. Now the very scholarly thing to do is get out your scissors and cut out 6:14-7:1 and say, “Clever Qumranist, how did he get that in there?” Or “maybe it is from 1 Corinthians originally?” Or “maybe it is from fragment “c.2″ of Paul’s yet-undiscovered letter to the Philadelphians?”

Nonsense! I am one of “those” people who still believe it should be the best practice to start with the letter as is and see if we can make any sense of it (yes, I am one of those fundamentalist anglo-methodists, guilty as charged).

Here is what I think is going on in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1. The whole letter has in the “background” the half-truths and baseless accusations of subversive false apostles that have made some headway in convincing the Corinthians that Paul is untrustworthy. In fact, they accuse him of undermining Torah, God’s gift of wisdom to the world (2 Cor 3 is Paul’s response). Undoubtedly these false apostles could have made the argument that Paul is “unfaithful” (ἀπιστος) to God and God’s long-used method of revelation. “If it was good enough for Moses, it is good enough for us! Do you think Paul knows something that Moses didn’t?” They could have accused Paul of being “dark” and secretive – they did, in fact, make this case (hence all the talk about the “veiled” ministry; 4:3). They could have associated Paul with Belial (an easy accusation to throw around on any occasion), and with idols (since he gets cosy with pagans so often, and doesn’t teach them Torah).

What Paul does, cleverly (but perhaps too cleverly since so many people think Paul didn’t even write it!), is “turn the tables” on the false apostles. If the false apostles say, “Hey Corinthians, don’t associate yourself with what is unfaithful, dark, evil, and idolatrous” (implying Paul is all of these), Paul follows up with: “Yes, I agree. Keep away from such things. And, in fact, those false apostles are unfaithful (to God because they don’t trust Christ and his way of life enough), they are darkness (because they are spreading deceptive lies, and they are “in the dark” about the true wisdom of God in the ministry of the new covenant), they are aligned with Belial (because he parades around pretending to be an angel of light, which they are doing as well since they act all innocent when they are trying to overthrow my Christ-shaped ministry), and they are the idolaters (for whoever doesn’t accept that the treasure is hidden in a mere jar of clay, but prefers a perfect outward appearance, is essentially affirming the desires of idol worshippers who want a visible “pretty” god and cannot see the truth of the invisible God).”

The “unbelievers” that Paul wants the Corinthians to be separate from is not regular old pagans (that message comes across clear enough in 1 Corinthians), but the false apostles. This interpretation helps one to see that 6:14-7:1 is not an unusual side-topic, but perhaps even a gravitational center of the letter. It reminds us that our most powerful enemies could be those who only have half the ideas right – and most problematically get the most important half wrong!

Consider the use of the term “infidel” throughout religious history. It means “one without faith,” but it can easily be used of “heretics” in the sense that one inner-group treats another self-professing inner-group as apostate. We so naturally associate the ἀπιστοι with garden-variety pagans that we miss a very natural use of the term – “those who lack true commitment to God.” This can be used of backsliding insiders. This is the legacy of the Israelite prophets who regularly accused the covenantal people of infidelity. Indeed, this is what Jesus does to his people (as prophet of God), when he says “O faithless generation (γενεα ἀπιστος); how long am I to be with you?” (Mark 9:19).

So, next time you think to yourself, O dear, what do I do with this interpolated fragment in 2 Corinthians  – first, hit yourself over the head with a mallet. Then read the Greek text carefully in context. Ask yourself, is there a reasonable contextual reason why he is using these words (ask yourself what the claims are of the false apostles; see 2 Cor 11:22)? If you haven’t learned Greek yet, hit yourself over the head with a mallet again and then start researching good Greek courses.

The lesson is now finished. Place ice-pack on head.

[Sorry about the rant in blogpost form; I am getting tired of the overly-creative “who-wrote-this-fragment-and-how-did-it-get-here” theories in commentaries on 2 Corinthians]

New Commentary on John

For all of you Fourth Gospel-lovers out there, I am pleased to inform you that the “New Covenant” commentary series’ latest installment is on the Gospel of John, authored by Jey Kanagaraj. I had the pleasure of meeting Jey at SBL last year in the Johannine Lit section. Without even knowing he would be there, I ended up quoting his monograph in my own paper in that section. He has done fine work on John, and I expect his commentary to be very insightful.

Mike Bird, one of the series editors, has a little interview with Jey about his commentary (here).

Given this is a shorter kind of commentary (as per the series as a whole), I think this kind of book would work well for an “advanced” Bible study or adult sunday school.