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?

6 thoughts on “A New Ridiculous (or Ridiculously Convincing!) Theory about the Thorn in the Flesh

  1. Nijay, some years ago I floated the idea that the revelation of 2 Cor 12:2 was that of Paul’s conversion. The idea was not knew. Knox made the same suggestion but later abandoned it, because of the chronological difficulty, I think. I suspect the idea goes back a lot further still.

    Another counter-argument is that Paul’s conversion revelation would not be something that he would be reluctant to talk about.

  2. When I was very young and came across this section, I assumed something in the context rather than a complete mystery. That could obviously be wrong, but I don’t think it is wild to think of an event that happened over the course of three days and then ended historically to lack the influence that a “thorn” may have. In Paul’s thinking on Christ, that which was accomplished in three days on the cross and was historically complete has lasting transformational effect (hope that’s the right one) in the present.

    My immature assumption followed a similar course of thought in that I assumed the thorn in his flesh meant that he carried around the feeling of guilt of oppressing the Christians earlier. That guilt was not actual in the sense that God removed it, but it was something that constantly attacked his sense of calling and ministry. It was something other people could stab him with and became the thing he was always trying to get away from in this world and kept him humble. Not saying this is correct. I’m saying it isn’t unimaginable that Paul thought of the past as affecting his present in a very real way.

    I doubt this contributes much, but it was good to read and think alongside you for a moment.

  3. To touch on the third “problem”, while I’ve not studied it in depth, I always thought that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was his apparent eye problem that we see hinted at in Galatians 4:15.

    To go along with your proposal, what if his temporary blindness from the Damascus experience actually left him with long-term recurring eye problems, and those problems are the “thorn in the flesh”? This keeps him from ‘boasting’ in having a unique conversion experience as an Apostle. Instead of having an opportunity to boast in Jesus’s direct calling of him, he is constantly reminded to be humble because of his leftover eye issues..?

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