Academic Discussion: Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

It’s been almost two years since we had a series of academic discussions. You can see all of those titles by clicking here. What do I mean by academic discussion? We can present evidence, share our logic and reasoning, but the position we take can be neither proven nor disproven. Such an exercise can hone our analytic or linguistic skills, but at a practical level there is little value if that’s the only type of discussion we are having. I will continue to spend most of my time and energy sharing the Gospel, offering apologetics and encouraging others, but occasionally…

Screenshot 2015-10-30 at 9.36.29 AMThe Apostle Paul refers to a thorn in his flesh in 2 Corinthians 12:7 that he credits with keeping him humble. There has been much debate and discussion as to what this particular thorn was, and even if we are capable of knowing. In the Tyndale New Testament Commentary on Galatians, R. Alan Cole states that there is “no real evidence” that Paul’s trouble had anything to do with his eyes. While there may be no real evidence I think that clues left by Paul combined with modern medical understanding point very convincingly to just such a conclusion.

In Galatians 4:15 Paul writes that he believes the Galatian Christians would have plucked out their own eyes and given them to him if it possible. Cole points out that in the Old and New Testament alike, the ability to see if one of the greatest gifts an individual could receive. This verse alone is not enough to suggests Paul infirmity was his eyesight. Agreed. But consider also if you will Galatians 6:11 – “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” The Authorized Version (King James) renders how large a letter I have written but the Galatian letter is rather short so the length of the letter cannot be the issue. Paul is literally saying he writes big letters. Cole dismisses the notion that Paul is losing his eyesight by pointing out that half-literate people also tend to write large letters and no one has accused Paul of being illiterate. I think that hurts the case he is trying to make. If Paul is not illiterate – which he certainly is not – then it stands to reason that he must be writing large letters for some other reason. I see Gal. 4:15 and 6:11 when taken together strong evidence for failing eyesight.

I have witnessed people suffer from an ailment known as macular degeneration. This usually happens later in life and is believed to be the result of UV exposure over many years. The retinal tissues literally break down and vision slowly blurs. The patient may never go blind but vision loss continues until there is no visual acuity left. Many over the years have conjectured the Paul suffered from chronic ophthalmia, which is an inflammation of the eye and surrounding tissues. Some even suggest his face was disfigured by it. Arguments for and against ophthalmia have been around for decades (or longer). We also know that Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus, and that when Ananias restored his sight “something like scales” fell from his eyes. Was Paul’s temporary blindness linked to a later gradual loss of eyesight? If so, I hope we can all agree this was God’s plan for Paul from the beginning. “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Acts 9:16

Paul does not say what his “thorn in the flesh” was that he ask God to take from him. It may have been a physical ailment, such as the eye conditions mentioned above, or some type of temptation. We also know that he was beaten, stoned, and on more than one occasion left for dead and the injuries he sustained could have had lasting effects.  Any of these issues, or another we haven’t thought of, could have led Paul to ask God for relief. Even if the thorn was something else, I believe he suffered from progressively failing vision. But now it’s your turn; I yield to comments.

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2 thoughts on “Academic Discussion: Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

  1. I have often wondered about Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’… Maybe we aren’t specifically told what it is, so that we can realize that whatever ‘thorn’ we might have, we can also accept, if God chooses to not remove it from our lives…. just a thought! Diane

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