What Was Paul’s Thorn In the Flesh?

2 Corinthians 12 verses 7-10 have been the cause of many debates throughout the history of religious scholarship. I’ve come across instances where speculation has gone beyond innocent or harmless solutions into something more apologetic in nature. Let’s take a look at this dividing passage.

It isn’t uncommon for believers or non-believers to have a varying interpretation of a particular passage of Scripture. Whether we arrive at a certain interpretation by relating the verse with our personal walk, by executing sound exegesis, or by fitting it into a dogma, every view must be met with some skepticism until further proven. One of the most notorious examples is Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” recorded in 2 Corinthians 12:7. My personal interpretation related this verse to sin or temptation, but a more thorough reading has uncovered a different interpretation that is far more supported by the text. Furthermore, skeptics have used this passage to claim that Paul’s visions on Damascus were a product of “mental illness.”

Our first step is to examine the passage at hand. 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 is the entirety, but I’ll highlight the verses that concern us most.

“And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”

Some interpreters, such as Joseph Klausner and Sir William M. Ramsay believe Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was a physical impediment or illness. It isn’t difficult to see how this may be so, considering the word Paul uses here (skolops) can mean both a “thorn” or a “stake.” In other words, it’s a sign that was outward, not inward. Thus neither sin or temptation are sufficient descriptors for they could not be “given” to him to keep him from exalting himself. However, interpreting this verse as a physical injury or disease must address a few problems found in the text. These problems are highlighted by James Coffman’s commentary on 2nd Corinthians.

  1. Any crippling or disabling bodily ailment simply does not conform to the amazing strength and endurance of the matchless apostle…..

  2. “In the flesh” as used in this verse would almost surely indicate a bodily infirmity; but Hughes declares the word to be “for the flesh,” thus leaving the question open. Paul thus avoided words which would have implied bodily sickness. The meaning appears to be “a thorn in the flesh for the duration of Paul’s fleshly life.”

  3. Paul described the thorn as “a messenger of Satan,” which can be nothing but personal in its import; and because the Canaanites were called “thorns in the sides” of the Israelites (Numbers 33:55), there is strong evidence here that Paul referred to bitter and relentless enemies of the gospel, doing the work of Satan; and that is a perfect description of the hardened secular Israelites who engaged in every device that hell could suggest in their godless and persistent opposition to Paul throughout every moment of his apostleship.

  4. In Thessalonians there is a probable reference to the thorn in the flesh, wherein Paul said, “Satan hindered me” (1 Thessalonians 2:18); and a reference to the occasion of that remark (Acts 17:9) indicates that the Jewish opposition had contrived (through Paul’s friends) an agreement that prevented his return…..

With these points in mind, it becomes far more reasonable to interpret Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” as outward opposition to the Gospel he is trying to preach. This explains Paul’s humiliation and lack of faith in saving the Israelites (Acts 22:18-19), a people he loved so much that he would have laid down his life for them (Romans 9:3-4), and the trials Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 12:10. In every town he traveled to he was rejected, despised, scorned, mocked, persecuted and imprisoned.

Out of each interpretation I’ve seen, the most supported conclusion is that of Israel’s rejection of the Gospel. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was a sign of Paul’s anguish for the people he loved dearly and his inability to reach them. Yet, God replies that His grace is sufficient and that His power is made perfect in weakness. Paul turns his weakness into a positive by realizing that it is Christ’s power that saves and not Paul’s strength or his ability to reach the lost.