Scriptural speculation: What was the thorn in St. Paul’s flesh?


“So I might not be too full of myself, a thorn for the flesh was given me, a Satan angel, in order that he might beat me.”
(2 Corinthians 12:7, literal translation.)

For hundreds of years, thinkers have been sweating over what St. Paul (feast day June 30) meant by the thorn. Probably, though, they should have been wondering who he meant by the angel.

We always want more dirt on Paul -- not only because he infected half the post-crucifixion world with his own vision of the Christian message, but because he was a fascinating character, a crazy MF. (“I am talking like an insane person,” he says, half a chapter before the thorn comment.)

So people get the idea that the thorn passage will give insight into Paul’s emotional or physical dispostion. Some think the thorn meant he had to overcome issues of anger or arrogance. Because of other passages in which Paul collapses or falls into trances, others understand the thorn as epilepsy.

One good guess, since Paul elsewhere hints of eye problems, is that that the thorn was a chronic ocular infection; the “ops” component of the Greek word for thorn, skolops (cf. Cyclops, optician) comes from the root for seeing. On the other hand, it occurred to me that the “skol” component of skolops (from which we derive scoliosis) means curved; one ancient source depicts Paul as bowlegged, and skelos, pulled from the same root, means leg. For a man who walked as much as Paul, bowleggedness would have been a thorn indeed; others have suggested the affliction was sciatica.

On the moral front, the synonyms “thorn” and “prick” give rise to obvious speculations. Or here’s another notion of mine: Paul urged “a little wine for your stomach’s sake” and also, near Corinth (the thorn passage comes from an epistle to the Corinthians), shaved his head upon concluding his participation in the Nazirite oath, which required that he abstain from wine among other things. The oath’s further prohibition against cutting hair -- exemplified by hair as a source of Samson’s strength -- also fits in with Paul emphasizing his “weakness” in the same Chapter 12. During his all-night gabfests (cf. Acts 20:7-11), was Paul known to partake too freely of the vine?

* * *

But really. This all oblique stuff. Paul’s readers at the time (c. 57 AD) knew exactly what he was talking about, and the context of 2 Corinthians leads me to throw in with those who say the thorn was a person.

“A thorn for the flesh was given to me, a Satan angel, in order that he might beat me.” The Greek “beat” verb permits a translation of either “it [the thorn] might beat me” or “he [the angel] might beat me.” The verb means to strike with a fist. While a thorn could in no way strike with a fist, an angel (messenger) might, literally or figuratively.

What seems to have happened, in modern terms, is that somebody whupped Paul’s butt -- in rhetorical dispute, that is. The defeat resulted in a dimunition of the Corinthians’ esteem of Paul and a corresponding pain in his ass, a.k.a. his flesh. So now the Corinthian Christians were running after the teachings of the victorious “superapostles,” whom Paul calls “false apostles.”

My guess is that the superdebater who embarrassed Paul -- the erstwhile Saul was a Jew from Tarsus self-admittedly “untrained in speaking” (2 Corinthians 11:6) -- was a Gnostic. The Gnostic branches of Christianity tended to propose a rigorous neoplatonic course of personal enlightenment through meditation and reason rather than the more populist path Paul endorsed, “Accept Jesus as your savior and you’re in.” Despite steady efforts to stamp it out, especially during Christianity’s worldly ascendancy post-Constantine, Gnosticism remained a thorn in the side of “orthodoxy” for hundreds of years.

In 2 Corinthians 11:14, earlier in the same discourse that contains the thorn passage, Paul drops a hint about his rival that would have been unmistakable to his audience: “Even Satan masquerades as an angel of light.” Light was the Gnostics’ big thing -- particles of light from the original divine source were supposed to reside in many or all human beings, and the initiate’s task was to reunite the light with the source. This was different from the light that Paul and later the Gospel of John preached; though Gnostic ideas predated Christianity, and though Christianity itself drew foundational myths from unacknowledged Egyptian and Orphic sources, Paul was not prepared to cede ground to thinkers who put insufficient stock in his successful formula of simple faith.

But Paul was weak, at least in debate with the man whose identity he reinforces by calling him again in 12:7 a “Satan angel.” The great virtue of Paul, though, is that he never gives up. In fact, after begging the Lord three times that the thorn (i.e. the rival) might leave him, he brags desperately about his “insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints.” After all, the Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Which is a rather heavy truth.