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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.

(2 Corinthians 12:7, KJV, emphasis added)

There has been much discussion and debate over what Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was. However, I have never seen it suggested, even by literalists, that it may have been a literal σκόλοψ (the word translated "thorn"). This word is defined by Thayer's lexicon as:

  1. a pointed piece of wood, a pale, a stake
  2. a sharp stake, splinter

Thus, it could refer to something significantly larger than what we would describe as a "thorn" in English.

I'm not entirely familiar with the capabilities of medical practitioners of the first century, but it seems possible that there could be a literal σκόλοψ that could not safely be removed from a person's body. A literal reading of 2 Corinthians 12:7 would indicate that it was an actual σκόλοψ. Is there a reason why a literal interpretation of σκολοψ τη σαρκι ("thorn in the flesh") is not a tenable position?

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  • If it were a literal thorn, Paul would simply remove it!! What evidence is there that any such literal thorn could not be removed??
    – Dottard
    Dec 29, 2023 at 3:15
  • @Dottard σκόλοψ can refer to something larger than what we would consider a "thorn." I edited the question.
    – Someone
    Dec 29, 2023 at 3:22

3 Answers 3

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A literal thorn is not likely something God would provide to keep Paul from boasting; nor would it be a messenger of Satan would use related to that. It's much more likely that the thorn symbolizes some embarrassing spiritual weakness or an illness that people associated with evil spirits. I think the latter explanation is more probable since so many illnesses were thought to be connected to demonic influence. One thinks of Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna in Luke 8:3. Paul himself may have felt that his illness (mental or physical) was a messenger of Satan, if the illness involved fainting or seizures.

If the OP imagines an infection that caused Paul to limp or to show signs of pain in his side, one has to question how this would prevent him from boasting of his spiritual experiences. He could easily appeal, for example, to the patriarch Jacob, who had a pronounced lifelong limp as a result of his encounter with an angel. But if he exhibited signs of a disease that people (rightly or wrongly) associated with evil spirits, this would indeed prevent him from boasting too much of his spirituality.

Nevertheless, a long-term infection from a literal thorn can't be ruled out entirely.

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  • I agree with this and have upvoted it. +1. I have always thought, based on 2 Cor 1 and Paul's suicidal comments, that he may have suffered bouts of depression brought on by extreme difficulties of life (persecution).
    – Dottard
    Dec 29, 2023 at 3:53
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In another place Paul talks about ‘his trial in his flesh’ which could be the “thorn in the flesh”:

“But you know that because of weakness of the flesh, I announced the gospel to you before; and you did not despise my trial in my flesh nor disdained it, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What then was your blessedness?” (Gal 4:13-15).

Then he goes on to explain what that “weakness of the flesh”, “trial of the flesh” or “thorn in the flesh” is, immediately after:

“For I testify to you that if you were able, plucking out your eyes, you would have given them to me” (verse 15).

It seems Paul was suffering terribly from poor eye sight. For a person who was given to much study and meditation of the holy Scriptures, it is terrible to be suffering from poor eye sight!

He had real trouble in writing his epistles also:

“See what big letters I make as I write to you now with my own hand!” (Gal 6:11).

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  • @ Nephesh Roi. Seriously speaking would not Ruwach Roi be more accurate.
    – RHPclass79
    Dec 29, 2023 at 21:05
  • @RHPclass79 – Pleasantly surprised that you noticed it! Doesn’t ‘Ruach Roi’ mean ‘Spirit who sees’? Dec 30, 2023 at 5:32
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    @ Nephesh Roi. I was merely calling attention to your interesting screen name. Best of my memory the three Hebrew words for spirit were Ruwach, nephesh, and ehay corresponding to pneuma, psuche, and zoe in the Greek. The words have a descending order so to speak. Even plants have Zoe or ehay but animal and human life would have psuche or Nephesh. The highest level of Ruwach would correspond to a sentioned being. This spell check is killing me here. It constantly changes my words, because it thinks I am mispelling English. It also capitalizes some that I would not.
    – RHPclass79
    Dec 30, 2023 at 6:25
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    In response to your direct question, I think Nephesh or Ruwach with Roi would translate to spirit sight. That is why I say let those that have eyes to see and hears to hear understand.
    – RHPclass79
    Dec 30, 2023 at 6:45
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As a young boy, I often heard the phrase, "You are a thorn in my flesh" used by many adults. We know that it is a metaphor for continual annoyance or trouble from an individual. This is similar to the phrase, "Pain in my butt". In the Gospel of John 10:10 KJV it states,

"The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly".

We can see the contrast between Jesus and Satan. Jesus came to give and Satan came to take, at all cost. In summary, the 'Steal, kill & destroy" objective is to make something or someone ineffective or useless to operate as it was designed or created for. This is a thorn.

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