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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Thorn in the Flesh

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(σκόλοψ τῇ σαρκί ), an infliction ("a messenger of Satan to buffet me" ) mentioned by Paul as an offset to his extraordinary revelations (2 Corinthians 12:7). The expression has called forth very many, and some very absurd, conjectures (see the commentators, ad loc.), which may be resolved into the following heads, the first two of which are, from the nature of the case, out of the question:

1. Spiritual Temptations. Many have thought that the apostle refers to diabolical solicitations ("interjectiones Satanse"), such as blasphemous thoughts (so Gerson, Luther, Calovius), or remorse for his former life (Osiander, Mosheim, etc.), or-according to Romish interpreters who seek a precedent for monkish legends incitements to lust (so Thomas Aquinas, Lyra, Bellarmine, Estius, Corn. a Lapide, etc.). These are all negatived, not only by their intrinsic improbability, but by the qualification "in the flesh."

2. Personal Hostility. This we know Paul frequently experienced, especially from Judaizing sectaries, and hence this explanation has been seized upon by many ancient interpreters (e.g. Chrysostom, Theophylact, (Ecumenius, Theodoret), as well as later ones (Calvin, Beza, etc.) and moderns (Fritzsche, Schrader, etc.). But this, too, could hardly with propriety be called a "fleshly" affliction.

3. Bodily Pain. This view has been adopted by very many, who differ, however, as to the particular ailment. The ancients (Chrysostom, Theophylact, AEcumenius, Jerome, on Galatians 4:14) mention headache, but without assigning any special ground for the conjecture. Some have supposed hypochondriacal melancholy, which, however hardly answers the conditions of a σκόλοψ, whereby acute suffering seems to be implied. So of other speculations, for which see Poll Synopsis, ad loc.

On the whole (remarks Alford, ad loc.), putting together the figure here used, that of a thorn (or a pointed stake, for so σκόλοψ primarily signifies see Xenoph. Anab. 5, 2, 5]), occasioning pain, and the κολαφισμός, or buffeting (i.e. perhaps putting to shame), it seems quite necessary to infer that the apostle alludes to some distressing and tedious bodily malady, which at the same time caused him mortification before those among whom he exercised his ministry. Of such a kind may have been the disorder in his eyes, more or less indicated in several passages of his history (see Acts 13:9; Acts 23:1 sq.; Galatians 4:14; Galatians 6:11). But as affections of the eyes, however sad in their consequences, are not usually (certainly not to all appearance in the apostle's case) very painful or distressing in themselves, they hardly come up to the intense meaning of the phrase. Paul was therefore probably troubled with some internal disease of which the marks were evinced only in languor and physical anguish. There are few who do not thus "bear about in their body" some token of mortal frailty.

See, in addition to the monographs cited by Volbeding, Index Programmatum, p. 81; and by Danz, Wourerb. p. 567, Bagot, Thorn in the Flesh (Lond. 1840); Princeton Review, July, 1863. (See PAUL).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Thorn in the Flesh'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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