Thorn in the flesh

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Thorn in the flesh is a phrase of New Testament origin used to describe a chronic infirmity, annoyance, or trouble in one's life, drawn from Paul the Apostle's use of the phrase in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians 12:7–9: [1]

New Testament Second division of the Christian biblical canon

The New Testament is the second part of the Christian biblical canon, the first part being the Old Testament, based on the Hebrew Bible. The New Testament discusses the teachings and person of Jesus, as well as events in first-century Christianity. Christians regard both the Old and New Testaments together as sacred scripture. The New Testament has frequently accompanied the spread of Christianity around the world. It reflects and serves as a source for Christian theology and morality. Extended readings and phrases directly from the New Testament are incorporated into the various Christian liturgies. The New Testament has influenced religious, philosophical, and political movements in Christendom and left an indelible mark on literature, art, and music.

Paul the Apostle Early Christian apostle and missionary

Paul the Apostle, commonly known as Saint Paul and also known by his Jewish name Saul of Tarsus, was an apostle who taught the gospel of Christ to the first-century world. Paul is generally considered one of the most important figures of the Apostolic Age and in the mid-30s to the mid-50s AD he founded several churches in Asia Minor and Europe. He took advantage of his status as both a Jew and a Roman citizen to minister to both Jewish and Roman audiences.

Second Epistle to the Corinthians book of the Bible

The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, often written as 2nd Corinthians, is a Pauline epistle and the eighth book of the New Testament of the Bible. Paul the Apostle and "Timothy our brother" wrote this epistle to "the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints which are in all Achaia".


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. 8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9 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. (KJV)

Other biblical passages where "thorn" is used as a metaphor are: [2]

Hebrew Bible Canon of the Hebrew Bible.

The Hebrew Bible, also called the Tanakh or Mikra, is the canonical collection of Jewish texts, which is also the textual source for the Christian Old Testament. These texts are composed mainly in Biblical Hebrew, with some passages in Biblical Aramaic. The form of this text that is authoritative for Rabbinic Judaism is known as the Masoretic Text (MT), and is divided into 24 books, while the Protestant Bible translations divide the same material into 39 books.

Metaphor Figure of speech

A metaphor is a figure of speech that, for rhetorical effect, directly refers to one thing by mentioning another. It may provide clarity or identify hidden similarities between two ideas. Antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy and simile are all types of metaphor. One of the most commonly cited examples of a metaphor in English literature is the "All the world's a stage" monologue from As You Like It:

Know for a certainty that the LORD your God will no more drive out [any of] these nations from before you; but they shall be snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until ye perish from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you.
Joshua 23:13
And there shall be no more a pricking briar unto the house of Israel, nor [any] grieving thorn of all [that are] round about them, that despised them; and they shall know that I [am] the Lord GOD.
Ezekiel 28:24

The standard English translation was popularised by the 1611 King James Version of the Bible. [3] Among earlier translations, the 1526 Tyndale Bible uses "vnquyetnes" ("unquietness") rather than "thorn," and the 1557 Geneva Bible refers to a "pricke in the fleshe." [4]

King James Version version of the Bible

The King James Version (KJV), also known as the King James Bible (KJB) or simply the Authorized Version (AV), is an English translation of the Christian Bible for the Church of England, begun in 1604 and completed as well as published in 1611 under the sponsorship of King James I of England. The books of the King James Version include the 39 books of the Old Testament, an intertestamental section containing 14 books of the Apocrypha, and the 27 books of the New Testament. The translation is noted for its "majesty of style", and has been described as one of the most important books in English culture and a driving force in the shaping of the English-speaking world.

Tyndale Bible first English-language mass-printed New Testament, 1520s–30s

The Tyndale Bible generally refers to the body of biblical translations by William Tyndale. Tyndale's Bible is credited with being the first English translation to work directly from Hebrew and Greek texts. Furthermore, it was the first English biblical translation that was mass-produced as a result of new advances in the art of printing.

Geneva Bible English translation of the Bible

The Geneva Bible is one of the most historically significant translations of the Bible into English, preceding the King James Version by 51 years. It was the primary Bible of 16th-century English Protestantism and was used by William Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, John Knox, John Donne, and John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim's Progress (1678). It was one of the Bibles taken to America on the Mayflower. The Geneva Bible was used by many English Dissenters, and it was still respected by Oliver Cromwell's soldiers at the time of the English Civil War, in the booklet "Cromwell's Soldiers' Pocket Bible".

Biblical meaning

Paul mentions what the "thorn in his flesh" was in II Corinthians 12: 6-7 when he said (Verse 6) "...lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me. (Verse 7) And lest I should be exalted above measure through 'the abundance of revelations,' there was given to me 'a thorn in the flesh'..." from "the abundance of revelations" and how people perceived him or " should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me."

Paul does not specify the nature of his "thorn," and his other epistles do not directly address the topic. Throughout church history, there has been a significant amount of speculation about what Paul was referring to, although scholars such as Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, F. F. Bruce and Ralph P. Martin conclude that definite identification of the thorn is impossible with the evidence available. [5] [6] [7]

Philip Edgcumbe Hughes American journal editor

Philip Edgcumbe Hughes (1915–1990) was an Anglican clergyman and New Testament scholar whose life spanned four continents: Australia, where he was born; South Africa, where he spent his formative years; England, where he was ordained; and the United States, where he died in 1990, aged 75.

F. F. Bruce Scottish biblical scholar

Frederick Fyvie Bruce, usually cited as F. F. Bruce, was a biblical scholar who supported the historical reliability of the New Testament. His first book, New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (1943), was voted by the American evangelical periodical Christianity Today in 2006 as one of the top 50 books "which had shaped evangelicals".

Ralph Philip Martin was a British New Testament scholar.

The "thorn" is most commonly interpreted as a reference to some form of serious physical infirmity that hindered his work. [8] This is also the earliest known Christian interpretation, mentioned in the early third century in Tertullian's On Modesty , where it is understood as a reference to ear or head pain. [9] One proposal is that Paul's ailment was a defect of sight, acute ophthalmia, possibly caused by the dazzling light at his conversion. This interpretation is partly based on Paul's reference to a weakness of the flesh in Galatians 4:13-14, for which the Galatians would have been willing to pluck out their eyes to give to him. It is also argued that this would account for Paul's large handwriting (Gal 6:11), his failure to recognise the high priest in Acts 23:5, and his tendency to use an amanuensis. [10] Other proposed ailments include epilepsy and malarial fever.

Tertullian Christian theologian

Tertullian was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. Of Berber origin, he was the first Christian author to produce an extensive corpus of Latin Christian literature. He also was an early Christian apologist and a polemicist against heresy, including contemporary Christian Gnosticism. Tertullian has been called "the father of Latin Christianity" and "the founder of Western theology."

Ophthalmia is inflammation of the eye. It is a medical sign which may be indicative of various conditions, including sympathetic ophthalmia, gonococcal ophthalmia, trachoma or "Egyptian" ophthalmia, ophthalmia neonatorum, photophthalmia and actinic conjunctivitis, and others.

Amanuensis person employed to write or type what another dictates or to copy what has been written by another

An amanuensis is a person employed to write or type what another dictates or to copy what has been written by another, and also refers to a person who signs a document on behalf of another under the latter's authority.

Alternatively, the thorn has been seen as a physical impediment that made Paul the object of ridicule, without necessarily making him physically weak. Peter Marshall suggests a "social debilitating disease or disfigurement" that would undermine his visionary claims. [11] Others propose a speech impediment, which might explain the Corinthian accusation that he was forceful in writing but unimpressive in person (2 Cor 10:9-11). [12]

Other interpretations include:

  1. One interpretation is that the thorn describes the persecutions and unfortunate accidents that characterized Paul's life after his conversion to Christianity; as laid out in the preceding chapter 11 of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. [13]
  2. Some Roman Catholic writers think that it denotes suggestions to impiety. [10]
  3. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Reformers interpret the expression as denoting temptation to unbelief. [10]
  4. Another view which has been maintained is that this "thorn" consisted in an infirmity of temperament, to which he occasionally gave way, and which interfered with his success (comp. Acts 15:39; 23:2-5). If we consider the fact, "which the experience of God's saints in all ages has conclusively established, of the difficulty of subduing an infirmity of temper, as well as the pain, remorse, and humiliation such an infirmity is wont to cause to those who groan under it, we may be inclined to believe that not the least probable hypothesis concerning the 'thorn' or 'stake' in the flesh is that the loving heart of the apostle bewailed as his sorest trial the misfortune that, by impatience in word, he had often wounded those for whom he would willingly have given his life" (Lias's Second Cor., Introd.). [10]
  5. Paul's agony over Jewish rejection of the gospel
  6. A reference of Paul's opponents

Modern usage

The phrase "thorn in the flesh" continues to be used as a metaphor for "a source of continual annoyance or trouble." [14] It is synonymous with the phrase "thorn in the side," which is also of biblical origin, based on the description in Numbers 33:55. [14] As an example usage, the Oxford English Dictionary cites E. M. Forster's 1924 novel A Passage to India, in which Nawab Bahadur says, "I can be a thorn in Mr. Turton's flesh, and if he asks me I accept the invitation." [15]

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  1. 2 Corinthians 12:7–9 multi-version compare
  2. Ezekiel 28:24 Joshua 23:13
  3. Crystal, David (2011). The Story of English in 100 Words. Profile Books. p. 118. ISBN   9781847654595.
  4. "Thorn, n". OED Online. Oxford University Press. January 2018. Retrieved February 20, 2018.
  5. Hughes, Philip E. (1962). The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. p. 442. ISBN   0-8028-2186-3.
  6. Martin, Ralph P. (2014). 2 Corinthians. WBC. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan. p. 611. ISBN   9780310520245.
  7. Bruce, Frederick F. (2000). Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. p. 135.
  8. Martin, Ralph P. (2014). 2 Corinthians. WBC. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan. p. 609. ISBN   9780310520245.
  9. Martin, Ralph P. (2014). 2 Corinthians. WBC. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan. pp. 607–608. ISBN   9780310520245.
  10. 1 2 3 4 Easton, Matthew George (1897). "Thorn in the flesh". Easton's Bible Dictionary (New and revised ed.). T. Nelson and Sons.
  11. Marshall, Peter (1983). "A Metaphor of Social Shame: Thriambeuein in 2 Cor. 2.14". Novum Testamentum. 25: 315–316.
  12. Clarke, William Kemp Lowther (1929). New Testament Problems. London: SPCK. pp. 136–140.
  13. 2Cor.12:7 Parallel Commentaries
  14. 1 2 Cresswell, Julia, ed. (2010). "Thorn". Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 444. ISBN   9780199547937.
  15. "Thorn, n". OED Online. Oxford University Press. January 2018. Retrieved February 20, 2018.