What was Paul’s “Thorn in the Flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7)?

Paul’s thorn in the flesh was some sort of unusual, long-term, intermittent, stabbing, face pain that was viewed by others as shameful and the result of black magic attacks, but by Paul as attacks of a demon permitted by God.

This is the conclusion of my newly-released book focused on answering one of the most famous of all historical puzzles. Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh: New Clues for an Old Problem is the first ever book-length study dedicated to untangling the historical conundrum of what Paul’s thorn in the flesh actually was.

The study centers upon twenty criteria that narrow the options for what Paul’s “thorn” could have been. Most studies mention three or four criteria—a few of the best mention five or six—and then hazard guesses based upon such limited criteria. But if there is reasonable justification for affirming twenty criteria, this significantly narrows the possible range of ailments from which Paul could have suffered.

In the book, I propose and provide detailed arguments that the following twenty criteria are necessary for establishing a plausible solution to the riddle of Paul’s thorn in the flesh:

  1. Viewed by others as black-magic attacks
  2. Viewed by Paul as attacks by an angel of Satan, though permitted by God
  3. Paralleling Job’s sufferings (especially Job 1-2), which included skin/flesh
  4. Impacting Paul’s physical flesh
  5. Comparable to the jabbing of a sharp-pointed object
  6. Excruciating, not simply annoying
  7. Impacting Paul’s face (as a part of his head)
  8. Viewed by Paul as educational discipline by God
  9. Viewed by others as humiliating and weak
  10. Unusual, not like the pains of others
  11. Long-term, but intermittent
  12. Paralleling the sufferings of Jesus
  13. Exacerbated by stress
  14. Negatively impacting Paul’s rhetorical ability
  15. Known to the Corinthians, not a secret
  16. Analogous to Paul’s other sufferings
  17. Connected to the heavenly ascent
  18. Involving the ear
  19. Involving the eye
  20. Visible bodily damage

Any proposed solution to the historical puzzle of Paul’s thorn in the flesh must attempt to account for these twenty criteria.

Are there any physical ailments that fit these twenty criteria? Yes, I mention in the book seven medical conditions that correspond well to all twenty of these criteria. Here are those conditions (listed here without explanation).

  1. Trigeminal Neuralgia Type 1
  2. Posttraumatic Trigeminal Neuropathic Pain
  3. Herpes Zoster (Shingles) in the Trigeminal Nerve + Post-herpetic Trigeminal Neuropathic Pain
  4. Short-lasting Unilateral Neuralgiform Headache Attacks
  5. Episodic Paroxysmal Hemicrania
  6. Episodic Cluster Headaches
  7. Primary Stabbing Headaches, or Migraines with Primary Stabbing Headaches

The primary carrier of the pain associated with most of these conditions is the trigeminal nerve (the fifth cranial nerve, the largest of the twelve cranial nerves), although connected nerves are also often involved.

Are you interested in seeing how I develop the argument? For that, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the book: Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh: New Clues for an Old Problem. I hope you enjoy it!

Image by Ana Berding. Used with permission.

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