The topic of Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7) is, on the one hand, like a puzzle to be solved — what could have caused Paul such agony? — and, on the other hand, the source of a powerful spiritual lesson — “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Perhaps the combination of its mystery and profundity is why the riddle of Paul’s thorn has been attended by keen interest by some, but profound skepticism by others. Since presuppositions have played a significant role in how interpreters have historically approached this interpretive problem, let me highlight how one presupposition — the presupposition that this historical puzzle is unresolvable — has impacted the study of Paul’s thorn in the flesh.

A key factor in interpreting texts, ancient or otherwise, is the recognition that every interpreter floats or sinks in a personal pool of presuppositions. A presupposition is “any preconception of reality that is part of our thinking as we come to interpret the Bible.” [1] All people wade their way through life with individual presuppositions, whether or not they recognize and acknowledge their presence. Presuppositions impact the way we view the world around us, including texts. Thomas Kuhn, in his celebrated book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, comments, “What a man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him to see.” [2] It is beneficial, even necessary, to become aware of one’s assumptions, biases and proclivities in interpretation. Awareness of one’s presuppositions can actually help someone “float” when approaching the task of interpretation. To carry forward the analogy, people “sink” into their presuppositional pools when presuppositions become prejudices. [3] The current interpretive climate vis-à-vis Paul’s thorn in the flesh can best be described as unreceptive, even antagonistic. As a historical puzzle, it is habitually deemed unsolvable. Possibly more than any other biblical problem I have encountered, scholars are discouraged from attempting to further the conversation on Paul’s thorn in the flesh (that is, unless they need to say something about it in a commentary they have agreed to write). This might be why, heretofore, there has been no scholarly book-length study written on this topic, only an occasional article or portion of a commentary that introduces a handful of relevant observations followed by a possible solution.

Is it worth even trying to identify what Paul referred to as a “thorn in the flesh” (skolops tē sarki)? Many interpreters view this historical difficulty as intractable. A profound pattern of bias emerges when we pull together comments from biblical interpreters who have given thought to this question. Here is a sampling of such comments:

Alfred Plummer writes: “But nothing approaching to proof is possible, and of the numerous conjectures as to what the form of this suffering was, one may be true of the σκόλοψ [thorn], while something quite different may be true of the ἀσθενεία [weakness]. Unfortunately, we have to confess that in neither case can we be at all certain as to what is true … When all the arguments for and against these and other guesses have been considered, the fact remains that we still do not know, for the evidence is insufficient.” [4]

C.H. Dodd, while preferring a physical explanation, perhaps even malaria, finally pronounces: “Diagnosis is impossible.” [5]

Rudolf Bultmann thinks that Paul’s suffering was probably physical, but deems irrelevant any attempt to say more: “For the rest, it is not to be diagnosed. The diagnosis is irrelevant to the context …” [6]

F.F. Bruce states bluntly “… no certainty is possible.” [7]

Similarly, Susan Garrett writes, “… this question is, finally, unresolvable.” [8]

Colin Kruse calls the lack of clues in the text a plain fact. He writes, “However, the plain fact is that there is simply insufficient data to decide the matter.” [9]

Ralph Martin is openly agnostic: “We will probably never know the truth (or, at least, never know for sure we have the truth).” [10]

Murray Harris deems the quest to identify the “thorn” as eternally impossible: “Although Paul has not identified the ‘thorn,’ commentators have not been slow to attempt the impossible. Paucity of data and the ambiguity of Paul’s language have frustrated — and will always frustrate — all efforts to reach finality in this enigmatic question.” [11]

Frederick Danker similarly reckons that the thorn “will be an eternal mystery.” [12]

While Gordon Fee thinks that Paul’s ailment was probably a physical problem, he is certain that there is no way of knowing what it was: “Finally, even though we have no way of knowing what the infirmity was, Paul continued to be plagued by a physical problem, even after seeking relief from God.” [13]

Philip Hughes waxes eloquent about the impossibility of finding a solution: “The problem of Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ is another one of those questions which, on the evidence available, must remain unanswered. Over the centuries many solutions have been proposed, frequently with excessive confidence, but the plain fact is that it is impossible to escape from the realm of conjecture, which is by its nature the realm of inconclusiveness … The great diversity of solutions which have been offered from the early centuries onward is sufficient warning to those who may think that they have answered the problem — not, of course, that we regard the formulation of conjectures as illegitimate; but we do feel that in this instance history has proved that no amount of induction, however ingenious, is going to dispel the uncertainty with which the subject is enveloped.” [14]

Simon Kistemaker calls all proposed theories mere guesses: “Whether Paul’s affliction happened to be external or internal, the outcome remains the same: our theories are mere guesses, for we do not know what ailed the apostle.” [15]

David Garland sounds almost fatalistic: “In the end we must accept the fact that we will never know for certain what Paul’s stake in the flesh was.” [16]

Calvin Roetzel claims that speculation about the thorn is “fruitless” and a “barren exercise.” [17]

Richard Longenecker’s dogmatic assertion fittingly concludes our examples: “Paul does not tell us, and so there is no way for us to know.” [18]

As you can see, the prejudice against identifying Paul’s thorn is powerful. In light of such a strong prejudgment in the scholarly community, I made a decision early in my study to avoid (for the most part) commentaries while I dug deep into intertextual connections, historical backgrounds, and observations from the immediate literary context surrounding 2 Corinthians 12:7. I spent more than a year simply looking and re-looking at the relevant texts and noting anything that appeared pertinent while laying down rough drafts. Most often, I did this before looking at secondary literature, though in a few select cases, I read seminal articles on specialized ancillary topics. After fleshing out basic arguments, I immersed myself in the secondary literature to discover what I missed, where various arguments were weak, and what I needed to adjust in what I had already attempted to work out mostly on my own. After four years of study and writing, I rejoice that this book has recently been released.

Has a pattern of profound skepticism among modern scholars negatively affected the study of one of history’s most interesting conundrums? The sampling of quotations from modern scholars above would suggest that this pattern of skepticism has negatively influenced how deep we have been willing to dig. I propose that it is time for that to change.

Are you someone who likes to do deep study of God’s Word? How would you like to take a deep-dive into this historical puzzle? Then let me commend to you my new book: Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh: New Clues for an Old Problem (Lexham Academic Press).

This post was derived in part from the first part of chapter 1 of my new book: Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh: New Clues for an Old Problem. See the rest of chapter 1 for the role other presuppositions play in this discussion.

This post and other resources are available at Kindle Afresh: The Blog and Website of Kenneth Berding.


[1] Jeannine K. Brown, Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 122-123.

[2] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d. ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970), 113.

[3] See discussions in Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 516-517 and Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons (Carlisle: Paternoster and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 304-306.

[4] Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1915), 349-350.

[5] C. H. Dodd, New Testament Studies (New York: Scribner, 1954), 68.

[6] Rudolf Bultmann, The Second Letter to the Corinthians, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985), 225.

[7] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Exeter: Paternoster, 1982), 208.

[8] Susan R. Garrett, “Paul’s Thorn and Cultural Models of Affliction,” in The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks, ed. L. Michael White and O. Larry Yarbrough (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 83.

[9] Colin G. Kruse, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Leicester: Inter-Varsity and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987, repr. 1995), 206.

[10] Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians, WBC (Waco, TX: Word, 1986), 416.

[11] Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005), 858.

[12] Frederick W. Danker, II Corinthians, ACNT (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989), 193.

[13] Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 353.

[14] Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 442-443.

[15] Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker), 416.

[16] David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, NAC (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999),521.

[17] Calvin J. Roetzel, 2 Corinthians, ANTC (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007),111.

[18] Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, WBC (Dallas: Word, 1990), 191.