Kenneth Berding, Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh: New Clues for an Old Problem

Berding, Kenneth. Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh: New Clues for an Old Problem. Lexham Academic, 2023. xxi+278 pp. Pb. $26.99   Link to Lexham Academic  

Kenneth Berding serves as professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology. He has previously published Walking in the Spirit (Crossway, 2011), Bible Revival: Recommitting Ourselves to One Book (Lexham, 2013), and The Apostolic Fathers: A Narrative Introduction (Wipf & Stock, 2017), as well as many academic articles. He maintains a blog, Kindle Afresh (an excerpt from this book can be found here). This monograph is narrowly focused on Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12:7. In his introduction, he suggests twenty criteria that any theory must explain. For example, an explanation of Paul’s thorn in the flesh must understand the thorn as black magic, the thorn impacted Paul’s flesh (face, ears, eyes), it is comparable to a sharp pointed object causing excruciating pain, his ailment was long term but intermittent, and in some ways parallels the Jesus’s suffering.

Paul's Thorn in the flesh

As Berding observes in his first chapter, there is scholarly apathy for specific suggestions to explain what Paul meant by a thorn in the flesh. He cites a series of commentators who say things like “diagnosis is impossible” (Dodd), the “diagnosis is irrelevant to the context” (Bultmann), or “we have no way of knowing what the infirmity was” (Fee). Although I used apathy in the previous sentence, Berding uses words like bias and prejudice. This prejudice, Berding suggests, is built on a foundation of anti-supernatural assumptions (although some of the scholars he cites would not share some of those assumptions). Move scholars simply opt for physical suffering without being very specific or offering any arguments for that view. For example, Berding summarizes the approach of most modern scholars as “If forced to choose I, would choose X position” (p. 33). In his second chapter, he reviews the history of interpretation (thirteen possible and eighteen “less likely” proposals, all well documented in the footnotes).

For Berding, the “thorn in the flesh” is a real physical ailment caused by “an angel of Satan.” First-century readers would have understood this as black magic (akin to voodoo dolls, p. 206; see page 45 for a photograph of an ancient voodoo doll or follow this link. Berding acknowledges using this term is an anachronism, p. 39 note 1). He suggests the original hearers of the phrase would have considered Paul under some sort of demonic attack. He arrives at this conclusion by “following the clues,” which is the substance of chapters 3-11.

He begins with the historical context, chapter three is a survey of ancient magic, piercing texts, and the use of thorns in first-century magic. For a member of the Corinthian congregation, Paul’s physical ailment implied that a magician launched an attack on Paul’s physical body. Because Paul was suffering, it showed that he was not spiritually strong enough to withstand an attack. Paul mentions the thorn in 1 Corinthians 12:7 because he believes God has allowed him to suffer in this way so that he would learn “my grace is sufficient” (2 Cor 12:8).

If it is the case that God allowed Paul to suffer physically, then Berding argues that Job is the obvious literary (intertextual) connection (chapter 4). He argues that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” has significant literary and conceptual parallels with Job’s experience. For example, both suffered an attack from Satan on their physical flesh, experienced excruciating pain, and were viewed as weak by observers.

The bulk of this book examines the evidence in the New Testament which sheds like on what Paul meant by “thorn in the flesh.” In chapters 5-7, Berding closely examines Paul’s literary context. He discusses at length the context of 2 Corinthians 12 (Paul’s vision and heavenly ascent) and Paul’s frequent references to his bodily weakness. In chapter 8, he draws parallels between Paul’s and Jesus’s suffering. For example, Jesus was also pierced (with nails and a spear) and suffered humiliation and shame. Chapter 10 examines data from Galatians, drawing out several similarities between Paul’s physical ailment in Galatians 4:15 and 2 Corinthians 12:7. Chapter 11 surveys some less likely biblical connections in the interest of comprehensiveness.

Chapter 9 traces clues from Irenaeus and Tertullian. Berding suggests these are more valuable than modern interpretations since these writers lived in nearly the same world as Paul.  Written about 180 A.D., Irenaeus’s Against Heresies is the earliest comment on Paul’s thorn in the flesh. He thought that the thorn refers to a bodily infirmity. Tertullian also considered the thorn a physical ailment involving excruciating pain in Paul’s face, perhaps his ears. Tertullian also compares Paul’s thorn with what Satan did to Job’s body.

After two chapters summarizing the data (chs. 12-13), Berding makes several suggestions for a modern medical explanation for Paul’s thorn (ch. 14).  “Students of 2 Corinthians 12:7 need to understand that the face pain connected with the trigeminal nerve fits well with descriptions of thorn in the flesh and being punched in the face and in first- century Greco Rome an angel of Satan” (225).

I have two comments regarding his conclusion on a modern medical explanation of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. First, when I first read Berding’s first two chapters, I was comfortable with the scholarly consensus that Paul suffered a physical ailment. Still, the exact diagnosis (in a modern, clinical sense) does not really matter. I did not see this as bias, prejudice, or even apathy. It is more likely the result of not having the time to write a 278-page monograph focused solely on the issue of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” After reading the book, I am happy to define the thorn as a “satanically inspired physical ailment affecting his face.” If it is satanic in nature, do modern medical details really matter?

Second, Berding’s chapter on magic and curses in the ancient world is excellent and is the highlight of the book. He is correct that whatever ailment afflicted Paul would be seen by people in first-century Corinth as the result of a magical curse. This would be true for Gentile members of Paul’s congregation. However, a Jewish opponent might interpret physical suffering as punishment from God and further proof that Paul’s opponents considered Paul and his ministry as inferior. Berding’s purpose in this book is to define “thorn in the flesh,” not using that definition to answer larger questions about the purpose of 2 Corinthians.

Conclusion: Berding’s Thorn in the Flesh is certainly the most comprehensive study of 2 Corinthians 12:7 available. His research is exhaustive, considering all the data imaginable, both biblical and secondary (commentaries and academic articles). Any commentary on 2 Corinthians written in the future will need to incorporate Berding’s work.


NB: Thanks to Lexham Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. I purchased the Logos edition. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

One thought on “Kenneth Berding, Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh: New Clues for an Old Problem

Leave a Reply