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.

The Importance of the the Resurrection of Jesus – 1 Corinthians 15:12-19

After he gives a list of eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, Paul states clearly: the resurrection is the basis for the faith of the Christian (15:12-14). Paul says if Jesus Christ is not raised from the dead, our faith is useless. Paul’s point is that is Jesus was not raised, then it is rather stupid to believe Christianity. The world for “useless” here is “without content, without any basis, without truth, without power, empty words….”

resurrection of Jesus

Without a resurrected Jesus Christ, Christianity is the same as any other world religion with a dead founder. If there is no risen Lord, then we have a religion, not a relationship. This is the earliest written reference to the resurrection. The gospels and Acts are written as many as ten to fifteen years later even in the more conservative dating of those books. This is important because the belief Jesus was raised from the dead was present from the earliest days of Christianity. This is not a doctrine that developed over fifty or a hundred years.

If the resurrection is not a fact, then the preaching of the Gospel itself is false and those who believe the resurrection are pitiable (15:15-16). It is remarkable that the first witnesses to the resurrection described Jesus as “raised from the dead.” This is not the way a first century Jew would have expected to happen to Jesus even if they thought he was a great teacher or true prophet.

Based on the belief that Enoch and Elijah were translated from life into heaven, it would have been far more natural for the first disciples to describe what happened to Jesus as an ascension into heaven rather than a real death and a real resurrection. The fact that the first witnesses immediately understood that Jesus was really raised is likely based on the fact of his death. He was really quite dead, unlike Enoch (who was translated) and Elijah (who ascended in a fiery chariot seen by eyewitnesses).

Paul takes the argument further in the next few verses: If Jesus is still dead, then you are still in your sins (15:17-19). If there is no resurrection of Jesus, then the Christian faith is futile. If there is no resurrection, then Jesus is still dead. In the preaching of the earliest apostles, the resurrection serves as a proof Jesus was innocent. God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. In Philippians 2:5-11, because Jesus was obedient and humble to death on the cross God raised him from the dead and set him at the very highest place in the universe, God’s right hand, and even knee will bow, and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. If Jesus was not raised, then he has the status of a very good human teacher and is not at all the Lord of all creation.

If there is no resurrection of Jesus, dead believers have perished. It is likely some members of the Corinthian church had died. If there is no resurrection, then the dead are simply that, dead. If there is simply no resurrection, then even Jesus is still dead, something that is not possible according to the many witnesses Paul listed in the previous paragraph. This might be a kind of logical argument, although the reverse of what might be accepted today.

If there is no resurrection of Jesus, there is no hope in this life and Christians are most pitiable. Paul ties hope to his belief in the resurrection in several passages (1 Thess 4:13, he does not want the readers to grieve like the pagans who “have no hope”). To be pitied (ἐλεεινός) is to be in the most pathetic condition imaginable.

Witnesses to the Resurrection – 1 Corinthians 15:5-11

To show that the resurrection of Jesus is credible, Paul lists several witnesses to the fact that Jesus was alive (15:5-7).

Witnesses to the Resurrection

Cephas and then to the Twelve. While the Gospels report the first witnesses of the resurrection were the women who came to the tomb to anoint Jesus, this creedal statement pre-dates the Gospels and begins with an appearance first to Peter. This may be Luke 24:36-49, although Peter is not mentioned specifically. In John 21:15–19 Jesus re-instates Peter as a leader of the disciples after the resurrection.

Five hundred brothers at one time. This is not recorded in the Gospels, although it is possible this is a reference to the commissioning of disciples in Matthew 28:18-20, although only the eleven are mentioned in v. 16. What is the point of saying some of them have died? It is possible this is a sad fact, some of the original witnesses of the resurrection have naturally died in the 20+ years since the resurrection. On the other hand, it is possible some in the Corinthian church thought the “true believer” would live until the Parousia, so the reference to the death of witnesses shows this belief cannot be true.

James, Jesus’ brother. As with the five hundred, a story of Jesus appearing to his brother is not found in the New Testament. It is a fact he is a significant leader in the Jerusalem church by Acts 15 and Paul refers to him in Galatians. Since the brothers of Jesus were not believers prior to the resurrection, it is likely Jesus appeared to James, confirming Jesus was the Messiah to his family.

Jerome, The Lives of Illustrious Men, 2. The Gospel also which is called the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and which I have recently translated into Greek and Latin and which also Origen often makes use of, after the account of the resurrection of the Saviour says, “but the Lord, after he had given his grave clothes to the servant of the priest, appeared to James (for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he drank the cup of the Lord until he should see him rising again from among those that sleep) and again, a little later, it says “ ‘Bring a table and bread,’ said the Lord.” And immediately it is added, “He brought bread and blessed and brake and gave to James the Just and said to him, ‘my brother eat thy bread, for the son of man is risen from among those that sleep.’” (NPNF, 3: 362).

Is it possible these appearances to Peter and James represent a commission to ministry? James seems to focus on Jerusalem, reaching priests and Pharisees with the Gospel of Jesus, while Peter goes to Diaspora Jews in Galilee and Antioch. Paul, the third named person in this section, is directly commissioned to go to the Gentiles, so it is at least possible the people named were specifically commissioned to a particular ministry after the resurrection. Is it also possible these named appearances reflect the divisions in the church at Corinth? Both Peter and Paul represent factions within the church, perhaps too there is a conservative Jewish faction holding to James as their leader.

Why doesn’t Paul mention the women who were the first witnesses of the resurrection? Each of the four Gospels mentions several women who visit the tomb early in the morning and discover Jesus is no longer in the grave. Although they are the first witnesses of the Jesus’s resurrection, Paul only mentions the men who saw Jesus. There are probably more reasons for this, but Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians are a tradition handed down to him, so this pre-dates the writing of any of the four Gospels. It is possible Paul did not know about Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene (John 20), which was likely written 25 years later. On the other hand, Paul  is giving a list of credible witnesses, or maybe better, authoritative witnesses that would mean something to the Corinthian church. They knew Peter and the Apostles, and likely heard of James the Lord’s brother. that several women were the first witnesses would be less important to a Greek audience. (Feel free to add other ideas in the comments!)

Last of all, Paul lists himself as a witness to the resurrection. Paul is very humble since he was not a follower of Jesus prior to the resurrection (15:8-11). Historically, Paul is not a follower of Jesus until he encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus. (However, see this: Did Paul Know Jesus?) As is well known, he is a persecutor of Jesus’ followers prior to the resurrection appearance of Jesus. Paul is claiming to be an eyewitness to the resurrection, albeit one with different credentials than Peter or James since he did not know Jesus before the resurrection.

His experience was like one with an “untimely birth” (ESV). This word (ἔκτρωμα) is used for a stillborn child or a miscarriage. Many commentators think this is an insult Paul faced in his ministry, he is not just a “Johnny-come-lately” or someone who is trying to “jump on the band-wagon,” he has some spiritual deficiency that ought to disqualify him from being considered an apostle. Rather than responding to an attack, Paul is simply listing himself as the final witness because he was the final witness, and his experience is unique among the Apostles.

Paul is “unworthy to be called an apostle” because he persecuted the church, despite the fact he was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles by Jesus himself. Nevertheless, Paul by the grace of God, “I am what I am.” Likely he carried a great deal of guilt for persecuting the early believers as well as for missing out on hearing Jesus preach during his lifetime.

For Paul, the resurrection is a reliable event in history witnessed by a wide variety of people, including people who were not among the followers of Jesus during his ministry.

The Resurrection of Jesus is the Basis for Christian Faith – 1 Corinthians 15:1-4

The Gospel Paul preached when he founded the church at Corinth is the same Gospel Paul is still preaching. As Gordon Fee says, this opening paragraph on the resurrection of Jesus establishes a “common ground” of belief (Fee, 1 Corinthians, 793). This is necessary because some in the Corinthian church denied that Jesus literally rose from the dead. In a series of relative clauses, Paul explains the saving power of the Gospel has not changed since they experienced the power of the Gospel.

Resurrection of Jesus

First, this is the Gospel the believers in Corinth have already received. The verb (παραλαμβάνω) is used for receiving something passed along as a tradition. Second, it is the gospel “in which you have taken a stand.” The tense of the verb is important since it refers to an event in the past with ongoing effects. They “took a stand” when they received the Gospel, and that stand is still in effect when Paul writes. Third, it is the gospel “in which you are being saved.” Again, the tense of the verb is important; Paul chooses a present tense verb to describe the ongoing salvation of the believers in Corinth. They have not fully received salvation since they are not in Heaven yet. Paul therefore sees salvation as a past event, an ongoing reality, and a future hope. All three of these aspects of salvation are important, it is not good to focus on only the past or only the future and ignore the fact the Holy Spirit is working within us now, in the present time to bring us closer to the image of Christ Jesus.

But Paul adds a troubling condition: “If you hold fast…” The verb Paul uses (κατέχω) is used to describe someone who is remaining faithful to a tradition. In 1 Corinthians 11:2, holding to the traditions Paul passed along to them (cf., 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “holding fast to good doctrine”). What are the believers to “hold fast to”? The statement of faith in the following verses. Paul is reminding the readers the resurrection is at the very heart of the Gospel and if they rejected the resurrection, they are in danger of no longer believing the Gospel.

Is it possible to believe in the Gospel “in vain”? Could a person really accept Christ as savior only to find out they were never saved? The ESV sets the phrase off with a dash since it is a conditional phrase rather than a statement of reality. Paul does not say they have believed in vain, in fact, it almost sounds like an unreal condition (you didn’t believe in vain, did you? Of course not!) The adverb translated “in vain” can refer to “without careful thought, without due consideration, in a haphazard manner” (BDAG).

This means the Corinthian church may have accepted the Gospel of Jesus crucified without fully understanding the importance of the resurrection. Perhaps they thought a belief in a real, physical resurrection of Jesus was not necessary.

The core of this gospel is Christ crucified, buried, and raised from the dead (15:3-4). A tradition Paul passed along “of first importance.” While the adjective Paul uses in this verse can refer to something done first in a sequence, it often refers to something of the most significance, such as the “greatest commandment” (Matt 22:38). The word is used to describe the robe given to the Prodigal, the “most important robe” (Luke 15:22). “ἐν πρώτοις, which may indicate priority either in time or in importance—naturally the two may well coincide” (Barrett, 1 Corinthians, 336). Paul says: the “very first thing I chose to tell you about Jesus is that he was crucified, buried and raised from the dead.”

The core of the Gospel story is the crucifixion. Despite the fact most people in the Roman world did not speak of crucifixion in polite company (in the same way most Americans do not discuss lethal injection or electric chairs). The earliest preaching of the Gospel did not try to hide the fact that Christians worship a man executed by the Romans by means of crucifixion.

Jesus’ death is “for our sins.” This is a major difference between Jesus and his followers and Judaism, since from the very earliest preaching of the Apostles, Jesus is the Suffering Servant, whose death provides atonement for the sins of Israel. But this atonement is extended in the Pauline letters to all people who are “in Christ,” they are freed from bondage to sin, not simply the sins they have committed in the past.

Jesus was buried. It may seem strange to include the burial of Jesus as a core element of the Gospel, but since the problem Paul is addressing is the resurrection, his proper burial is an issue. It is possible someone could say Jesus was not buried so that his body could be stolen from a common grave.

Jesus rose to life on the third day. The phrase “on the third day” has some theological importance. In Hosea 6:2, the national revival of Israel is on the “third day.” This passage in Hosea refers to the resurrection of the nation of Israel, but the third day is often a “day of salvation.” On the other hand, there are many examples of important things happening “in the third day” in the Old Testament.

Paul twice adds the phrase, “according to the Scripture” to emphasize the plan of God in passion events.  There is probably no single verse Paul has in mind, but the whole theology of the Hebrew Bible is assumed here. The imagery of the Exodus, the Passover Lamb, the Suffering Servant, Psalm 22, and other texts point forward to the suffering of Jesus. It is also important Paul places scripture ahead of the witnesses of the resurrection. Scripture is the first line of evidence; the eyewitnesses of the resurrection are secondary.

Paul presents he death of Jesus was a divinely ordained event which dealt with sin in a final and decisive way. Without the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, Paul will say, the Corinthians are still in their sin.

Why Do Some in Corinth Deny the Resurrection of Jesus?

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul comes to the final issue Paul raised by the Corinthian church, the Resurrection of Jesus. It appears someone in the Corinthian church denied that Jesus rose from the dead. In 15:12 he says, “if it is preached that Christ has not been raised,” implying a teacher in Corinth has made that claim. Why would a Christian deny that Christ was raised from the dead?

Resurrection of Jesus

It is possible the objection to the Resurrection of Jesus came from a Jewish Christian teacher. In that case, the objection may be based on Jewish messianic expectations. Although many Second Temple Jews were looking forward to a messiah, no one expected that messiah to die and rise again. The claim of the earliest Christians is that Jesus was the Messiah, but also that he was crucified by the Temple aristocracy. But God raised him to life, proving he was in fact the Messiah. Although some might object to using the book of Acts as illustrating early church preaching, Peter makes this very point when he is questioned in Acts 5:29-32.

On the other hand, the claim that the Christ has not been raised from the dead may come from a Gentile Christian, reflecting a Greek view of resurrection. N. T. Wright many examples of Greek writers denying the resurrection of the dead. For example, in Aeschylus’s play Eumenides: “Once a man has died, and the dust has soaked up his blood, there is no resurrection.” Wright concludes: Christianity was born into a world where its central claim was k own to be false. Outside of Judaism, nobody believed in resurrection” (Resurrection of the Son of God, 35). Dead people go off into some other, dark world from which they can never return. So there was a life after death, but not a return to this life after death.

Gordon Fee points out the vocabulary of the resurrection of the dead (νεκρός) may have been part of the problem. A native Greek speaker would hear “corpses” and find the whole discussion repugnant (Fee, 1 Corinthians 794, note 5). Imagine if a Christian pastor referred to Jesus as a zombie, a reanimated corpse rather than a body transformed into a new kind of life. Fee’s observation explains some of Paul’s language later in the chapter about how a seed dies and rises to a new kind of life (15:35-40).

Paul will argue that Jesus’s resurrection is not only an assured fact of history, but the basis of the future resurrection of the believer. For a Greek, there was no real idea of a future resurrection. As Ben Witherington notes, Greek religion was practiced for present benefits not future, heavenly blessings (Conflict and Community in Corinth, 293). Remember Paul’s sermon in Athens. When he mentioned the resurrection of the dead, some of the philosophically informed audience sneered at him (Acts 17:32). A Jewish audience would understand something about a future resurrection Paul describes in this chapter, but most Gentiles would find this difficult.

Although there may be some combination of these two possibilities, every other issue Paul addresses in the letter is the result of Gentile Christians following their Greek worldview rather than transforming their way of thinking through the lens of Christ. I see that as the main problem here. It may be the case some faction in the Corinthian church tried to blend Christian practice or ethics and Greek philosophy. Just as the message of the cross is foolishness to the Greeks, so too the resurrection of the dead is a strange teaching that might even have offended the philosophically educated in Corinth.

That Paul answers this objection at length at the end of the letter may imply Paul thought this was the most important issue in the Corinthian church. Although most modern Christians are shocked by some of the moral and ethical problems in Corinth, Paul sees the denial of the resurrection as an attack on the foundation of the Gospel itself. He therefore begins by reminding his readers that the Gospel he preached was based on the authentic resurrection of Jesus from the dead (15:1-11) and then making the remarkable claim that if Christ is not raised, people are fools to become Christians (15:12-28).

This is an important point for contemporary Christianity. Almost all Christians profess both the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. Easter is a central celebration in virtually all forms of Christianity. Yet Jesus’s resurrection from the dead has always caused people to discard Christianity as a remnant of the medieval past. Modern thinkers know that people cannot return from the dead! Memester theologians mock “zombie Jesus” and others deny the resurrection on historical grounds.

Yet in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul puts the whole of Christianity on the Resurrection of Jesus.