The thorn in the flesh and the “weakness gospel”

I’m reading Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s book The First Paul, and it’s really good so far. I may have more to blog about the overall themes later, but for now I just wanted to note one interesting tidbit.

There has been a lot of speculation about the “thorn in the flesh” that Paul said afflicted him and from which he prayed to God to be delivered (unsuccessfully). (See 2 Corinthians, 12:7-10.) I’ve seen theories as to what exactly this was ranging from epilepsy to homosexuality.

Borg and Crossan speculate–and they’re clear that this is conjecture–that Paul may have been afflicted by bouts of malaria. First, they point out that Tarsus, Paul’s hometown, had an environment conducive to malaria:

Think for a moment…about that Cilician plain locked between the mountains and the sea. Think of its rich fertility and agricultural prosperity fed by three rivers that annually drained the melting snows of the Taurus range. Despite the best Roman drainage engineering, that environment also meant marshes, mosquitoes, and malaria. (The First Paul, p. 62)

Second, they suggest that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” refers to the same “physical infirmity” Paul mentions in his letter to the Galatians when he writes that “You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 4:13-15)

They propose that a chronic malaria fever, which would be associated with, in the words of Pauline scholar William Mitchell Ramsay, “very distressing and prostrating paroxysms” wherein “the suffering can only lie and feel himself a shaking and helpless weakling” (quoted on p. 64). If this is what Paul was experiencing when he was among the Galatians, we can see how it might’ve “put [them] to the test.”

Krister Stendahl, in Paul among Jews and Gentiles, has some interesting things to say about Paul’s “infirmity” and his theology of weakness. This humbling weakness, Stendahl argues, would have, in the ancient world, looked like evidence against the truth of Paul’s gospel, since salvation was closely associated with supernatural healing and immortality. However, for Paul, this “weakness” reflected the truth that God’s power is revealed in weakness:

[Paul] finds his weakness one of those things which makes him one with the Lord, and which makes his ministry a true ministry of Jesus Christ who was crucified in weakness…. In this weakness, the power of Christ’s resurrection spreads through the missionary message to the church and manifests itself. Paul’s sickness is a little–and perhaps not so little–Golgotha, a Calvary of his own. (Paul among Jews and Gentiles, p. 44)

Stendahl goes on to argue that, for Paul, this gospel of weakness resonates with what Luther called the theology of the cross–an anti-triumphalist message. “The theology of the cross,” Stendahl writes, “the theology of weakness, is really part and parcel of Paul’s deepest religious experience in a ministry related to his own weakness” (p. 47).

2 thoughts on “The thorn in the flesh and the “weakness gospel”

  1. I think the superior theory has to do with his eyesight. Yes, he mentions his thorn in the flesh in Galatians. Note too Gal 6:11 where he acknowledges the large size of his handwriting–perhaps required by sight problems. Compare this with his conversion experience where he is struck blind and regains his sight through a Christian healer/miracle worker. Is there metaphorical significance here? Of course. But could there also be a historical remembrance here? It’s entirely possible.

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