Thorn in the flesh

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Thorn in the flesh is a phrase of New Testament origin used to describe a chronic infirmity, annoyance, or trouble in one's life, drawn from Paul the Apostle's use of the phrase in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians 12:7–9:[1]

And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (KJV)

Other biblical passages where "thorn" is used as a metaphor are:[2]

Know for a certainty that the LORD your God will no more drive out [any of] these nations from before you; but they shall be snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until ye perish from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you.

— Joshua 23:13

And there shall be no more a pricking briar unto the house of Israel, nor [any] grieving thorn of all [that are] round about them, that despised them; and they shall know that I [am] the Lord GOD.

— Ezekiel 28:24

The standard English translation was popularised by the 1611 King James Version of the Bible.[3] Among earlier translations, the 1526 Tyndale Bible uses "vnquyetnes" ("unquietness") rather than "thorn," and the 1557 Geneva Bible refers to a "pricke in the fleshe."[4]

Biblical meaning[edit]

Paul mentions what the "thorn in his flesh" was in II Corinthians 12: 6-7 when he said (Verse 6) "...lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me. (Verse 7) And lest I should be exalted above measure through 'the abundance of revelations,' there was given to me 'a thorn in the flesh'..." from "the abundance of revelations" and how people perceived him or " should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me."

Paul does not specify the nature of his "thorn," and his other epistles do not directly address the topic. Throughout church history, there has been a significant amount of speculation about what Paul was referring to, although scholars such as Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, F. F. Bruce and Ralph P. Martin conclude that definite identification of the thorn is impossible with the evidence available.[5][6][7]

The "thorn" is most commonly interpreted as a reference to some form of serious physical infirmity that hindered his work.[8] This is also the earliest known Christian interpretation, mentioned in the early third century in Tertullian's On Modesty, where it is understood as a reference to ear or head pain.[9] One proposal is that Paul's ailment was a defect of sight, acute ophthalmia, possibly caused by the dazzling light at his conversion. This interpretation is partly based on Paul's reference to a weakness of the flesh in Galatians 4:13-14, for which the Galatians would have been willing to pluck out their eyes to give to him. It is also argued that this would account for Paul's large handwriting (Gal 6:11), his failure to recognise the high priest in Acts 23:5, and his tendency to use an amanuensis.[10] Other proposed ailments include epilepsy and malarial fever.

Alternatively, the thorn has been seen as a physical impediment that made Paul the object of ridicule, without necessarily making him physically weak. Peter Marshall suggests a "social debilitating disease or disfigurement" that would undermine his visionary claims.[11] Others propose a speech impediment, which might explain the Corinthian accusation that he was forceful in writing but unimpressive in person (2 Cor 10:9-11).[12]

Other interpretations include:

  1. One interpretation is that the thorn describes the persecutions and unfortunate accidents that characterized Paul's life after his conversion to Christianity; as laid out in the preceding chapter 11 of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians.[13]
  2. Some Roman Catholic writers think that it denotes suggestions of impiety.[10]
  3. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Reformers interpret the expression as denoting temptation to unbelief.[10]
  4. Another view which has been maintained is that this "thorn" consisted in an infirmity of temperament, to which he occasionally gave way, and which interfered with his success (comp. Acts 15:39; 23:2-5). If we consider the fact, "which the experience of God's saints in all ages has conclusively established, of the difficulty of subduing an infirmity of temper, as well as the pain, remorse, and humiliation such an infirmity is wont to cause to those who groan under it, we may be inclined to believe that not the least probable hypothesis concerning the 'thorn' or 'stake' in the flesh is that the loving heart of the apostle bewailed as his sorest trial the misfortune that, by impatience in word, he had often wounded those for whom he would willingly have given his life" (Lias's Second Cor., Introd.).[10]
  5. Paul's agony over Jewish rejection of the gospel
  6. A reference to Paul's opponents

Modern usage[edit]

The phrase "thorn in the flesh" continues to be used as a metaphor for "a source of continual annoyance or trouble."[14] It is synonymous with the phrase "thorn in the side," which is also of biblical origin, based on the description in Numbers 33:55.[14] As an example usage, the Oxford English Dictionary cites E. M. Forster's 1924 novel A Passage to India, in which Nawab Bahadur says, "I can be a thorn in Mr. Turton's flesh, and if he asks me I accept the invitation."[15]


  1. ^ 2 Corinthians 12:7–9multi-version compare
  2. ^ Ezekiel 28:24Joshua 23:13
  3. ^ Crystal, David (2011). The Story of English in 100 Words. Profile Books. p. 118. ISBN 9781847654595.
  4. ^ "Thorn, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press. January 2018. Retrieved February 20, 2018.
  5. ^ Hughes, Philip E. (1962). The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. p. 442. ISBN 0-8028-2186-3.
  6. ^ Martin, Ralph P. (2014). 2 Corinthians. WBC. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan. p. 611. ISBN 9780310520245.
  7. ^ Bruce, Frederick F. (2000). Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. p. 135.
  8. ^ Martin, Ralph P. (2014). 2 Corinthians. WBC. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan. p. 609. ISBN 9780310520245.
  9. ^ Martin, Ralph P. (2014). 2 Corinthians. WBC. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan. pp. 607–608. ISBN 9780310520245.
  10. ^ a b c d Easton, Matthew George (1897). "Thorn in the flesh". Easton's Bible Dictionary (New and revised ed.). T. Nelson and Sons.
  11. ^ Marshall, Peter (1983). "A Metaphor of Social Shame: Thriambeuein in 2 Cor. 2.14". Novum Testamentum. 25: 315–316.
  12. ^ Clarke, William Kemp Lowther (1929). New Testament Problems. London: SPCK. pp. 136–140.
  13. ^ 2Cor.12:7 Parallel Commentaries
  14. ^ a b Cresswell, Julia, ed. (2010). "Thorn". Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 444. ISBN 9780199547937.
  15. ^ "Thorn, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press. January 2018. Retrieved February 20, 2018.