After nearly two thousand years, finally the answer we have all been waiting for arrives. The question is, “What is Paul’s thorn in the flesh?” And the answer is found in today’s book.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh: New Clues for an Old Problem” by Kenneth Berding. 280 pages, published by Lexham Academic in February 2023. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD19.99 and in Logos for USD26.99.
I got this book for free from Lexham Academic to review. They have no input in today’s review.
Mystery Novel and Author
Long time listeners to this podcast will know that I love a good mystery novel. The detective finds clues, invites the readers to solve the mystery, and the story steadily moves towards that big reveal.
In this book, we look at a real life mystery, what is Paul’s thorn in the flesh? And our detective is Kenneth Berding.
Kenneth Berding, according to Amazon, is:
Professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University where he has served since 2002. He teaches courses such as Life & Letters of Paul, Principles of Interpretation, Biblical Greek, Romans, and Apostolic Fathers.
It is as if everything he taught prepared him for this book. When tackling a narrow subject like Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh, I don’t want a guy who is obsessed about this one mystery for 50 years of his life. He only has tunnel vision.
I want someone who is aware of the broader picture, someone who knows Paul, his life and letters, someone who can survey the nearly two thousand years worth of attempts to crack the mystery.
I want someone qualified and, on paper, Kenneth Berding is abundantly qualified.
Qualification is one thing, can he pique the reader’s interest? Can he banish the fog of incomprehensibility surrounding a topic that belongs more in seminary than in the public? And crucially, can he convince us that nearly every commentary is wrong and that his solution truly best explains this verse:
2 Corinthians 12:7–9 (ESV)
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Before I read this book, this is my interpretation: We don’t know what is Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Nobody knows. It is a mystery that will forever remain a mystery. And you know what? It is good that we don’t know. Because this thorn in the flesh can represent any one of your pain, your suffering, your trial, your temptations, it can mean anything you want it to mean because, by God’s great Providence, Paul has left it undefined.
That’s what I understood. I taught this because I believed it.
Then along comes Kenneth Berding. He shatters all my presuppositions, and says that my interpretation is wrong. Wrong in the first premise. He makes this astounding claim that the Bible and other sources gives us enough clues to solve the mystery.
So let’s open the book, “Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh: New Clues for an Old Problem” by Kenneth Berding.
Pain Oh the Pain
He begins with this introduction:
Imagine with me a first-century house-church meeting. The apostle Paul is addressing a new group of Jesus followers that has recently sprung up as an extension of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus. Paul is passionately exhorting the assembled group about their need to view one another as brothers and sisters in the family of God. He is twenty minutes into his talk when suddenly—and without warning—Paul’s face grimaces, his hand moves rapidly to the side of his face just in front of his ear, he collapses into a sitting position, his breathing quickens as he leans forward, eyes shut, fighting to hold back the groans working their way out of his throat. The matron of the house rushes forward along with a half dozen others. She cries out, “Brother Paul, are you OK? What’s happening? What’s wrong?”
Is that a great introduction or what? If this was a movie, the opening scenes shows the ending. What I just read, a snippet of a longer story, is Berding’s solution to the problem, namely Paul’s thorn in the flesh is a terrible pain, possibly intermittent, which he experiences in his face, perhaps around the ear or eyes.
This is the big reveal. And he gives it to us in the first page. The rest of the book is a carefully written, methodical and enjoyably series of engaging and convincing arguments. And he needs those arguments because everyone else thinks it’s impossible.
In Chapter 1, “Why We’re Skeptical”, Berding gives a list of imminent scholars. Let me read the shorter comments from this list.
- C.H. Dodd says, “Diagnosis is impossible.”
- F.F. Bruce states bluntly, “… no certainty is possible.”
- Colin G. Kruse writes, “However, the plain fact is that there is simply insufficient data to decide the matter.”
- Gordon D. Fee writes, ““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.”
- David E. Garland writes, “In the end we must accept the fact that we will never know for certain what Paul’s stake in the flesh was.”
I’m glad to read that all of these guys agree with me. Berding is against the consensus. And he knows it.
Nobody Knows But Many Guesses
In chapter 2, he gives us a list of people and their solutions. Tertullian says it’s a pain of the head. Lightfoot suggests epilepsy. Ramsay says malaria. Chilton thinks shingles. These are just some of the people in a long list who think it’s a physical ailment.
Then we have another long list of those who think it’s not something physical. Basil of Caesarea suggests the thorns are trials in ministry. Aquinas says sexual temptations. Luther says temptation to anger. Calvin plays it safe and guesses temptations of various kinds.
For the scholar, this is a great chapter! You have footnotes after footnotes. The last item in the list is citation number 99!
Yet Berding writes for the everyday Christian. Remember the introduction, how the story draws us in. He is writing with the everyday Christian in mind.
When I read the two lists, in the back of my head, I was thinking why is it you have some who say its physical while some very strong theologians, I’m looking at Aquinas, Luther, Calvin think it’s not physical but spiritual.
I quote Berding here:
When “sharp-pointed object in the flesh” (a literal English translation of the Greek skolops tē sarki) got translated as stimulus carnis meae into Latin, the subsequent use of that Latin translation opened the door to psychological and spiritual interpretations (such as sexual temptations or spiritual distress). This is because stimulus in Latin is more commonly used metaphorically for “incitement” or “stimulation” than is the Greek skolops. Don’t forget that the Latin translation of the Bible was the preferred version for both western priest and scholar for more than a thousand years, so such a translation carried the potential of wielding a far greater influence than was justified.
I have spent more time than I should on the first two chapters. Mainly because I enjoyed them so much and I have not even reach the main section of the book. The clues!
As I said earlier, the big reveal is given, the rest of the book is presenting the arguments for it. That would be chapters 3 to chapter 11, which cover clues from the historical context, clues from the book of Job, clues from the literary context and just on the literary context, there are three chapters.
A masterly three chapters where he goes from the, here I simplify so that you can get the gist, he first unpacks the sentence, then the paragraph, then the chapter. He zooms in at the centre and steadily expand outwards.
Moving on, in the other chapters, we have clues from the Suffering of Jesus, clues from Irenaeus and Tertullian, clues from Galatians and a whole chapter on clues from miscellaneous sources.
I have learned so much from these chapters. Not just on the content but in the approach. If anyone ever wants to write a book or article to persuade readers on a point of view, or forget about writing, if you just want to be a clearer thinker, I highly recommend this book.
He is gentle and respectful of differing opinions. He is not desperate to win your approval. He lays out the case, without any appeal to the emotions, he just communicates as clearly as he can the significance of these clues, trusting that the reader is intelligent enough to connect the dots.
Let’s look at one of those clues. From chapter 5, “Clues from the Literary Context (Part 1)”, Berding states that the word Paul uses to describe his thorn in the flesh is a word that evokes a face-punch.
Most of our translations translate the word with general terms, such as “torment,” “trouble,” “harass,” “buffet,” “beat,” or “hit.” This general usage is possible in certain contexts, but these renderings of kolaphizō mask both the word’s initial evocation and most common usage.
Normally that would be the end of it and we readers would have to take the writer, the expert’s, word for it because you don’t know Greek. I don’t know Greek. He knows Greek so he must be right.
But Berding does not just want us to take his word for it. He wants us to understand so he explains. I quote at length, and I hope you can get a sense of the teacher’s soul in Berding.
Some words are more general but can be particularized using additional words if a speaker or author wants to limit the application of the word. In English, words like “hit” or “punch” are such words. But there exist other words that can be used generally, but still evoke certain associations even before being employed by a particular author in a particular sentence, because those words commonly have been used in particular ways in the past. That is, for some words, if you could ask people to define a word, even without a sentence, they would normally associate the word with a part of the body, because that is how those words are most commonly used. For example, in English, when you hear the word “stub,” you initially associate it with someone’s toe. When you hear the word “spank,” you normally think of a person’s rump. When you hear the word “slap,” you customarily associate it with one’s face. Without a qualifier (like “finger” for stub, “leg” for spank, or “arm” for slap), such words are of a category that a listener will initially associate with a particular part of the body unless the author uses additional words to instruct otherwise.
Kolaphizō seems to be such a word. Its most common association appears to be with the face.
Next I want to talk about the organisation of this book. It is just simply brilliant. In the very beginning of the book, he introduces us to twenty criteria that we must consider to solve the murder, I mean, mystery. He shows us from the Bible, from the clues, how these criteria come about.
For example, when we see that the word used Kolaphizō then what we gather is whatever this thorn in the flesh may be, it is impacting Paul’s face (as a part of his head). That is Criterion number 7.
From the clues, he extracts a set of criteria. And crucially, these criteria will narrow our list of suspects or possible solutions to a particular category.
The Excitement of Reaching the Ending
I want to explain the sense I got from reading this page-turner of a book.
Coming back to the mystery movie idea. If you give the reveal away in the beginning of the movie, then the excitement is the events that lead up to the reveal. Tom Cruise dies. Oh my goodness. That’s not possible! He is the star of the show! And you watch the rest of the movie to see how the impossible happens.
When it comes to Paul’s thorn in the flesh, we come to this book thinking, “It’s simply not possible to know what it means. We don’t have enough clues or data.”
Berding does his reveal. He claims it’s a face-related disease, something like Trigeminal Neuralgia Type 1. We don’t quite believe it. It’s a guess, maybe even a good guess, but surely there is no way he can pull it off and make an overwhelming support for it.
Throughout the book, it is as if he says to us, “I have nothing up my sleeves. I’m not doing any tricks. No appeals to the emotions. No great leaps of faith. Just twenty criteria drawn from different categories of clues.”
You could say some of his points are a stretch, and Berding often reminds us that by itself, the individual points do not mean much, but when taken together as an accumulated whole, it is no longer a just good guess but a very likely conclusion.
At the end of the book, he brings out the twenty criteria we have extracted and collected as we processed the clues from history, from the Bible, from what the Apostolic Fathers said and so on. We are convinced that any solution should meet these twenty criteria.
And he gives us three tables. For the first table he lists the non-physical solutions like maybe the thorn in the flesh is a demonic attack or it is Paul’s experience of psychological pressure. Next, he lists the physical ailments like malaria or epilepsy, which seem to make better sense of the data. Lastly, he lists seven face-related diseases, any of which could be what Paul experienced in his day.
Everything is so methodical, everything is so well put, it is a masterly piece of work.
At this point I can imagine Professor Berding taking a bow to the thunderous applause of admiring readers. Then someone in the back row asks, “So what? How does knowing what Paul experienced make any different to me, to us, today?”
The professor has fully anticipated that question and gives us one more chapter, the last chapter, that addresses the implications of everything we have learnt. He goes through the implications of each item in the twenty criteria, but the title of the chapter says it all, “A Fuller Portrait of Paul”. That is ultimately what we gain and the more we know who Paul is, the more accurate we can know what he is thinking when he wrote the epistles and the more accurate we can interpret his words for our spiritual gain.
My final thoughts on the book. I got this book, wanting to be educated on this very narrow topic. I was open to changing my mind. I was educated and I changed my mind, I just did not expect the book to be so well-researched, so well-written, and thoroughly enjoyable. I have said it often in this review that this book has made me a better reader and thinker. I want to approach every problem in the Bible the way Berding has done so here.
Thanks to this book, I will be reading Paul’s letters being mindful of Paul’s excruciating pain. Imagine suffering from an ailment that feels like being punched in the face, or pierced with an ice pick, over and over again. Then imagine saying this:
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
How can it be? And Paul directs us over and over again, only through the power of Christ.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh: New Clues for an Old Problem” by Kenneth Berding. 280 pages, published by Lexham Academic in February 2023. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD19.99 and in Logos for USD26.99.
I got this book for free from Lexham Academic to review. They have no input in today’s review.
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