r m p
Robert M. Price
To most students of the Pauline epistles, 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 must surely stand out as exceptional among Pauline texts. Elsewhere the interpreter may well feel at home amid Paul's pastoral and theological musings. But here, suddenly, the apostle ascends into the heavens and takes the unsuspecting reader with him. And just as Paul the visionary is charged to divulge his revelations to no man, so the baffled exegete may find it impossible to say anything intelligible about this bizarre text. The present piece will attempt to make 2 Corinthians a bit more intelligible, yet perhaps at the price of making it seem rather more bizarre as well!
As for the setting of the passage, Paul finds himself embattled with cynical "super-apostles" (11:5) who malign his weakness and unimpressiveness. By contrast, they think, they can appeal to "visions and revelations" which serve to accredit them just like the prophets of old. What can Paul possibly produce to compare with such wonders? After all, they must have assured the gullible Corinthians, he's never mentioned such experiences, has he? Well then! Paul responds in our text by breaking his fourteen-year silence, and adducing a quite spectacular visionary experience from the past. Quickly explaining his reticence to describe it heretofore, Paul spurns an appeal to such things for accreditation purposes. Confidence should instead be based on observable and proven character which he is sure he has amply demonstrated. But to silence the scoffers, and to beat them at their own worthless game, Paul allows himself to "boast." He seems to be having a bit of fun at his own expense, as well as that of his rivals. Basically, the thrust of the "pronouncement story" constituted by 2 Corinthians l2:l-10 is that the blessing of God comes only on the heels of adversity, not in the midst of visionary ecstasy. How does he know this? Because his own journey to heaven resulted in the former, not the latter! Though this gist has been obvious enough to all exegetes, it is safe to say that the individual details of the story have seemed obscure. Not only so, but the exact connection is less than clear between the "revelations" and the mysterious "thorn" received by Paul on account of them. The present notes will seek to clarify these points in a new and perhaps surprising way.
First, it should be recalled that the motif of a visionary journey to heaven or paradise must have been well-known to the apostle. Much of the contemporary apocalyptic literature known to us deals with the ascension into heaven of various ancient patriarchs and prophets including Enoch, Ezra, Baruch, Moses, and Levi. They return to divulge what they have seen and heard. They have learned "secrets" pertaining to the end of the age, the hierarchy of angels, astronomy, and calendar lore. In our passage, as elsewhere in his correspondence, Paul evidences familiarity with this world of ideas. For instance, he knows that it was "the third" of multiple heavens that he visited. And as the ancient visionaries were said to have traveled sometimes physically (Enoch, Elijah, Baruch), and sometimes astrally (Ezekiel, Moses), Paul also knows both as theoretical possibilities (verses 2-3).
Another branch of Jewish arcana with which Paul
may have been familiar, as J. Bowker shows,1 is that of Merkabah ("throne") mysticism. This was a
mystical technique practiced in Paul's day and for centuries afterward. It can
be traced as far back as the first century A.D. among the pupils of rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai.
Hints of it are also to be found in earlier works including the Testament of
Levi, 1 Enoch, and the
Having briefly recalled the context of our passage as well as the thought world in which it is to be set, the discussion will proceed to the identity of Paul's "thorn in the flesh." Paul is said thus to be afflicted to avoid his becoming insufferably proud over the privilege of listening in on heavenly mysteries (kai te huperbole ton apokalupseon). Verse 7's mention of "revelations" is usually taken to refer back to the series of visionary experiences first mentioned in verse 1, of which the one here described is but a single example. This need not be so. Instead, I suggest that the "revelations" of verse 7 have a more immediate antecedent, i.e., the "unutterable utterances" (arreta hremata) of verse 4. Thus the thorn will have been inflicted in direct connection with the heavenly secrets disclosed to Paul on the particular occasion described in our passage. The importance of this suggestion for our exegesis will soon be clear.
But what of the
"thorn" itself? Needless to say, it has been a thorn in the
side to exegetes as well. Most explanations make of the thorn a physical or
nervous illness of some sort. Among other candidates are such maladies as
malaria, epilepsy, eye-trouble, neuralgia, colic, rheumatism, and leprosy! It
would be no wonder that the apostle would have traveled with a "beloved
physician"! A few have understood "flesh" in a less literal
sense and so take Paul to mean some besetting sin or temptation. Menoud has claimed that Paul is referring to his anguish
Paul did indeed agonize over Jewish unbelief,
but this hardly seems to be in view here. And though he did have to fight
sensual temptation (1 Corinthians ), it is rather hard to
see how he would have made the connection between any particular sin and his
visionary experience. That the thorn was a sin is especially unlikely since the
purpose of the thorn was to prevent him from indulg;ng in sin, i.e., of pride. Contextually, probably
the best of these options is Mullins' theory of personal opponents, but the
same weakness besets all these suggestions. How would Paul have concluded that
any of these things was sent his way in connection with his journey to
In the more elaborate descriptions of Merkabah visions, we find the visionary being attacked by
angels and/or demons on his way to the divine throne room. Scholem
describes the typical vision: "As the journey progresses, the dangers
become progressively greater. Angels and archons storm against the traveler
'in order to drive him out ...."'3 According to the
In a lesser Hekhaloth text, Rabbi Akiba describes his journey to paradise: "In that hour when I ascended on high,... when I came to the curtain, angels of destruction went forth to destroy me."5
Our suggestion is that, in light of such texts, it makes sense to understand the thorn in the flesh "an angel of Satan, sent to buffet me," as quite literally a demon or malevolent angel, sent to punish Paul's pride at the wonder of his experience. "Thorn"(skolops) in classical usage can mean "stake" and can be equivalent to "cross" (stauros). Paul's pride was deflated, and the phrase is parallel and equivalent to Galatians 5:24: "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." Thus, like the visionaries in the Hekhaloth passages, he must "take his licks" insofar as he is "unworthy" to see the enthroned Lord.
Reconstructing the heavenly scenario, we may imagine this to have been the sequence of events: Paul finds himself caught up into heaven. There he is treated to ineffable revelations. Waxing proud over his enviable position, Paul suddenly finds himself the object of attack by a punishing demon or angel. Paul appeals thrice to the exalted Lord on the heavenly throne before him, who finally declares that Paul must learn his lesson; i.e., "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." It is a lesson that Paul learned well, carrying it with him through subsequent, earthly trials (2 Corinthians ). This picture may seem to some readers a bit too outlandish to be plausible, but let the reader keep in mind that he is already dealing with the story of a man who claims to have visited heaven one day! Given a camel of this size, why strain at the mere gnat proposed here?
A couple of details in the passage may not seem to comport with the present reconstruction. Paul prayed three times that the "angel" might leave him. To most readers, it sounds as if Paul had prayed for some kind of healing. After a while, with no recovery in sight, Paul would pray again, until after the third time he resigned himself. Yet the three requests do not need to denote an extended period. In Mark 14:35-39 we see Jesus praying one prayer three times on one occasion.
The reader may be asking how, if (according to this reading of the text) Paul was literally pummeled by an attacker, he could have not known whether his ascent to paradise was "in the body" (2 Corinthians 12:2-3)? Here again, another New Testament text provides clarification. In Acts 12, Peter is awakened in prison by an angel striking him on the side (a circumstance very similar to that envisioned here), yet he is unsure whether it is all really happening, or merely a vision (Acts 12:9). In the same way, Paul may have experienced apparently corporeal pain, yet not have known whether his presence were physical or merely astral.
In conclusion, it will be interesting to note that Paul's experience (as reconstructed here) finds further parallels in other early Christian literature. Visionaries find themselves under demonic/angelic attack, from which they are to learn a lesson. For instance, Hermas' fourth vision finds him being charged by a huge monster which "is a type of the persecution to come." He is to learn this lesson and pass it on to his brethren: “Put your faith in the Lord, you men of divided purpose, because He can do all things and turns aside His wrath from you, while He sends scourges on you who doubt in your heart.” [my emphasis] (Vis. 4, II, 6).
As in Paul's vision, the hero is to learn to
trust the Lord's power in adversity. Similarly, in the twelfth mandate, he is
told: "The Devil can wrestle with, but not overcome them [my emphasis]."
In the second-century Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, the heroine has two visions, wherein she steps on the head of a dragon, and defeats Satan in gladiatorial combat. From these demonic conflicts, she learns that she will be given grace in adversity; she will be victorious in facing her death for Christ. (Martyrdom, 4 and 10).
Eusebius tells the story of Natalius who had been seduced by heresy. He finally repented of his error when he was "lashed by holy angels, through the whole night, and was thus most severely punished." He had learned his lesson and, in sackcloth and ashes, begged to be readmitted to the orthodox communion. (Ecclesiastical History, Book V, Chapter XXVIII). The demonic harassment theme occurs again in early medieval vision literature, e. g., the visions of Furseus in 621 A.D. and Drihthelm ca. 725 A.D.
The present reconstruction of Paul's journey to paradise has the advantage of providing a logical connection between the superlative visions on the one hand, and the punitive experience of the "thorn" on the other, a feature conspicuous by its absence from most of the exegetical theories. It also makes sense of this visionary pronouncement story as a whole by placing it against the background of ancient Jewish and Christian vision literature. As warned earlier, the passage seen this way may seem even further removed from the experience of modern readers than it did before. Yet the "punch line" is always the important thing in a pronouncement story. And there is no reason that Paul's lesson should be alien to the experience of any modern reader: "My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness."
J. Bowker, "'Merkabah'
Visions and the Visions of Paul," Journal
of Semitic Studies, 16, 1971, pp. 158-159.
T. Y. Mullins, "Paul's Thorn in the Flesh," Journal of Biblical Literature, 76, 1957, pp. 301-303.
Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New
York: Schocken Books, 1973), p. 51
Ibid., pp. 52-53.
5. Gershom G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and Talmudic Tradition (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1965), p. 77.
Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design