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Thorn in the Flesh

THORN IN THE FLESH. Paul’s description of a physical ailment that afflicted him and from which he prayed to be relieved (2Cor.12.7). Some hold that there are hints that it was an inflammation of the eyes. Paul generally dictated his letters, but signed them with his own hand (1Cor.16.21; 2Thess.3.17). He wrote the end of Galatians with his own hand, but apologized for the large handwriting (“what large letters,” Gal.6.11). His affliction was apparently not only painful but disfiguring. The Galatians did not despise him for it and would have plucked out their own eyes and given them to the apostle, were it possible (Gal.4.13-Gal.4.15). He says he was unable to recognize the high priest (Acts.23.5). Ramsay thought it was some form of recurring malarial fever.

THORN IN THE FLESH (σκόλοψ τῃ̂ σαρκί; in NT and papyri—thorn or sharply pointed sliver for or in the flesh; in classical Gr. also a pointed stake for impaling).

The figure is used (2 Cor 12:7) for a vexatious irritation that troubled Paul. It apparently “was given” to him as late as “the abundance of revelations” and was continuous or repeated, as is indicated by the present tense of “buffet.” Though the people of Corinth, no doubt, knew the nature of his humiliating problem, that knowledge has been lost for nearly two millenia. Many views have been suggested, largely reflecting the trials that beset the interpreters.

Early conjectures related this passage to Paul’s bodily ailment (Gal 4:13). Severe headaches, epilepsy, and ophthalmia are among the more persistent suggestions. Times of severe persecution brought the idea of persecutor (Chrysostom, Augustine, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, and Theophylact). The Lat. rendering, stimulus carnis, gave support to the ascetic idea of fleshly longings. Reformers thought of temptations to spiritual ineffectiveness. Nearly all recent commentators support the theory of physical malady. Ramsay adds malaria to the leading options. Mullins, on the other hand, presents a convincing argument from the context and from Jewish lit. for the view that the “thorn” was a person, an enemy.


J. Lightfoot, The Epistles of St. Paul to the Galatians (1865), 186-191; W. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (1896), 94-97; T. Mullins, “Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh,” JBL, LXXVI (1957), 299-303; P. Hughes, Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (1962), 442-448.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

Paul thus characterizes some bodily ailment which afflicted him and impaired his usefulness (2Co 12:7). The data are insufficient to enable us to ascertain its real nature, and all the speculations on the point are therefore inconclusive. All that we are told is that it was a messenger of Satan; that thereby he was beaten as with a fist, which might be figurative or actual; that it rendered his bodily presence unattractive. It appears that the infirmity recurred, for thrice he sought deliverance; but, by the help of God, he was able to glory in it. Sir W. Ramsay sees in it some form of recurring malarial fever. It was something that disabled him (Ga 4:12-15); hence, Farrar supposes that it was ophthalmia, from the reference to his eyes, from his inability to recognize the high priest (Ac 23:5), from his employing amanuenses to write his epistles, and his writing the Galatian letter in large characters with his own hand (Ga 6:11). Krenkel has at great length argued that it was epilepsy, and thereby endeavors to account for his trances and his falling to the earth on his way to Damascus, but his work is essentially a special pleading for a foregone conclusion, and Paul would not have called his visions "a messenger of Satan." It is also beside the question to heap up instances of other distinguished epileptics. On the whole Farrar’s theory is the most probable.

It is probably only a coincidence that "pricks in your eyes" Septuagint skolopes) are mentioned in Nu 33:55. Any pedestrian in Palestine must be familiar with the ubiquitous and troublesome thorny shrubs and thistles which abound there.

Alexander Macalister


thornz: There are very many references to various thorny plants in the Bible, and of the Hebrew words employed great uncertainty exists regarding their exact meaning. The alternative translations given in the text of English Versions of the Bible and in the margin show how divided are the views of the translators. In the following list the suggestions given of possinle species indicated, usually by comparison with the Arabic, are those of the late Professor Post, who spent the best years of his life in study of the botany of Palestine. In the great majority of instances, however, it is quite impossible to make any reasonable suggestion as to any particular species being indicated.

(1) ’aTadh (Jud 9:14, English Versions of the Bible "bramble," the King James Version margin "thistle," the Revised Version margin "thorn"; Ps 58:9, English Versions of the Bible "thorns"): Probably the buckthorn (Rhamnus Palestina Post). Atad occurs as a proper name in Ge 50:10,11.

(2) barqanim (Jud 8:7,16, English Versions of the Bible "briers"): Some thorny plant. The Egyptian-Arabic bargan is, according to Moore (Commentary on Judges), the same as Centaurea scoparius (Natural Order, Compositae), a common Palestinian thistle.

(3) dardar (Ge 3:18; Ho 10:8, English Versions of the Bible "thistle"; Septuagint tribolos): In Arabic, shauket ed-dardar is a general name for the thistles known as Centaureae or star-thistles (Natural Order, Compositae), of which Palestine produces nearly 50 species. The purple-flowered C. calcitrapa and the yellow C. verutum are among the commonest and most striking.

(4) chedheq (Pr 15:19, English Versions of the Bible "thorns"; Septuagint akantha; Mic 7:4, English Versions of the Bible "brier"): From former passages this should be some thorny plant suitable for making a hedge (compare Arabic chadaq, "to enclose," "wall in"). Lane states that Arabic chadaq is Solanum sanctum. Post suggests the oleaster, Eleagnus hortensis.

See Hook.

(6) mecukhah, occurs only in Mic 7:4, where it means a "thorn hedge."

(7) na`atsuts (Isa 7:19, the King James Version "thorns," the Revised Version (British and American) "thorn hedges"; Isa 55:13, English Versions of the Bible "thorn"): The word is derived from the root na`ats, "to prick," or "pierce," and probably applies to any prickly plant. The Septuagint translation has stoibe (Isa 55:13), suggesting the thorny burnet, Poterium spinosum, so common in Palestine (see Botany). Post says, "It may be one of the thorny acacias" (HDB, IV, 752).

(8) cirim (Ec 7:6, "the crackling of thorns (cirim) under a pot" (cir); Isa 34:13, "Thorns shall come up in its palaces"; Ho 2:6, "I will hedge up thy way with thorns"; Na 1:10, "Entangled like thorns (King James Version "folden together as thorns") .... they are consumed utterly as dry stubble"): The thorny burner, Poterium spinosum, is today so extensively used for burning in ovens and lime-kilns in Palestine that it is tempting to suppose this is the plant especially indicated here. In Am 4:2 ciroth, is translated "fish-hooks."

See Hook.

(9) cillon (Eze 28:24, English Versions of the Bible, "brier"); callonim (Eze 2:6, English Versions of the Bible, "thorns"): Arabic, sallu = "thorn."

(10) carabhim (Eze 2:6, English Versions of the Bible, "briers;" the King James Version margin "rebels"): The translation as a plant name is very doubtful.

(11) cirpadh (Isa 55:13, "Instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle-tree"): The Septuagint has konuza, which is (Post) the elecampane, Inula viscosa (Natural Order Compositae), a plant 2 or 3 ft. high, growing on the bare hillsides of Palestine, not infrequently in close association with the myrtle.

(12) tsinnim (Job 5:5; Pr 22:5, English Versions of the Bible, "thorns"); tseninim (Nu 33:55; Jos 23:13, English Versions of the Bible, "thorns"): The words apparently have a very general meaning.

(14) qimmosh (Pr 24:31, "thorns"; Isa 34:13; Ho 9:6, "nettles").

See Nettles.

(15) sikkim, plural of sekh, same as Arabic shauk, "a thorn" (Nu 33:55, "pricks").

(16) shayith: A word peculiar to Isa (5:6; 7:23 ff; 9:18; 10:17; 27:4) and always associated with shamir (See (17)), always translated "thorns."

(17) shamir: References as above (16), and in Isa 32:13, where it is with qots (see (13)) always translated briers." The Arabic samur is the thorny acacia A. seyyal and A. tortilis (Post).

(18) akanthos: The equivalent of qots (see (13)) (Mt 7:16; 13:7,22; 27:29, etc.). Always translated "thorns."

(19) rhamnos (Baruch 6:71, "white thorn"): The Rhamnus Palaestina.

(20) skolops (2Co 12:7, English Versions of the Bible "thorn," margin "stake").

See Thorn In the Flesh.

(21) tribolos (Mt 7:16, "thistle"; Heb 6:8, the King James Version "briers" the Revised Version (British and American) "thistles").

The extraordinary plentifulness of various prickly plants in Palestine--in its present condition--is evident to any traveler during the summer months. Many of the trees and shrubs are thorny and the ground is everywhere covered thick with thistles, many of which are very handsome and some of which attain a height of 6 or 8 ft. Before the peasant can plow, he must dear these away by burning (compare Isa 10:17). The early autumn winds often drive before them in revolving mass some of the star-thistles--a sight so characteristic that it may be the "thistle down" (the King James Version margin, the Revised Version (British and American) "whirling dust") of Isa 17:13. Thorns and thistles are described (Ge 3:18) as God’s curse on the ground for sin. The Talmud suggests that these must be edible and are therefore artichokes. The removal of them and the replacement by more useful plants is a sign of God’s blessing (Isa 55:13; Eze 28:24).

Ge 3:18 uses the words qots and dardar for "thorns" and "thistles." Midrash Rabba’ to Genesis (Midr. Gen. Rabba’ 20 10) says that qots ("thorn") is the same as (`akkabhith), which means an edible thistle (compare Levy, Dictionary, 645), and that (dardar, "thistle") is the same as (qinrac; Greek kunara, "artichoke") (compare Levy, Dictionary, 298). "But," adds the Midrash, "some reverse it, and say that (dardar) is (’akkabhith) and that (qots) is (qinrats)."

The neglected vineyard of the sluggard "was all grown over with thorns the face thereof was covered with nettles" (Pr 24:31), and in God’s symbolic vineyard "there shall come up briers and thorns" (Isa 5:6); "They have sown wheat and have reaped thorns; they have put themselves to pain, and profit nothing" (Jer 12:13).

Jotham compares the usurper Abimelech to a bramble (Rhamnus Palaestina) (Jud 9:14 f), and Jehoash king of Israel, taunted Amaziah, king of Judah, by comparing him slightingly to a thistle (margin "thorn"), readily trodden down by a wild beast (2Ki 14:9).

Nevertheless, thorns and thistles have their uses. On them the goats and camels browse; scarcely any thorns seem to be too sharp for their hardened palates. The thorny burner (Poterium spinosum), Arabic ballan, which covers countless acres of bare hillside, is used all over Palestine for ovens (Ec 7:6) and lime-kilns. Before kindling one of these latter the fellahin gather enormous piles of this plant--carried on their heads in masses much larger than the bearers--around the kiln mouth.

Thorny hedges around dwellings and fields are very common. The most characteristic plant for the purpose today is the "prickly pear" (Opunctia ficus Indica), but this is a comparatively late introduction. Hedges of brambles oleasters, etc., are common, especially where there is some water In the Jordan valley masses of broken branches of the Zizyphus and other thorny trees are piled in a circle round tents or cultivated fields or flocks as a protection against man and beast (Pr 15:19; Mic 7:4, etc.).

The Saviour’s "crown of thorns" (Mt 27:29) was according to Palestinian tradition constructed from the twisted branches of a species of Rhamnaceae either the Zizyphus lotus or the Z. spina.