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St. Paul’s Thorn In The Flesh: What Was It?
by [?]

If the 15th verse of the fourth chapter of the Epistle to the Galatians, instead of being taken in a figurative sense, as it generally has been, be understood literally, it will be found to furnish the means of determining, with a tolerably near approach to certainty, the particular nature of the disease under which St. Paul is supposed to have labored, and which he elsewhere speaks of as the “Thorn in his flesh.” And that the literal interpretation is the true one, may, I think, be shown, partly from the general scope of the paragraph to which the 15th verse belongs; partly from some peculiarities of expression in it, which could only have been used under an intention that the verse in question should be taken literally; and partly also from the fact that there are statements and allusions elsewhere in the New Testament, which assert or imply, that St. Paul really was affected in the manner here supposed to be indicated.

Brethren, I beseech you,” says the Apostle, “be as I am; for I am as ye are: ye have not injured me at all. Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first. And my temptation (trial) which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? for I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me.”

The last words of this passage, “Ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me,” have usually been taken in a hyperbolical or proverbial sense, as if a merely general meaning was conveyed, amounting simply to–“There was no sacrifice, however great, which ye would not have made for me.” But it is plainly open to inquiry, whether the sense is not of a more special kind; whether (viz.) St. Paul does not here, as in the preceding verses, intend to remind the Galatians of pure matter of fact–to recall to them, not in mere general terms, the depth and warmth of their feelings and professions of regard for him, but to repeat to them perhaps the very words they had used, and to revive in their memories the actual and express import of their desires and anxieties. If this be the case, if it really was a common and habitual thing with them to express a wish that it were possible for them to pluck out their own eyes, and to transfer them to the apostle, the only way of reasonably accounting for so strange and outre a proceeding, is to suppose that St. Paul actually labored either under entire deprivation of vision, or under some severely painful and vexatious disease of the eyes: The meaning being, that so keenly did the Galatians sympathize with the apostle in his affliction, that they would willingly have become his substitutes by taking all his suffering upon themselves, if only it were possible, by doing so to relieve him.

That there is at least no prima facie objection to this explanation of the words, will, I think, be readily enough admitted. It is perfectly simple and unforced, and it conveys a lively and touching representation of the feelings which would naturally spring up in the minds of a grateful and warm-hearted people, to their great benefactor and friend, who, amidst disease, and pain, and weakness, had made the greatest and most unwearying exertions to communicate to them the invaluable truths of Christianity.

But, in addition to this, it will be found, I think, that under the literal interpretation of the 15th verse, a peculiar point and force belongs to the apostle’s appeal, and a closely connected and harmonious meaning is imparted to the whole paragraph, all of which, it seems to me, are lost if the figurative explanation is adhered to. In the previous part of the chapter, St. Paul had been arguing against the foolish predilection which the Galatians had taken up for forms and formalisms and ceremonial observances, and strongly exhorting them to abandon this pernicious and unchristian propensity. And now, in the paragraph quoted, he takes up new ground, and appeals to them by the memory of their old affection for him, to listen to his arguments and entreaties, and to be of one mind with him. The general meaning of what he says is plain enough, but there are difficulties of detail, both in particular expressions, and in the train of thought. The words, for example, “Be as I am, for I am as ye are,” at once strike the ear as a peculiar and unusual style to adopt in an invitation to unity of thought and feeling. But if the last clause of the 15th verse be taken literally, I think it will appear that this expression has a special fitness and propriety. The words, “for I am as ye are,” imply a reference, I imagine, to his being, in respect of his bodily affliction, not as they were; and what follows is intended to remind them how anxious they were, when their love to him was fresh, to be “as he was,” even although it would have been necessary to accept bodily pain and mutilation to attain that object. If I am correct in thinking the first clause of the 12th verse, and the last of the 15th, to be thus closely related and corresponsive, it will be seen that they mutually explain each other; and the apostle’s argument, as I understand it, may then be thus stated:–If you were so willing and eager, when I was with you, even at the cost of plucking out your eyes, to “be as I am,” surely you will hardly refuse me the same thing now in this other matter, wherein there is no such difference between us as to raise any impediment in the way of your compliance, where no such sacrifice as ye were formerly ready to make is required of you, and where all that is asked from you is to give up your false opinions and evil practices, and simply “be as I am” in believing and obeying the truth revealed.