Paul’s Ascent to Paradise–and His “Thorn in the Flesh”

I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago, directed by Jonathan Z. Smith, on Paul’s Ascent to Paradise. This singular experience is reported by Paul in the 3rd person initially, but the “boasting” style is well known to us in Greek literature–in which the writer is “modestly” talking about his/her own personal experiences.

Here is the core passage of 2 Corinthians 12:1-10:

2 Corinthians 12 I must boast; there is nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6 Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 7 And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. 8 Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

This is a very short exposition of the text along with my speculation what the reference to the “messenger of Satan,” which he calls a “thorn in the flesh,” might refer. That dissertation has now been revised and republished, and contains a full exposition of this rather intriguing text from Paul–perhaps the most important of any of his letters, see: Paul’s Ascent to Paradise: The Apostolic Message and Mission of Paul in the Light of His Mystical Experiences.

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