I have been struck (again) recently by the way a 'popular folk understanding' of scripture can become so associated with the verse it is (usually) misinterpreting that people inextricably link together the verse and its(often) misconceived meaning.
One of the results of this is that the interpratation is no longer questioned but is just assumed to be true. Rarely is this as obvious as it is regarding Paul's 'thorn in the flesh' - however I believe that the interpretation that seems to have become the accepted norm, that the thorn was an illness, is based more on assumption than it is upon anything else. Frankly it's a bit of a lazy approach to scripture.
Worse than that however, is the fact that it is so often used, erroneously in my view as a 'faithing undermining' caveat at the end of prayers for healing..... I wonder what Paul would have made of that?
Here is a starter in our thinking:
"Thorn in the Flesh" is a colloquialism used to describe a chronic infirmity, annoyance, or trouble in one's life. It is most commonly used by Christians. The source of this expression is Paul of Tarsus, who uses it in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10: And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. (KJV)
An more recent translation of the same fragment is: Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (NRSV)
Paul's use of the phrase may have its origin in a Hebrew saying, common in the Old Testament, ie: Ezekiel 28:24 And there shall be no more a pricking briar unto the house of Israel, nor [any] grieving thorn of all [that are] round about them, that despised them; and they shall know that I [am] the Lord GOD.
or Joshua 23:13 Know for a certainty that the LORD your God will no more drive out [any of] these nations from before you; but they shall be snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until ye perish from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you.
Notably, Paul does not mention the nature of this "thorn," and his other letters do not address the topic directly. Through the centuries Christians have speculated as to the nature of the "thorn." Common interpretations include:
1. A common interpretation is that the thorn describes the persecutions and unfortunate accidents that characterized Paul's life after his conversion to Christianity; as laid out in the preceding chapter of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians.
2. Some Roman Catholic writers think that it denotes suggestions to impiety.
3. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Reformers interpret the expression as denoting temptation to unbelief.
4. Others suppose the expression refers to "a pain in the ear or head," epileptic fits, or, in general, to some severe physical infirmity, which was a hindrance to the apostle in his work (comp. 1 Cor. 2:3; 2 Cor. 10:10; 11:30; Gal. 4:13, 14; 6:17). It has been suggested that his malady was a defect of sight caused the dazzling light which shone around him at his conversion. This would account for the statements in Gal. 4:14; 2 Cor. 10:10; also Acts 23:5, and for his generally making use of the help of an amanuensis (comp. Rom. 16:22, etc.).
5. Another view which has been maintained is that this "thorn" consisted in an infirmity of temper, to which he occasionally gave way, and which interfered with his success (comp. Acts 15:39; 23:2-5). If we consider the fact, "which the experience of God's saints in all ages has conclusively established, of the difficulty of subduing an infirmity of temper, as well as the pain, remorse, and humiliation such an infirmity is wont to cause to those who groan under it, we may be inclined to believe that not the least probable hypothesis concerning the 'thorn' or 'stake' in the flesh is that the loving heart of the apostle bewailed as his sorest trial the misfortune that, by impatience in word, he had often wounded those for whom he would willingly have given his life" (Lias's Second Cor., Introd.).
6. A highly controversial theory has been proposed by Bishop Spong in his book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (ISBN 0-06-067518-7) which suggests that it refers to homosexual desires. Paul strongly condemned acting on such desires in his other writings. (Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10)
7. A meaning accepted by many Christians was that Paul had a person in his life that annoyed him. Paul would then sin (in what way is unknown, probably acting out in anger). This would show him he is man and fallible, still in need of Christ. It kept him from becoming prideful from his many glorious experiences.
8. Another view is that the thorn was a person who opposed Paul's ministry wherever he planted a church. 9. Another view is that the thorn in the flesh refers to the inability Paul had to share the Gospel with his own people the Jews.
(Thanks to Wiki, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorn_in_the_flesh )
So, for me the conclusion is that we know Paul had an 'affliction' of some sort, but we are simply not given sufficient detail to say with certainty that it was. I can live with that. Let's not use it for a purpose for which it was never intended- a get out clause when we can't understand the mystery of healing....
We do know that Timothy was ill :-D and what the recommended medicine was.