Thorn In The Flesh


thorn (skolops te sarki):

Paul thus characterizes some bodily ailment which afflicted him and impaired his usefulness (2 Corinthians 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 (Galatians 4:12-15); hence, Farrar supposes that it was ophthalmia, from the reference to his eyes, from his inability to recognize the high priest (Acts 23:5), from his employing amanuenses to write his epistles, and his writing the Galatian letter in large characters with his own hand (Galatians 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 Numbers 33:55. Any pedestrian in Palestine must be familiar with the ubiquitous and troublesome thorny shrubs and thistles which abound there.

Alexander Macalister



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 (Judges 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 Genesis 50:10,11.

(2) barqanim (Judges 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 (Genesis 3:18; Hosea 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 (Proverbs 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.

(5) choach; Septuagint knide, and akantha (2 Kings 14:9; Job 31:40, English Versions of the Bible, "thistle," margin "thorn"; 2 Chronicles 25:18, English Versions of the Bible "thistle," the King James Version margin "furze bush," the Revised Version margin "thorn"; Hosea 9:6; Song of Solomon 2:2, English Versions of the Bible "thorns"; Isaiah 34:13 the King James Version "brambles" the Revised Version (British and American) "thistles"; Proverbs 26:9, English Versions of the Bible "a thorn"; 1 Samuel 13:6, "thickets"; chawachim, is, however, according to Driver and others a corruption for horim, "holes"; Job 41:2, the King James Version "thorn" the Revised Version (British and American) "hook"; 2 Chronicles 33:11, the King James Version "thorns," the Revised Version (British and American) "in chains," margin "with hooks"):

Clearly choach stands for some plant with very strong thorns, but it is quite impossible to say what species is intended; indeed, probably the word was used in a general way.


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

(7) na`atsuts (Isaiah 7:19, the King James Version "thorns," the Revised Version (British and American) "thorn hedges"; Isaiah 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 (Isaiah 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 (Ecclesiastes 7:6, "the crackling of thorns (cirim) under a pot" (cir); Isaiah 34:13, "Thorns shall come up in its palaces"; Hosea 2:6, "I will hedge up thy way with thorns"; Nahum 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 Amos 4:2 ciroth, is translated "fish-hooks."


(9) cillon (Ezekiel 28:24, English Versions of the Bible, "brier"); callonim (Ezekiel 2:6, English Versions of the Bible, "thorns"):

Arabic, sallu = "thorn."

(10) carabhim (Ezekiel 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 (Isaiah 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; Proverbs 22:5, English Versions of the Bible, "thorns"); tseninim (Numbers 33:55; Joshua 23:13, English Versions of the Bible, "thorns"):

The words apparently have a very general meaning.

(13) qots; the Septuagint akantha:

A general name for thorny and prickly plants, the commonest in the Old Testament (Genesis 3:18; Exodus 22:6; Judges 8:7,16; 2 Samuel 23:6; Psalms 118:12; Isaiah 32:13; 33:12; Jeremiah 4:3; 12:13; Ezekiel 28:24; Hosea 10:8).

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


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

(16) shayith:

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

(17) shamir:

References as above (16), and in Isaiah 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)) (Matthew 7:16; 13:7,22; 27:29, etc.). Always translated "thorns."

(19) rhamnos (Baruch 6:71, "white thorn"):

The Rhamnus Palaestina.

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


(21) tribolos (Matthew 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 Isaiah 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 Isaiah 17:13. Thorns and thistles are described (Genesis 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 (Isaiah 55:13; Ezekiel 28:24).

Genesis 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" (Proverbs 24:31), and in God's symbolic vineyard "there shall come up briers and thorns" (Isaiah 5:6); "They have sown wheat and have reaped thorns; they have put themselves to pain, and profit nothing" (Jeremiah 12:13).

Jotham compares the usurper Abimelech to a bramble (Rhamnus Palaestina) (Judges 9:14), 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 (2 Kings 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 (Ecclesiastes 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 (Proverbs 15:19; Micah 7:4, etc.).

The Saviour's "crown of thorns" (Matthew 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.

E. W. G. Masterman

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'THORN IN THE FLESH'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.