This post includes Fr. Callan’s summaries of 2 Cor 11:16-33 and 2 Cor 12:1-10 to help provide context. Text in red are my additions.
ST. PAUL GLORIES IN HIS APOSTOLIC LABORS AND IN HIS TRIBULATIONS
A Summary of 2 Corinthians 11:16-33~The Apostle passes now from the severe condemnation just uttered against his adversaries to a further commendation of his own life and labors. Again (2 Cor 11:1), therefore, he craves the indulgence of his readers to hear him patiently, although he may seem to speak foolishly. He is simply forced to boast of himself because of the boasting of others and the toleration that has been given them. If those others can boast, then he also can boast. They glory in their Jewish origin, but he too is of the seed of Abraham; they vaunt their dignity as ministers of Christ, but he more than they is a minister of Christ. His greater sufferings and labors in behalf of the Gospel and the Churches are witnesses to his life and character.
19. For you gladly suffer the foolish; whereas yourselves are wise.
Another reason why he has a right to glory is furnished by the conduct of the Corinthians toward the false teachers, whose foolishness in praising themselves they gladly suffer. Of course they were enabled to do this, the Apostle sarcastically observes, because they were so wise. It is a characteristic of wisdom to be tolerant of foolishness.
20. For you suffer if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take from you, if a man be lifted up, if a man strike you on the face.
So extraordinary was the wisdom of the Corinthians that they tolerated far worse things than folly. They put up with tyranny, with extortion, with craftiness, with arrogance, with violence and insult from their seducers. Surely they can bear with the Apostle’s foolishness.
Bondage likely refers to the yoke of the Law which the false teachers were trying to impose.
If a man be lifted up, i.e., uplifteth himself, by extolling his descent from Abraham.
21. I speak according to dishonour, as if we had been weak in this part. Wherein if any man dare (I speak foolishly), I dare also.
The Apostle sarcastically admits that he and his companions were inferior to the Judaizers in certain respects, such as, in bringing the Corinthians into bondage, in robbing them, and the like. With biting sarcasm he confesses his dishonour, i.e., his disgrace, in being so weak in matters like these.
Wherein if any man, etc. Rather, “Wherein any man dare,” etc. Casting aside all sarcasm now St. Paul says that if there is question of real boldness, at any time, or on the part of any person, he also is bold. He thus asserts his equality with any of his enemies, although his humility makes him call this assertion foolish.
The words in this part (Vulg., in hac parte) are not represented in the best MSS.
22. They are Hebrews: so am I. They are Israelites: so am I. They are the seed of Abraham: so am I.
To show that he is in nowise inferior to his adversaries St. Paul now takes up the various points which they, no doubt, had been urging in their own favor. They were Hebrews, i.e., descendants of the Hebrew race (Gen 11:14-15 the word Hebrew means “descendant of Eber”); they were Israelites, i.e., from among the chosen people of God (Exodus 19:5-6; Rom 9:4) ; they were of the seed of Abraham, to whom the Messianic promises had been made (Rom 9:5-8; Gal 3:16). To all these distinctions the Apostle asserts his equal claim.
23. They are the ministers of Christ (I speak as one less wise): I am more; in many more labours, in prisons more frequently, in stripes above measure, in deaths often.
The false teachers had boasted that they were in a special sense ministers of Christ, but St. Paul affirms that he is much more so. They pretended to be διακονοι χριστου (diakonoi christou), but he was so in reality.
I speak as one less wise. Literally, “I speak as one beside himself.” He apologizes for language which his readers may think extravagant.
The Apostle’s greater labors and sufferings are a proof of his superior claims. He labored more abundantly, he was imprisoned more frequently, he was scourged more often, he was exposed to death on more occasions.
St. Paul does not mean his words to be taken in a relative sense, as if implying that his opponents had labored, were imprisoned, had been scourged, etc., but that he had done and suffered more: his words here express an absolute, and not merely a relative excess.
One instance of imprisonment before this Epistle is given in Acts 16:20-40; but Clement of Rome speaks of seven in all (1 Clement 5:6). From the Acts and the Epistles we know definitely of only four: the one at Philippi, one at Caesarea, and two in Rome.
24. Of the Jews five times did I receive forty stripes, save one.
The Apostle here and in the following verse gives some examples of his sufferings and exposure to death. He was scourged five times by the Jews. Each scourging consisted, according to law, of forty stripes (Deut 25:3); but in order not to exceed the number the Jews usually administered only thirty-nine, thirteen on the bare breast, and thirteen on each shoulder. The scourge was made of leather thongs. Sometimes these severe floggings resulted in death.
Of these scourgings of the Apostle by the Jews we have no other record.
25. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I was in the depth of the sea.
Beating with rods was a Roman form of punishment, and there was no legal limit to the number of blows. Only one of these beatings of St. Paul has been recorded by St. Luke in the Acts (Acts 16:22-23). Our Lord was scourged according to the Roman method (John 19:1).
Stoned, at Lystra (Acts 14:18).
Thrice I suffered shipwreck. We have no other record of this. The shipwreck on the way to Rome was several years later (Acts 27:39-44).
A day (νυχθημερον) means a full day of twenty-four hours.
I was. Literally, “I have passed” (πεποιηκα) , as in Acts 20:3.
The depth of the sea (εν τω βυθω). Better, “In the sea.” The term βυθω means the deep, the sea. We know nothing further of this incident, but perhaps Theodoret gives the right explanation: “The hull of the vessel went to pieces, and all night and day I spent, being carried hither and thither by the waves.” He was likely clinging to pieces of the wreckage.
26. In journeying often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils from my own nation, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils from false brethren.
The general meaning is that St. Paul was often in divers perils throughout his journeyings. Much of the countries through which he passed, especially in Asia Minor (Strabo) was beset with robbers. Waters. Literally, “rivers.” Bridges and ferries were rare in those times, and floods were frequent.
False brethren doubtless refers chiefly to the Judaizers (Gal.
27. In labour and painfulness, in much watchings, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
He now enumerates a number of sufferings which resulted from his poverty.
Fastings coming immediately after hunger and thirst which must have been involuntary afflictions, doubtless means “fastings” freely suffered.
In cold and nakedness, as when robbed, cast into prison, and drenched by floods, storms and the like.
28. Besides those things which are without: my daily instance, the solicitude for all the churches.
Those things which are without (των παρεκτος). This is a strange expression. παρεκτος occurs elsewhere only in Matt 5:32; Acts 26:29, where it has the sense of exception. The meaning here, then, is perhaps: “things left unmentioned” (St. Chrys., and other Greeks). St. Paul, therefore, is speaking of three classes of sufferings: those which he has mentioned, those which he omits, and those which he is about to mention (Plum.).
My daily instance, i.e., that which daily presses upon me. This seems to be the meaning of επιστασις, the best Greek reading here, followed by μου. In classical Greek επιστασις means a halt, a stopping for rest (Xen., Anab. II. iv. 26). The Apostle is referring to the ceaseless daily appeals for help, advice, decision in difficulties and the like, made to him by the faithful (Cornely, Bisping, etc.).
The solicitude, etc., his watchful care of all the Churches which he has founded.
All (πασων) might even embrace other Churches than those founded by St. Paul, but certainly can not mean that he had supreme jurisdiction over all Christendom.
29. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is scandalized, and I am not on fire?
Two illustrations are now given of the Apostle’s solicitude for the Churches. New converts were sometimes naturally weak in faith, conduct or the like (1 Cor 8:10-13), and St. Paul made their trials his own in order to strengthen them. Some, too, were easily scandalized, i.e., led into sin by others’ example, and this gave the ardent Apostle intense pain (1 Cor 12:26). We have to determine the exact meaning of πυρουμαι, I am on fire, from the context, which here is in favor of keen pain rather than of indignation, although the latter is not excluded.
30. If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things that concern my infirmity.
The present verse is closely connected with what has preceded (verses 23-29) and with what follows, and it refers to both. Since his adversaries, by their own conduct, force the Apostle to boast, he will not glory, as they do, in his birth, prosperity, ancestry, or the like, but rather in his infirmities.
31. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed for ever, knoweth that I lie not.
Lest his readers may be growing doubtful of all he has said and is going to say, the Apostle now solemnly swears by the Father Almighty that what he is saying is true.
The God and Father, etc. See on 1 Cor. xv. 24.
Who is blessed for ever refers to the Father.
Our (Vulg., nostri) and “Christ” (Vulg., Christi) are not represented in the best Greek MSS.
32. At Damascus, the governor of the nation under Aretas the king, guarded the city of the Damascenes, to apprehend me.
In this and in the following verse we have an example of those abrupt transitions so characteristic of this letter. To say that they are therefore a gloss and are to be omitted, as some Rationalists do, is absurd. Perhaps the Apostle’s enemies had pointed to his flight from Damascus and to his visions (2 Cor 12:1) as proofs that he was both a coward and a mad man, and this would explain why he takes up those two incidents.
Damascus . . . the city of the Damascenes (Acts 9:23-25), the capital of Syria, goes back to the days of Abraham (Gen 14:15) and was founded by Uz, grandson of Sem (Josephus, Antiq. L. vi. 4). It is situated at the eastern foot of the Anti-Libanus on the high road of commerce between Egypt and Upper Syria and between Tyre and the Far East.
The governor, etc. Literally, “The ethnarch of Aretas the king.” Aretas IV was King of Arabia Nabataea 9 B.C. to 40 a.d., with Petra as his capital. His daughter was married to Herod Antipas, and was afterwards divorced by Herod for the sake of a marriage with Herodias (Mark 6:17). How Damascus was subject to the Arab King shortly after St. Paul’s conversion is not easy to explain; for Syria was a Roman province from some time before the Christian era until 33 a.d., as is proved by the fact that Damascene coins from 30 B.C. to 33 a.d. bear the name of Augustus or of Tiberius. These coins are wanting from 34 to 62 a.d., but after 62 we have them with Nero’s name.
We know from Josephus (Antiq. xviii. 4, 5) that Herod Antipas and Aretas became bad friends when Herod divorced the latter’s daughter in order to marry Herodias, and that in a battle over some frontier disputes around 32 a.d. Aretas completely defeated Herod. A few years later, in 37 a.d., Caligula became Emperor. He disliked Antipas, and perhaps showed his antipathy by giving Damascus over to his enemy Aretas. This would explain how the latter was governor of that city when St. Paul had to fly from it.
Guarded the city, etc. St. Luke (Acts 9:24) says that the Jews “watched the gates day and night, that they might kill him,” but this is no contradiction of the present passage. Since it was the Jews who moved the ethnarch to persecute St. Paul they would naturally watch the gates of the city together with Aretas’ guards because they had determined to kill the Apostle (Acts 23:12).
33. And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and so escaped his hands.
This same incident is narrated in Acts ix. 23-25.
A window. Literally, “an aperture” (θυριδος). An opening in the wall around the city of Damascus is still shown as the place.
The flight from Damascus probably took place after St. Paul’s return from Arabia (Gal 1:17). If St. Luke seems to make it follow soon after the Apostle’s conversion, it is because he omits explicit mention of the retirement to Arabia, although he leaves room for it (cf. Acts 9:19).
THE APOSTLE GLORIES IN HIS HEAVENLY GIFTS
A Summary of 2 Corinthians 12:1-10~St. Paul has just proved that he far excels his enemies in the way he has exercised his Apostolic ministry and in the tribulations he has suffered for the Gospel. But in a third particular he has still more surpassed them, namely, in the extraordinary gifts with which he has been favored by God. For the sake, therefore, of giving greater proof of his divine commission, and incidentally to confound his adversaries further, he now speaks of his visions and revelations. He might give many instances, but he prefers, out of humility, to give only one, which, however, is a very striking one. It is more pleasing to him to rejoice in his infirmities and to be judged by his labors and preaching, than to glory in his visions. And since it has pleased God to visit him with heavy crosses, lest he should be puffed up by the magnitude of his revelations, he will glory in his infirmities by which he merits the divine assistance.
1. If I must glory (it is not expedient indeed): but I will come to the visions and revelations of the Lord.
Of the various readings of this verse the following is the most likely: “I must needs glory (καυχασθαι δει): it is not indeed expedient, but I will come to visions,” etc. The first clause is also written by good authorities with an interrogation: “Must I needs glory?” The Apostle is forced to glory, although he knows that glorying as a rule is not good.
Visions and revelations may refer here to the same manifestations, although they are by no means to be identified, generally speaking. A vision usually takes place in a state of ecstasy or of rapture, and the one favored with it does not always understand the meaning of the things he sees. A revelation, on the contrary, always implies the unfolding of some truth in such a way that he to whom it is accorded not only sees, but understands the meaning of what he sees. Revelation, therefore, includes vision, but vision does not necessarily imply revelation (St. Thomas, h. 1.).
If (Vulg., si) should be omitted.
2. I know a man in Christ above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not, or out of the body, I know not; God knoweth), such a one caught up to the third heaven.
A man, i.e., St. Paul himself. Humility leads him to speak in the third person.
In Christ, i.e., a Christian, one united to Christ by faith and Baptism.
Above fourteen years, i.e., fourteen years previous to the time he was writing, which would be around 43-44 a.d., if this Epistle was written around 57-58 a.d. Above is not expressed in the Greek.
Whether in the body, etc. St. Paul is certain of the fact of his having been transferred to heaven, but where his body was he does not know. Perhaps his soul was entirely separated from his body and transferred to heaven; or it may be that he was transferred both body and soul into heaven, or that while remaining in the body he was altogether abstracted from the senses. At any rate, it is certain that his senses had no part in the vision.
The third heaven doubtless means the abode of the blessed; but what is intended by third is only a conjecture. The Jews were accustomed to distinguish three heavens, of which the first was our atmosphere, the second the region of the stars, and the third the dwelling-place of the Almighty, where God is seen as He is in Himself. Probably St. Paul was accommodating himself to this mode of speaking, in order to say that he was in the actual presence of God.
3. And I know such a man (whether in the body, or out of the body, I know not: God knoweth):
4. That he was caught up into paradise, and heard secret words, which it is not granted to man to utter.
Some authorities, with Irenaeus, Tertullian, Gregory the Great, and many others think there is question here of another event entirely distinct from the preceding one. They say that St. Paul was elevated “to the third heaven, and thence to paradise” (Clement of Alex., Strom, v. 12). In this opinion “the third heaven” could not mean the presence of God, or, at least, not the actual enjoyment of that presence. The majority of exegetes, however, hold with St. Aug. and St. Thomas that the Apostle is speaking here and in the preceding verse of one and the same event, and that “paradise” is mentioned to express the delights which the Apostle experienced in the third heaven.
Paradise means literally a place of delights. Jewish ideas regarding it were not always uniform. Sometimes they applied it to the “Garden of Eden”; sometimes to the abode of the righteous below the earth; sometimes to heaven, the abode of blessed spirits with God. The last is certainly the meaning given the term here.
Secret words, i.e., unutterable words, things which the Apostle could speak, but which it was not lawful to speak ( Vulg.). St. Aug., St. Thomas, and many others teach that St. Paul actually saw God and the divine essence at this time.
That the present incident is not to be identified with that of Acts 22:17-21. is clear (a) from the fact that there no word is said about being caught up to heaven, while we are told what the Lord said to Paul; and (b) from the fact that the incident of Acts took place much earlier than the present one, that is, soon after the Apostle’s conversion.
5. For such a one I will glory; but for myself I will glory nothing, but in my infirmities.
St. Paul speaks of himself at present as of two persons, not only out of humility, but also because “he who was caught up to the third heaven and heard unspeakable words is a different Paul from him who says, “Of such a one I will glory” (Origen). “He speaks of a divided experience, of two selves, two Pauls: one Paul in the third heaven, enjoying the Beatific Vision; another yet on earth, struggling, tempted, tried, and buffeted by Satan” (Robertson). Regarding this latter Paul he will not glory, save in his infirmities.
6. For though I should have a mind to glory, I shall not be foolish; for I will say the truth. But I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth in me, or anything he heareth from me.
For though I should have, etc. Better, “For if I should wish,” etc. It is not certain whether εαν γαρ θελησω is aorist subjunctive or future indicative. The Apostle means that if he should choose to boast about revelations which he has had, and which he has a right to disclose, he would not be foolish, because he would be telling what is true; but he abstains from doing so lest any should get a more exalted idea of him than their experience of his conduct and preaching would warrant: he prefers to be judged by his life and teaching, not by what he can truly tell of his privileges.
Anything (Vulg., aliquid) is omitted in the best Greek MSS.
7. And lest the greatness of the revelations should exalt me, there was given me a sting of my flesh, an angel of Satan, to buffet me.
The text and the punctuation are uncertain here, but the general meaning is plain: Lest the Apostle should become proud on account of the extraordinary revelations granted him, there was given him some unusual bodily suffering of a very humiliating nature. Literally the verse should go somewhat as follows: “And by reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations— wherefore, that I should not be lifted up over much, there was given me a thorn in the flesh,” etc. The Apostle begins with the revelations, then suddenly breaks off with διο, wherefore (with MSS. B א A G). He is doubtless referring to the revelations, just spoken of, which he could truthfully disclose.
There was given me by God (St. Aug.) through the instrumentality of Satan. Naturally Satan’s purpose in afflicting the Apostle was not the same as God’s: God intended the repression of pride; Satan had some evil end in view.
A sting of my flesh. Literally, “A thorn in (or for) my flesh.” The word for “thorn” (σκολοψ) here occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It is found four times in the LXX (Num 33:55; Ezekiel 28:24; Hosea 2:6; Sirach 43:19), and always means a “thorn” or “splinter.” “There is no doubt that the Alexandrian use of σκολοψ for ‘thorn’ is here intended” (Field, Otium Norvicense, III. p. 115). The idea conveyed is one of acute pain, looking back perhaps to Num 33:55. Of course the expression is metaphorical; and hence what does the Apostle mean? The explanations have been many and various, but all, both ancient and modern, agree in this, that there is question of physical suffering of some kind. It is not certain, however, that the present passage and Gal 4:13-14 refer to the same ασθενεια (“infirmity”, Gal 4:13), although this is commonly assumed.
That the “thorn” (Vulg., stimulus) here spoken of does not refer to temptations against purity, as most modern ascetical writers and many modern commentators believe, is proved beyond question by the following considerations: (a) Such a view was held by no Greek Father, nor by any Latin Father of the first six centuries; (b) St. Paul is speaking of something extraordinary, personal and permanent, which cannot be said of temptations to impurity; (c) he could not speak of glorying (verse 9), or of taking pleasure (verse 10) in carnal temptations. The “thorn in the flesh,” therefore, doubtless refers to some chronic physical malady, such as epilepsy, malarial fever, acute ophthalmia, or the like (St. Basil, St. Greg. Naz., St. Aug., St. Thomas, Cajetan, Corn., Le Camus, Light., Ramsay, Farrar, Plum., etc.).
An angel, etc., i.e., a messenger of Satan. The Apostle calls his malady a messenger or instrument of the devil very likely because it was inflicted by the evil one, with God’s permission, however.
To buffet me. Literally, “In order that he may buffet me” (ινα με κολαφιζη) . The present tense is used to show the continual recurrence of the attack (St. Chrys.).
8. For which thing thrice I besought the Lord, that it might depart from me.
For which thing, i.e., concerning this foe, i.e., the messenger of Satan, thrice I besought, i.e., the Apostle asked the Lord, i.e., Christ (verse 9) three times to be delivered from his affliction before he received the divine reply.
9. And he said to me: My grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
And he said. Literally, “And he hath said.” The use of the perfect tense implies that the force of the reply continues.
My grace, etc. The request was refused, but something better was given, namely, grace, by which he could merit a supernatural reward.
Power, i.e., strength ( δυναμις), namely, of Christ. The power of God is most perfectly realized and appreciated when human strength is wanting, i.e., when weak human agents are made use of to accomplish great results.
Gladly therefore. Literally, “Most gladly therefore.” He means that he will most gladly glory in his infirmities rather than ask to be relieved from them, so that the power of Christ, sustaining and giving triumph by His grace, may continue with him. Thus the Apostle’s chronic illness would cause a continuous manifestation of divine power in him (MacR.).