While studying through Paul’s letter to Galatians, the question of Paul’s mysterious “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7) is raised. In Galatians 4:13-14 Paul comments:
13 but you know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time; 14 and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself.
We should pause here and observe that we are making a presumption here that may be unnecessary. We are presuming that the condition described in Galatians 3:13-14 is the thorn in the flesh referenced in 2 Corinthians 12:7. It is very possible that Paul had a recurring illness or condition (a thorn in the flesh) that he hints at throughout his writings. It is equally possible that the illness in Galatia was a unique illness he suffered with for only a time. We simply do not know for sure.
With that said, let us presume that both Galatians 4:13-14 and 2 Corinthians 12:7 are connected. Scholars for centuries have surmised a variety of possible conditions. One interesting theory regards malaria. I first came across this argument in John MacArthur’s sermon on Galatians 4:12-20 where he states:
What was his illness? Everyone wonders about that, “You know how through infirmity of the flesh.” What was it? The only possible speculation that seems to have any kind of weight at all is that he probably could have had malaria. You see, when he began his first missionary journey and covered Syria and Cilicia, which is just north of Palestine, he then got on a boat and went to the island of Cypress and ministered there. He left Paphos and went north across a little part of the sea there and came to a place called Pamphylia, a lowland area very much affected with malaria. It is very possible contracted malaria in Pamphylia and immediately then, and we know he didn’t stay there any time at all, he went there and was gone fast. He immediately ascended the highlands of Galatia. Some say that he would have contracted malaria in Pamphylia and would have immediately gone to the highlands to get away from the infection that was prevalent in that area. He wanted to get to higher ground where he would not have to face a continued worsening of that problem by being exposed to it again.
So it is possible that, leaving Pamphylia, he ascended and climbed to that tremendous, rocky area to get to Galatia and stayed there only because he was sick. Now malaria manifests itself sometimes in recurring frequency of pain. In other words, it may not always be present. So it is possible that, in his time there, he would have been able to minister in between the recurring times of pain. Some have said that when malaria does hit, it gives tremendous headaches and pains that are unbearable and torturous, especially with no anti-malarial shots or vaccines or whatever you’d take for that kind of thing. He was completely exposed to it, and when it came, it came. But between attacks of it, which seemed to recur, he would have been able to minister.
He later added:
If that’s true, then back in Galatians 4, when he says, “You would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me,” it may have been that he couldn’t see very well. You know, I just dug into this a little bit and called my brother-in-law, who is a doctor, and asked him about it. He looked up some information and found that malaria can attack the orbital portion of the optic nerve, so there may be some connection. If it does that, it can affect it in several ways: it can create a loss of color, it can cause atrophy, it can finally render the pupil immobile, and lead to blindness. Malaria and eye disease can be closely connected, so that is a possibility. The disease that he contracted there could have caused problems in his eyes. Again, this is speculation. The point of the whole thing is this: they loved him. They would have torn out their eyes and given them to him.
MacArthur then notes, “Whatever the disease was . . .,” that is to say, “we simply do not know.” Yet MacArthur’s reputation is that of a studious preacher. He would not have made this suggestion without seriously considering it.*
An archived Christianity Today article summarizes the argument as follows:
Malaria is another possibility, suggested in the 1800s by archaeologist William Ramsay. What happened, Ramsay guessed, is that Paul caught malaria while traveling through the coastal plains of Pamphylia (western Turkey) during his first missionary journey. This coast’s marshes bred malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The tendency for malaria to recur with alternating bouts of sweating and shivering seems to fit well with Paul’s choice of the word torment, which refers to something that continually or often battered him.
The writer, Stephen Miller, ultimately concludes, “Given the growing list of theories about Paul’s thorn in the flesh, the one thing we can be sure about is that we can’t be sure about any of them.”
In the end, let us conclude that the malaria hypothesis, though possible and fascinating, remain (and will remain) a theory. Often when Paul reminded his readers of his infirmities, it was not to brag about how much he has suffered for Jesus, but to remind his readers that apart from Christ is a weak man indeed! Whether we are reading 2 Corinthians 12 or Galatians 4, let that be our message. I can do all things through Christ. I can do nothing apart from him.
* In his commentary on Galatians, MacArthur writes, “On his first missionary journey Paul apparently either became seriously ill while in Galatia or else went there to recuperate. Some suggest that he contracted malaria while traveling through the low, swampy regions of Pamphylia and decided to go up into the higher and healthier area of Galatain and minster there for a while until he was better (see Acts 13:13-14). Although malaria can be terribly painful and debilitating, those effects are not continuous. If Paul did have that disease, he would have still been able to do some preaching and teaching between attacks of fever and pain. This explanation is plausible.” (116)