June 9, 2008

The Vision of Saint Paul

I was reading Morning Prayer today and came upon these verses in Galatians (4:13-15)

You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What has become of the goodwill you felt? For I testify that, had it been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.

What struck me for the first time in many readings was the special reference to the eyes, and the indication that whatever Paul’s infirmity, it seems to have had something to do with his vision.

This would help make sense of another detail of this Epistle, Paul’s reference to the “large letters he writes in his own hand” (6:11). Earlier translations suggests he is referring to the epistle itself (KJV: “Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand.”) However, this does not make sense of the plural, which refers to letters.

A vision disability also gives a reason for Paul to have dictated most of his correspondence, and to have made a distinct point about the parts he signed off on in a number of the epistles, including another reference to his apparently characteristic “hand” (2 Thess 3:17). It may perhaps also help make sense of his imagery of seeing dimly in the present what we will one day behold in its full glory. (1 Cor 13:12)

So it occurs to me that Paul may not have fully recovered from his Damascus Road experience, and suffered with a form of what is known as “low vision” afterward; if this was the “thorn in the flesh” it was God’s will he endure it. (2 Cor 12:9)

A quick bit of googling shows I’m not the first to note these possibilities, though I don’t think I’d encountered them before. So I offer them here as an instance of how one can read a text many times but only “see” certain things after many readings. Suffering from an annoying eye ailment myself, I’m amazed not to have noted this before, and always put Paul’s large handwriting down to his not being an experienced scribe — so a vision disability is a fascinating alternate interpretation.

Tobias Haller BSG


Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff. Thanks for the post!

Derek the Ænglican said...

Yes, this has been batted around in NT circles for quite a while and I think it's the most likely explanation. My only question is whether the passage mentioning bearing in his flesh the marks of Christ refers to this or something else...

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Derek. I think the NRSV shows its usual exuberance by using "branded on my body" rather than the more straightforward "I bear the marks of Jesus in my body."

I'm not sure this connects with the "infirmity" or need be anything more, given his catalogue of suffering (including beatings that must have left a visible mark), than a typical Pauline flourish of self-identification and conformity with Jesus, in mind and body, which he held as the highest goal.

That he chooses a word with overtones of the slave-owner's brand -- i.e., no one can touch me because I belong to someone else -- is also possible, and perhaps that's what the NRSV was getting at by shifting the weight of "brand" to the verb (?)

All of this, of course, just goes to show how clear the Scripture is... not. But also how rich... yes.

Country Parson said...

As a profoundly nearsighted person whose eyes cannot focus quickly I've often wondered the same thing about Paul. I give daily thanks for modern ophthalmology and wonder what it would be like to live in a world perpetually out of focus in fuzzily distorted and indistinct images.

June Butler said...

For many years, I've thought that Paul's vision was permanently impaired by the light during his conversion experience. After all, he was blind for a spell. That he wrote large because he could not see well, seemed to me a fairly obvious conclusion. Had I written it up, I might be famous today for my insightfulness.

Erika Baker said...

we all know you're the inspiration behind the throne.

Jane R said...

Fine insight, Tobias. I hadn't run into it. Makes a lot of sense.

Anonymous said...

Great exegesis! Actually, a kind of lectio divina, perhaps!

And I love it that Julian of Norwich's metaphor for sin is "blindness" -- which involves all sorts of wonderful vagaries around defining sin: if it is blindness, then often sin is committed in a kind of "spiritual ignorance" because one cannot see what is "real" -- and the prescription for dealing with sin would not be judgment, but ophthalmic assistance! Maybe "the mission" is to provide everyone with a new set of glasses! (I'm grinning)

June Butler said...

My comment now seems a tad arrogant, but I did not intend that. I honestly believed that most folks viewed the matter as I did, until I read this post.

Malcolm+ said...

It is always interesting to speculate on Paul's infirmity.

I've seen the argument that Paul was alcoholic. Who else would argue that "a little wine is good for the stomach?" And what alcoholic, having failed in yet another attempt at white knuckle sobriety would not recognize "the good that I would do, I do not, and the evil that I would not do, I do - oh who will deliver me from this body of death?"

A former Primate of All Canada once told me about a joke that was spread by gestetnered run-off in his days at college - which would now, doubtless, be a never ending email chain letter. It purporter that Paul's infirmity was that he had two heads - and used scriptural proof-texts to bolster the case. The then Primate couldn't remember any of the proof texts on offer, but only the closing admonition that "this was not an explanation of why Paul had two names (Paul and Saul), since both heads were clearly addressed by the same name when our Lord said, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?"

I do like your suggestion of blindness - and I like the juxtaposition with John-Julian's reference to Mother Julian's usage of "blindness" to refer to sin.