If you have been following my summaries of Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s Paul: A Critical Life, you have become aware of his comprehensive theory that Paul broke decisively with his base church at Antioch after his confrontation with Peter there. Furthermore, the Antioch church then plagued Paul by sending people to subvert his Gentile mission in Galatia, at Philippi, and as far as Corinth.
This theory of the break with Antioch and the continuing opposition of Judaizers representing that church shaped Murphy-O’Connor’s position on several things. Today I want to point out how it affects two issues and causes him to hold a distinctive view on those.
First, is the issue of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”. Paul mentioned this in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10:
Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me – so that I would not become arrogant. I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (NET Bible).
Many scholars have speculated about this. Some connect it with Paul’s sickness that caused him to stop and stay in Galatia (Galatians 4:13 ff.). So they have thought it was a disease of the eyes or malaria, or epilepsy or migraines. However, Murphy O’Connor argued that Paul’s rigorous life requires us to accept that he was basically healthy. Some have suggested a psychological struggle with depression or sexual temptation. There is no good evidence for these.
So Murphy-O’Connor argued that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was the opposition to his ministry. There is a pretty persuasive argument for this starting with Hebrew Bible uses of “thorn” for enemies (see Numbers 33:35 and Ezekiel 28:24). In addition, Paul had already compared his opposition to Satan, who disguises himself as an angel (messenger) of light, in 2 Corinthians 11:14-15. Now, in the passage quoted above, the thorn in the flesh is the same thing as a “messenger of Satan.”
Second, comes an issue related to the occasion for Romans. In Romans 15:24 Paul declares his intention to go to Spain and to visit Rome on the way so that the Roman church can help him on his way. Murphy-O’Connor made the case that the passive construction translated as “be helped on my way” actually meant that he wanted Rome to commission him as Antioch once had. He wanted Rome as his new base.
Since his break with Antioch he had been without a commissioning church. Paul felt the inadequacy of this. So now he wanted the Roman church to own his mission to Spain. His alienation from Antioch had meant he had been operating outside the mainstream of the Christian movement. For his mission to Spain, he wanted to integrate himself back into the Christian movement.
I am not sure about this point because I am not persuaded that Paul’s break with Antioch was as sharp or as lasting as Murphy-O’Connor portrayed it. But perhaps he did want Rome as a sponsor in a new geographical and cultural setting. Spain was Latin-speaking, whereas all Paul’s previous communities had been Greek-speaking.
Murphy-O’Connor was not at all persuaded by the many scholars who have tried to make the occasion for Romans a crisis caused by the return of the Jews expelled by Claudius. He doubts that this expulsion affected many of the forty or fifty thousand Jews in Rome. Paul, he thought, had a little information about Rome from people like Aquila and Priscilla, but that basically he was thinking about taking the collection to Jerusalem and then starting a mission in Spain. He didn’t know enough about Rome to address a specific situation there.
This fits with my understanding of Romans–that Paul was rehearsing for his discussion with the leaders in Jerusalem.