Thorn in the Flesh, Gift of the Gods: Suffering and the Construction of Identity

Dr Steven Muir
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Two writers in the Greco-Roman world give evidence of how bodily suffering may be managed through the attribution of religious meaning. The first-century apostle Paul of Tarsus and the second-century rhetorician Aelius Aristides each endured pain and discomfort to an heroic extent. They did so by seeing themselves as peculiarly blessed by their god (for Paul, the god of his Jewish ancestors latterly revealed in Jesus of Nazareth; for Aristides, the Greek healing god Asclepius). Each man found comfort and meaning in his situation by seeing himself as an instrument of his god, his pain as part of a process of divine intervention, and the cure or relief through a heightened personal relationship to that god.

Each man overcame adversity by becoming a spokesperson or apologist for that divinity. In other words, this relationship provided a larger cognitive and affective framework into which suffering could be relativized. My analysis draws upon and expands the important work by Judith Perkins (The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era, 1995) to consider issues relating on the one hand to the psychological and social construction of the self and health states, and on the other hand to cultural anthropology (in particular shamanism and the management of crisis moments through initiation). These two historical figures, Paul and Aristides, provide insights into issues which continue to affect humans in modern societies.

Keywords: Paul, Aristides, Body, Self, Shamanism, Initiation
Stream: Religion, Spirituality
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Thorn in the Flesh, Gift of the Gods

Dr Steven Muir

Assistant Professor, Religious Studies, Concordia University College of Alberta

A teacher and scholar involved in the study of Christian origins in the context of the Greco-Roman World, healing and health issues in the ancient world, anthropology and religion (especially rites of passage, initiation, prophecy and shamanism), and the comparative study of world religions. Has essays in three forthcoming collections.

Ref: H05P0275