St. Paul and Alexander Hamilton

From Ron Chernow’s famous biography of Alexander Hamilton (page 247, footnote omitted):

Tradition claims that Hamilton wrote the first installment of the masterpiece known as The Federalist Papers in the cabin of a Hudson River sloop as he and [his wife] Eliza returned to New York from Albany. Eliza recalled going upriver, not down, and said Hamilton laid out the contours of the project as they sailed: “My beloved husband wrote the outline of his papers in The Federalist on board of one of the North River sloops while on his way to Albany, a journey…which in those days usually occupied a week. Public business so filled up his time that he was compelled to do much of his studying and writing while traveling.” Whether he was sailing downriver or upriver, it is pleasant to picture Hamilton scratching out his plan as the tall, single-masted schooner slipped past the Hudson Highlands and the Palisades. This first essay appeared in The Independent Journal on October 27, 1787.

Now, gentle reader, you may be wondering what this has to do with the Bible. I’ll get there! In doing so, let me give you another quotation, this one from a much less famous work, namely this blogsite, and in particular a post titled, “Another Genre Angle”:

At a Bible study meeting, someone commented on how “packed” Paul’s letters were.  That got me to thinking how the circumstances under which something is written might influence both style and content.

A letter written with time constraints (and maybe material ones, like a shortage of affordable paper) and for some specific crisis would indeed likely be more “packed” and less poetic than an account of Creation, for example.

Consider also how the intended audience might affect both style and content:  A letter to a demographically mixed congregation that would be read out loud, and maybe heard only once by many of its members, would be written differently than if the audience would be fellow Jews, with specialized education, likely reading it and studying it more slowly and carefully over a period of time.

Well said! Let’s explore this some more.

Much of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, would not seem to have been written with special time or physical constraints. I’m speculating, of course, since no one now knows the individual writers’ circumstances. But consider the Torah, Wisdom books, and the Jewish historical books: They are written for the ages, as is all Scripture, and what’s more the authors might have been anticipating this, and there is nothing in them to suggest there was a particular deadline in their composition.

The prophets are a different matter, and at least some of their writings could have been written with great urgency. But I have to say that, if there is great and immediate exigency, you are less likely to write something that is extremely long, which fairly describes the major prophets. And I’ll add that Jonah among the minor prophets gives really a historical, past-tense account, and Daniel among the major prophets is half historical. Nonetheless, it is easy to see urgency in the writing and circumstances of the minor prophets. If they thought God’s wrath against their people was imminent and yet might still be averted — well, it’s hard to imagine anything more urgent than that. The prophets’ work might also angered other Jews and put them at some risk, which seems less likely for the other Old Testament books.

In the New Testament, the book that seems, at least in retrospect, to have been least time-sensitive is Revelation. And John was there on the deserted island of Patmos, exiled, which makes it seem even more reflective rather than reflexive. Luke and Acts were carefully researched and written for Theophilus to provide him some history; on the other hand, the message of any of the Gospels necessarily has built into it some urgency. It was news, after all — “good news”! Some of what was written in the Gospels may have been memorializing what was already being spread, excitedly, by word of mouth. And the threat of persecution was there in the background, for readers and writers of the Gospels alike.

But it’s the New Testament letters that prompted this post, and particularly those written by the peripatetic St. Paul. He is the guy who brings to mind Alexander Hamilton, both of them writing on the run — perhaps Paul did some of his composition on sailing craft (see endnote to this post), just as Hamilton did in the Chernow passage I began this post with — and both writing to address immediate and specific challenges, and yet both also producing work for the ages.

P.S. I don’t think that any of this is inconsistent with all the various books being inspired by the Holy Spirit, with all of them being Scripture. In particular, I think that one can recognize the special challenges that Paul faced in what he wrote and can admire him for those, without suggesting that his work was less or more inspired by the Holy Spirit than other books in the Bible. See Malcolm Muggeridge on this point, here.

Endnote: There’s a wonderful 1994 film adaptation, word for word, of the Book of Acts; the organizing structure in it is that Dr. Luke — played by Dean Jones, by the way, a serious Christian — is dictating the events to a scribe, including, at one point, while on a harrowing boat ride.