The Background of Newton’s Jewish Studies

  • Matt Goldish
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales D’histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 157)


I cannot paint out in little a true and lively character of [the Jews] better, than in these paradoxes and riddles. There are no Authors do more affright and vex the Reader, and yet there are none, who do more intice and delight him. In no Writers is greater or equal trifling, and yet in none is greater, or so great benefit. The Doctrine of the Gospel hath no more bitter enemies than they, and yet the Text of the Gospel hath no more plain interpreters. To say all in a word, To the Jews their Countrymen they recommend nothing but toys, and destruction and poyson; but Christians, by their skill and industry, may render them most usefully serviceable to their Studies, and most eminently tending to the Interpretation of the New Testament.1


Seventeenth Century Jewish Community Sixteenth Century Jewish History Jewish Study 
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  1. 1.
    John Lightfoot, Hebrew and Talmudical Exercitations upon the Gospel of Saint Matthew (1658), in idem, Works (London, 1694), vol. 2, pp. 93–4; quoted in Frank Manuel, The Broken Staff Judaism Through Christian Eyes ( Cambridge, MA, 1992 ), pp. 130–1.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Aaron Katchen, Christian Hebraists and Dutch Rabbis: Seventeenth Century Apologetics and the Study of Maimonides’Mishneh Torah ( Cambridge, MA, 1984 ), p. 9.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
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  4. 4.
    Roth, “Hebraists and Non-Hebraists,” p. 218.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Among the most important studies of Hebraism in the sixteenth century are Jerome Friedman, The Most Ancient Testimony: Sixteenth-Century Christian-Hebraica in the Age of Renaissance Nostalgia (Athens, Ohio, 1983; includes avery comprehensive bibliography); G. Lloyd Jones, The Discovery of Hebrew in Tudor England: A Third Language (Manchester, 1983); Israel Baroway, “Toward Understanding Tudor-Jacobean Hebrew Studies,” Jewish Social Studies,vol. 18 (1956), pp. 3–24 (useful mainly for its bibliography); Frank Rosenthal, “The Rise of Christian-Hebraism in the 16th-Century,” Historia Judaica,vol. 7 (April, 1945), pp. 167–91. On the seventeenth century, P. T. van Rooden, Theology, Biblical Scholarship and Rabbinical Studies in the Seventeenth Century: Constantijn L’Empereur (1591–1648) Professor of Hebrew and Theology at Leiden (Leiden, 1989); Katchen, Christian Hebraists Roth, “Hebraists and Non-Hebraists”; and Stephen G. Burnett, From Christian Hebraism to Jewish Studies: Johannes Buxtorf (1564–1629) and Hebrew Learning in the Seventeenth Century (Leiden, 1996). More general studies of Christian Hebraism include: Manuel, The Broken Staff Raphael Loewe’s entry on “Hebraists, Christian (1100–1890),” Encyclopedia Judaica,vol 8 and G. H. Box, “Hebrew Studies in the Reformation Period and After: Their Place and Influence,” E. R. Bevan and C. Singer, The Legacy of Israel (Oxford, 1927), pp. 315–75. On Christian Kabbalah, see Chaim Wirszubski, Pico della Mirandola’s Encounter with Jewish Mysticism (Cambridge, MA, 1990); Joseph L. Blau, The Christian Interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance (New York, 1965); and F. Secret, Les Kabbalistes Chrétiens de la Renaissance (Paris, 1965).Google Scholar
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    David S. Katz, The Abendana Brothers and the Christian Hebraists of Seventeenth-Century England,“ Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 40, no. 1 (January, 1989 ), p. 51.Google Scholar
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    See Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 1917), entries John Lightfoot (vol. 11, pp. 1108–10); John Spencer (vol. 18, pp. 767–8); John Selden (vol. 17, pp. 1150–62); and Edward Pococke (vol. 16, pp. 7–12). Also Chaim Eliezer Schertz, Christian Hebraism in 17th Century England As Reflected in the Works of John Lightfoot (New York University Ph.D Dissertation, 1977), pp. 19–20, 48.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    While Scaliger encouraged the use of Jews as Hebrew teachers, most of his students, including Cunaeus and Grotius, did not study with Jews to our knowledge. But the Dutch Hebraists had far more contact with Jews than their English counterparts. Coccejus studied with a Jewish teacher, though only for a very short period. The Vossius’, among the greatest of Dutch Hebraists, studied with Menasseh ben Israel, though this occurred after their position as Hebraists was already established. Similarly, Constantijn L’Empereur, another student of Scaliger, studied with Jews. See Katchen, Christian Hebraists, pp. 34,38,55–6,65–6,76–7,99, 168–9, 172; van Rooden, L’Empereur, pp. 41–8; and idem, “Constantijn L’Empereur’s Contacts with the Amsterdam Jews and his Confutation of Judaism,” J. Van den Berg and E. G. E. Van der Wall (eds.), Jewish-Christian Relations in the Seventeenth Century: Studies and Documents (Dordrecht, 1988 ), pp. 56–9.Google Scholar
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    See Burnett, Christian Hebraism to Jewish Studies,p. 5 and n. 10 there.Google Scholar
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    E.g., Harrison, Library, #321–2, 937, 1126, 1230, 1411, 1469, 1470. One must not assume that these works were strictly technical tools for acquiring the Hebrew language. They usually contained detailed definitions and cross references which were very important for Newton in the construction of his “scientific” prophetic lexicon.Google Scholar
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    See, e.g., Chen Merchavia, The Church Versus Talmudic and Midrashic Literature (500–1248) (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1970) and Jeremy Cohen, The Friars and the Jews: The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism (Ithaca, 1982 ).Google Scholar
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    See, e.g., the Hebraists discussed by William McKane, Selected Christian Hebraists (Cambridge, 1989).Google Scholar
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    See Wirszubski, Pico della Mirandola’s Encounter in n. 5 above.Google Scholar
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    In addition to the bibliography cited inn. 5 above, see L. I. Newman, Jewish Influence on Christian Reform Movements (New York, 1925).Google Scholar
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    These included Bartolomeo de Valverde, chaplain to Philip II of Spain, and the Hebraist Andreas Masius, an authority cited on occasion by Newton. See Kenneth Stow, “The Burning of the Talmud in 1553 in the Light of Sixteenth-Century Catholic Attitudes Toward the Talmud,” Jeremy Cohen (ed), Essential Papers on Judaism and Christianity in Conflict, From Late Antiquity to the Reformation (New York, 1991; reprinted from Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance,vol. 34), pp. 409–11. In this case as in almost all sixteenth century discussions, conversionism is still proposed as the prime interest in defending the use of rabbinic literature, but it is clear that is not the entire purpose of Jewish studies for these men.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    See David S. Katz, Sabbath and Sectarianism in Seventeenth-Century England (Leiden, 1988) and Kenneth L. Parker, The English Sabbath: A Study of Doctrine on Discipline from the Reformation to the Civil War (Cambridge, 1988). Both of these are reviewed in Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 41 (1990), pp. 491–5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Eamon Duffy, “Primitive Christianity Revived; Religious Renewal in Augustan England,” D. Baker (ed), Renaissance and Renewal in Christian History (Studies in Church History, # 14 Oxford, 1977), pp. 287–300. The study of primitive Christianity was very central in Newton’s thought, as will be shown below in Chapter 6.Google Scholar
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    On Lightfoot, see Schertz, Christian Hebraism in 17th Century England (above, n. 12).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    See Abraham Melamed, “English Travelers and Venetian Scholars: The Case of Simone Luzzatto and James Harrington,” G. Cozzi (ed), Gli Ebrei e Venezia, Secoli XIV—XVIII (Milano, 1987), pp. 507–25. On Harrington’s relationship with Jews and Jewish thought, see S. B. Liljegren, “Harrington and the Jews,” Bulletin de la Societé Royale des Lettres de Lund,vol. 4 (1931–2), pp. 65–92.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    See Alex Mitchell and John Struthers (eds.), Minutes of the Sessions of the Westminster Assembly of Divines While Engaged in Preparing their Directory for Church Government, Confession of Faith, and Catechisms (November 1644-March 1649) (London, 1874; reprint, Edmonton, 1991), pp. 439–48 and passim.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    William Haller, Liberty and Reformation in the Puritan Revolution (New York, 1955), pp. 230–1. For an account of the significance of the “Erastian Revival” at the Westminister Assembly, including the important role of Hebraism, see William M. Lamont, Godly Rule: Politics and Religion 1603–60 (London, 1969), pp. 113–21, esp. 115–6. Note that Thomas Coleman, in honor of his Hebraic learning, was nicknamed “Rabbi Coleman.”Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Peter Allix, The Judgment of the Ancient Jewish Church Against the Unitarians (London, 1699) and idem, Two Treatises: I. A Confutation of the Hopes of the Jews Concerning the Last Redemption. II. An Answer to Mr. Whiston’s Late Treatise on the Revelations… (London, 1707). Newton owned the latter work. See next note and also my article on Allix in J. E. Force and D. S. Katz (eds.), Everything Connects: In Conference With Richard H. Popkin (Leiden, forthcoming)Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    See A. R. Hall and L. Tilling (eds.), The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, Volume VII: 1718–1727 (Cambridge, 1977 ), pp. 357–8.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Harrison, Library, p. 59. The appellation “Harrison” will hereafter refer to this work and the accompanying number assigned to each book in Newton’s library by Harrison.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Harrison, Library,p. 59.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    This was a Hebrew text only, with no translation or commentary. See Yeshayahu Vinograd, Thesaurus of the Hebrew Book, vol. 2, “Places of Print” (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1993 ), p. 243.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Münster was one of the sixteenth century’s most important Hebraists, and his works were standard fare for all later Hebraists.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    On Tremellius, see Immanuel Tremellius, Hinuch Behire Ya“h (Geneva, 1580); Wilhelm Becker, Immanuel Tremellius; Ein Proselytenleben im Zeitalter de Reformation… (Leipzig, 1890) and DNB,vol. 19, pp. 1112–4; Lloyd-Jones, Discovery of Hebrew,pp. 50–2. Tremellius spent time in England, and his translation had much influence on English Bible scholarship of the seventeenth century.Google Scholar
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    Newton also owned the adjunct lexicon for the polyglot, Edmund Castell’s Lexicon heptaglotton (Harrison, #351). On the Walton polyglot, see Box, “Hebrew Studies,” pp. 359–60.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Note also Harrison, #749 —Hegesippus, De bello ludaico, et Urbis Hierosolymitanae excidio, libri y (Cologne, 1559). This is the free rendering ofJosephus’ Wars which has existed since ancient times and caused much confusion. See JE and El,“Hegesippus.”Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Harrison reports that Newton’s copy is heavily dogeared.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    On Godwin see DNB,vol. 8, pp. 63–4.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    Waser was the lifelong friend and colleague of Buxtorf the Elder. See Burnett, Christian Hebraism to Jewish Studies,p. 19.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Manuel, Broken Staff,pp. 118, 119 (whence the quotation.)Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Concerning the religious aims of Newton’s “pure” science endeavors, see, e.g., Force, “Newton’s God of Dominion” and Dobbs, The Janus Faces of Genius. Concerning his biblical science (along with certain aspects of his “pure” science), see Richard H. Popkin, “Newton’s Biblical Theology and his Theological Physics,” idem, The Third Force in Seventeenth Century Thought (Leiden, 1992), pp. 172–88, esp. pp. 172–3 and Scott Mandelbrote, “’A Duty of the Greatest Moment’: Isaac Newton and the Writing of Biblical Criticism,” British Journal for the History of Science,vol. 26 (1993), pp. 281–302, esp. pp. 300–02.Google Scholar
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    For the significance of this material, see Paolo Rossi, The Dark Abyss of Time (Chicago, 1984).Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Newton’s copy is dogeared and has alternative versions of the Hebrew months and others written in his hand. On Scaliger’s chronology and its importance, see Anthony Grafton, “Scaliger’s Chronology: Philology, Astronomy, World History,” idem, Defenders of the Text (Cambridge, MA, 1991), pp. 104–44, especially 126–8, where the author proves Scaliger pirated Munster’s work (mentioned above) for information about Jewish calendrics. Newton probably used both Scaliger and Münster in his chronological works.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Jonathan M. Elukin, “Jacques Basnage and the History of the Jews: Anti-Catholic Polemic and Historical Allegory in the Republic of Letters,” Journal of the History of Ideas,vol. 53, no. 4 (Oct.—Dec. 1992), pp. 603–630 and see the extensive bibliography cited there.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    This volume is very heavily dogeared. It was the elder Vossius’ appendix to his son Dionysius’ translation of Maimonides’ “On Idolatry” (#1019), with which it is boundGoogle Scholar
  48. 48.
    See especially Popkin, “The Crisis of Polytheism and the Answers of Vossius, Cudworth and Newton”; and “Polytheism, Deism, and Newton,” Essays in the Context, Nature, and Influence,p. 973.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    On him see Katz, “The Abendana Brothers”Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    On some aspects of the influence and implications of this book, see Mark R. Cohen, “Leone da Modena’s Riti: A Seventeenth-Century Plea For Social Toleration of Jews,” Jewish Social Studies,vol. 34, no. 4 (Oct., 1972), pp. 287–321; Richard H. Popkin, “Les Caraites et lEmancipation des Juifs,” Dix Huitième Siècle,vol. 13 (1981), pp. 139–41; and Kaplan, “’Karaites’,” pp. 220–9.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    See, e.g., the opinions of Maimonides expressed by Cunaeus, Buxtorf and Gentius, in Katchen, Christian Hebraists,pp. 39, 95–6 and 248–9, respectively and George Bright, introduction to Lightfoot’s English Works,P. xix.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    On de Veil (1630–85), see W.T. Whitley, “Charles-Marie de Veil,” Baptist Quarterly, vol. 5 (1930–1), pp. 74–85,118–129,177–189.Google Scholar
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    On Vossius and his De Idolatria,see Katchen, Christian Hebraists,pp. 178–235; Popkin, “The Crisis of Polytheism”; and idem, “Polytheism, Deism, and Newton.”Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Maius was an associate of Coccejus and cooperated with him on various Hebraica projectsGoogle Scholar
  55. 55.
    This work is interesting for various reasons, including the fact that Pococke has supplied the Arabic original in Hebrew letters alongside his translation. It is odd that the first part is dated 1655 and the second 1654. This second section contains various notes on Hebraic matters, partly of a philological character, but mainly concerning the difficult matters of ritual purity and impurity found in Seder Kodashim and Seder Taharot. Pococke, who was more of an Arabist than a Hebraist (though he was no mean Hebraist), discusses Arabic-Hebrew parallels at some length.Google Scholar
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  57. 57.
    See Ibid, pp. 235–59.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    Popkin, “Newton and Maimonides”; idem, “Further Comments”; and Faur, “Esoteric Knowledge.”Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    To understand how much Judaic material was available in Newton’s lifetime and what a really complete library of Latin Judaica looked like, see the MS. catalogue of Bishop Marsh’s library in Dublin, in which there are many dozens of works on Jewish studies.Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    Prof. Richard H. Popkin suggested to me that Newton must have met Jews in the context of his work at the Mint, but I have not seen evidence of this and I am unsure to what degree English Jews traded in precious metals during the early eighteenth century.Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    The only full-length monograph on Nieto is Jakob J. Petuchowski, The Theology of Haham David Nieto: An Eighteenth-Century Defense of the Jewish Tradition (New York, 1954). See also Israel Solomons, “David Nieto and Some of His Contemporaries,” Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England,vol. 12 (1931), pp. 1–101; David Katz, The Jews in the History of England,pp. 196–201; and the recent research of David Ruderman discussed below. None of these has much to say about the Pascologia.Google Scholar
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    Yahuda MS. 24, “Considerations about rectifying the Julian Kalendar,” contains a section entitled “Regula pro determinatione Paschalis.” In Yahuda MS. 15 and MS. Bodmer he often brings up the famous problem of whether Easter could be celebrated on Passover.Google Scholar
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    See Katz, “Abendana,” p. 11–12.Google Scholar
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    See Nabil I. Matar, “John Locke and the Jews,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History,vol. 44, no. 1 (January, 1993), pp. 49, 52–3.Google Scholar
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    See Katz, “Abendana,” p. 39 and n. 43 there and Robert Boyle, The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle (New edition; London, 1722), vol. 6, pp. 264–5; Oldenberg writes Boyle concerning some Hebrew manuscripts he had promised to buy from Haham Jacob Abendana.Google Scholar
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    Katz, “Abendana,” n. 46.Google Scholar
  67. 67.
    Matar, “Restoration of the Jews,” p. 116.Google Scholar
  68. 68.
    Ruderman, “Jewish Thought in Newtonian England: The Career and Writings of David Nieto,” Proceedings of the American Academy offewish Research,vol. 58 (1992), pp. 191–217, substatially identical with Ch. 11 of his book Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe (New Haven, 1995) and Jacob, The Newtonians and the English Revolution. The specific issue of Clarke and Nieto is just one of the topics with which Ruderman deals, but it is the most immediately related to Newtonianism.Google Scholar
  69. 69.
    While later articles have dealt with de Castro Sarmento in his Jewish context, the most thorough study of his science is still Augusto D’Esaguy, Jacob de Castro Sarmento: Notas Relativas à Sua Obra (Lisboa, 1946). See also my forthcoming article, “Newtonian, Converso and Deist: The Lives of Jacob (Henrique) de Castro Sarmento,” in Science in Context.Google Scholar
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    Sarmento fled the Iberian Peninsula out of fear of the Inquisition, but he was nevertheless anxious to help the Portuguese progress with the introduction of Newtonian science.Google Scholar
  71. 71.
    De Castro Sarmento, Theorica,tip: “…A que se ajunta, Como Introducçam no principio, huma breve Relaçam da vida, e descubrimentos deste Immortal, e Illustre Philosopho: E a o fim, em forma de Apendix, a Demonstraçam, de que a Lua se retem no seu Orbe pela força da Gravidade”.Google Scholar
  72. 72.
    This obviously scans a great deal better in the original English: Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night. God said, Let Newton Be! and All was Light.Google Scholar
  73. 73.
    Ibid, “Dedication,” pp. v—x.Google Scholar
  74. 74.
    Sarmento, Theorica,p. vi. On Desaguliers, see Gjertsen, Newton Handbook,pp. 168–9. Desaguliers was a young fellow of the Royal Society who was asked to perform experiments confirming Newtonian principles. These were so successful that they were repeated before visiting scientific dignitaries in order to convince them of Newton’s veracity and were reported in the 1726 edition of Newton’s Prinicipia. Desaguliers spent much of his life propagandizing for Newtonianism.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • Matt Goldish
    • 1
  1. 1.University of ArizonaTucsonUSA

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