Judaism in Newton’s History of Early Religion

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


So then the first religion was the most rational of all others till the nations corrupted it. For there is no way {(wthout revelation)} to come to ye knowledge of a Deity but by the frame of nature. (Sir Isaac Newton, MS. Yahuda 41, p. 7r)


Jewish History Jewish Tradition Heavenly Body Natural Religion True Religion 
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  1. 1.
    On these topics, see Manuel, Isaac Newton, Historian and Rossi, Dark Abyss of Time.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Westfall, Never at Rest,p. 812, goes so far as to say that “Only one people escaped Newton’s razor: the Israelites, whose written record, the oldest such extant in Newton’s belief, gave their history a solidity by which the others’ could be amended.” Manuel, Isaac Newton, Historian,Ch. VI (“Israel Vindicated”), treats the place of the Hebrews in Newton’s thought in some detail.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Westfall, “Theologiae Gentilis” and Force, “Newton and Deism.”Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See Popkin, “The Crisis of Polytheism”; idem, “Polytheism, Deism, and Newton”; Manuel, Isaac Newton, Historian,Ch. 2, 6, 7, 9; and Knoespel, “Interpretive Strategies in Theologiae gentilis origines philosophiae, Clark Library Conference on “Newton and Religion” (Los Angeles; February, 1996.)Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Westfall, “Theologiae Gentilis, p. 24.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Newton is perhaps following the structure of John Calvin’s Institutes,where Book IV, Ch. ii, is a comparison of true and false churches. In general, Newton’s theology takes up many of the same themes as Calvin’s Book IV: the unity of the true church, division of true and false churches, functions of “doctors and ministers” of the church, the government and condition of the ancient church before the rise of papacy, and the way papacy overthrew the pristine church. See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (vol. 1 and 2; Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX; ed. J. T. McNeill, trans. F. L. Battles; Philadelphia, 1960), vol. 2, Book IV.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Westfall, “Theologiae Gentilis”, p. 19.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Richard Hooker was among those who briefly discussed the Seven Noachide Commandments. See The Folger Library Edition of the Works of Richard Hooker,vol.1 (Cambridge, MA, 1977), pp. 312–4 (=0f the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity,Book IV, 11:6–11:8.)Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Richard Hooker was among those who briefly discussed the Seven Noachide Commandments. See The Folger Library Edition of the Works of Richard Hooker,vol.1 (Cambridge, MA, 1977), pp. 312–4 (=0f the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity,Book IV, 11:6–11:8.)Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    MS. Yahuda 16, p. Ir, quoted in Westfall, “Theologiae Gentilis, p. 18.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    All this is based on Westfall, “Theologiae Gentilis, pp. 19–20. The identification of Phut with Neptune was accomplished through a Hebrew etymology which will be discussed below and was not picked up by Westfall.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    This is the system described by Newton very briefly as an introduction to his System of the World. See Cajori (ed), Principia,vol. 2, pp. 549–50.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    According to the quotation just given, the ritual part of religion should not carry with it any really important truths—it is changeable. This fits well with the picture of ancient religion as worship of Noachide forebears in their various forms, but it is problematic concerning the Prytanaea, which preserved philosophical (scientific) truths about the world.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    For a great deal more detail on the identity of the Tabernacle and Temple as Prytanaea, see Chapter 5 below.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    On natural law, see R. Wollheim, “Natural Law,” Paul Edwards (ed), Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 5 (New York, 1967), pp. 450–454 and bibliography there, especially H. L. A. Hart, The Concept of Law (Oxford, 1961), Ch. 9, “Laws and Morals,” parts i—ii, pp. 181–95. On natural religion, see “Nature,” Mircea Eliade (ed), Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 10 (New York, 1987), pp. 328–36. In the eighteenth century the concept of natural religion took a far more radical turn, e.g., in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Immanuel Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of of Reason Alone. The seeds of such approaches, however, are already found by Newton’s generation, and he himself speaks of the pristine religion as based on “immutable reason.” See, e.g., William Wollaston, The Religion of Nature Delineated (London, 1724 ).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    The only published discussion i have found of the Seven Noahchide Laws and Selden’s interest in them is Elio Toaff, “La Torah Universale dei Bend Noach,” La Rassegna Mensile di Israel,vol. 60 (1993), pp. 137–40. Toaff stresses the universality of the Noachide commandments and attempts to connect this with ideas of toleration.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    See Chapter 6 below for all these issues.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Westfall refers to the MS. as Yahuda 16.2; in fact there is no 16.2, and this MS. is simply Yahuda 16.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Dionysii Vossii, R. Mosis Maimonidae de Idololatria Liber cum interpretatione Latina, notis, Dionysii Vossii (Amsterdam, 1642) and Gerardi Ioannis Vossii, De Theologia Gentili, et Physiologia christiana; sive de origine ac progressu idololatriae, ad veterum gesta, ac rerum naturam, reductae; deque naturae mirandis, quibus homo adducitur ad Deum, Liber I, et II. (Amsterdam, 1652).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Samuel Bochart, Geographia Sacra, cujus pars prior PHALEG De Disperione Gentium & terrarum divisione facia in aedificatione turris Babel; pars posterior CHANAAN De coloniis & sermon Phoenicum agit...(Frankfurt-am-Main, 1681), Book I, Ch. 1.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Bochart, Geographia Sacra,p. 1. See also ibid, pp. 9–10 and Vossius, De Theologia Gentili, pp. 118–20.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    See Westfall, “Theologiae Gentilis,” p. 19.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Manuel, Isaac Newton, Historian,p. 115.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    On Cappellus and the controversy surrounding the Hebrew vowel points, see Georg Schnedermann, Die Controverse de Ludovicus Cappellus mit den Buxtorfen über das Alter den Hebräischen Punktuation (Leipzig, 1879); Jordan S. Penkower, “A Reconsideration of’Sefer Massoreth ha-Massoroth’ of Elijah Levita: The Late Origin of Vowel Markings and Criticism of the Zohar” (Hebrew) Italia,vol. 8, no. 1–2 (1989), pp. 7–73; and Burnett, Christian Hebraism to Jewish Studies,Ch. 7.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    John Hutchinson, Glory or Gravity,in his Works (1733–4), vol. 6, p. 7, quoted in David S. Katz, “Hutchinsonians and Hebraic Fundamentalism in Eighteenth-Century England,” idem and J.I. Israel (eds.), Skeptics, Millenarians and Jews (Leiden, 1990), p. 241.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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