Judaism in Newton’s Study of Scriptural Prophecy

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


Mr. Newton is really a very valuable man, not only for his wonderful skill in mathematics, but in divinity also, and his great knowledge in the Scriptures, wherein I know few his equals.1


Seventeenth Century Jewish History Universal Language True Religion Biblical Criticism 
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  1. 1.
    John Locke, quoted in Kobler, “Newton on the Restoration of the Jews,” p. 21.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    This resemblance is pointed out in Westfall, Never at Rest,p. 329.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Manuel states that Newton never mentions Napier; however, his mathematical approach to prophecy was similar (Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton,p. 91). Napier was indeed a mathematician; in his quest to understand the prophecies he invented logarithms. See Toon, “The Latter-day Glory,” idem (ed), Puritan Eschatology,p. 25 and Popkin, The Third Force,p. 290.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    On Brightman see Avihu Zakai, “Thomas Brightman and the English Apocalyptic Tradition,” Kaplan et al. (eds.), Menasseh ben Israel and His World,pp. 31–44 and Toon, “The Latter-day Glory,” pp. 26–31.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    On Alsted’s eschatology, see R.G. Clouse, “The Rebirth of Millenarianism,” Toon (ed), Puritan Eschatology,pp. 42–56.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    On Mede, see Leroy E. Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers,vol. 2 (Washington D.C., 1948), pp. 542–9; Katherine R. Firth, The Apocalyptic Tradition in Reformation Britain 1530–1645 (Oxford, 1979), Ch. 7; Popkin, “The Third Force,” idem, The Third Force,pp. 90–119, passim; and Rouse, “The Rebirth of Millenarianism,” pp. 56–65.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    For background on millenarianism, see Froom, Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers,vol. 2; Firth, The Apocalyptic Tradition; Popkin, “Third Force”; and especially Toon, Puritan Eschatology.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    See MS. Yahuda 1.1, p. 1 r (quoted in Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton,p. 107), where Newton says he is writing down his results for the benefit of those who are not contented with “the principles of the doctrin of Christ,” but rather “desire to go unto perfection until they become of full age.” He cites Hebrews 5:12 from whence the concepts of “milk for babes” and “meat for men of full age” are taken. For these terms and their centrality in Newton’s thought, see Chapter 6 below.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    MS. Yahuda 1.1, pp. lr-2r, quoted in Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton,p. 108. It seems to me that there is an error in the conception underlying the title of Scott Mandelbrote’s article, ’“A Duty of the Greatest Moment’: Isaac Newton and the writing of Biblical Criticism.” What Newton sees as a “duty of the greatest moment” (Yahuda MS. 1, p. 3r, quoted in Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton,p. 109) is not biblical criticism but the study of Scripture with the intent of recognizing the true religion and unmasking Antichrist. Biblical criticism is merely ancillary to this pursuit.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    MS. Yahuda 1.1, p. 8r, quoted in Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton,p. 114.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    See Newton, Observations, quoted in Castillejo, Expanding Force, p. 34 and Force, “Newton’s God of Dominion,” pp. 82, 87. Matania Z. Kochavi, in his article “One Prophet Interprets Another: Newton on Daniel,” J. E. Force and R. H. Popkin (eds.), The Books of Nature and Scripture, pp. 105–22, seeks to show that Newton really saw himself as a prophet, given special powers of understanding by God. This is not impossible, but if it is true Newton hid the evidence too well to make a convincing case.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Yahuda MS. 1, p. 1r, quoted in Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton,p. 107.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Yahuda MS. 1, pp. 2r–3r, quoted in Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton,p. 109.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    For a fuller discussion of these manuscripts and the many others containing notes and fragments, see Westfall, “Newton’s Theological Manuscripts,” pp. 141–3; Castillejo, Newton Papers, pp. 1–5, esp. pp. 1–3, “A Treatise on the Apocalypse”; and idem, A Report on the Yahuda Collection, pp. 2–5. Castillejo gives more detail, as well as his own interpretation of these scriptural writing, in his Expanding Force, Ch. 2, “The Prophecies in Daniel and the Apocalypse,” pp. 30–56. See also Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton, Ch. 4, “Prophecy and History,” pp. 81–104.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Castillejo, Expanding Force,opposite p. 31.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    See Christopher Hill, “Till the conversion of the Jews’,” idem, The Collected Essays of Christopher Hill, Vol. 17 Religion and Politics in Seventeenth-Century England (Amherst, MA, 1986), pp. 269–300 and Katz, Philo-Semitism,Ch. 3.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Newton would disagree strongly with Allix on other points, such as his belief that this corruption occurred after the advent of Christ, and that the original Jewish religion was Trinitarian. Allix will be discussed further below.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    It has been pointed out to me by Professor Michael Heyd that Luther held an analogous position for a time, around 1523.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    MS. Yahuda 1.1, pp. 2v–3r; quoted in Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton,p. 109.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    MS. Yahuda 1.1, p. 5r; Manuel, The Religion of Isaac.Newton,p. 112.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    It is clear, both from Newton’s own writings and all that is known about him, that he was completely ninterested in observation of the ritual commandments. The passage in MS. Clark Library, Paradoxical Questions,in which Scott Mandelbrote has found a reference to Sabbath on Saturday, is no indication that he was interested in observing it then. See Mandelbrote, “Isaac Newton and Thomas Burnet: Biblical Criticism and the Crisis of Late Seventeenth-Century England,” J. E. Force and R. H. Popkin (eds.), The Books of Nature and Scripture,p. 174, n. 56.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    It was the judiciously learned and conscientious Mr Mede,“ says Newton, ”who first made way into these interpretations, and him I have for the most part followed. For what I found true in him it was not lawful for me to recede from, and I rather wonder that he erred so little then that he erred in some things.“ And again ”As Mr Mede layed the foundation and I have built upon it: so I hope others will proceed higher untill the work be finished.“ MS Yahuda, 1.1, pp. 8r and 15r respectively, quoted in Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton,pp. 116 and 121 respectively. On Newton’s relationship with Mede and his school, see Rob Iliffe, ”’Making a Shew’: Apocalyptic Hermeneutics and the Sociology of Christian Idolatry in the Work of Isaac Newton and Henry More,“ J. E. Force and R. H. Popkin (eds.), The Books of Nature and Scripture,pp. 55–88.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Quoted in Peter Toon, “Introduction” to idem (ed), Puritan Eschatology,p. 19. See also A. R. Dallison, “Contemporary Criticism of Millenarianism,” ibid, pp. 104–114.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    MS. Yahuda 6, p. 12r, quoted in Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton,p. 126.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    MS. Yahuda 6, pp. 17r–18r, quoted in Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton, p. 134. Reiner Smolinski, in a recent paper, has explained how Newton’s view of the Jews’ return in the middle of the millennial process solves particular theological problems faced by the Mede school. See Smolinski, “The Logic of Millennial Thought: Joseph Mede, Cotton Mather, Sir Isaac Newton, and Some a priori Principles of Deciphering the Apocalypse,” paper delivered at the Clark Library Conference on “Newton and Religion” ( Los Angeles; February, 1996 ).Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    On Broughton and his absorption of Jewish and Catholic apocalyptic doctrines, see Firth, Apocalyptic Tradition,Ch. 5, “Cabalists and Talmudists: Hugh Broughton and Thomas Brightman,” pp. 150–179, esp. pp. 158–163. On Broughton’s use of Porphyry and its influence, see Froom, Prophetic Faith,pp. 564–6.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Franz Kobler, “Newton on the Restoration of the Jews,” Jewish Frontier (March, 1943), p. 23.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    These ideas are found in Richard Popkin, “Jewish-Christian Relations in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: The Conception of the Messiah,” Jewish History,vol. 6, no. 1–2 (1992; = The Frank Talmage Memorial Volume, II),pp. 163–177. See also Popkin, Isaac La Peyrère (1596–1676) (Leiden, 1987), Ch. 8. On the influence of Newton’s millenarian ideas, see Kobler, “Newton on the Restoration of the Jews,” p. 23; Popkin, “Newton and the Origins of Fundamentalism”; and idem, “Newton and Fundamentalism, II.”Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    N. Matar, “The Idea of the Restoration of the Jews in English Protestant Thought: Between the Reformation and 1660,” Durham University Journal, N.S. vol. 47 (1986), pp. 23–35.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    N. Matar, “The Idea of the Restoration of the Jews in English Protestant Thought, 1661–1701,” Harvard Theological Review,vol. 78, no. 1–2 (January, 1985), pp. 115–48. Quotations from pp. 116 and 118, respectively.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    See Popkin, “Newton’s Biblical Theology and his Theological Physics,” P. B. Scheurer and G. Debrock (eds.), Newton’s Scientific and Philosophical Legacy (Dordrecht, 1988), pp. 81–97 (reprinted in Popkin, Third Force,pp. 172–88).Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Sarah Hutton, (“More, Newton, and the Language of Biblical Prophecy,” J. E. Force and R. H. Popkin eds., The Books of Nature and Scripture,pp. 39–53), has very effectively shown how important this apocalyptic lexicography was for both More and Newton. She presents a cogent case for the influence of More on Newton’s prophetic lexicon, including More’s use of Achmet, though she does not explore the implications ofNewton’s particular Achmet-Targum combination and its background. She indicates that the main difference between the approaches of More and Newton was in Newton’s desire for a comprehensive and precise set of correspondences.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Matania Kochavi attempts to draw a distinction between what Newton was willing to accept in his prophetic lexicon from outside sources, a type of knowledge open to anyone; and the essential meaning of terms, which could be derived only from within the prophets themselves by means of a special interpretive gift from God. I think this distinction is difficult to uphold, since Newton generally finds agreement between internal and external sources. In addition, it must be remarked that though the prophetic lexicon is specifically meant to encompass the language of all scriptural prophets, its orientation is much more toward Revelation than toward Daniel. See Kochavi, “One Prophet Interprets Another,” pp. 105–8.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    On the Targums, see Encyclopedia Judaica,vol. 4, “Bible, translations,” columns 841–851; Etan Levine, The Aramaic Version of the Bible: Contents and Context (Berlin, 1988); and D. R. G. Beattie and M. J. McNamara (eds.), The Aramaic Bible: Targums in their Historical Context (Sheffield, 1994), esp. Pt. III.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    In his preface, p. 2r (unnumbered), Walton discusses the various Hebrew bibles and editions of the Targum which were produced before and how corruptions had been dealt with.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    This information all comes from the important introductory chapters and translation of the Oneirocriticon prepared by Steven M. Oberhelman, The Oneirocriticon of Achmet: A Medieval Greek and Arabic Treatise on the Interpretation of Dreams (Lubbock, Texas, 1991). My deep thanks to Dr. Tzvi Langermann for helping me identify Achmet and for making his copy of Dr. Oberhelman’s book available to me.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Compare also with the paragraph quoted in Dobbs, Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy,p. 109 from McLachlan. For Mede’s use of Achmet and his understanding of the relationship to Jewish prophetical culture, see Mede, Works,p. 559–60, where he says:Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Newton’s friend Locke may indeed be considered one of the pioneers of semiotics; his Essay Concerning Human Understanding,particularly the third book (“Of Words”), lays down many principles for the study of symbolism. Newton himself has made some important steps. He has identified prophetic language as a method of signification as well as communication; he sees the prophetic “figures” as signs; and he knows there are two codes operating simultaneously. His prophetic lexicon is an attempt to map one of the codes, which has long lacked anyone to recognize it. See Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington, 1976), Ch. 0, 1, 2.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    See D. C. Allen, Mysteriously Meant: The Rediscovery of Pagan Symbolism in the Renaissance (Baltimore, 1970 ).Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    See D. P. Walker, The Ancient Theology: Studies in Christian Platonism from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century (London, 1972); Stephen A. McKnight, The Modern Age and the Recovery of Ancient Wisdom: A Reconsideration of Historical Consciousness, 1450–1650 (Columbia, MO, 1991); Dobbs, Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy and Janus Faces of Genius; P. Casini, “Newton: The Classical Scholia,” History of Science,vol 22 (1984), pp. 1–58; J. E. McGuire and P. M. Rattansi, “Newton and the `Pipes of Pan’,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (1966), pp. 108–43; and P. Rattansi, “Newton and the Wisdom of the Ancients,” J. Fauvel, et al. (eds.), Let Newton Be!,pp. 185–201. See also below Chapter 5.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    Popkin has discussed the tradition of a similar method used by Newton and his predecessors in his essay on “The Crisis of Polytheism.” This is a twist on the argument of consensus gentium.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    A scholarly journal, Emblemata,now deals with these issues. An extremely important discussion has been opened in this area by William Ashworth, and James Bono has discussed Ashworth’s thesis with reference to Newton in a recent paper. My conclusions here fit well for the most part with the much more specialized analysis of Bono. See William B. Ashworth, “Natural History and the Emblematic World View,” D. C. Lindberg and R. S. Westman (eds.), Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 303–332, esp. 307–313 and 327–8, n. 20, 25, 26; and James J. Bono, “From Paracelsus to Newton: The Word of God, the Book of Nature, and the Eclipse of the ‘Emblematic World View’,” paper delivered at the Clark Library conference on “Newton and Religion” (Los Angeles; February, 1996). See also August Buck, “Der Emblematik,” idem, Beiträge zum Handbuch der Literatur Wissenschaft: Renaissance and Barock; Die Emblematik. Zwei Essays von August Buck (Frankfurt am Main, 1971), pp. 36–54 and Allen, Mysteriously Meant. The latter discussions center around visual hieroglyphs and emblems, but there is recognition of literary hieroglyphs as well.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    See, e.g., N. C. Clulee, John Dee’s Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion (London, 1988), Part Two: The Monas Hieroglyphica,1564, Ch. IV, “The Hieroglyphics of Nature,” pp. 75–115. Clulee’s entire book, and indeed the thought of Dee, exemplify the impact of emblemism and prisca sapientia in England during the seminal century before Newton. Considerable attention has been given in recent years to the attempt to read the Book of Nature hieroglyphically; less has been given to the hieroglyphic reading the Book of Scripture. B. J. T. Dobbs has touched on the matter in her studies of Newton’s alchemy in his overall thought, but there is a great deal to be learned in this area concerning many other figures as well.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy,p. 111, and in general pp. 90,108–11 (note the quotation on p. 109). Dobbs points to Henry More, serving as a conduit from the Hartlib circle, as a major source for Newton on the Renaissance prisca sapientia traditions. Both in this work and her later Janus Faces of Genius,Dobbs deals extensively with Newton’s involvement in alchemical symbolism and language, and their relationship to his belief in ancient wisdom. On Hartlib’s involvement with secret and universal languages, see Gerhard F. Strasser, “Closed and Open Languages: Samuel Hartlib’s Involvement with Cryptology and Universal Languages,” M. Greengrass, M. Leslie and T. Raylor (eds.), Samuel Hartlib and Universal Reformation: Studies in Intellectual Communication (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 151–61.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    See Katz, Philo-semitismCh. 2.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    See Manuel,The Religion of Isaac Newtonp. 94.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    See Lois Potter, Secret Rites and Secret Writing: Royalist Literature, 1641–1660 (Cambridge, 1989) and Perez Zagorin, Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution, and Conformity in Early Modern Europe ( Cambridge, MA, 1990 ).Google Scholar
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    Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton,pp. 94–8 and idem, Newton: Historian,Ch. 7, “The Pragmatization of Ancient Myth.”Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    See Mary M. Slaughter, Universal Languages and Scientific Taxonomy in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, 1982), Introduction, pp. 1–11, pp. 153–5 (on Newton’s contribution), et passim; Ralph W. V. Elliot, “Isaac Newton as Phonetician,” Modern Language Review, vol. 49, no. 1 (January, 1954), pp. 5–12 (pp. 9–12 contain a transcription of the relevant section of Newton’s notebook); idem, “Isaac Newton’s `Of an Universali Language’,” Modern Language Review, vol. 52, no. 1 (January, 1957), pp. 1–18 (pp. 7–18 contain a transcription of a Newton MS.); and R. H. Popkin, “The Crisis of Polytheism and the Answers of Vossius, Cudworth, and Newton,” pp. 9–25. The MS. transcribed in Elliott, “’Of an Universali Language’ bears a distinct conceptual affinity to the prophetic lexicon. The fourth chapter of Allison Coudert’s forthcoming book on van Helmont deals extensively with related issues of universal language and its implications in seventeenth-century thought. Amos Funkenstein has presented a brief but extremely important discussion of what Newton and contemporary scientists wanted to do with language, which renders Newton’s ideas on prophetic language all the clearer. See Amos Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination: From the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century (Princeton, 1986 ), pp. 28–9.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1998

Authors and Affiliations

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

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