Kabbalah and the Corruption of the Primitive Church

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


...One of them [modem parties] does affirm, the true Christianity of the Jews was overborn and destroy’d by the more numerous Gentiles, who, not enduring the reasonableness and simplicity of the same, brought into it by degrees the peculiar expressions and mysteries of Heathenism, the abstruse doctrines and distinctions of their Philosophers...The Socinians and other Unitarians no less confidently assert, that the Gentiles did likewise introduce into Christianity their former polytheism and deifying of dead men: thus retaining (add they) the name of Christianity, but quite altering the thing.... (Toland, Nazarenus, p. 77)


Prime Matter Emanation Theory Church Father Bible Criticism Primordial Matter 
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  1. 2.
    One might note a slight paradox in Newton’s thought here: metaphysics is “meat for men of full age,” and should not have been a consideration in whether to baptize someone in Newton’s own view.Google Scholar
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    Westfall (“Newton’s Theological Manuscripts,” p. 142) has described Keynes MS. 2 as “Newton’s theological notebook,” and dated it “mostly ([16]]70’s.” The internal evidence here indicates that at least this part of the manuscript was written ca. 1691. This is itself interesting as the 1690’s is a period when Westfall’s analysis indicates a general lack of theological activity on Newton’s part.Google Scholar
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    Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton,p. 75Google Scholar
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    Allison Coudert, Leibniz and the Kabbalah (Dordrecht, 1995)Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    The first volume was published at Sulzbach in 1677, the second at Frankfurt in 1684. See Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton, p. 68. On the Kabbala denudata, see Allison Coudert, “The Kabbala denudata: Converting Jews or Seducing Christians?” R. H. Popkin and G. M. Weiner (eds.), Jewish Christians and Christian Jewsfrom the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Dordrecht, 1994), pp. 73–96; Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah (Jerusalem, 1988), pp. 416–9; and Ernst Benz, “La Kabbale chrétienne en Allemagne, du XVI` au XVIII’ siècle,” Kabbalistes chrétiens (Paris, 1979), pp. 103–9. The English translation by S.L. MacGregor Mathers of a large portion of the Kabbala denudata is still republished in our own day, bearing witness to the ongoing popularity of this work.Google Scholar
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    This can be discerned even from the title page of the second volume, which states that the contents are an “Opus Omnibus genuinae antiquitatus, & sublimiorum Hebraicae gentus dogmatum indacatoribuschrw(133)tempore Christi & Apostolorum usitati, Studiosis, aliisque curiosis utilissimum, & vere Kabbalisticum.”Google Scholar
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    See Gershom Scholem, Abraham Cohen Herrera —Author of The Gate of Heaven’ (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1978) and Nissim Yosha, Myth and Metaphor: Abraham Cohen Herrera’s Philosophical Interpretation of Lurianic Kabbalah ( Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1994 ).Google Scholar
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    Kabbala denudata,vol. 2, table of contents on verso of title page.Google Scholar
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    See Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven, 1988), pp. 5–6 and notes 36–7 (p. 382).Google Scholar
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    On the history of critical attitudes to Kabbalah among Christians in this period, see Gedaliahu Stroumsa, “Gnosis and Judaism in Nineteenth Century Christian Thought,” Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, vol. 2 (1992), pp. 46–9.Google Scholar
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    Chaim Wirszubski, Pico della Mirandola’s Encounter with Jewish Mysticism (Cambridge, MA, 1989), p. 187. See in general Moshe Idel, “Jewish Kabbalah and Platonism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance,” Lenn E. Goodman (ed), Neoplatonism and Jewish Thought (Albany, 1992), pp. 319–351.Google Scholar
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    Johann Georg Wachter, Den Spinozismus im Judenthumschrw(133).(Amsterdam,1699) Wachter got this idea from one Johann Peter Spaeth, called Moses Germanus after his conversion to Judaism. See Gershom Scholem, “Die Wachtersche Kontroverse über den Spinozismus und ihre Folgen,” Karlfried Grüder and Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann (eds.), Spinoza in der Frühzeit seiner religiösen Wirkung (Heidelberg, 1984), pp. 15–25 and Richard H. Popkin, “Spinoza, Neoplatonic Kabbalist?” Neoplatonism and Jewish Thought,pp. 387–409. For the association of Kabbalah and Neoplatonic conceptions in the thought of Abraham Cohen Herrera (whose work is in the Kabbala denudata,mentioned in Newton’s note as “Bet Elohim”),see Alexander Altmann, “Lurianic Kabbalah in a Platonic Key: Abraham Cohen Herrera’s Puerta del Cielo,” 1. Twersky and B. Septimus (eds.), Jewish Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, MA, 1987), pp. 1–37 and Yosha, Myth and Metaphor,passim.Google Scholar
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    See Stroumsa, “Gnosis and Judaism,” pp. 45–62, passim. Stroumsa stresses that people like Gottfried Arnold, Johannes Buddeus, and other Christian scholars before our own century who made the connection of Jewish thought (particularly Kabbalah) with Christian Gnosis should be remembered as pioneers in this area, which has become such a focus of scholarly attention with the studies of Gershom Scholem.Google Scholar
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    For the movement against Christian kabbalism in the seventeenth century, see Manuel, Broken Staff pp. 141–9; Stroumsa, “Gnosis and Judaism,” pp. 46–9. Although Manuel’s picture seems highly oversimplified and inaccurate in some ways, he is certainly correct in asserting that the later-seventeenth century was a time when many Christian scholars of Judaism were moving toward a negative view of Kabbalah. However, there were others, including Leibniz, who continued to value it.Google Scholar
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    During the Renaissance, the opinion of Tertullian that Plato had learned his religion from the Jews was revived in many circles, and this is the tradition on which Newton is drawing. See Allen, Mysteriously Meant,p. 10.Google Scholar
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    MS. Yahuda, 15.3, p. 53r; 15.5, p. 97v; 15.7, p. 108v; 15.7, pp. 118, 120r, 127r, 137r-v, 138r-v, 190r; and MS. Bodmer, Ch. 4, pp. 1–4.Google Scholar
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    This passage is quoted in extenso by David Castillejo in his Expanding Force,pp. 65–7, where the author is speaking about the structure of Newton’s Of the Church in context of his commentary on the prophesies. See also MS. Bodmer, Ch. 4, pp. 3–4.Google Scholar
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    Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 b.c.e.- ca. 40 c.e.) was without doubt a “middle” Platonist. Newton’s allusion to a connection between him and the Kabbalah is most striking; this issue has long been under discussion by scholars. See Harry Austryn Wolfson, “Philo Judaeus,” idem, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Religion,vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA, 1979), pp. 60–70; Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, 1961), p. 114; R.J.Z. Werblowsky, “Philo and the Zohar,” Journal of Jewish Studies, vol. 10 (1959), pp. 25–44, 113–135; Samuel Belkin, “Midrah Ha-Ne clam and its Sources in Early Alexandrian Midrashim,” (Heb.), Sura,vol. 3 (1958), pp. 25–92; and Joshua Finkel,“The Alexandrian Tradition and the Midrash Ha-Ne’elam,” Leo Jung Jubilee Volume (New York, 1962), pp. 77–103. My thanks for these references go to my colleague Dr. Daniel Abrams.Google Scholar
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    See also MS. Yahuda, 15.7, pp. 120v, 127r. On the correspondence of metals with planets, see J.R. Partington, “The Origins of the Planetary Symbols for the Metals,” Ambix, vol. 1, no. 1 (May, 1937 ), pp. 61–4.Google Scholar
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    The most glaring of these errors is found in Yahuda MS. 15.7, p. 123r, where Newton refers to the kabbalists’ “first Sephiroth or Aeon called by them Cochmah the Crown or supreme Sephirothchrw(133).” He obviously means Kether. This type of slip is rare and does nothing to indicate any lack of understanding but only of familiarity.Google Scholar
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    MS. Yahuda, 15.3, p. 53r; 15.5, p. 88r; 15.7, pp. 109v, 128r, 129r.Google Scholar
  25. 31.
    See MS. Yahuda, 15.3, p. 53r.Google Scholar
  26. 32.
    This doctrine, called zimzum,is better known in the Lurianic system, but it is indeed spoken of in the Zoharic Idra Rabbah,found in Kabbala denudata. See S. L. MacGregor Mathers, The Kabbalah Unveiled (New York, 1971), p. 114.Google Scholar
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    See MS. Yahuda, 15.2, p. 53r and 15.7, p. 127r, et passim.Google Scholar
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    MS. Yahuda, 15.7, p. 137v (actually a note to the following page): “Each of the sephiroths they called a man & the first of them they called Adam Kadmon the first man & make him the son of God as Adam is called in Scripturechrw(133).” The mystical identity of Adam and Jesus is a theme which often appears in Christian Kabbalah.Google Scholar
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    MS. Yahuda, 15.3, p. 53r; 15.5, p. 88r; 15.7, p. 129v and MS. Bodmer, p. 14r. In Yahuda p. 109v, Newton goes into a detailed discussion of the first emanation according to different Gnostic schools, which identify it variously as Arche, Ennaea, Nous, and Monagenus and Ialdabaoth.Google Scholar
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    MS. Yahuda, 15.3, p. 53r; 15.7, p. 129r.Google Scholar
  32. 38.
    MS. Yahuda, 15.7, p. 137v.Google Scholar
  33. 39.
    MS. Yahuda, 15.7, p. 127v. This page and the one preceding it are dedicated to a detailed parallel of the kabbalistic sephiroth and the Aristotelian heavens. They are also quoted in extenso by Castillejo, Expanding Force,pp. 67–8.Google Scholar
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    MS. Yahuda, 15.3, p. 53r; 15.7, p. 129r.Google Scholar
  35. 41.
    MS. Yahuda, 15.7, p. 137v.Google Scholar
  36. 42.
    MS. Yahuda, 15.7, p. 129r. The issue of Newton’s parallel between the three uppermost spheres of the later Aristotelians with the three uppermost sephiroth is discussed more below.Google Scholar
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    MS. Yahuda, 15.7, pp. 129r-v.Google Scholar
  38. 44.
    Newton repeatedly stresses the difference between the seven lower sephiroth, collectively called Ze’ir (“Seir”) Anpin, and the upper three, called Arich Anpin. However, the possibility of truncating Mich Anpin into one sephirah is allowed by some kabbalists, a fact which will shortly be seen to play into Newton’s schema.Google Scholar
  39. 45.
    See also MS. Yahuda, 15.7, p. 127rGoogle Scholar
  40. 46.
    We see here yet another possibility entertained by Newton for the order of influences between Greek philosophy and kabbalistic ideas.Google Scholar
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    MS. Yahuda, 15.7, pp. 120r-v, 127r.Google Scholar
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    See MS. Yahuda, 15.7, p. 137r.Google Scholar
  43. 49.
    He has written that this is the coelum empyreum but then crossed it out.Google Scholar
  44. 50.
    This description is based on MS. Yahuda, 15.7, pp. 120r and 127r.Google Scholar
  45. 51.
    Ibid. Newton is somewhat unclear in explaining his understanding of the connection between the various worlds and where the sephiroth/Aeons/Intelligences fit. See also MS. Yahuda, 15.7, p. 127r and MS. Bodmer, Ch. 4, p. 3.Google Scholar
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    MS. Yahuda, 15.7, pp. 137r-v. See Chapter 3.Google Scholar
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    See MS. Yahuda, 15.7, pp. 120v, 137r-v.Google Scholar
  48. 54.
    MS. Yahuda, 15.7, p. 120r, quoting from the Kabbala denudata,pp. I:116–8.Google Scholar
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    This particular passage of the Kabbala denudata is discussed by Gershom Scholem, “Alchemie and Kabbala,” Monatsschrii tfür Geschichte unjd Wissenschaft des Judentums,vol. 69 (1925), pp. 96–7. See also Raphael Patai, The Jewish Alchemists (Princeton, 1994), Ch. 12, pp. 152–79 and Ch. 26, pp. 322–35 on the Esh Mazref,esp. pp. 323–4, where Patai translates this passage.Google Scholar
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    I have not examined Newton’s alchemical papers myself; but in the extensive literature on the subject there is no mention of sephiroth in an alchemical context. See Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy (Cambridge, 1975); idem, “Newton’s Alchemy and his Theory of Matter,” Isis, vol. 73 (1982), pp. 511–28; idem, The Janus Faces of Genius (Cambridge, 1991); R. S. Westfall, “Newton and Alchemy,” Brian Vickers (ed) Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 315–335; Piyo M. Rattansi, “Newton’s Alchemical Studies,” A. G. Debus (ed), Science, Medicine and Society in the Renaissance, vol. 2 (London, 1972), pp. 167–82; and Jan Golinski, “The Secret Life of an Alchemist,” J. Fauvel, R. Flood, M. Shortland and R. Wilson (eds.), Let Newton Be! (Oxford, 1988 ), pp. 146–167.Google Scholar
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    See also MS. Yahuda, 15.7, pp. 120r-v, 127v, where Newton makes a specific reference to the “Chymical Cabbalists.” See note 7 above as well.Google Scholar
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    Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Discourse. on Metaphysics (trans. G. Montgomery; La Salle, 1902), p. 23 (my emphases).Google Scholar
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    Coudert, Leibniz and the Kabbalah,p. 89. In two recent papers Coudert has begun to look at Newton’s attitude to Kabbalah in light of her research on Leibniz as well. See Coudert, “Newton and the Rosicrucian Enlightenment,” paper delivered at the Clark Library conference on “Newton and Religion” (Los Angeles; February, 1996), sections 2–3; and idem, “Leibniz, Locke, Newton and the Kabbalah,” paper delivered at the University of Arizona conference on “Christian Kabbalah and Jewish Thought (Tucson; April 1996).Google Scholar
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    See notes 79, 81 and 82 below.Google Scholar
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    Copenhaver, “Jewish Theologies,” pp. 489–490, 540–6. Copenhaver notes that Newton spells makom incorrectly and differently on each occasion.Google Scholar
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    Copenhaver, “Jewish Theologies,” p. 546.Google Scholar
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    George Zollschan, “God’s Sensorium: Newton’s Kabbalistic Slip,” paper delivered at the Conference of the Australasian Association for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science in Melbourne, Australia, July, 1993. I have used a typescript sent to me by the author.Google Scholar
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    Zollschan, “God’s Sensorium,” p. 5.Google Scholar
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    Zollschan, “God’s Sensorium,” p. 4; Newton, Principia (ed. Cajon), vol. II, p. 545 (Zollschan does not cite the exact location of the passage).Google Scholar
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    MS. King’s College, Keynes #4, p. 14, quoted in Westfall, Never at Rest,p. 318.Google Scholar
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    MS. King’s College, Keynes #4, p. 41; quoted in Westfall, Never at Rest,p. 318.Google Scholar
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    Zollschan, “God’s Sensorium,” p. 9.Google Scholar
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    Zollschan, “God’s Sensorium,” p. 9.Google Scholar
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    See Froom, Prophetic Faith,vol. 2, passim.Google Scholar
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    See Ephraim E. Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs ( Cambridge, MA, 1987 ), p. 199.Google Scholar
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    Serge Hutin, “Note sur la création chez trois kabbalistes chrétiens anglais: Robert Fludd, Henry More et Isaac Newton,” Kabbalistes Chrétiens (Paris, 1979), pp. 149–156. This article is based heavily on Hutin’s discussion in his Henry More: Essai sur les doctrines théosophiques chez les Platoniciens de Cambridge (Hildesheim, 1966), especially (on Newton) Ch. 9 section 1.Google Scholar
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    On More’s Kabbalah studies, see Sarah Hutton (ed.), Henry More (1614–1687) Tercentenary Studies (Dordrecht, 1990) and the various studies of Allison Coudert, including “Henry More, the Kabbalah, and the Quakers,” R. Kroll et al. (eds.), Philosophy, Science and Religion in England,pp. 31–67.Google Scholar
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    That is, whether Newton believed in zimzum remains unclear; but he was definitely familiar with the concept as we have seen.Google Scholar
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    See Force, “Newton’s God of Dominion,” pp. 78–90.Google Scholar
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    J. E. McGuire, “Space, Infinity and Indivisibility: Newton on the Creation of Matter,” Zev Bechler (ed), Contemporary Newtonian Research (Dordrecht, 1982), pp. 145–190, especially 146–9, 161–3 and 173.Google Scholar
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    See Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton,p. 69. Manuel cites Yahuda MS. 15.7, p. 108v for this, but the point explained there from which he extrapolates, Newton’s absolute denial of consubstantiality, can be found in dozens of places throughout the various MSS.Google Scholar
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    MS. Yahuda 15.7, p. 138r.Google Scholar
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    C. A. Staudenbaur, “Platonism, Theosophy, and Immaterialism: Recent Views of the Cambridge Platonists,” Journal for the History of Ideas,vol. 35 (1974), pp. 157–69. Pages 164–9 constitute an attack on Hutin’s book about More. He concludes “Further comment on Hutin’s sins of editing, translation and interpretation seem superfluous.” (p. 169)Google Scholar
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    Staudenbaur, “Recent Views of the Cambridge Platonists,” p. 167.Google Scholar
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    See Force, “Newton’s God of Dominion,” Essays in the Context, Nature and Influence,pp. 85–90.Google Scholar
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    See Ronald W. Hepbum’s article on the “Religious Doctrine of Creation,” Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York, 1967 ), vol. 1–2, pp. 254–6.Google Scholar
  82. 88.
    This passage occurs in the penultimate blessing before the recital of the Shema’, the statement declaring God’s absolute unity, said every day of the year.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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