At the top of the ancient, densely written English manuscript a verse in Hebrew stands out: "Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom for ever." Other pages contain sketches of the Temple and calculations of the end of the world, based on verses from the Book of Daniel. The author of these mysterious ruminations was not a sorcerer nor a religious fanatic but none other than Isaac Newton, the 17th-century mathematician and physicist considered the most influential scientist of all time.
Newton's original theological and mystical writings will be on display in a special exhibition entitled "Newton's Secrets," opening today at the National Library at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This is the first time the manuscripts, in Israel since 1969, have been presented to the public. A digital version of some of the letters can be seen on the National Library's site: at www.tinyurl.com/28ervr.
One of the most intersting manuscripts is a letter from 1704, in which Newton calculates that the world will end in 2060, based on a phrase from Daniel 12:7 "for a time, times, and a half." Newton interpreted this phrase as meaning 1,260 years would pass from the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire by Charlemagne in 800, until the End of Days.
According to the exhibit's curator, Professor Yemima Ben-Menachem of the Hebrew University Philosophy Department, "For a long time, Newton was regarded only as a great scientist and mathematician. These writings lay in crates and did not bother scholars, but today we're in the New Age period, and scholars are more open to manuscripts like these.
'The subject of the end of the world is also of interest to many people, and there are some who would say that if Newton predicted the end would come in 2060, maybe he knew something we don't know."
How did Newton's writings end up at the Hebrew University? According to Ben-Menachem, his heirs were not interested in his theological writings, and Sotheby's auctioned them in 1936. The British economist John Maynard Keynes acquired them. He bequeathed them to Kings College, Cambridge, in England, and to the Jewish Oriental studies scholar Abraham Shalom Yahuda. Before the latter's death in 1951, he bequeathed them to the State of Israel.
An academic conference on Newton will also be held at Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute, presenting new studies on Newton's scientific and religious world. The exhibit and conference will shed light on aspects of the scientist's thinking that do not fit his better known rational bent.
"During the scientific revolution, religion and science were entwined with each other," Ben-Menachem explains. "Scientists of the 17th century did not fight religion; most scientific giants were religious. Newton was also a very religious man and, as opposed to other learned people of his day, he even believed in a personal God.
"Newton understood nature as a book that we can decipher, as the Holy Scriptures are read. He considered himself a kind of prophet of the natural sciences. In both these areas he looked for the hidden message to be unraveled."
On Tuesday at Van Leer, Professor Mark Steiner of the Hebrew University's Philosophy Department will speak on Newton's attempts to calculate the biblical measurement known as the cubit, based on verses in Ezekiel.