Israel National Library Uploads Trove of Newton's Theological Tracts

Unlike Newton's scientific texts, owned by the University of Cambridge in England, his theological writings made their way to the National Library of Israel.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The end of the world will be coming in just another 48 years, in 2060, according to the father of modern physics, Isaac Newton, who died in 1727. His calculations were not based on mathematical principles or the laws of physics, but instead on the Christian Bible and the Book of Daniel from the Hebrew Bible.

Anyone interested in delving further into Newton's calculations will now be able to find it on the website of the National Library of Israel, which owns Newton's manuscripts on theological topics. The library has put digital copies of all of Newton's theological writing on the Internet, with the support of the David and Fela Shapell Family Foundation.

Sir Issac Newton

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Contrary to his public image, most of Newton's work was not devoted to science but rather to theology, mysticism and alchemy. Unlike Newton's scientific texts, which are owned by the University of Cambridge in England, the 18th century thinker's theological writings made their way to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, and they have just recently been digitally copied and posted on the Internet in cooperation with Cambridge University's Newton Project.

The Newton Project digitized and copied all of Newton's manuscripts, meaning that it is now possible not only to access Newton's works but actually read what he wrote in his own handwriting.

The story of how Newton's manuscripts became part of the collection of the National Library of Israel involves a string of luck and coincidence. About 150 years after his death, descendants of the thinker transferred the collection of his manuscripts to the University of Cambridge, where Newton had studied. The university decided to retain only those manuscripts that related to his scientific work, so his theological writings were returned to his descendants. In 1936, the manuscripts were offered for sale by the Sotheby's auction house in London. In an unfortunate circumstance for the auction house - but fortunately for Israel's national library years later - Sotheby's London competitor, Christie's, was holding an auction of Impressionist art that same day and the art attracted a lot more public interest than Newton's manuscripts.

Apparently only two people showed up for the auction of Newton's writings, the noted British economist John Maynard Keynes and the Jewish Orientalist and book collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda, so the two divided the spoils. Keynes bought Newton's alchemy manuscripts while Yahuda got Newton's theological writings. After Yahuda's death in 1951, his collection of Newton's work was transferred to the National Library of Israel.

Newton dated the end of days from the crowning of Charlemagne as Roman emperor in the year 800 C.E. and based on information in the Book of Daniel, which he believed projected an end of days 1,260 years later, in 2060. Unlike other seers of his time, Newton was considered moderate in projecting an end of time that he would clearly never live to see.

Among the National Library collection in Jerusalem, there are a large number of works by Newton about mysticism, analyses of holy books, attempts at projecting what the end of days would be like, and what the ancient Temple in Jerusalem looked like. The collection also contains maps that Newton sketched about mythical events to assist him in his calculations over the end of days.

"From our perspective, there is a contradiction between natural sciences and rationalism and theology, mysticism and faith, but in his mind, as a product of his time, part of the understanding of the laws of nature involved understanding how the world worked," Milka Levy-Rubin, who curates the national library's humanities collection, said of Newton. "The stage of history was a field of research for him."

Newton's theological writings have importance beyond the intellectual edification they provide, Levy-Rubin noted.

Newton belonged to a group of theologians who ultimately managed to change the face of Christianity in general and its relationship with the Jews in particular. Until then, the prevailing doctrine held that the degradation the Jews had suffered over the centuries was proof of the validity of Christian belief. The spirit of the Renaissance, however, prompted theologians to revisit the scriptures, including the Hebrew scriptures.

In their rereading, they saw the Jews' place in history in a new light, viewing the historic role of the Jews as one that had not ended. They foresaw a time when the Jews would return to their ancient homeland, after which, in the view of these Christian thinkers, they would accept Christianity, as a prelude to the return of Jesus.

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