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July 5: Sir Isaac Newton and the Jews

July 4, 2015

250px-Prinicipia-titleIsaac Newton published his historic three-volume Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) on this date in 1687, announcing his laws of motion, universal gravity, and other fundamentals of physics and introducing many principles of calculus into mathematics. Newton’s scientific genius was accompanied by a religiosity and mysticism that involved him with Judaism and Jewish texts throughout his adult life, and 7,500 pages of his theological speculations, written in his own hand, are digitized at Israel’s national library at Hebrew University. Newton “learned how to read Hebrew, scrolled through the Bible and delved into the study of Jewish philosophy, the mysticism of Kabbalah and the Talmud,” writes Aron Heller at the Times of Israel. “For instance, Newton based his calculation on the end of days on information gleaned from the Book of Daniel, which projected the apocalypse 1,260 years later. Newton figured that this count began from the crowning of Charlemagne as Roman emperor in the year 800.” Newton also predicted the return of the Jews to Jerusalem from exile, and wrote treatises about the dimensions and rituals of the Temple in Jerusalem. Newton’s papers were acquired from many sources in the late 1930s by Abraham Yahuda, a Sephardic polymath, linguist, philologist, Arabist, and anti-Zionist, whose wife nevertheless donated the papers to Hebrew University following Yahuda’s death in 1951.

“Newton’s writings on biblical subjects seem to me especially interesting because they provide deep insight into the characteristic intellectual features and working methods of this important man. The divine origin of the Bible is for Newton absolutely certain, a conviction that stands in curious contrast to the critical skepticism that characterizes his attitude toward the churches. From this confidence stems the firm conviction that the seemingly obscure parts of the Bible must contain important revelations, to illuminate which one need only decipher its symbolic language. Newton seeks this decipherment, or interpretation, by means of his sharp systematic thinking grounded on the careful use of all the sources at his disposal.” —Albert Einstein, corresponding with Abraham Yahuda