From a Curator's Desk > A Page from Isaac Newton's Theological Writings Collection

A Page from Isaac Newton's Theological Writings Collection

Dr. Milka Levy-Rubin

Isaac Newton
This is the first entry of a blog whose goal is to share with our readers important items, unusual stories, and interesting news that arrive on my desk, as the Humanities Curator.

The humanities collection at the library was established by Prof. S.H. Bergman, who served as director of the library from 1920-1935 after it became the National and University Library. During his tenure, the library took upon itself the goal of embracing the entire world of knowledge, not limiting itself to the preservation of the intellectual treasures of the Jewish people. Bergman, who had been a librarian in Prague and was a philosopher by profession, worked tirelessly to build up a suitable library in the humanities that would serve scholars, students, and those interested in the humanities. And indeed it does, to this day. The collection specializes in classics, the history of Western civilization from its earliest beginnings to the modern age, philosophy and Christianity.

Nothing seems more fitting than to inaugurate the blog with a page from the theological writings of Isaac Newton, the jewel in the crown of the collection. This is one page from among 7,500, representative of Newton’s special interest and knowledge in the Bible and Jewish sources. Alongside his in-depth study of the Bible, it is evident that Newton also applied his abilities as a scientist to try to solve problems in this discipline that also involved a mathematical aspect.

Isaac Newton – Sage, Scholar and “Prophet”

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is considered one of the greatest scientists of all time. Few are aware that alongside his pursuits in the exact sciences, he dealt broadly in topics that we would define today as the humanities. Such a combination is very rare in contemporary times, but during Newton’s time, there were many learned individuals who specialized in both. 

Newton’s theological writings include commentary on sacred texts, study of the structure of the tabernacle and the Temple, theology, calculations predicting the end of the world, alchemy and ancient history. Newton believed that the scriptures contained encoded knowledge of ancient cultures; he approached their study with the same diligence reflected in his scientific work, and related to science with the same religious fervor that led him to view himself as a kind of prophet.

It is interesting to observe that while no drafts of Newton’s writings in physics remain, many survived from the other fields with which he occupied himself, affording us a fascinating look into his spiritual pursuits. These writings are particularly interesting in that they invite us to revisit our ideas of what we today consider to be contradictory opposites: religion and science, innovation and tradition, rationalism and the irrational.


How did the National Library come to possess Newton’s writings?

Newton’s non-scientific writings, which remained in the possession of his family after 1875 when his scientific writings were transferred to Cambridge University, were sold by his surviving descendents in 1936 at Sotheby’s auction house in London. That same day, an auction of impressionist paintings was being held at Christie’s, across the street. Attendance at the sale of Newton’s writings was therefore meager, and they were purchased by a number of dealers at low cost. In the days that followed, this came to the attention of two scholars who were in London at the time: British economist John Maynard Keynes, and orientalist Avraham Shalom Yehezkel Yahuda (1877-1951), who hurried off to purchase all they could get their hands on from the dealers. Yahuda was interested in the theological writings, and Keynes, in the alchemical writings; the two exchanged manuscripts they had purchased according to their respective preferences. A.S. Yahuda bequeathed Newton’s manuscripts (as well as many other important manuscripts in his possession) to the National Library. The collection arrived at the library in 1969 and was displayed in the “Secrets of Newton” exhibit in 2007.


From: “Drafts concerning Solomon’s Temple and the Holy Cubit (amah)”

Source: NLI Yah. Ms. Var.1. 2.4, 38a

Like other learned individuals before him and in his day, Newton invested much effort in the attempt to reconstruct Solomon’s Temple. In the opening of the chapter, Newton compares the information presented by Josephus Flavius and Philo, who he believed had first-hand familiarity with the Temple, to the information presented in the Talmud. This method of comparison illustrates Newton’s impressive expert knowledge and the depth of his study of the various Jewish sources. While Newton had only some knowledge of Hebrew and did not master the language, he had access to many aids composed by scholars from the 16th century onwards, such as the Christian Hebraist Johannes Buxtorf (1564-1629) who wrote the composition Epitome Grammaticæ Hebrææ, and Brian Walton’s Polyglot Bible, which appeared in 1652. One of the great challenges he faced was to ascertain the dimensions of the Biblical measure of the cubit (amah). Newton believed that key events in the visions of the end of days would occur in the context of the Jewish Temple and its service. To this end, he examined the Jewish sources and attempted to determine the dimensions of the cubit relative to other measures mentioned in the sources. Newton applied his mathematical skills to solving this riddle.


The Amah and Techum Shabbat

כתביו התיאולוגיים של אייזק ניוטוןAt the beginning of the page we present here, Newton considers the cubit in the context of a Sabbath day’s journey (“techum Shabbat”, or distance one is permitted to walk on the Sabbath). He quotes Origene in Greek, who explains that the techum Shabbat equals the distance from the Tabernacle and Holy Ark to the Israelites’ camp, an explanation that corresponds to the version of the Jerusalem Talmud. Newton was concerned with the ratio between a “large cubit” and “small cubit” and with the number of cubits in a mile. Comparing the Biblical mile to the Roman mile, he determined that there are 7.5 ris in a cubit, (quoting from the Mishnah, Tractate Yoma 6:4). Further along, it emerges that he is unsure whether the term for a stadium is ris or dis, due to the similarity in shape between the letters Resh and Dalet. Relying on the famous Spanish scholar Arias Montanus (1527-1598), he states that the measure of the cherub, based on Sefer ha-Arukh is a mile, equaling one thousand amot. In his view, he adds, this is an error; further along, he also asserts that a parsah is equal to four miles. 




What is the meaning of the expression “kivrat eretz”?

Of particular interest is Newton’s treatment of the measure cherub. This measure, said Newton citing Arias Montanus, is called a mile in Sefer Ha-Arukh (written by R. Nathan ben Yehiel of Rome, 11th c.). In his opinion, however, this is an error, and the word really is “berath” (and not a berach, as the word is transliterated in certain instances in the Newton Project), which appears in the Bible in Gen. 35:16 and 48:7, and in II Kings 5:19 in the expression “kivrat eretz”. Had Newton himself read Sefer ha-Arukh he would have realized that its author also identified the word cherub with kivrat eretz in Gen 35:16, just as Newton did.

Newton explains that “by Berath […] all Jews mean a Mil.” It is not clear from whence his great confidence on this matter derives. Apparently, he knowingly or unknowingly relies on Rashi (whom he quotes in other places), who, in interpreting the verse, writes: “kivrat eretz, a measure of land, which is 2000 cubits like the Sabbath day’s journey, as mentioned by Rabbi Moses the Preacher.” Already in rabbinic midrash it appears that there is uncertainty regarding the meaning of the word (see below, link to Mazor’s blog, in Hebrew); in modern Hebrew, the word denotes an undefined distance.

And yet, it transpires that Rashi and Newton were correct, and indeed, the term does in fact refer to a precise distance. The source of the word is apparently the Akkadian beru, which is a time unit of two hours, also used to denote the distance the average adult covers in two hours – in other words, it is a defined unit of distance that was in use in the ancient world. (See here, in Hebrew).

Scholarship has come a long way (“kivrat derekh”) since Newton’s day, and yet it is difficult not to be impressed by Newton's comprehensive research and his sharp senses in tackling this issue, particularly given that he lacked the scientific knowledge we possess today.

Newton Project (Latin)

Newton Project (English)


Online Collection of Newton’s Writings

The collection of Newton's theological writings possessed by the library appears online on the library website. The pages are linked to the Newton Project in England, which contains a full typed version of the text in two formats: diplomatic text (including all of the additions, erasures and changes that Newton made on the original manuscript) and normalized text – contiguous text that integrates all of the changes for smooth reading. Alongside these is a translation of the text into English.

Collection of Newton's writings on the National Library's Newton Project Web page

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