When Isaac Newton’s non-scientific papers were auctioned at Sotheby’s in London in 1936, a window was opened wide on a side of the man that few could have imagined. Prior to this, only a few specialist scholars had been fully aware of the size and contents of the collection. Included among the bundles of manuscripts sold at this sale were close to one million words on alchemy and perhaps as much as three million words on theology and biblical prophecy. Although this sale, held in the depths of the Depression era, marked a turning point in the study of the non-canonical aspects of Newton’s career, it would be years before these manuscripts would be made widely available for serious scholarly examination.
The bulk of the alchemical and theological manuscripts was eventually acquired by two altogether different men who nonetheless shared a passion for these as yet little-studied written legacies of Newton’s considerable output. One was the British economist John Maynard Keynes, secular, worldly and liberal-minded. The other was the Jewish Oriental Studies scholar Abraham Shalom Yahuda, who devoted part of his career to proving the authenticity of the Pentateuch. When he died in 1946, Keynes’ collection went to his alma mater King’s College, Cambridge. Although Yahuda was not a Zionist, on his death in 1951 he left his impressive collection of Newton’s alchemical and theological writings to the newly-founded State of Israel. The collection eventually arrived at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem in 1969. Almost forty years later, they have been put on public display for the first time.
There are at least three reasons why these papers are important, even though they do not always speak directly to the canonical Newton. First, the manuscripts help illuminate Newton’s science. Newton’s piety served as one of his inspirations to study nature and what we today call science. But Newton’s theological papers also tell us much about his inductive methods and his views on the unity of God’s Creation.
Second, the manuscripts illuminate the person of Newton. The figure once viewed almost uniformly as an icon of cold rationality, now appears as an alchemist, a biblical scholar and a religious devotee who pored over the symbols of the Books of Daniel and Revelation for decades in an attempt to decode the meaning of the future foreordained by God. Newton can now be studied as an alchemist and a theologian in his own right.
Third, the unpublished papers illuminate Newton’s age. Newton’s collection of transcribed and originally-composed alchemical manuscripts was perhaps the largest in Europe in his lifetime and would merit study on this basis alone. And a corpus of three million words on theology, church history, Jewish ritual and prophetic exegesis from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would be significant, even if their author were not the one many credit with founding modern science.
here to see Albert Einstein's letter to Yahuda about the collection.
Newton was one of the last great Renaissance men, a thinker who worked in mathematics, physics, optics, alchemy, history, theology and the interpretation of prophecy and saw connections between them all. We also see in Newton a Janus-faced figure who looked to the past for inspiration even as his innovations pointed toward the future. Finally, when added to his published writings on physics, mathematics and optics, the manuscripts displayed in this exhibition reveal a man in pursuit of all the multifarious the secrets of God and Nature.